Running, Tempo, and Time

As a runner, I often think about running’s relationship to time and how we inhabit time differently while in motion. Time seems to pass more slowly—or not pass at all—when you’re running. Your mind floats: past becomes present, and future scenarios play themselves out—perhaps because you’re grounded in the tactile stepping of your stride. When you’re running, you aren’t consciously thinking about tempo and time the way a percussionist or drummer does, but rather enacting them in your movement, practicing them again and again and again. If running has a secret, this is it: to run is to become, for the duration of the run, a rhythm machine.

Each day, getting into comfortable running tempo requires warming up. I don’t mean warming up before running but rather warming up through running. You begin at an easy shuffle, feeling not quite up to the day’s training, and hang in there for ten minutes (or thirty in the winter cold). With experience you recognize that the moment the body has warmed up is the same moment it resumes its life as a running machine. Your recognition is like when you walk the dog and then surprise him with a sudden burst of speed. He looks at you for a second— Really? We’re actually doing this?!—and gets galloping, his four legs in a fluid cooperation, powered by joy. Once warmed up, it’s as if the runner has become both the dog walker and the dog.

Now you can get into the training and feel out how you respond to the day’s demands. While most training—like most creative work—is done at an easy or conversational pace, it’s beneficial to intersperse this easiness with more difficult paces such as “Tempo” or “Threshold” workouts which are about pushing one’s default tempo up to a faster speed. Runners practice these paces to be able to move more efficiently.

On a run one has lots of time to think about the limits of our adaptability to training. Speedier workouts bring to mind the idea that each of us have comfortable default tempos for moving. Can we alter these tempos? To some degree, yes. With training my pace has quickened: my at speed pace is up to three minutes faster than my easy pace. The important thing about pace/tempo is understanding how it feels in your ever-changing body in the ever-changing contexts of runs. The same pace held in a headwind, going up a hill, or in the early morning rather than late afternoon feels very different.

Sometimes how my body feels doesn’t match the numbers on my GPS watch which has lost its satellite signal and can’t figure out where we are, and therefore, how fast we‘re moving. This creates a funny disconnect between what I feel my pace is and what the watch says it is. On a recent run the disconnect between watch and me was so vast that I decided to keep speeding up—faster and faster and faster into an all-out sprint—looking at the watch to see if the numbers would change. But they didn’t! Was it possible I was mistaken about my pace? To quote Wallace Stevens, experience teaches us to trust not ideas about the thing but the thing itself. Like percussionists tracking tempo, runners remember with precision how different paces feel. (Side note: I replaced the watch.)

A runner’s pace/tempo gels into a groove on long runs, which are runs over an hour or two. Long runs are not just about endurance; they’re equally about sustained pacing. Long runs ask us to calibrate our speed with the knowledge that we’ll be maintaining it for a long while. Go out too fast and you’ll struggle to complete the distance at that pace and have to slow down; go out too slow and you’ll be stuck in an un-fun and non-elegant shuffle, missing the benefits born from faster running’s flow. But when you move at a sustainable pace you experience time like a surfer appears to hover on a wave, riding its energy and gradually getting into a calm steady state. The rhythm machine leads you through far away neighborhoods while you’re free to observe, wonder, obsess, consider, and occasionally come upon new ideas.

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