If you’re looking for running tips from a trusted source, you can’t do much better than Hellah Sidibe. We caught up with the 31-year-old runner last year after he became the first Black man to run across America, an adventure that covered 3,061 miles and took 84 days to complete.
He’s run every single day for half a decade, and before that competed in the MLS. Suffice to say, man knows how to stay on his feet. Still, a recent video posted to his Instagram page raised some eyebrows in the comments section. In the short clip, Sidibe is trotting down an empty suburban street, and periodically bouncing a tennis ball. For weeks, he’d been posting about his training strategies ahead of competing in the Leadville Trail 100, an ultramarathon in the hills of a former silver mining town in Colorado, but this seemed like more of a goof. What performance gains could possibly be gleaned from playing with a ball in the road? Wouldn’t that just be distracting? Or lead to a very unnecessary injury?
For Sidibe, though, it just wasn’t that deep. He explained that bouncing a tennis ball has three unexpected benefits on a run: it keeps him busy, it chases away boredom and most importantly, it slows him down.
Sidibe ended up completing his first ultra in a little under 28 hours. That ought to offer some perspective on why an exercise like this is surprisingly helpful. For longer distances (and especially for ultra distances), a steady, metronomic pace is non-negotiable. The altitude, terrain and navigational challenges already present enough tricks; adding speed into that mixture is asking for trouble. In bouncing a ball at a low-stakes clip, Sidibe is training his body and brain to memorize and appreciate what it feels like to move slow.
That’s good news for the heart; it’s going to be taxed enough over the course of a race. Keeping those beats per minute low and in control economizes the entire cardiovascular system. But it’s also a salve for the mind — channeling his social media personality or not, note how easygoing and relaxed Sidibe looks in this video. If you want to call the tennis ball a distraction, go ahead, but that doesn’t mean it’s a negative one. The prop fits in nicely with a host of other stimuli that runners typically recruit to ease the specter of a long run. Stuff like podcasts, nice views, or conversations with training companions.
I’m not currently training towards century-mark mileage, but I am a regular runner who’s always game to try something new, so this past week, I tied my shoes and went out for a “tennis ball jog” around my neighborhood in North Brooklyn. I considered going to the track nearby at first, thinking I’d be safe there from cars and cyclists, but I instead decided to wander into the tree-lined streets of a residential neighborhood called Greenpoint, about a mile north of my home.
I ended up running four miles, at a pace of 9:10 per mile. My average heart rate was 136 beats per minute. For comparison, the last time I ran four miles along a similar elevation my pace was 6:40 per mile, with an average heart rate of 160 beats per minute.
Simply put, this was one of the most pleasant running experiences I’ve had a long time. I charted a route I’d never done before, and always opted for streets where bouncing the ball seemed safest, a strategy that turned out to be pretty conducive to blazing an enjoyable run — every path I chose was empty and quiet. I found both a bakery and brewery that I plan on coming back to visit. My primary worry (that people would think I looked like a moron) was vanquished when a mailman, watching me bounce by, called “You the boss!” That felt really good.
I have a bad habit of running “hard” on too many of my training days. It’s a common trap for runners of all ages: you like to post fast times on Strava, you assume that giving max effort each time is the way to earn progress, somedays work sucked and it’s nice to just get outside and drop the hammer. But running fast every time sabotages the body’s ability to A) recover and B) make what running experts refer to as “aerobic adaptations.” You plateau, basically, because you haven’t given your legs and lungs any space to grow in strength.
An ideal weekly regimen should include a diverse menu of fast days, slow days, hill repeats, track workouts, recovery runs, conversation-pace runs, you name it. And maybe, I’m starting to think…the occasional tennis ball jog, too.
When I was out on the roads, I was reminded of Rocky Balboa’s beloved rubber ball, which he plays with in the original Rocky, and somehow still has decades later in the era of the Creed franchise. I always assumed the ball was a tool to hone his reflexes, that it made him a better fighter. But when Sylvester Stallone auctioned off “Rocky” universe merchandise a few years back, he reportedly shared that the little ball was “the only thing” the Italian Stallion had “that would take his mind off of his problems.”
Sure enough, it isn’t just on his person during those iconic training montages. He’s bouncing/squeezing/flipping it whenever he’s stressed (e.g. before he asks Adrian out on a date, while in the hospital hallway after Adrian goes into premature labor).
A ball, however silly it may seem, can prove meditative in a satisfyingly mindless way. So too can running, but hey, once the pain sets in, your brain can sometimes go to dark places. That’s where bringing a ball into the fold might be able to add some semblance of perspective and calm. If it’s improved hand-eye you’re looking for, you just might get it (I “dribbled” with my off left hand the entire time for an extra challenge), but tennis ball running’s real boon is its ability to supersede all those high-concept runner-ly questions…Did I sleep well enough last night to be taking on so many hills right now? How’s my breathing sounding today? Where’s my blood oxygen at? Considering that I’m taking tomorrow off, should I tack on an extra mile or two? Etc.
With all due respect to my fellow runners: who cares? Chasing a ball for 25 minutes is glorious. Trust dogs. They’re a little dumb, but no one’s ever accused that species of getting too stressed to have fun. At the very least, a tennis ball is going to stop your body from racing when you’re supposed to be running. But I’d wager it’ll keep your mind from racing, too.