When I began thinking about running a marathon, all I could think about was finishing. Survival and enduring 26.2 miles were my one and only concern. As I begin my early training for the Boston Marathon, it was suggested that strength and speed work would be a good addition to the weekly progression of short and long runs. That led to reading about the difference between fast and slow twitch muscles. Simply, it is thought that having a larger proportion of slow twitch muscles allows an athlete to battle fatigue and to endure. Think about Lance Armstrong riding through the Pyrenees in the Tour de France. Fast twitch muscles bring explosive power and are associated with speed. Think sprint and Usain Bolt.
So when I got to week seven on my training schedule and saw the suggestion to go to a running track and run eight 200 meter intervals, I admit feeling intimidated and a bit silly. The last time I ran around a track, I was in junior high dressed in my polyester red and white striped physical education uniform trying out for the track team. I was short, fast, naive, and somehow found myself running hurdles that seemed almost as tall as I was. A groin injury cut my track and field career short, and I spent the long recovery period mastering hurdles of a different kind; the intersection of extreme shyness and boys.
So at age 49.5 years old, I drove to a running track in the dark of a cold fall evening. I had my stopwatch on my left wrist, decided to run without my running hat, and took an easy lap around the oval to warm up. To run this set of intervals, I was told to run hard for 200 meters (halfway around the track) and walk the remaining 200 meters as recovery. Repeat. 45 seconds, 43 seconds, and then consistently I hit 42 seconds. Not quite the 19.19 seconds of the Jamaican idol Usain Bolt, but then again I am twice his age. I confess that as I felt the wind in my hair I imagined wings on my feet much like Hermes, the Olympian fleet-footed messenger.
The transition to speed work did make me think about the slow twitch and fast twitch theory and whether it had application to everyday life. What if you think of your brain as a fast or slow twitch muscle? The fast twitch is our spontaneous response: the part of our personality that makes us gregarious, witty, the life of the party. It also represents attributes like anger with a hair-like trigger, moments when we find Hermes' foot in our mouth, and those aha moments when we find bursts of inspiration. Contrast that with the slow twitch part of the brain that is contemplative, reflective and downright thoughtful. When we slow twitch think we are careful not to jump to conclusions, we think deeply about important and formative matters, and we find meaning and understanding.
To take it further, what if you apply twitch theory to your emotions, your feelings, matters of the heart? Infatuation, that quick pitter-patter of the heart that happens when a certain someone walks by, the uncontrollable blush and the propensity to flirt would all be fast twitch mechanisms. But thank goodness for the slow twitch emotions that represent devotion, loyalty, and commitment. It isn’t all pretty and positive: there is also the fast twitch behaviors such as reckless regard, instant gratification, and tempestuous relationships; or the slow twitch characteristics such as boorish brooding, dogmatic rigidity, and emotional constipation.
So as athletes debate between whether fast twitch or slow twitch muscles are ordained or developed, I think I will concentrate on the miraculous balance of the two. When I need to be Usain Bolt, I will channel Hermes and run like the wind, flirting with speed and spontaneity. And when I need a good dose of reflection, stability and devotion I will call on the spirit of Lance Armstrong to tackle the steep yet enduring alps of life.