Distance Running for the Never-Runner: A Comprehensive Plan of Attack

Ancient Greek runners pictured on vase
Hey, it was a long way to Marathon for the Greeks, too.

Maybe you’ve always wanted to cross the finish line of a marathon, or you look guiltily at the running shoes under your bed that your boyfriend bought you as you get dressed in the morning, but for whatever reason, you’ve always wanted to be a runner. Unfortunately, the concept always seemed so daunting and out of character for you.  Now is as good a time as any to step back and take a look at that worthy goal anew.  Running can be an abundantly enjoyable, healthy, and stress-relieving passion if you follow some basic steps to get started.  I’ve been running seriously for only about five months now and just finished my first half-marathon, but I’ve dabbled with it on and off for three or four years, and I have been able to distill some key tenets for success.

First Things First – Get the Right Equipment

It’s a commonly-held myth that running has to be arduous and painful, but that’s simply not the case.  Most novice runners just start running without properly preparing, and this can lead to unnecessary soreness and discomfort, which can then lead to quitting soon after starting.

There is an ongoing debate about what role running shoes play in injury prevention.  Some academics have argued that there is evidence to suggest that running shoes have little or no effect on injury prevention.  On the Australian blog “Barefoot vs. the Shoe” the author goes so far as to pose the question, “Is there a running shoe mafia?This fantastically thorough article even alleges that “Runners wearing top-of-the-line trainers are 123 per cent more likely to get injured than runners in cheap ones.” In a later post I’ll document my experience with the Nike Free, a new type of running shoe designed to simulate barefoot running.  Vibram shoes utilize the same concept, with a much more authentic look.

For the time being, until there is more science to show what kind of shoes you should be running with, it’s probably best just to go to your nearest running store and getting fitted for a medium-quality running shoe – cross-trainers or basketball shoes won’t cut it. A good store should have you run on a treadmill and evaluate your pronation, i.e. whether you run on the insides or outsides of your feet. Also, the simple fact of investing in something you use only for running will remind you of your commitment to start.

But another key piece of equipment that most beginners don’t think about is clothing.  The type of clothing you wear is crucial to how comfortable you’ll feel running.  You’re already going to be sweating, so you might as well choose clothing that won’t soak it up.  Invest in a couple of sets of running clothing that are “moisture-wicking,” meaning they don’t hold on to your sweat like a sponge.  This is great for a few reasons:

  1. Running in sopping wet clothing is disgusting
  2. In the summer this will keep you cooler
  3. In the winter this will keep you warmer
  4. Less sweat spots so you look sexier while running

A running wardrobe should consist of tops for cold and warm weather, shorts or pants, and underwear, as well as a hat and gloves for cold weather.  Running underwear is key, not just for the moisture-wicking component, but also because it fits more comfortably and can prevent chafing on long runs.  Just ask any long-distance runner – chafing isn’t fun. Ladies, you”ll also want to invest in a sports bra, as I’m told it’s similarly crucial.

Finally, if you like to listen to music, pick yourself up an iPod Shuffle or similar MP3 player.  I don’t always run with one, but especially when your starting out it can keep you focused on moving forward and not on the initial discomfort of running. The science behind music as motivation has been well-documented.

Design a Beginner’s Routine that Makes Sense

I used to work as an ACE-certified personal trainer and time and time again, I saw burgeoning fitness nuts waylaid by increasing the intensity or duration of their workouts too rapidly.  Especially if you’re new to a regular running routine, you need to give your body more time than you think it needs to adapt. When I first started, I found great success in alternating jogging and walking during the first month or two, in order to allow my body to get used to running.  This made me happier and more comfortable while running, and kept soreness to a minimum.

As I got more confident as a runner, I started to shorten the length of my walking periods.  It’s easy to keep track of whether you’re ready to run or walk by using something like the Perceived Level of Exertion Scale, which allows you to rate how hard the exercise is.  If you’re nearer the top of the scale, slow down, if you’re closer to the bottom, speed up (you may want to consider using a more sensible number range, like 1-19, rather than 6-20).  In the beginning, it’s not a good idea to make goals like, “I’m going to run 3 miles today.” Much more effective is to say, “I’m going to run for 20 minutes today, and take walking breaks when I need to.” Performance-driven goals can push you too far too fast in the beginning.

Build Up Your Runs in an Organized Way

After beginning a regular running program, you’ll eventually start feeling the “runner’s high,” an endorphin release that happens once you get warmed up and into slightly longer runs.  This euphoric release can often spur you to run faster or farther than your body is actually ready to, so after you’ve gotten some experience under your belt, start planning small incremental increases in speed or distance by writing out a schedule. Initial schedules should only entail three days of running a week, but as you scale up you can add one or two more.  Only increase the total number of miles you run per week by 5-10% at a time for optimal improvement.  More and you risk injury or frustration, less and you’ll see no progress.

Moreover, even as your muscles strengthen and feel ready for the new challenge, your connective tissue is usually one to two weeks behind the curve.  This could be a contributing factor behind joint injuries, as it’s easy to overtrain because your muscles are ready but your ligaments and tendons are not. Be careful to pace yourself mathematically as you scale up to resist the temptation to overexert yourself.

Once you get into distance running, i.e. more than 3 miles at at a time, it’s a terrific idea to find a running buddy, or to join a local running club.  Long runs by yourself can be meditative, but they can also be incredibly boring if you’re not feeling all that motivated that day. Not to mention, it’s easier to keep a good pace when you can chat with a partner.  You should be able to hold a conversation during long runs, but not sing.  If you can sing, you’re not working hard enough, if you can’t hold a conversation, slow down.

Finally, never set standards that quantify you as either being lazy or sticking to your program.  Black and white metrics for success don’t motivate. The most important thing in starting to run is just to get out the door.  If you can get out the door, chances are you’re going to make progress.  If you don’t have time for the long run you had planned, go out and do a short one.  Small runs here and there will get you more excited about the longer ones, and one step closer to developing a real passion for the sport.  And when you reach that runner’s high it be all the more rewarding because you got there safely.

2 thoughts on “Distance Running for the Never-Runner: A Comprehensive Plan of Attack”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>