Running Advice from Clint Eastwood

When you’re facing injuries and setbacks: improvise, adapt, overcome. Squinting is optional.

Learn how to bench yourself. (Photo via iStockphoto.)

“Improvise, adapt, overcome” was the unofficial motto of US Marine Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway — played by Clint Eastwood — in Heartbreak Ridge, as he whipped his motley group of marines in shape. This is excellent advice for runners of all levels, even those not preparing to invade Grenada.

There is a tough balance between being a disciplined, dedicated runner and being one that’s uncompromising to the point of stupidity. It’s easy to become overly focused on sticking to a training plan that you’ve made or gotten from a coach. However, training plans are generally idealized programs: they might have some wiggle room, but no one can predict the future, and most of the time, plans don’t account for things like injuries, emergencies, or sick kids.

When it comes to being an obstinate slave to my training log, I’m as guilty as anyone. In my younger days, I was renowned for it. Part of it comes from my nature as a scientist with an engineering background: I easily get obsessed with the numbers — I’ve even recorded every mile I’ve run since 1995 in an Excel spreadsheet. When I was 23, I qualified for the NCAA cross country championships and the USA national championships in the 3000 m. That was just the tip of the iceberg, I decided at the time, and I started planning to run professionally upon graduation that spring. I developed a strain in my hamstring, but kept training and racing as scheduled despite it. I ran until I couldn’t run any more and then I didn’t run for over five years. After multiple surgeries and years of physical therapy, I am finally able to run again, but I missed my prime running years and many professional opportunities.

It was a hard lesson, but I’ve learned to listen to my body. I might not have it down perfectly yet, but I’m improving. For example, a couple weeks ago, during one of our only snow storms of the year, I tweaked my good hamstring on a slippery, snowy sidewalk. It wasn’t bad, but my hamstring was sore for the next week. I took a couple days off and it improved, but after a week I was still worried that it would recur with a hard effort, so I skipped my final workout before the goal I was working towards — a half marathon. I was prepared to forfeit my $55 entry fee so that I didn’t develop a more serious injury, but as it turned out, after easing back with just a couple weeks of easy running, I was able to toe the line this past weekend.

And you know what? I had a great race. In fact, it was the best road race of my life. I finished fifth at the New Bedford Half Marathon in 1:08:15 (5:13/mile). I clearly didn’t lose any fitness in those two weeks I was out and because I listened to my body, I showed up fresh and healthy. The next day I enjoyed an easy jog on a sunny, 70-degree day with no hamstring pain, and I’m looking forward to many more of these enjoyable runs in this excellent spring weather, now that I’ve learned to listen to my body.

The take home message is don’t try to force pre-planned training when things don’t go smoothly. It’s important to have a plan but more important not to become a slave to the training log. Remember what Eastwood said: Improvise, adapt, and overcome those unforeseen obstacles.