Japanese Running Culture

The Way of the Runner (2015) by Adharanand Finn


Question

Finn travels 9,000 miles overland to Japan with his wife and small children. The reason for his six-month stay in Asia is to discover why Japan has a greater number of half and full marathon runners than the United States and United Kingdom, trailing only behind Ethiopia and Kenya.

Ekidens

Finn meets numerous coaches and athletes and learns about Ekidens, long-distance relay races (upwards of 20 runners each running a half marathon) that are central to motivating and rewarding Japanese runners.

Originally used as training for marathons, Ekidens have been so successful that Japanese runners are viewed as national heroes and the country now has some of the finest infrastructure to support progress in high school and college students, company employees, as well as elite athletes. The Hakone Ekiden and the All-Japan Ekiden Championships are races that now draw millions of people, making them some of the most watched television spectacles, and are seen as more important than the Olympic Games.

The events grew in popularity after World War II as a means to harbour national unity, team spirit and commitment to endurance-based fitness.

Training Practices

Despite the huge scientific and technological advances that have originated from Japan, much of the country’s running philosophy remains traditional.

Over-training – Running and racing too often, for too long, from an early age means recovery is often neglected

Immense pressure – The corporate sponsors and expectations from fans produce coaches that are short-term focused, ignoring what is optimal for runners’ careers. 

Risk aversion – Running too cautious at steady, even paces rather than with surges, mean they often lose against braver competitors (which often win races when bursts are executed at the right time). 

Sleep deprivation – Tiredness is not culturally acceptable and therefore health can be compromised.

The Japanese society of conformity, dogged work ethic and personal responsibility for team efforts mean athletes are susceptible to inflexible training plans, strict (sometimes abusive) coaching and inferiority complexities. Unsurprisingly, mental exhaustion and physical injuries are widespread.

Marathon Monks

Finn also speaks to a ‘marathon monk’, whose focus is to run and walk 1,000 marathons in 1,000 (non-consecutive) days, between sacred places. This offers spiritual enlightenment by exhausting the mind and ego whilst constantly moving and reflecting on life. Citizen Runner, a Japanese amateur marathoner who works full-time and is self-coached, is another famous example of someone running alone, which can result in a deeper connection with oneself.

Personal Impact

Despite turning 40 and witnessing prevalent training errors, Finn discovers that returning home his running has improved. He wins several local races, including the South Downs Marathon Relay as part of Team ‘The Ekiden Men’. One of the reasons is that Finn gains a stronger and leaner body by squatting regularly, an often neglected core exercise in modern life.

Ultimately, he learns that to run well for long distances and over a prolonged period runners should love the sport and feel part of a collective ambition.

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