Monday, 14 September 2009

The Retail Running Clinic: Boon or bane?

Is it possible that a phenomenon-- the shoe store running clinic-- that introduces thousands of people to running might also be bad for the sport? And, is it "elitist" for a lifetime competitive runner like me to even entertain such a notion? A recent inquiry from a potential on-line client-- and current participant in a well known store-based marathon training clinic-- gave me occasion to revisit my views on this favourite discussion topic among running veterans and other aficionados.

When we attend an event such as the Ottawa Race Weekend, or any of the half a dozen Canada Running Series events, and see throngs of runners sporting those now familiar tokens of store clinic participation (the "back-flap" jacket and "ammo belt"-style water carrier) and dutifully stopping for the 60 second walk break that is the orthodoxy within the store clinic-based running movement, it is hard to argue that this phenomenon has been anything but beneficial for the sport of road racing, even, perhaps, at the elite level. "Ammo-belts", jackets and all, these throngs of new runners represent a significant stream of revenue for road race organizers (to say nothing of the stores that sell these accessories!), part of which sometimes goes to prize money purses for race winners. The mass entry of store clinic runners onto the road race scene has also been accompanied by steep spike in road race entry fees over the past 20 years-- a rate far above inflation, for sure-- meaning that each of these new runners has been worth 2 or even 3 "old-school" runners in terms of dollars generated. In many ways, events like the Ottawa Race Weekend and the Canada Running Series owe their very existence, in their current form, to the rise of the running store clinic. In fact, some of the bigger stores have developed close, even symbiotic, relationships with bigger events, such as Ottawa, with the clinics preparing runners for specific races and the stores buying premium floor space at pre-race commercial expos. So, with road races now bigger and richer than ever, in significant part because of the union of commerce and sport embodied by the shoe store running clinic, what could long-time supporters of competitive running possibly have against this new running boom?

For one thing, many long time runners resent what they perceive as a mass-market colonization of their once pristine sub-cultural preserve. Like members of any other formerly grass-roots sub-culture, long time, serious runners tend to dislike any form of commercial exploitation of an activity they see as having deeper, perhaps even spiritual, significance for them, and they are apt to direct this dislike at the most obvious manifestations of the trend-- in this case, the store clinic runner, with all of the associated trappings. In fact, many long-time, serious runners would be perfectly happy to see their sport return to its roots as a "hard-core" and therefore relatively fringe activity, pursued exclusively for its own sake by a well-trained minority of pure-hearted enthusiasts, even this meant that races became smaller, poorer, and perhaps less well organized. I see this reaction as, at least in part, expressive of a longing for a return to the purely "sportive" dimension of running-- as opposed, that is, to its purely hygienic, "life-style" and consumer-driven aspect. As a long time and very "hard-core" runner myself, I can well understand this reaction; it is a form of "elitism", to be sure, but one with some redeemable characteristics. Ultimately, however, I don't see it as a legitimate basis on which to be critical of the store clinic phenomenon.

My own critique of the store clinic "learn to run" and "marathon training" phenomenon has always been based on my belief that running should indeed be a "hard-core", sport-based, competitive activity; but, that it can and should also be a mass-based activity. My critique centres on my belief that store clinics actually sell their clients short as athletes,, and that they do so for the most crass of motives-- separating them from their money.

My argument here is, first of all, a structural one, meaning that I think the store clinic approach operates the way that it does because not because of the bad motives of the people who operate it (many people who have run store clinics are, quite often, serious, competitive runners themselves); instead, this model operates the way that it does because of context within which it is situated. The store clinic program can only exist as an adjunct to the retail enterprise itself, whose primary business is, of course, the sale of running gear.

In order for stores to devote time and attention to their clinics, their clinics must pay for themselves in the form of fees and sales of product that would otherwise not be sold. In order for stores to attract clinic patrons, they must "sell" running much the same way as they sell their other products. To do so, they must stress the ease of access to the sport, and they must offer a simple, tangible goal (race completion, weight loss) in return for the fee paid. They must also, of course, convince would-be runners that the sport is synonymous with a higher than strictly necessary degree of consumption-- of products and equipment, that is. Store clinics must also continually re-enroll runners in their clinics, in order to keep them coming back to the store, and to avoid having to look for fresh clientele every 3 months. Even more insidiously, store clinics must set their actual training schedules around the routines of store operation. It is therefore not uncommon for stores to host Sunday long runs to coincide with the opening hours of their stores, or to set the number and types of harder sessions based on the availability of staff. (In one popular marathon training schedule, fully half of the athlete's weekly volume is to be completed in just one run, and there are 3 faster running sessions-- including repeat hills, which are of dubious value in a marathon building phase in any case, particularly for beginners-- scheduled on consecutive days.) And in order to get around the problem of staffing clinics, some stores will actually appoint graduates of their own clinics-- those with very little experience as athletes, let alone as coaches-- to run the show.

In the end, while running store clinics serve to introduce thousands of new runners to the sport, and all but gift-wrap them for race organizers, they tend to leave them permanently stranded between the status of beginner and bona fide runner. No one could ever expect every new runner to one day become a serious, life long runner; but, store clinics do not, and indeed cannot, offer this a next option to their clientele. It is simply not in their interest to do so. But worse, store clinics, in pursuit of their particular business model, often systematically misinform new athletes about racing and training. The most infamous example here is undoubtedly the "walk-jog" theory of marathon completion. The "walk-jog" theory of marathon running, according to which it is more effective to take 60 second walk breaks for every 10 minutes of running, is a pathology that grows directly out of the store clinic's need to promise all participants a quick and tangible reward, the Holy Grail of which is marathon completion. The introduction of walk breaks, quite simply, allows under-prepared runners get from start to finish in one piece; yet, it is billed by proponents as a faster, perhaps even the fastest way for the average runner to complete a marathon or shorter race distance-- and this, even though it is well known that the best, and even just the very good, marathoners do not take walk breaks. The crucial distinction here is, of course, that between "the average" runner (i.e. the store clinic participant) and "the good" runners (i.e. those whose ability effectively puts them into a completely different sport). The store clinic insistence on the "walk-jog" approach permanently consigns all participants to the status of talentless "other", whose main concern is to complete races without getting injured, or particularly stressed.

Thus, in pursuit of its particular kind of commercial interest, the typical store clinic approach, while it may indeed put bodies into races, actually erodes the sport of running as such on the most basic of levels-- by mass-promoting the notion that an a vigorous and competitive approach to running is too difficult and dangerous for the "average" person. While it may serve to promote greater public health (actually, a somewhat dubious claim, since the typical clinic member and race entrant is, on the basis of being middle to upper income alone, already in better health than the average person), store-based "learn to run" and "marathon training" clinics systematically discourage thousands of people-- many of them women, who, for sociological reasons, were often discouraged from taking up competitive sport as girls-- the opportunity to experience the joy and fulfillment of a vigorous, competitive approach to running. Meanwhile, in running clubs and informal running groups across North America, people are proving that serious, competitive running can be for everyone, and for life. Interestingly, much of my information on the running clinic phenomenon has come from refugees from the clinics themselves-- from people who have looked for, and found, an exciting alternative to the endless routine of "walk-run" and "marathon completion" for its own sake, an alternative that the clinics would not, and could not, offer.


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