Lessons From My Running Sensei

Back in the fall of 2010, I was in the mood, and searching for the most efficent way to get fit and achieve greater health.  I enjoyed running, but didn’t do it very well so I attended a 101 Running seminar at Runners Soul where I met and instantly gravitated to the energy of the guest speaker.  Lisa was a force to be reckoned with as she exuded confidence and skill during her running presentation.  After she finsihed speaking that night, I immediately introduced myelf and asked if she could coach me in running.  She agreed, and for the following two years we met twice a week, once in my basement on the treadmill and the other day on the track at LT highschool so I could properly learn how to be a stronger runner.  With Lisa’s help, I improved and participated in 5K, 10K and half marathon races.  But it’s the mental and philosophical things I learned during our sessions, which have stayed with me to this day. Lessons like: when you think you are out of gas- there is always more in the tank, boundaries are a good thing to set, a yes to another should not be a no to me, I have good instincts, everything is always better after a workout, start where you are, you are never to old to get started, build a foundation, muscles have a lot of memory, discomfort is not something to avoid, to get faster you have to run faster, and never walk in a run.   Lisa Menninger – my former running coach is one of those experienced, passionate, big hearted, big personaity individuals who helped improve my lifestyle via her mentoring and training.   For this reason, it gives me great joy to share a recent Q & A I conduceted with my sensei -Lisa.

K: When did you start running?

L: I ran in college to keep cafeteria food off my thighs. But not competitively.  Just for fitness.  I started running seriously, after not running for a long time, in 1996.
K: What do you love about running?
L: So many things.  It’s good for my heart/cardiovascular system, for my bones, for my brain.  It really addresses body, mind and spirit.  It is also a great way to show yourself that your limits are largely self-imposed.
K: What have you learned about yourself through running?
L: What I said above.  That what I think I can or can’t do it largely up to me.  Also, when I was training hard and competing for those 10 years, it taught me to really be organized, prioritize my life and make sure what was most important to me had the necessary time.
K: Is there any weather you do not run in?
L: Not really.  If it’s windy and the temp is below zero, that is pretty miserable.  And ice.  No running in icy conditions.  You can pretty much dress for anything.
K: How does one get faster at running?
L: This is a complex question. But you have to be committed to consistency and train appropriately. You can’t improve by running here and there and without both hard work and structure. And I always recommend hiring someone who knows what they are doing.  You don’t call a plumber to do your electrical work.  Why take the advice of someone who doesn’t have the background in running?  There are many opinions out there in running. It’s best to go to the science and have a coach that follows that science and has the hands-on experience to give you sound information.  But a simple answer is you need to have the strength of some mileage in your body, then you begin to work speed.
K: What can you say about back pain in fitness?
L: Form form form.  Making sure biomechanics are correct usually addresses this in both aerobic and anaerobic endeavors.
K: Explain proper running
L: This would take a whole blog. In a nutshell the body needs to be lined up.  Head, shoulders, hips, knees and feet should be lined up vertically.  If any of these are out in front or lagging behind you have compromised your form.  Hips need to be in neutral spine so the feet are pulled in under the body.  Arms relaxed.  If the upper body has a lot of extraneous movement in it, it means the lower body is inefficient and the upper body is trying to help.  Think about your wrist if you play tennis.  The wrist must be in a firm position or the ball will go all over the place and you will lose all the power behind the racquet.  Same thing in running.  If there is a break in the middle of the body, the work gets shuttled off to the wrong muscles and this usually results in injury.  Compensatory issues.
You should not see your feet out in front of you out of your peripheral vision when you run. You should not be leading with your chin or bent at the waist.  If so, your stride is creeping out from the body and is no longer lined up.
K: Do you stretch or how do you warm up for a run?
L: No stretching.  This is a myth and I am happy it has been dispelled in the last 10 years or so.  You need to warm up within the activity.  So if you plan to go run, you start that run at a very easy pace, or even a walk.  The body will then warm up and you can after about 10-15 minutes, get in to the more intense aspects of the workouts.  Then you do the same thing at the end.  Slow it down, Allow the body to cool down.
If you are stiff from a workout, don’t stretch but instead invest in a foam roller or a stick, which you can buy at your local running specialty store.
K: You explained to me that in order to get better we have to experience discomfort, not nessecarily pain.  Could you explain?
L: If you don’t push yourself beyond your comfort zone it’s nearly impossible to improve.  In order to run faster and get fitter you have to challenge the body where it is and push it in to new places.  This does not mean you do this without guidance and instruction, or without a sensible plan.  It also doesn’t mean you just head out the door and hammer every run from start to finish. That’s a surefire way to get injured.  But we can’t improve if we don’t take the systems in to new territory.
K: How long did it take you to perfect your running form?
L: I was lucky to have had good form from the get-go.  But I work with people almost every day to improve form through the gait work I do.  And seemingly small adjustments make for large improvements in efficiency.
K: Share your personal bests-  PR’s
L: No one cares. 🙂 (They are on my website under the Meet Lisa, at the bottom of the paragraph.)
K: Who is the governor?
L: This is that voice in your head  that tells you to pull back when you are uncomfortable.  It’s there as a survival instinct. It’s there to protect us from doing something dangerous to ourselves.  But the problem is, as a nation, we don’t get uncomfortable very often.  So our sense of where danger really is, is very far below where it actually is.
K: How improtant is the mind in the mind-body equation?
L: The body follows the brain.  If you are convinced you can’t do something, you won’t do it.  If you are committed and think you can and are open to the possibility, you will.  If I arrive at the track for a workout, distracted and unmotivated, I will have a very different result than if I show up focused and ready to work.  Attitude and thought make or break the workout.
K: How do we block out the noise?
L: Focus.  Relaxation.  Literally practicing positive messages when times get tough.  And stop looking for an out.  Instead, get on your own side in your head and say encouraging things, rather than excuses to quit.
K: On the treadmill we had several talks about my Greek emotions ranging from really high to normal to low and you noted the importance of staying level…can you share what you mean by level?
L: Again, the body follows the brain. If our emotions are all over the place all the time it’s a drain on the body.  Staying in a calm, level place means taking regular deep breaths and maintaining perspective.
Part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex, is in charge of our executive function. It is what allows for reason.  If someone in line at the store says something unpleasant to you and you decide to think before you say anything back, you are using that part of your brain.  Choice vs reaction.  And usually big emotional swings are a results of reacting, rather than thinking through how you want to respond to a given situation.
I am Italian. Lots of emotion in our culture, too. It’s not that people shouldn’t express emotion. It is that we  shouldn’t be RULED by it.  It’s  best if we decide how to want to handle things, rather than constantly, mindlessly reacting.
K: Over time does running wear down the body parts, and should we stop running when we age?
L: No. Longitudinal studies prove that runners have fewer incidences of arthritis, cardiovascular issues, among other things.  It is very important to run with proper form and proper shoes. If you do that, you are good to go.  Like anything else there is a tipping point. If you plan to run 100 miles a week for the rest of your life, you will probably wear down.  But being moderate in how much you run, like everything else, is the key.
K: I love to cycle- what can you say about getting in shape via cycling?  Is it as effective as  running?
L: Cycling is wonderful cross training for running and visa versa. They work well together and use complimentary muscle groups.  But cycling is not weight-bearing.  And that is why running is a notch better.  We need to be doing some kind of weight-bearing work to keep bones strong.  So if you like to cycle, make sure you brisk walk, run or lift legs as a part of your routine.  If you run, the cycling can be a terrific way to cross train.
As for using cycling to get in shape, the only other drawback is that it takes about 2x as much time/distance to get in a workout.  You can do interval work on a bike, the way you do running and it can be very effective.  You just have to do it longer…

K:  Re: cross training, how important is it?

L: Very important to cross train.  It allows the body to engage in activity and use a different muscle set.  For example, if you run most of the time, it’s good to swim or bike as cross training.  This is non-weightbearing work and will allow you get a bit of work in without tiring out the running muscles. Things like pilates, yoga, even upper body weight training.  Anything that isn’t going to tired out the muscles you use in your main workouts.  It’s builds strength and allows you to work other muscle groups.
K: What’s your philosophy on eating for weight loss?
L: You get healthy from the inside, out.  Therefore, if you exercise and eat right – meeting the physiological needs of the body – you will wind up at a good weight for your body.   Diets do not work.  Eating tasty, healthy food that gives our body what it needs is the secret. I have a whole blog on my website called, “The Checklist” and it addresses this more specifically.
K: Cravings are a myth- explain homeostasis
L: Cravings are not a myth.  They are real.  But they are an offshoot of imbalance. When our blood sugar is stable and we are eating whole food at regular intervals, cravings subside or go away completely as we are meeting the needs of the body.  The more imbalanced you are, the more cravings you will suffer.  They are a mechanism whereby the body is attempting to balance out imbalanced behavior.
Homeostasis is a process by which the body maintains equilibrium through various systems.  We throw our bodies out of homeostasis when we treat ourselves improperly.  Skipping meals, not working out, eating too few or too many calories, not sleeping, not hydrating, etc….
K: What’s your philosophy for weight management?
L: Get healthy from the inside out.  Eat whole healthy food at regular intervals and exercise.  Practice stress management.   It’s about health, not weight.  If you are healthy your weight is where it should be.
K: What’s your favorite running distance and why?
L: Now that I live in UT and there are amazingly beautiful trails EVERYWHERE, I have started to really enjoy long trail runs.  But all distances serve a different purpose. I love the marathon. Love 10 milers and halves.  I just am grateful I can get out there and run – whatever the workout is for that day.
K: Who are your fitness heroes?
L: Jack LaLane. The father of fitness.  It’s amazing how ahead of his time he was. He was fit and healthy pretty much until the end of his life.  That is my goal.
Julius Peppers.  So upset when he got traded to the Packers!  He was a track star and a football player. He takes really good care of himself which is allowing him to continue to play well in to the latter parts of his pro career.  He is still fast and strong and it’s largely due to his self-care and the respectful way of he takes care of himself.
Jens Voigt.  Jens was around for a long time before he got popular with his “Shut Up Legs” slogan.  He was an amazing rider who was willing to really put himself out there, on the rivet, for his team. He would work hard, fall off the back after the effort, recover and do it again.  He was not afraid of very hard work and sacrifice but he also took care of himself, so he would be able to work hard and have an impressive and long career.  And he did that.
And perhaps most of all, Joan Benoit Samuelson.  I was at the USATF National Championships in 2009 and had a chance to meet her.  She is gracious, kind and was still fast….  Joanie was there running the masters mile.  At that point she was about 51 years old and pulled off a 5:20 mile.  She was famous for winning the 1984 LA Olympic Marathon.  This woman is full of talent, drive and guts.  She went through knee surgery just 17 days before she ran the Olympic Marathon.  And won anyway.  She held the American record for the women’s marathon for 18 years until Kastor broke it 2003.  She is known for her strength, talent and grace.  I admire her greatly.
K: As we wrap up Lisa, let us explore the basics;  how important is it to exercise?
L: How important is it to breathe?  It’s that important. The heart is the foundation of your health.  Period. If it starts to go, you will not sustain life.  It’s a muscle and needs to be worked.  This doesn’t mean you should be working out 5 hours a day. But we need to move.  It’s inherent to our wellbeing and overall health.  Again, you get healthy from the inside, out.  Instead of thinking of exercise as something you do for the size of your belly, hips, butt, etc, think about it as the way to create longevity.  To stay healthy and well.  If you do this and commit to your own health, then your butt, legs, belly will follow suit.
Modern life doesn’t really support movement. Think about it.  We get up.  Get in to our cars.  Drive to work.  Sit at a desk most of the day.  Get back in the car.  Sit and watch TV at night. I realize this is an over simplification but for many people, it’s not far off the truth.  We used to have all kinds of movement build in to our lives.  Instead of mowing our own laws and shoveling our own driveways, we hire people and have machines that do it.  Ditto to house cleaning, landscaping, gardening….  We are so busy all we time for is to sit on our butts at work.  It’s highly detrimental to our well-being on a number of levels.
And we now have all kinds of studies and science that tells us how dangerous it is to sit for as long as we do. It literally shortens our lifespan.
Therefore, given it’s not built in anymore, we have to make time to do it.  It doesn’t have to be exhausting.  But it does have to be a regular habit. It should include at least one workout a week that includes harder intervals segments to work the heart.  And it should include a combination of aerobic and anaerobic exercise.  So running, biking, swimming, walking, etc and pilates, yoga, weightlifting, etc…
Also, build movement in to your day. Don’t take the closest parking space.  Park further away from the store’s door and walk.  Take the stairs rather than the elevator or the escalator.  Stand up to take your conference calls and walk around your office.  Little things like this add up.  Look for the opportunity to move.  Because that is what it is.  An opportunity to help your body get stronger and healthier.
K: How does one begin to implement a regular workout routine?
L: Start reasonably.  Don’t try to do too much too soon.  And start where you are. If you used to run marathons but haven’t run in 20 years, don’t go out for 10 miles on your first run.  You will get hurt. You have to meet yourself and your body where you are now and in the shape you are now.  Not where you were when you stopped working out.
Make a decision about how many days you can really commit to each week.  This is where most folks falter.  They try to do too much and then quit because they can’t keep it up.  If you say, “I can absolutely commit to 3 days” then that is fine. Do this for a while.  Then if you can do more, add the days. It is better to make the commitment to something than to overcommit and wind up doing nothing.
30 minutes of walking is a great place to start.  I realize that is too much for some people and too little for others. But it’s something most people can do even if they have been inactive for a while.
I would also recommend working with a trainer or coach that you have fully vetted, to help you.  Talk to people this coach/trainer has worked with and make sure they have been doing this for a while.  Make sure you are in good hands.
Then stick to it.  Ask more of yourself and make the promise to yourself that you will care for and love yourself, creating a healthy body to carry you through your days.

Kiki is a master interviewer with 25 years broadcasting on Kansas City and Chicago radio. She was a prevalent force at WMAQ & WBBM radio where she was the first female airborne news/traffic reporter in the "Windy City". Kiki’s voiceover work has garnered her Omni awards for Evian water and Coca-Cola commercials. These days Kiki enjoys energizing audiences on stage during motivational speaking engagements, and through writing. Her highly regarded “Kefi-That Life Force” column, was published previously in The Greek Star. She’s currently working on her first non-fiction book. [ View all posts ]