Drop What You Think You Know
Somewhere along the line society has been given the message that running is bad for us. If you believe that, then don't even attempt running because it will likely be a huge disappointment for you. On the other hand, if you are willing to drop your biases, then you may find joy in the freedom and simplicity of running. The truth is that running is not bad for us, but that we need to learn to run the right way. It sounds silly since running is something we have done since childhood, but the Western world is honestly pretty poor at it (in general). We are overweight, competitive/results-oriented, and surround ourselves with comforts and technologies. None of those things is particularly good for a new runner.
Have Realistic Expectations
Recognize early that you are a new runner and that it will take time to build up. Even if you are in relatively good shape and can run one mile in six to eight minutes, running 20 - 30 miles a week is a very different beast. I would recommend that your first goal be to get out regularly for runs -- at least four days a week. Like any exercise program, your body needs time to get used to the muscles and joints that are used for running. Most people choose a half marathon as their first "big" foray into running, here is a good plan to get your started. There are very few runs in half marathon plan that will require more than an hour of your time, so schedule should not be an excuse. After all, most of us find plenty of time to watch our favorite television programs or play on YouTube for hours on end. Notice that you don't have to have run the entire 13 mile distance before race day. I ran my first half marathon in 1 hour and 50 minutes having never run more than nine miles in my life. Expect the day after race day to hurt a little. All runners are sore after a true "race effort" and many experience a little discomfort as a result of dehydration. But those pains are easily out paced by the satisfaction of achieving such a wonderful goal.
Don't Judge Your Running by Pace
Pace is one area where our results-oriented nature really lets us down. We are somehow wired to believe that if we want to run a race that we must train at that pace. The truth is that most good runners rarely run at their race pace. In fact, you should aim to train at 45 seconds or more slower than race pace. I train at an average of about 2500 miles per year (roughly 50 per week) and I run less than fifteen percent of those miles at race paces. What's more, I have run at least fifty percent of those miles at least one full minute below my race pace. My wife is another good example. She recently ran her first half marathon and beat her goal of two hours (about a 9:05 pace). As her "coach", I can tell you she rarely ran a training run faster than a 9:45 pace. Many of her training runs included taking our dog for a four mile walk/run. And, if I haven't given you enough evidence, I know a super talented runner in her forties that recently set a seven minute personal record (PR) in a marathon by running an 8:15 pace or 3 hours and 38 minutes total. I can tell you that she rarely trains within a minute of that pace. In fact, it's a rare day she carries a GPS device with her to judge pace.
For many of you running a minute slower than race pace may require walking breaks in your runs to slow down and let your body recover. That is just fine! The idea that we need to run every inch while running is misleading and dangerous. Your body needs time to recover periodically and lower your heart rate. Short walking breaks are a great way to do that. I have walked at least a few minutes in my last four marathons. One tip you might hear is to implement a run/walk pattern. For example, walk the first minute of every mile. Another strategy used is to take a short walking break after every 20 or 25 minutes of running. Both are great strategies for new runners. Or just walk when you feel like it. Listen to your body. The occasional walk break means that you can stay fresher, longer and run harder when you run. Eventually you will cover longer distances with no walk breaks.
Instead of judging your running by pace, I suggest you grade yourself on total time, frequency, consistency, and possibly miles covered. Those are much better indications of progress for a new runner. Work to get out four times a week for 30 to 60 minutes. Try to find a good running partner and keep the run at a conversational pace, walking when it feels right or on a predefined interval. As your fitness increases so will your pace and distance covered. Plan for one hard workout a week where you go too fast to talk. In my estimation, one of the worst mistakes a new runner can make is to jump on a treadmill and force a pace they cannot comfortably run. That will inevitably lead to overstriding and leave you prone to a host of injuries.
I know, I know, running uphill sucks and it's hard! But I it is absolutely the best way to learn to run for a variety of reasons. Here are a few of the many benefits of running uphill:
- Cardiovascular fitness - running will tax this fitness like NO OTHER exercise you have ever done. Running uphill will improve your fitness exponentially quicker than most any other type of running workout. Experienced runners know this is a form of speed training that allows you to get faster.
- Running form - many new runners have one or both of the following form problems: leaning backwards and heel striking. Running uphill makes it almost impossible to both of those things because you will fall over backwards!
- Leg strength - hills are great for building quad and glute strength. Most injury-prone runners have poor muscle strength in one or more important areas, so don't be one of those runners.
- Pacing - it is easy to forget about pace when running uphill because your mind knows it is hard and expects to run slower than your goal pace.
Watch What You Eat
I would remiss if I didn't add a bit about eating. Many runners take up running to lose weight. The reality is that exercise alone is rarely your ticket to losing weight. This is definitely true of running. Why? Well studies show that people that run often "reward" themselves with extra calories during the day for their effort. Running for an hour at a moderate pace is unlikely to burn more than about 500 calories for most runners. A couple of extra snacks or a little bigger piece of dessert can quickly erase that hard work. Instead, ask yourself if you want to waste all that hard work by eating a poorly timed meal or dessert? Use the running as motivation to eat better. Yes there will be the occasional craving for a new runner; fill that craving with a filling and low calorie snack like fruits or vegetables. The good news is that running has been shown to be a great tool for managing weight. Once you have worked hard to lose some pounds, use running as a tool to keep it off!
This topic is another that I can relate to personally. I ran my first marathon at 220 pounds. People were amazed that I didn't lose any weight during training. It was simply a matter of eating. Running was an excuse to continue my poor habits and increase them. Before my second marathon, I discovered this flawed thinking and began eating right. I dropped 35 pounds in four months. And, I kept that weight off through the Winter when my weekly running mileage dropped in half. Do yourself a favor and embrace the fact that eating is your ticket to weight control, not exercise. Count your calories for a week. Eat more salads (dressing on the side). Inspect the labels of everything you eat for calories, saturated fat, and sugar. You'll be amazed at how much crap you are being fed in things that pretend to be healthy. And you are likely to discover that you are eating more than you need. Pay attention to when you eat (nutrient timing) as your body utilizes calories differently depending on it's needs.