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Spinning the Planet

AUTHOR: John Whitfield

Illustration by George Whitfield

I love running. I don’t just mean that I feel good about having run when I’m done. I mean I enjoy it while I’m doing it. When I run with my Flyer friends I enjoy socializing, but when I run alone I am left to my own thoughts. Occasionally, I think about what’s going on in my life, but most of the time I think about running. I’m “in the moment”, thinking about my form, stride, pace, and level of effort. I also enjoy visualizations – abstractions that help me indirectly, and also entertain me as I run. One favorite that I’d like to share is “spinning the planet”. 

This visualization is an extension of a more real scenario that I relate to running – that of spinning a merry-go-round. I’m talking about that big heavy metal disk with handles at the playground that kids ride on, sometimes with a parent (like me) standing on the outside in one place, spinning the wheel. It’s really hard to move at first, and hard to stop once it gets going. At speed, the challenge is to grab a handle as it comes by and add a little force to keep it going or speed it up in the brief moment it is passing by. Once you get it really moving, it becomes impossible to increase the speed, and if you miss your timing, it can feel like it’s going to pull your arm out of the socket. 

To convert this real experience to a fantasy visualization for running, the heavy merry-go-round is replaced by the earth itself - an impossibly large object to spin - and instead of our arms, we apply the spinning force with our legs.

Imagine that as you start your run, the steps that drive you forward are also having an effect on the earth itself. The earth is massive, but as you run, it starts to spin underneath you in the opposite direction from that in which you are going. 

The earth has tremendous inertia, so any changes in speed will have to be gradual. Trying to take off in a sprint would be pointless, and attempting to slam on the brakes would be downright dangerous. 

Your job now is to apply a little energy with each step to keep the spin going. To do this safely and efficiently, when your forward foot touches the ground, it needs to be in sync with the motion of the earth – already moving along with it. If you stride such that your foot strikes out in front of you rather than under you, the force of the earth will deliver a blow to your leg that you will not enjoy. 

As you finish your step, the momentum will toss your leg back as your foot leaves the ground, resulting in that butt-kick effect you see from fast runners – not because you are lifting your leg, but as a natural follow-through. 

From that high back leg position, you’ll bring your foot around as though you were pedaling a bicycle so that when it returns to the ground, it is already moving backward again to match the earth’s speed.

Spinning the planet is a “virtual reality” in which I focus on running. In a training run or race, it grounds me. As I think about any aspect of my form such as my stride length, strike point, posture, or forward lean, this image somehow helps me to find balance. In particular though, it makes me aware that I have forward momentum, and helps me efficiently grow and maintain that momentum. I think we can have a tendency to treat each step as though we are starting from stationary, and that is not as fast, or efficient, and most importantly not as FUN as recognizing that you are moving already.

Happy running!

- John Whitfield

*Note: You may ask, “John, aren’t you worried about your running actually changing the rotation of the planet and causing some sort of global catastrophe?”. To that I say, of course not, silly. One person running could hardly affect the motion of the earth. Well, unless a bunch of Flyers read this post, and all start pushing the earth around. That could start to add up. Just to be safe, let’s be sure to always run a loop or an out-and-back so that any effect you have in one direction will be countered with an equal force in the opposite direction. If we follow that guideline, I think we’ll be ok.