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In praise of exercising with friends

My running buddy and I meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays to hit the waterfront trail near her house, a 4.8-mile length that suits my creaky ankles, sprained so often in my youth they’ve become something of an Achilles heel, so to speak.

Before I met Amy, the only other person I joined for running with any regularity was my husband, and not often — only when we happened to be heading out at the same time. Most of my life I’ve preferred solo running, using the time to sink into my own thoughts. But Amy’s work schedule is compatible with mine, we’re the same age (with college-age kids) and we’re both looking for accountability — something I never needed when I was younger.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve become a conflicted runner, starting in my early 40s when my right ankle tanked on me altogether. X-rays and an MRI revealed bone spurs and a ganglion cyst pinched between them, the outcome of high school ankle twists during cross-country and, later, ultimate Frisbee games. The orthopedic surgeon advised me to give up running, and he operated. Afterwards, with an insider’s view of my cartilage — not so bad after all, it turned out — he decided I could still run, but only if I stayed off pavement and uneven trails and avoided too much mileage. “Do you swim?” he asked. I don’t, and I don’t really want to. I’m not a gym rat either. I’ve been running since I could walk. My fitness spiraled with an uneven schedule of intermittent jogging.

Getting back on track

Then a year and a half ago, my friend Laura mentioned a running workout program led by a fitness expert in my town named Carol. She had founded the workout model for women who wanted to get into running but didn’t know how. Many of her participants are first-time runners and want a regular program that builds in community and motivation. Laura, who wanted to increase her fitness, was looking for new things to do as an empty nester. I’m a notorious cheapskate about paying for exercise, but I joined her at the track to learn about the program and took to it in a second. That’s where I also met Amy, about eight months later.

The model is deceptively simple and geared for all levels, but primarily those looking for an introduction to running. For me, the track met my surgeon’s “flat and not-paved” criteria. During the six-week session, we met just twice a week, one hour each time. On the first day, Carol timed us running a 1600 and then constructed workouts for each of us based on our own pace. Sometimes we ended up with a running buddy, mostly we didn’t, but friendships bloomed. Many women who were convinced they were walkers evolved into regular runners who signed up for local road races and half marathons, becoming fast friends as they did so.

Each workout includes 25 minutes of speedwork or pacing (at your own speed/pace), a few drills like high skips and lunges, three minutes of core strengthening and a few minutes of stretching. What surprised me was how much difference the two hours a week made to my other (albeit limited) running days. I was springier, my arms more efficient, my steps shorter and quicker as coached by Carol. The key was not skipping class and signing up for more than one session.

Getting more than a workout

I also learned I valued camaraderie, drew on it. I didn’t know how much I needed it. Many of us of a certain age have bodies that won’t let us get away with not exercising anymore, yet simultaneously it feels easier not to get up and get out the door. But our health depends on us getting going — at all ages.

I’m on a summer hiatus from Fit School, but I’m now meeting up regularly with friends to hike, and I run with Amy and sometimes other friends I call on. With our parenting days on the wane, we have more time, more household silence, a more open schedule, and I can see the future in front of me — the importance of socializing when school no longer connects me to a community, the importance of fitness for mental and physical health, the importance of friendship. At some point, my ankles may begin demanding something like a yoga routine instead of running, but I’ll face that when I get there. No matter what, I’ll be doing something. With friends.

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