Mike Plunkett runs among tourists along the Reflecting Pool while wearing his "How Am I Running?" shirt. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

“I think you run like a machine.”

A bicyclist shouted this my way along the Mount Vernon Trail on a glorious Sunday morning. I smiled, said thank you and kept moving.

This was after another bicyclist said I was running well, a few thumbs-ups from other runners and several tourists looking at me quizzically as I ran by.

The compliments and looks weren’t uninvited. My bright yellow shirt asking “How am I running?” called out for critique.

I’ll admit it: I was proud. My gait was getting a full range of motion and my stride was crisp. My arms and glutes were working in tandem to gain sufficient speed, and I was correctly landing on the balls of my feet.

Most of all, I felt good. It felt good to run.

This is a far cry from more than two years ago, when in the midst of struggles with depression and a spiritual malaise, a thought came to me.

You’re going to run marathons, so you should get going.

I hadn’t run since I was a teenager, but soon thereafter, I ran one block from the corner of 14th and Euclid streets Northwest to Meridian Hill Park and back. I was out of breath and in pain.

The run was awful. Yet it was enough to keep me going.

Since then, I have participated in a three-mile race, a half-marathon, a 200-mile running relay and marathons in Buenos Aires and the District. By this time next week, I’ll be in Toronto for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. According to my running app, I have logged more than 1,600 miles.

Along the way, I sought to figure out whether there is such a thing as the perfect running exercise. That mystical stretch or the yogalike position that increases speed and endurance, the exercise to end all running exercises.

The question has practical implications. It’s my goal to run a sub-four-hour marathon in Toronto. My time in Buenos Aires was 4:55:01, and much of that was experiencing (as in, stopping to take pictures) my first marathon in another country. Training during the torturous 2013-14 winter got me to 4:11:46 at the D.C. Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon. I got a better time, but something still felt off.

After much discussion, reading and lots of running, I have, indeed, discovered the perfect running exercise. Turns out it has nothing to do with your legs — or with running. Rather, it’s about developing your mind.

Finding the exercise, however, was an exercise all its own.

"How am I running?" shirt. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

The 1-2-3 step

As a child, it’s easy to run. As an adult, it should be easy to run as well, right?

Not quite.

“There’s an assumption inherent in running that it’s built-in and anyone can do it. So you get people jumping headfirst into a program when they haven’t done anything active for a decade or two,” athletic coach David Dellanave told me in an e-mail. “They lack the muscle mass and physical coordination to begin with, and they don’t get any instruction in running first. The result is poor running mechanics on top of a dysfunctional and often aged body.”

Dellanave is the owner of the Movement Minneapolis, a customized gym, and writes about running and strength training at www.dellanave.com.

“Many runners think that if they can just learn to run long enough, the miles will get faster, but it doesn’t work that way,” Dellanave said.

Many of my former struggles prove this. Running was difficult and painful. Shin splints, strained IT bands, pain on the top of my feet, pulled back muscles — I experienced them all. I ran hard, and it took its toll. Getting faster seemed too arduous.

Going into training for Toronto, I was convinced that there had to be a better way to run.

That led me to the Endurance Athlete Center in Falls Church. The center hosted a running clinic over Labor Day weekend, led by Mark Cucuzzella and Ian Adamson. Cucuzzella, a doctor and Air Force lieutenant colonel, and Adamson, a fitness professional, lead seminars called Healthy Running across the country.

The room was packed with physical therapists, ultramarathoners, CrossFitters and me. Cucuzzella and Adamson ran through scientific data on running, nutrition, plyometrics and metabolic efficiency. Most of the audience was nodding along. I was trying not to nod off.

Then, Cucuzzella showed one slide with a phrase in Latin. Nihil novi sub sole: There is nothing new under the sun. Humans have been running since the beginning, and our bodies haven’t dramatically changed, he said. Cucuzzella emphasized there is a right way to run and lots of wrong ways to run. The fundamentals of solid running haven’t changed. Running is a skill that can be learned. It’s not rocket science.

On a fun run — and it’s only at running clinics that a six-mile run in 80-degree weather is considered “fun” — Cucuzzella helped me hone that skill. He suggested that I use a three-count when I run, pushing my front leg down as I count off, keeping my back straight, arms at a 90-degree angle moving forward and back, and my face pointed forward. This form aligns the core, so I’d land on the front part of my feet. Left foot, 1; right foot, 2; left foot 3, and so on. A running waltz.

That was all I needed to do?

“The art of running is to get faster without running hard,” Cucuzzella told me later. He noted that when runners do the 1-2-3 step, they see substantial improvement within weeks. The form shifts the main thrust from their quads to their glutes, so the runner gains greater hip mobility.

He was right. The pain in my quads disappeared. I felt my rhythm of my arms and core even out. I stopped heel-striking. It really wasn’t rocket science.

Running along the reflecting pool. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

The mindful runner

The trick with any new skill is making it a habit. Habit leads to a practice with a path to discipline. Runners usually ask one another how long they ran. Instead, what if you asked yourself how you ran? How was your stride? How was your breathing?

Toward the end of my training, I wanted a reminder to consider my form during runs.

Enter the bright yellow shirt.

Aside from the looks and the “likes” on Facebook, wearing the shirt is an exercise in mindfulness. Learning how to run is crucial, but ultimately, I found that mindfulness is the perfect running exercise. Everything else — the techniques, stretches and strength training — emanates from that place of intentionality.

On that Sunday morning on the Mount Vernon Trail, running felt simple. Not easy. but simple. It wasn’t about running 20 miles but about moving in my body and confidently going forward.

Time didn’t matter. What mattered was the joy of going the distance.

Something Cucuzzella said has stuck with me: “Running is a foundation of healthy living. It’s simple and all easy and relaxed. If not, you’re doing it wrong.”

This, and everything that has happened the past two years, is what I take with me to the starting line in Toronto. I’ll let you know how it goes in the next column.

So, how are you running?

3 exercises that improve runners’ mechanics and mobility

Getting stronger is essential to becoming a better runner. Coaches David Dellanave and Kelly Starrett (author of “Ready to Run”) offered three exercises to improve your biomechanics and overall mobility.

10-minute squat test: Get into a low squat position and stay there for 10 minutes, keeping your weight on your heels and your knees pushed out. You’ll know pretty quickly how much tissue restriction is in your hips, legs and ankles. Starting out, feel free to take mini-breaks.

●Barbell hip thrusts: Find a lifting or aerobic bench. Lie down, putting your shoulders on the bench and your feet hip-distance apart on the ground. Breathe in, squeeze your glutes and lift your pelvis up, pushing through the hips. Keep the chest and spine neutral and the movement nice and fluid. When you get the motion down, add weight with a barbell for an extra challenge. See a video about hip thrusts here.

Couch stretch: Starrett invented the couch stretch, a favorite among CrossFitters and a great way to increase hip mobility. Kneeling in front of the couch or a wall (and facing away from it), press your back shin against it, toes pointed up. Put the front leg in a lunge position and stretch out that hip flexor. Then, lean back, squeeze the glutes and get a full stretch in your hips and quads. See a video of the couch stretch here.

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