Everyone has to start somewhere — there’s a beginning for everything and a time when you’re either testing the waters or diving head-on into something new. Running is no different; you have to start somewhere.
When I think back to when I first started running earlier this year, I had some idea of what I was getting into but was still pretty green as far as experience was concerned. I had run a 5K once before and had done a few months of training to lead up to that, but let’s face it — almost anyone can do a 5K. You can even walk a 5K and feel accomplished. But what if you really want to all-out run that 5K, or shoot for greater distances to see just how far you can push yourself?
Here’s a few things to consider when you’re just starting out or thinking about getting into running, some things that I’ve learned along the way or have found worked great for me. Your actual mileage may vary, but I think most of these are worthy considering.
Start out with a simple couch-to-5k program
There are loads of smart phone apps out there with some sort of couch-to-5k program — do it. You’ll start out nice and easy, likely with a 60-second run / 90-second walk interval. You’re not at all concerned with distance for about 2/3 of the training program and it’s all about slowly building up your tolerance for longer runs using intervals. Another common interval that many use is a simple 3:1 interval — three minutes of running and one minute of walking. I often use those intervals for really long runs where I have to keep my pace and effort manageable and where it’s all about long-term endurance and not speed or time.
When I first started out running, I could barely run a half mile. I was winded and the idea of being able to run 3.1 miles (5k) seemed far-fetched. But after a few months of sticking to the plan, I ran my first 5K and did fairly well all things considered. And that’s an important piece to the equation — stick to the plan, even if that means you are still walking part of those runs. Just get out there and make the plan happen! In the end, you’re out there getting your heart rate up, slowly building up your core fitness level, and increasing your endurance. In fact, months will pass after habitual running and one day you’ll suddenly realize, “hey, I’m running further and faster now! And it actually feels great!!”
When you’re getting about a month away from reaching the end of your couch-to-5k training plan, start thinking about another training regiment to continue pushing you forward. For me, I tacked on a couch-to-10k training plan but adjusted it so that I started a few weeks into the 10K plan at the end of my 5K plan, and it worked great. I did the same thing when I was getting close to the end of my 10K training plan with a half marathon training plan and haven’t looked back since.
Run intervals and give yourself rest days
As I mentioned in the previous point, intervals are your friend and they will help you build up your core fitness and endurance level. The paced increase and decrease in your heart rate is actually really good for you, helping build up your heart, making it healthier, and helping your body pump blood and process oxygen more efficiently.
It also must be said that intervals also applies to the days of running and rest. Make sure you have a rest day in between your runs to help your muscles recover from the stress of running. My running schedule usually consists of running on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturday shorter runs, and a long run on Sunday with rest days on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Just because it’s a rest day doesn’t mean you have to sit on your ass either — in fact it’s healthy to throw in some cross training on those off days. I either go for a long ride on my bike, ride on our stationary bike for a half hour, or go for a nice long walk to keep me limber and burning calories.
The importance of a good warm-up and stretch
Warming up is fairly simple — just walk for about ten to fifteen minutes to get your body moving and warmed up. Get the heart pumping, legs moving, and your extremities warmed up and ready to handle a little running. Stretching before-hand is good, but not terribly important just starting out (in my opinion) when you’re only running intervals for 20-30 minutes.
But when you’re done with that run, cool down with a five minute walk and then take time to stretch those legs and help move the lactic acid around that’s built up in your muscles. It’ll help your recovery time and will leave you feeling better faster.
Don’t worry about fancy gels, sports drinks, supplements
You may feel some level of compulsion to try out something like Clif Shot Blocks or some other fancy supplement used to help energize your run, but you really don’t need them when you’re running under 45 minutes or so — many even would go as far as to say an hour or more. Your body will likely have enough carbs and/or fat stores for you to draw upon to help energize your run — even if you’re running first thing in the morning.
When I go for my early morning runs, I might drink a glass of water just to rehydrate, but usually avoid breakfast until after my run. If you find that you need a little something, eat a piece of whole wheat toast with jam or honey about 20-30 minutes before your morning run — but don’t load up. Just keep it light so that you don’t feel like a slug with a full stomach. Been there done that and was totally unnecessary. I’ve even run 60 minutes on an empty stomach — wasn’t the most awesome experience, but it’s doable.
An important note about protein
Although for the shorter runs you really don’t need to worry about fancy gels and supplements, do take the follow-up nutrition a bit more seriously. Now you don’t need fancy protein powders or recovery drinks — though I personally have enjoyed using them, particularly on longer run days — some simple proteins and a banana (for its potassium) will do. Following up with protein helps you build up the muscles that you’ve just been using — some eggs, peanut butter toast, or chicken is a great follow-up to your run. Just remember to eat within your means and don’t gorge yourself. Following up with some good protein will help you recover more quickly and get your body ready to get out there and run again!
Find shoes that are comfortable for your running style and body type
If you’ve got like three or four year old tennis shoes that you’ve used for various activities, you might want to consider just going out and treating yourself to some nice running shoes. New gear has a way of motivating some people — and it does for me. Lacing up those new running shoes for the first time feels slightly invigorating, like a mini Christmas morning and can help increase your motivation level a little.
When you choose shoes, find something that’s right for your body type, fitness level, and your running style. Take inventory of how you run — do you land on your heel first, or do you land towards the mid-sole or front footed? If you run more on your heels, maybe think about a stability shoe with a lot of cushion? Are you a mid-sole or front-footed runner? Think about something lighter? And if you’re heavier like I was when I first started, you’ll want a lot more cushion when you’re landing.
Hoka One One makes a great shoe called the Clifton and that was my shoe of choice when I started upping my mileage. I was about 215 pounds or so when I switched to that shoe and it helped cushion the blow and made increasing my mileage much more tolerable over my old shoes. They’re super light-weight and have a ton of cushion and support for your foot. Your mileage may vary though, you might prefer something else. My wife swears by Asics Gels — they’re her shoe of choice; she prefers the stability and the form factor for how she runs.
When you go shoe shopping, go to an actual running store if you have one near you — the staff can be helpful in finding something that’s right for you. Shoes from Target or Walmart might not be that great of a starting point for you. I liken running shoes to guitars — you grow into the quality of your instrument. Crappy guitar? You’re probably not going to go very far with your guitar playing. Got a great guitar? You will grow into the quality of that guitar if you stay disciplined. Same goes for shoes, I feel. Quality shoes will help your body handle more mileage and faster paces.
Be sure to keep track of your mileage — you’ll want to start thinking about replacing your shoes after 250 miles. If you use a smart phone app like Strava, you can add your shoes as “equipment” and track how many miles you’ve run in those particular shoes. It’s pretty damn slick and appreciate having that notification of when I need to start thinking about new shoes.
Clothing — dressing smart doesn’t have to be expensive
Wicking layers is important for running, less important when you’re basically running/walking for 30 minutes or less. But there is a significant difference between wearing a polyester sports blend and wearing straight up cotton. Cotten gets really heavy, clingy, and doesn’t get rid of sweat very well. In summers you’ll get really hot and all other seasons cold.
Champion makes a line of fitness clothing called C9, and for the most part they’ve been great. You can get them at Target and they’re relatively affordable. If this is something you want to stick with and make a part of your routine — and it has become that way for me — then don’t be afraid to treat yourself to something nice once in a while. I’ve found great running pants and shirts at REI on clearance, and they’re some of my favorite clothes to run in — not just because I think they look great, but they also feel much different (better) than all of my C9 gear.
An important note about socks
Starting out, its fine to have cotton shirts and shorts/pants, but socks — socks are where you want to spend a little money and do it right, much like you will want to do with shoes.
For shorter mileage — running less than 45 minutes — you’re fine with C9 or other poly-blend fitness socks. They help keep moisture away from your feet and aren’t the moisture magnets that full-on cotton socks are. So to that end, they’ll be fine when you’re just getting started out. But when you start increasing your running time and distance beyond 45 minutes, you will want to start exploring different sock options. In my opinion, Champion C9 socks are poorly designed. They have contributed to blisters in my toes and in odd places on my feet.
— BEER and BIKES (@beerandbikesmn) October 6, 2015
On a personal note, my feet are just all-out stupid — I want to use a different non-politically-correct word for them, but I’m sure some people would get all bent out of shape for me using it. But really, they’re stupid. My toes overlap significantly and are severely prone to blistering with prolonged activity. I have used Dr. Scholl’s moleskin tape to help prevent blistering, and for the most part it helped when I started running in excess of four or five miles. But the longer I ran, the greater the chance that the tape would eventually slip from getting wet from sweat or in rainy conditions.
So I found out about Injinji toe-socks and finally bought a few pair earlier this fall and haven’t looked back. They’re breathable, give my toes the room they need, and protect them from the kind of blistering that comes from them rubbing up against one another. Will they protect me from all blisters — the kind from really long distance running? That has yet to be seen, and will be put to the test next spring and summer when I start training for my first marathon.
The only down side to the toe-socks is that when it starts to get colder out, your toes do get a little bit colder from being isolated away from each other — much like you’d experience in gloves vs. mittens. But it’s tolerable.
Make it fun and your new normal
This is my last piece of advice for those considering getting back into running or trying it out for the first time — make it fun and make it your new normal.
First of all it has to be fun, and if it’s not fun you’re not going to stick with it. You’ll give up running like I have a few times now. So make it fun — and that’s going to be different for everyone. Maybe think about setting a goal for yourself, like registering for a 5K race to put a little pressure on. Or think about running with a friend that doesn’t mind running a slower pace with you — make it a chance to hang out and talk while running/walking. Or if you need some entertainment to keep your mind occupied, think about the Zombies! Run app or listening to your favorite podcast or music while you run. Anything to help you get past the initial mental hurdle of running. Eventually you may find yourself enjoying running without those extra aids.
For me, I run for two fundamental reasons, motivators that run deep for me — and that has seemed to help make it stick better than just mildly entertaining myself with podcasts or fun running apps. Running is about two things for me: staving off depression with the endorphin-boosting benefits that come from running, and building up my core fitness level to help contribute towards my goal of getting down to a healthy weight and body mass index. While a majority of weight loss simply comes from eating less (and right), becoming more active significantly helps in the fat-burning department. To date, I have lost almost 40 pounds from staying within my caloric budget (using MyFitnessPal) and actively running and biking throughout the week.
Those two reasons for running are my driving factors behind why I run, and what makes it stick is that I have made the fundamental decision that this is my new normal. This is not a trend, this is not some fad that I’m trying out, and this isn’t something that I’m just doing to reach a goal and then stop. No, this is something that I’ve decided that will become a regular part of my weekly schedule. I go running every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday morning — it’s just what I do; and when I don’t, I feel awful! I also try to go biking every Wednesday evening and one or two other times during the week/end as well for added cross training benefit. And that is my new normal. It’s my discipline. I’m not relying upon being motivated to do something, I’ve just decided that this is what I have to do to maintain my two goals: to fight off depression and weight gain, and to stay healthy both physically and mentally. Motivation is fickle and fleeting — discipline and routine is not.
But still have fun with it. It really can be fun! Running is freedom!
Post-script: this isn’t the competition you think it is
After posting this, there was one thought that came to me and felt it important to include in the list.
Summed up in a phrase: you’re not racing against anyone else but yourself. Don’t sweat it when it feels like everyone is running faster and further than you. For me, I found the mental game of comparing myself to other runners was constant! I would routinely struggle with thoughts like — oh god, I’m so slow… I’m so fat that I’ll never be able to run as fast as them…. or I’m sure they think I’m such a slow-poke as that runner comes screaming on by me while I slog along like an overweight clydesdale with horseshoes made of three-foot-thick iron.
The only person you ever need compare yourself to is that one that started out before you got your ass off the couch. And for me, it’s the same. I’m not racing against other runners, I’m not trying to out-run the competition, and I’m not trying to be faster within my age and weight range. I just want to keep getting better, faster, and stronger than that lazy slug version of me that was stuck on the couch back in February of 2015.
Last week I finally ran 12 miles — old me couldn’t even run 12 minutes. The greater that chasm grows, the more accomplished I feel. By contrast, if I start comparing myself to other runners, I am just asking for an onslaught of negative thoughts and feelings, self-loathing, and discouragement.
Improve yourself — that is your only basis of comparison that you ever need concern yourself with. And if that means that you’re reveling in the fact that you’re no longer running 14.5-minute miles and are now down to 13.5-minute miles, that’s fantastic! You’re improving and beating the old you. That is all you ever need concern yourself with.
Now get out there and make it happen!