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Tools of the trade

To keep running well, sometimes you have to be your own mechanic.

Having spent part of my professional career fixing motorcycles for a living, I know a lot of mechanics. The good ones have a whole arsenal of tools, some of which are so specialized in function that they hardly ever make it out of the toolbox. But on those rare occasions when a double-headed, reversible, ratcheting, 90-degree Phillips screwdriver is called for, these guys know that nothing else will do the job.

Of course, I also know mechanics who think the only three tools you need are WD-40, duct tape, and a hammer. Their theory: If it moves and it shouldn't, use duct tape. If it doesn't move and it should, use WD-40. And if all else fails, use a hammer, since one swift blow can address either situation.

For a long time, the only running tool I used was a hammer. That's because I was sure running could be reduced to just two simple goals: going farther or going faster. Going farther was simply a matter of going farther, right? If I could run three miles today, then surely I could run four next week. Once I was at four, I could certainly extend it to five. And going faster, well, just meant going faster. If I could run a mile in 11 minutes, I'd put in a little more effort and run it in 10 minutes and 30 seconds. Then even more effort would get me down to a sub-10-minute pace. From there it was just a matter of trying harder until I was winning my age group. All the training techniques in the world just confused the issue. I simply needed to keep hammering.

Or so I thought, until I stopped improving. Turns out sheer effort (the running tool equivalent of a hammer) will only take you so far before your performance plateaus, or worse, you injure yourself.

To become a better runner, you need to draw from a big toolbox. You have to know about anaerobic thresholds, intervals, and hill repeats. And beyond training tools, there are "accessory" tools, such as the right pair of shoes, socks, and shorts that can also help you become a better runner. It's amazing how even a dab of BodyGlide in just the right spot can make all the difference in the world between running well and running poorly.

Whether you want to increase your strength, speed, or stamina, you have to know which tools you need - and how to use them. Take rest, for example. As a beginning runner, I thought there was no need for rest. A day off was just a 24-hour period when all my hard-won fitness would fizzle away. But then there was my running buddy Lee. He used to time his rest days as precisely as he timed his workouts. Sure his wife would get mad when she asked him to help carry in the groceries and he'd say he still had 22 minutes left to rest - but Lee never got injured.

After dealing with a succession of sore muscles and achy joints, I eventually learned just how important rest is as a running tool. And not one to use as infrequently as a double-headed, reversible, ratcheting, 90-degree Phillips screwdriver. Instead it's a tool I need to employ regularly if I want to run well for the rest of my life - a tool to keep me out of the body shop as long as possible.

Waddle on, friends.

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