It is a rare person indeed that would consider spending the better part of 24 hours running non-stop on grueling, high-altitude trails. Even more rare is the one who would do this many times each year, consistently coming in first and obliterating course records all the while. This takes not only extraordinary talent and a healthy heart, but also the knowledge and willingness to adopt a lifestyle that will keep one’s body-mind in top condition both on and off the trail.
Elite endurance runner and physical therapist Scott Jurek has devoted the past ten years to finding the perfect balance of intense training, nourishing diet and the calming influence of yoga and meditation.
The seven-time winner of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, Jurek enjoyed running even as a child. Later on, as a Nordic ski racer, he loved spending time on mountain trails. He began endurance running to support Nordic skiing. “I was initially attracted to endurance running because of the challenge and because of the connection to the trails,” he says. “Later on, I became attracted to the meditative aspects. When I’m out running for eight hours or more, I’m not caught up in time or thinking. It gives me an opportunity to tune more deeply into myself. Competing, pushing the body, is a benefit. I get to explore some avenues and insights that I might not experience going out on my own on an eight-hour run.”
While running 100 miles on high-altitude trails might seem a bit extreme, Jurek feels the benefits to his overall health and well-being make the effort worthwhile. “Some might question whether running 100 miles is good for one’s body. But there are huge rewards in terms of health benefits. Regular aerobic exercise is good. When you’re running 100 miles you have to pay attention to a lot of things—fluids, nutrition. It makes you very conscious of what your body needs to maintain optimal health.”
Keeping up with the physical and mental demands of endurance running requires much more than sport-specific training. It depends on maintaining an overall lifestyle that’s conducive to vibrant health. About ten years ago, Jurek began a radical transformation of his training philosophy. Previously, he had subscribed to the “no pain, no gain” philosophy of training. Then his wife, Leah, began practicing yoga. While he says he was never skeptical of yoga’s health benefits, it was not something he had ever considered exploring.
“When Leah started doing it I became more interested,” he says. “I started reading Andrew Weil’s books, which opened my eyes a bit more. Being an inflexible runner, I was gun-shy and intimidated. I thought yoga was something for super flexible individuals. Once I laid that aside, I got into it. I became very interested in all aspects. It was a way to nourish anyone’s body, mind and spirit.”
Jurek’s study of yoga and nutrition led him to a greater understanding about the body’s natural responses both to stress and to conscious care. Nutrition, yoga and rest became as integral to his training as his rigorous workouts. His seven consecutive wins of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run were fueled by his vegan diet.
Jurek doesn’t adhere to any particular style of yoga. Rather, he practices what he finds most useful from many styles. He sometimes practices Jivamukti yoga, and in particular enjoys pranayama, chanting and meditation. He also enjoys yin yoga, a style that features longer holds of three to five minutes, that tone the body’s energetic meridians.
Iyengar yoga also plays an important part in his practice. In particular, the use of props has been invaluable. “It’s not like I’ve become really flexible,“ he admits. “Iyengar yoga has made the poses more approachable. As a physical therapist, I’m familiar with a lot of body types and injuries. Using props bridges the gap that lets everyone do it.
“Athletes always want to push harder. When I work with athletes, I try to emphasize that they don’t need to be like everyone else. When you’re somebody who can’t even touch his toes, yoga can be very humbling.”
Whether we run 100-mile races or find ourselves racing through our workday, most of us are practicing endurance running one way or another. Yoga and meditation may not help us clear our schedules, but they can certainly help anyone meet daily responsibilities with a greater measure of grace. Says Jurek, “Yoga and meditation have helped me be more aware of my body, not only when I’m running, but throughout the day. Breath work is important. I’m pushing through layers of fatigue in a 100-mile race. Having other ways to channel the discomfort through breathing is good. Meditation helps me get beyond the mind and the noise—those times when my mind complains that it’s too far, it’s too hot, I’m too tired. Because of my yoga and meditation practice, I’m better able to work through things more positively.”
Interview with Scott Jurek by Charlotte Bell