The secret to running well is simpler than you think.

In a past life, I earned a doctorate in education and spent years working in higher ed. One of my greatest influences was my doctoral adviser, the late Dr. Charles Leonhard at the University of Illinois. Dr. Leonhard approached education with a no-nonsense, hard-nosed, pragmatic attitude. Before making any decision, he always wanted to know, what difference will it make? He wouldn’t implement any plan without first establishing that it would indeed lead to some sort of improvement.

More and more I find myself becoming a running pragmatist. As I hear about the latest gadgets and apparel, I wonder, what difference will it truly make? In my early years as a runner, I was so excited about my newfound passion that I got caught up in the trappings, and lost sight of the bigger picture. I only cared about what difference I thought something would make. Take my first real pair of running shoes: the Saucony Jazz. I liked jazz music, played jazz music, and knew jazz musicians. So, surely, these were the right shoes for me. And I’m sure they were fine shoes. It’s just that I never paused to ask whether they would help me achieve the transformation I was after.

And running apparel? Give me a break. I didn’t ask what difference it would make. I only cared how it looked. I tried tight shorts and loose shorts; singlets with snaps to hold your race number and others with capped sleeves; thick socks, thin socks, no socks. If anyone made it, I bought it.

When it came to nutrition, my approach was no different. I tried every energy bar on the market. There had to be one that would fulfill the promise – or, in my case, fantasy – of making me faster. I ate high protein and high carb. I ate two hours before I ran. I ate 20 minutes before I ran. I drank whatever concoction I thought would improve my race times.

Vitamins? Tried them all. Supplements? I can’t even tell you all the prescription, nonprescription, herbal, and semilegal stuff I ingested or rubbed on my body. I guess I was fortunate that old men finishing marathons in more than five hours are never tested for drugs. But all that time, I never questioned whether the shoes, socks, or energy bars would make the difference between an 11-minute pace and a seven-minute pace.

Then I remembered the doctor who taught me that important question, and now I challenge the claims and promises held in front of me. Sure, shoes, gear, and a sound diet are valuable. But the only thing that has ever made any difference in my running is running.

If I run with a goal, with or without the latest shoes on my feet and materials on my body, I improve. If I train with enthusiasm, with or without the supplements, bars, and gels, I improve. And if I race with passion, I am rewarded with satisfying performances, even if I look like a pudgy old man with graying hair and an awkward stride.

So the next time you’re tempted to put something on or into your body rather than working to get something out of it, ask yourself, what difference will it make? My guess is you will find, as I did, that you already have what you really need to be your best.

Waddle on, friends.

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