Back to Fitness: Advice to the New Runners

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Photo: Kristen Hardy

I remember what it was like to “not be a runner” because I used to not be a runner. I never ran in high school or college, and I questioned the sanity of my few friends who did such things. Running was something we did while playing sports or being chased.

It was only when I was about to turn 30 and Michelle and I were expecting our first child that I started to use running as my regular exercise. I had fallen into a rut health-wise and I had a revelation that I was not going to be an out-of-shape dad. When this child was 18 years old, I wanted to be able to go out for runs, hikes, bikes, or whatever with him without being limited by a lack of fitness. I realized that goal started right then and there. It wasn’t going to simply come to me, I had to get out there and make the change.

I remember even thinking about the Charlottesville 10-miler. Who would run that far? Now, a decade later, I have somehow become a long-distance runner. How did this happen?

Trial and error. Tons of mistakes. Lots of time. An open mind. Patience. Desire. Commitment. And I’m still learning.

I often give newer runners who come into the store advice. Sometimes they see this advice as coming from someone who runs all the time and who has always run. But nope, I used to be a total noob too.

So, for this month’s column, here’s advice that I wish I could’ve given myself a decade ago.

Go slow! I had zero idea how to pace myself. I used to think that when I was running, I was working out, so the harder the better! I would struggle up every hill and finish every run pretty much out of breath with my hands on my knees. I was excited about gaining fitness and enjoyed being able to push myself. If I could go back, I would tell my younger self, “You’re doing it all wrong!”

Nowadays, I have learned the art and the benefit of taking it easy. It’s all about building a good aerobic base–getting your body more efficient at running, using less energy and with less impact. When all your runs are hard and short, you’re putting a lot of stress on your body and not getting as much aerobic benefit as if you went longer and slower. I am much more fit and much faster now at 41 than I was at 30, mostly because I take it easy on most of my runs. I could write a whole column on the benefits of low heart rate training, but as the ultrarunner says to the new runner: go slow!

Forget pace! I got my first ever smartphone about the same time I started running regularly. Naturally, I got an app and I would carry the phone every time I ran. At every mile, a friendly woman’s voice would chime and tell me my pace. It’s quite impossible to ignore the pace part when a voice or a watch is right there telling you. You can’t help comparing yourself to your self from last week, and also to the entire running world. If I could go back, I would smash that smartphone!

Pace is a terrible metric to pay attention to for the newer runner. Instead, you should only pay attention to your perceived effort. The reason is simple. Sometimes, a 20-minute mile pace is great (going up a steep mountain). In other words, your pace is going to change depending not only on the terrain you’re running, but also on the type of day you’re having. Hills. Lack of sleep. A cold. An injury. Life stress. All these things will affect your pace. Start each run with a purposeful effort level that you intend to run, and as a newer runner, most your runs should be EASY. Yes, leave your house saying, “I’m going to run X-miles EASY, however long that takes me and whatever pace that is.” Over time, you will see your running get faster naturally. Running your regular runs too fast and too hard is the number one mistake newer runners make. It stresses your body and leads to injury and a lack of motivation. Pay attention to elapsed time and miles.

Nail your form. I never gave any thought about my running form. I ran how I ran, right? Isn’t your running form just an intrinsic characteristic of who you are? Nope! Not paying attention to your running form is a huge mistake. If I could go back, I would talk to my noobie running self about proper running form on day one. It would have saved a lot of injury problems! We need to learn how to run as efficiently as possible, meaning with the least amount of impact and with the least amount of muscle! Yes, please! And its relatively easy. About 80 percent of newer runners could make running much easier if they would learn some simple form cues that are easy. Most kids naturally run like this, but after years of school, work, driving, sitting, etc., we have forgotten how to be springy and efficient runners.

You can’t eat whatever you want. Running does not lead to weight loss. Sad, isn’t it? But it’s true. Only a healthy, appropriate diet can lead to weight loss. Running makes you healthier and helps weight loss occur, but you can’t outrun a bad diet. Most distance runners pay attention to their diet because they don’t want extra weight; it slows you down and increases impact. I don’t know many long-distance runners that don’t eat pretty healthy.

Get a headlamp. It took me years to finally take advantage of 5 a.m. Here’s the reality: we’re all busy. You’ve got to make fitness a priority. Especially when you have a demanding job and kids. Get yourself a nice headlamp and set the coffee pot for 4:30 a.m.! A good headlamp makes you way more visible than reflective clothing, and helps you see those tricky curbs. I used to run in dark without a headlamp, and that was both difficult and stupid.

Be patient. Don’t rush fitness. Don’t worry that you’re getting older. Don’t worry about getting this many miles in this week. Take it easy. Be patient. Running takes endurance, both physically, and mentally. Stay consistent and fitness will come.

Sky is the limit. I never had a goal of running a marathon when I first started running. In fact, I was adamantly opposed to the idea. But more experience and success in running will change your tune. Don’t ever put limits on yourself, both in what you think you can do but also what you think you will want to do. One of the most exciting things about running is finding out just how much of an athlete there is hiding inside of you.

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