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Just Starting Out?

November 15, 2013
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It’s a long road; be patient!

Because I have several friends who are just embarking on a running adventure, and they asked me to give them my best running advice, I’m putting together a list of all the things I wish someone had told me when I first started. Here is my best advice in relationship to training; I’ll write my best race-specific advice in a future post.

Take it easy. This is the single, most important piece of advice I can give new runners. Don’t be too eager to accomplish grandiose goals. You just cannot rush your transformation into a distance runner. Plan for this to take a long time. Your body has to adapt to the rigors of running, and that’s easier said than done. When you run, your body hits the ground with about 2 1/2 times your body weight. That’s a lot of impact on your joints, your knees in particular, but that’s just the joint issues. Think about the cardiovascular effort you’re making, the way your body has to adjust for your burning through more calories every week, et cetera, et cetera. Make adjustments gradually, so your body doesn’t go into shock. Perhaps more importantly, you’re more likely to stick with it if you do it this way. Your body won’t rebel against all the changes going on at once, but will slowly acclimate to the changes and make the necessary adjustments, strengthening muscles, bones, and ligaments. Your heart and lung capacity will increase. But these changes will happen slowly–let them take their time and you’ll be rewarded by a changed body and increased endurance for the sport. (When I give people this advice I am often asked how long it took me to reach certain milestones, so I’ll give them to you here. I walked for about a year before I ever took a running step. I then took about six months to transition from walking four to five miles to running that same distance before running my first 5k in December of 2007. Up to that point, I was doing beautifully. Then I lost my head. I ran a 10k two weeks later, a half marathon two months later, and my first marathon almost a year after that first half, in March of 2009. I advise against that fast progression in distance. If I had it to do over, I would have waited another six or eight months to run my first 13.1, and another full year to run 26.2. But hey, you don’t know what you don’t know.)

Get properly fitted for running shoes. And by “running shoes” I mean shoes that were designed for running. Laces do not running shoes make. Once you’ve committed to running so much as a single mile for exercise, your cute little cross-trainers will not cut it, and are likely to lead to injury. Love your body enough to go to the nearest running specialty store for a professional fitting. (Please don’t expect the big-box sporting goods store to do this for you. Their specialty is low prices, not good service.) They will ask you to run on the treadmill to observe whether you pronate when you run, and may ask you to stand on a machine designed to tell them whether your arch is flat or high, and whether it has pressure points. Then they’ll likely ask questions about your running experience and goals. They’ll bring you a few shoes to try on, and you can pick out the one that feels best. You can probably even run in it around the store or on their treadmill. Expect to pay anywhere between $100 to $140 for your first pair; consider it an investment in your heart and knees.

Take it easy, again. Most days, your run should leave you energized, not exhausted. You should run at a pace that feels comfortable, for a distance that leaves you feeling like you could go a little longer. Not able to run for any length of time yet? That’s okay–start by walking and run to the nearest light pole, then walk again. When your heartrate returns to normal, run for a stretch again. Whatever you do, don’t sprint the running portions, even though they’re short–run at a relaxed pace. Don’t worry if your pace doesn’t feel much faster than walking or it seems like your feet are barely leaving the ground. The goal is to continue to extend your time on your feet, and you’ll be shocked at how quickly your heart and legs will become accustomed to it if you are consistent. (I started walking as part of my Weight Watchers regimen in the early part of 2006, doing about three miles four times a week. In about a year I was up to walking five miles, and started running short portions. I ran my first mile in the summer of 2007, and continued increasing my running portions slowly so that by that fall, I was consistently running four or five miles every time I set out. If you’re unsure of the best way to increase your distance, look for the “couch to 5k” schedule, which will get you from doing nothing to completing a 3.1-mile race. Already completed a 5k? Look for the “one-hour runner” schedule, which will get most people to the finish line of a 10k.)

Track your runs. Believe it or not, after a while, all your miles will start melting into each other. Find a way to track how far you went on each run, which route you took, which shoes you wore, and how you felt. Write down what you ate and how you felt during and after you ran. Did you take water? What was the weather like? Though things like this seem like overkill, writing them down helps you establish patterns. Soon you’ll notice that you run better in the evenings than the mornings, so you’ll know to schedule your race for an evening 5k rather than a morning one. You’ll realize the day you felt queasy on your long run was the day you had toast without peanut butter on it, or forgot to stop for water halfway through. You’ll walk with wings on your feet the whole day when you realize your average training pace has dropped by thirty seconds in the last four months, even though you haven’t been trying to go faster. Or cut yourself a break when you realize your last few runs have been slower because the temperature has been ten degrees warmer. I use the free logs at runningahead.com, but you can use a paper log if you’re more comfortable with it–my running partner has used both a standard calendar and a running-specific log.

Talk about it. When I started running, I shared my new passion with few people. I drove myself to the start of that first race by myself, finished (having placed in my age group!), and drove myself home–alone. Aside from the fact that I’m a card-carrying introvert, I was also going through a personal transformation I wasn’t sure would stick–I was still holding on to some of my “fat clothes” in case I decided running wasn’t for me and decided to quit after a year or so and put some of the weight back on. If you decide running isn’t for you after the first couple of races, that’s okay!–but I doubt it. I find most people, once they’ve tried it, will always stick with it. Maybe they become less passionate–they decide they never want to train for another half marathon, or racing isn’t for them–but they generally remain runners. If you’re starting out, I encourage you to tell others that you’re running. Tweet about your run. Instagram your fabulous new shoes. Ask the runners you know all the random questions that you can think of. It will both motivate you and give them an outlet for all the running conversations they’re dying to have.

Try it. You know those runners you’re asking all those questions? They’ll all give you different answers. One eats before every morning run; the other sets out on an empty stomach. One drinks coffee, black; the other risks tummy issues if she so much as smells it. Running is an experiment of one. Go ahead and ask the questions. It’s vital to initiate the conversation and get the wisdom from as many runners as you possibly can. But, in the end? It doesn’t matter what works for every other runner–it only matters what works for you, and you’re only going to find that out through experimentation. So get out there and try stuff out. Go run!

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