There is a funny saying that cross-country runners like to throw around that goes something like this: “Our sport is your sport’s punishment.” Unfortunately, this quote carries with it more than just a hint of truth – most people simply hate to run. Running is hard, it takes time that could be spent doing other things, and for many people running is painful, uncomfortable, and not the least bit enjoyable. Ask any serious distance runner, and they can recount to you the scorn they sometimes receive from friends and colleagues about the fact that they run. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me that I’m going to ruin my knees, or that we as humans simply weren’t meant to run long distances (which, as an anatomy professor and evolutionary biologist, I disagree with wholeheartedly). So how does one overcome this fear and loathing for all things related to running? In this article I’ll provide 10 tips regarding what helped me the most during the first few months of my transition from being a couch-dweller to becoming a full-fledged runner.
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I officially mark May 2007 as the date when I started running. When I say running, I mean really running, not just jogging a few miles here or there when I felt like it. May 2007 is when I began to really call myself a runner, when I began a habit that sticks with me to this day, and has become such an integral part of my life that I couldn’t imagine living without it. Prior to this time, running was for me, as the saying at the beginning of this article alludes to, like a form of self-punishment. I did it because it was supposed to be good for me, or because some coach at some time ordered me to do it during some practice – I did not, however, enjoy running. That all began to change for me when I began to gain weight after the birth of my two kids. I realized that I was now in my 30’s, and if I was going to take control of my health, I needed to start getting serious about exercise. This brings me to my first tip:
Tip #1 – Find a Source of Motivation
For me, having children was the primary impetus for beginning my running habit. I wanted to get my health back under control, and I wanted to be able to keep up with two little kids as they grew up and became even more active. To this day, one of my main motivations for running is to set a good example about the importance of exercise for them. A secondary source of motivation was entirely personal – I wanted to lose some weight. It turns out that I lost about 15 pounds during my first six months as a runner, and that was strong motivation to keep going.
If you don’t have kids, and your weight is not a problem, motivation can still be found in other areas. My next tip for beginning runners details one of the things that really helped to keep me going at the beginning of my running life:
Tip #2 – Sign Up for a Road Race
I’m extremely competitive with myself, and one of the things that initially got me running was a deal that my wife and I made to sign up for and run a 4-mile road race on the 4th of July, 2007. When I signed up for the race, I had never run more than about three miles in one go, and four miles seemed like an astronomical increase over that. Signing up for the race and paying money to reserve my spot gave me a goal to train for, and because I’m not a quitter, there was no way I was going to back out. If you’re even the slightest bit competitive (even if just with yourself), signing up for a local 5k is probably one of the best things you can do to motivate yourself to keep running. For me, racing hooked me in a way I never would have anticipated, and running races is one of my prime motivators for training to this day. It also introduced me to a whole “running world” that I didn’t even know existed. In every town there are like-minded people who run crazy distances simply for the fun of it. These people are among the most open and friendly people I have met, and their enthusiasm for running can be infectious. If you want to gain entry into this little slice of the world, start by going to some road races – I guarantee that you won’t regret it. For help finding local road races, check out the race schedules at the Cool Running website.
So lets now assume that you have some source of motivation to get you off of the couch and onto the road or trail. What follows are the lessons I learned from personal experience that I think are the most important to pass on to a beginner who has made the decision to start running.
Tip#3 – Get Appropriate Running Shoes
I can’t emphasize enough how important this tip is. When I say “appropriate” running shoes, this doesn’t mean to head to your local sporting goods store to pick out the coolest shoe in the “running” section. What most people don’t realize is that each of us has a particular type of running gait. The way our legs move, the way our feet hit the ground – each of us is a little bit different. When it comes to running shoes, you want to be sure that you find a pair of shoes that is suitable for your particular gait. How do you do this? The best way is to go to a specialty running store where they will analyze your gait (usually for free) and let you try out a few pairs of shoes by running around the block. Any good running store will do this, and getting the right pair of shoes for your body and gait type will go a long way toward making your transition into running go more smoothly. It will also to help minimize any chance of injury that might arise from making an uniformed choice of the wrong shoe simply because you like the way it looks. Finding the best shoe for you can take some trial-and-error, but it is well-worth the effort.
Tip #4 – Start Slow and Run Short
When you first start running, it is best to begin by running slowly for relatively short distances. Running will be a lot more enjoyable if you don’t overdo it to the point where it becomes hard and starts to hurt. So, consciously and repeatedly tell yourself to slow down. If you need to walk, do it. When you’re out on the road by yourself, nobody is going to care if you take a walk break, and if this helps you to keep running, then it’s worth it to do so. For me, when I used to run sporadically before May 2007, I felt like I wasn’t getting any benefit unless I pushed myself to the limit. This made running unpleasant, and explains in large part why the habit never clicked. By approaching my development as a runner this time around as a long-term process, it became enjoyable, and I eventually got to the point where running harder and longer was a joy rather than a chore. I found that every increase in run distance was a new milestone, and triggered a desire to go even farther. This culminated in my decision to run a marathon in May 2008, one year after I began running, and that was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
Tip #5 – Track Your Effort
If you need help tracking your effort, purchase a heart-rate monitor or a running computer. For beginning runners who own an Ipod Nano, the Nike+ system is a good choice. It’s cheap (<$30), it provides feedback on how far and fast you are running, and it interfaces with an on-line community that can be a great source of support and motivation. If you love data and want more accuracy, look at the Garmin Forerunner series of GPS wristwatches. The latter are more expensive, but they’ll tell you exactly how far you have gone, they provide accurate, real-time pacing data, and the data collected is analyzable in a variety of downloadable software packages (and GPS route maps are really cool…).
Tip #6 – Eat and Drink Appropriately
This probably goes without saying, but fueling and hydrating properly for your runs is critical. If you eat something (even just a Powerbar or similar product) an hour or so before you run, and hydrate well, your runs will be much more pleasant. Starving yourself to lose weight while running is counterproductive and should be avoided at all costs. Your body needs fuel to power your muscles on the run, and it needs fuel to repair any damage that occurs after you run. If you deprive yourself of fuel, your desire to run will fizzle away. One additional note about hydrating – if you run in the summer or in a hot area of the country, be wary of your hydration level. When it’s really hot I generally carry water with me. Sometimes I carry it in hand, sometimes I use a water belt like this, and for longer runs I use a Camelbak hydration pack. Dehydration can be dangerous, and is easily avoided with proper preparation.
Tip #7 – Find Someting to Pass the Time
Some running purists prefer to avoid all electronic devices while running. I however, am a gadget freak, and can’t bear to run without my Ipod Nano attached to my arm (except during races – for that I go without). Listening to good music on a hard run can be incredibly motivational, and there are times when music alone can pull me through a tough patch. For long runs or slower, easier runs I like to download podcasts from Itunes or audiobooks from my local library’s digital audiobook download site. Most library’s offer these digital donwloads now, and although MP3 player compatibility can be an issue at times, there are ways to overcome this and downloads are typically free with a library card. Listening to audiobooks on the run has opened up a whole new world of options for me, and there are times when I’m so engrossed in what I’m listening to while running that it feels almost effortless.
Tip #8 – Run with a Partner
I tend to run solo or with my dog (who is a great running companion by the way), but many runners thrive on running with friends/family/co-workers. Having a partner helps to pass the time, conversation on the run generally forces you to slow down, and having a partner to keep you honest helps to prevent lapses in dedication to the sport.
Tip #9 – Join a Running Club
Most towns/regions support local running clubs. Generally, these clubs cater to people of all levels and abilities, and joining one can be a great source of motivation. Meeting other local runners provides an avenue for learning about new running routes in your area, and they can be rich source of information and advice for beginning runners. Check out the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) for information on finding a local club in your area.
Tip #10 – Join an On-Line Running Forum
On-line forums are a great place to find information and advice on running. There are tons of running forums out there, so finding one to your liking should not be hard. A few examples are the Runner’s World Magazine Forums, the dailymile.com Forums, the Runner+ Forums, and the Cool Running Community Forums. Even if you aren’t an active contributor, reading through the collective knowledge on these forum sites can be incredibly beneficial.
I could probably go on-and-on with tips like those presented here, but I’ll cut it off at 10 for now. Probably the most important pieces of advice I can give to beginning runners are to stick with it and to have fun. As your running progresses, you’ll begin to experience both physical and mental changes that you might never have expected. Running improves the health of your body, but it also can change your mind (it’s a great stress reducer for one thing), and once you’re hooked, there’s no turning back.