Runners — in many ways I have to grudgingly admire them. When I roll in to work, they are already there, hair damp, crunching on some granola, having woken up at some ungodly hour to go for a run. More irritatingly, their self-discipline and drive seem to carry over into their careers, where they are, unsurprisingly, disciplined, driven, and successful. I meet them at international conferences, where they’ll make special note of the spectacular sunrise they saw as they ran up and down town, making my being caught by the dawn light, reading a book in bed, extra lame.
Before I get into criticizing running, let me explain what I think it’s good for. It’s good for getting from A to B in less time than it would take to walk. This can be nice for the above mentioned sightseeing, when you have a limited amount of time but much you’d like to see, especially on rugged trails outdoors. If the trails are not rugged, you can get from A to B by bike faster. Just saying. And if B has something you’d like to catch, e.g. a bus, a hat blown off by the wind etc., running is a good approach then too.
Insofar as running is exercise, running is likely better than not exercising at all. Exercise helps you feel better, both brain-chemically and feeling more energetic. However, due to a relatively high injury rate (as far as I can tell), there may be more sensible ways to get exercise. Take for example walking. It can take you from A to B, albeit more slowly. You can still go on rugged trails, see nature, explore neighborhoods. When you’re done, you don’t have to change clothes, shower etc., potentially it has lower environmental impact. You can do it with a friend. True, you can also go running with a friend, but I see many more people walking than running together, even taking into account the number of people doing either. Most importantly, you can walk and think. When I’m running, my thoughts are for the most part preoccupied with the burning in my lungs, the stitches in my side, the distance to finish, and pathetic pleading with myself to keep going. When I’m walking, I can think about work, about other plans, I can make up stupid blog posts about running in my head (and then write them down later). In a loose parallel I used to worry about being too slow on my bicycle when commuting. Invariably I would start thinking about something and slow down. Rather than fighting it, I’ve embraced it, the thinking. I also listen to audio books, and so have managed to get through quite a bit of serious non-fiction. I don’t think you can do that during rigorous exercise.
The past few years the New York Times has been having fun poking holes in exercise and nutrition regimens by suggesting you can exercise much less often and for shorter periods and still reap almost all the benefits. Nevertheless, there seems a kind of superiority to running. I think it’s because it is so quantifiable. You can set specific goals: X distance in under Y minutes. How would you do that for something else, e.g. basketball, tennis, hiking, parenting? With running you know exactly how much better or worse you are than anyone else, than yourself a month or year before, or yesterday. Then if you’re really disciplined and have somehow escaped injury, you can participate in competitions where it is all externally validated, and OK, I take it there is some camaraderie as well.
Then there is also the benefit of looking fit. Despite my slow biking, my calves have hardened a bit, and when I encounter them, I’m like “oooh.” I imagine there is a whole lot more self-admiration and mirror gazing going on for people who are actually fit. But in a cruel way, and as Christopher Hitchens once brilliantly wrote, exercise is for those who are already fit. Running with flab means feeling it jiggling. Biking is kinder, my fat stays mostly in place.
With statistics such as the average American spending 4 hours/day watching TV, who’s to say that spending 1/2–1 of those hours running is a bad thing? Still, like TV, running produces nothing. TV watching might actually generate some conversation, friends may become interested in watching the same show, maybe even together. Team sports or tennis might serve more of a social function, and also involve the brain more, since there is more strategy, but I wouldn’t know, I don’t play them. As I’ve been spending more time on the bike I’ve had less time, and energy, for things like woodworking. Biking doesn’t produce anything either, though it does get me to and from work. And even if I make something, and even if it has a utility for a while, is that really that different from running around in circles, in the long run?
So you can keep on running, and I’ll keep on not running; our end point is the same (though mine might come a bit later, since a bit of extra fat is supposed to help one live longer, and maybe I’ll even have my original knees still).