10 tips on how to get started running, even if only short distances
On November 1st of 2015 I wrote an article on how to stay in shape enough to run for hours at a time, any time you wanted. A lot of people liked that article, but one friend asked “Fine…but what advice would you give a 50 year old who weighs too much? I don’t want to run for hours at a time: my goal is minutes at a time!”
Running is a common New Year’s resolution, so on January 1st 2016, here are my ten tips:
- Walk before you run. I know that sounds obvious, but this is a critical first step (as it were.) Find an attractive, interesting and safe walking route that is at least five kilometers long. Build up to it if necessary, but begin walking as far as you can at a brisk pace. Your goal is to walk five kilometers per hour, for one hour, three days per week, for one month. Why?
- You are building up some leg and core strength, always good things.
- You may even lose a little bit of weight.
- You are learning your eventual running route.
- You are breaking in your new shoes.
- You are finding out NOW if you have any issues that are going to cause big problems once you start running. Many beginner runners have issues with their gait, feet, hips, knees, alignment and so on. A brisk 5 km walk three times a week will surface any possible issues, and allow you to deal with them now, rather than after you run and escalate them into more serious injuries. I learned I needed orthotics before I started running, and that was a lifesaver.
- Eat exactly the same. Sad but true! Almost everyone who starts walking or running almost immediately begins to think they now burn enough extra calories that they can “treat themselves” to a snack, doughnut, popcorn, or bonus slice of pizza. Nope: your 5 km walks are definitely good for you, do elevate your metabolism, and are burning calories. But as human beings we are terrible at overestimating how many calories we burn and even worse at underestimating how many calories we are rewarding ourselves with. So try as much as possible to eat exactly what you did before.
- Don’t diet, but every pound counts. Most people, inspired by a resolution, try to reduce calories AND start exercising at the same time. It can be done, but in my view it is much easier to focus on one tough thing at a time. So save the diet change until later, just do the brisk walks for that month. If you have followed my advice above, and not increased what you eat, you should be 2-3 pounds lighter. Why does that matter?
- You will feel better about yourself, and less self-conscious. That makes you much more likely to run.
- Weight matters a lot in terms of pace and effort. Every pound less will pay off in better speed, a greater sense of running, and much less sense of plodding or pounding.
- And that’s the big deal: when you start running (as opposed to walking) every pound less…is less pounding! Your legs and feet and knees will thank you. The single biggest reason people abandon running programs is injury, so not getting injured is your #1 goal.
- The right route is a delight. A park is great. Trees, grass, forest. Try to have as much of your route off sidewalks and roads if possible. Driving five minutes to get to the right trailhead is fine. Having a great path will help you get through the days you feel less like running…and will fill your heart with delight on the good days.
- Running shoes: I like them! There are those who believe in barefoot running, and that’s fine. But I am firmly in the camp that thinks that proper running shoes combined with a proper gait (mid-foot strike) are the best of both worlds. If you buy expensive shoes, and then take that cushioning and slam your heels into the ground as hard as you can? I think you will get injured. But at least in my experience, wearing good shoes while running smooth and easy and landing on your mid-foot has allowed me to run 50-80 km per week for years with few injuries. I have had great luck at the Running Room, where they help me pick out the right shoes.
- Everybody looks good in spandex. Get the right size, of course. But wearing proper shorts, shirt and (especially) socks is helpful. You will look better, feel better, and you will not have blood running out of your running shoes, which I think is a bonus. Running in the wrong materials as you sweat can lead to terrible chafing and blisters, so try to get the stuff that breathes right.
- The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la! Yeah, yeah: you are the toughest and most inspired Canadian in history, and you are going to take up running in January in Winnipeg. Remember what I said about trying to diet and start exercising at the same time? This is similar: starting to work out in winter is setting yourself up for failure. Some people can work out on treadmills and good for them. But many can’t stand the damn things (I fall off them!) so why not take advantage of the seasons? Start your month of walking in March or April, and then begin the actual running in April or May. Still not too hot, but do you really need to begin your runs through a foot of snow, or on top of icy paths? Set yourself up for success!
- There is no such thing as running too slowly. There are some people who believe in the run/walk approach (run for nine minutes, walk for one, repeat.) In my experience, the dropout rate on that seems to be very high: I think it encourages people to run too hard, then rest up, then run too hard. That is a good training technique for some, but my own preference is to find a SUSTAINABLE pace and stay in the groove. At first that running pace may be barely faster than your brisk walk, but that’s ok too. Trust me: if you run for five kilometers, no matter how slowly, you will get better, faster and stronger within two weeks. What running goals are you aiming for, at first?
- Same pace, more days per week. Your first goal should be to keep going out for your 5 km route three times per week, and have one of them as a run, and two as walks. Next week should be two runs and one walk. Week three is three runs.
- Now a bit of pace. Your walking pace was 5 km/h, or 12 minutes per kilometer. A very nice long term goal is to run around 10 km/h, or 6 minute kilometers (10 minute miles.) But leave that for a while, and aim for doing your 5 km run in less than 40 minutes. You already may be faster than that, but as long as you are under 8 minutes per kilometer you will feel like you’re on the right track: that is an 80 minute 10K, which almost everybody can run. Some days can be faster and some slower, but try to have one day per week where you are at that pace or better.
- Go long! Never try to increase your running time by more than 10 minutes per week, and at your new pace, that is roughly one kilometer. Each week, add another 10 minutes/one km to your route. By my calculations, if you started this program on March 1, you are now able to run 10 km in less than 80 minutes for three days per week. You can now start thinking about playing with speed, distance or frequency, and do what you want.
- But they are all laughing at me! No, they’re not. Over and over I hear beginner runners thinking that people are mocking them, and they feel self-conscious. It’s not true:
- Other runners are proud of you. We love running, and nothing makes us happier than seeing someone who is not a runner lacing them up and getting out there. We are cheering for you, not tearing you down, even in our minds. That’s not 100% true, of course: I do sometimes think nasty thoughts about runners who are old and fat…and run faster than I do and pass me on the trails! 🙂
- Non-runners don’t think you’re fat. They think they are lazy! They respect that you are on the trails, and wish they had your determination and strength.
- People are looking at you, but nobody is LOOKING at you. We are all monkeys living on the African plain. We evolved to look at any running animal: it could be tasty potential prey, or it could be a predator. So all humans are programmed to snap our heads around when a runner goes through our field of view. This WILL happen to you, so don’t worry about it. Once they have determined you are not about to eat them and their children, they will ignore you completely.
- Water, Gatorade and gels, oh my. As I wrote in my other article, staying hydrated is critically important. That being said, if you are running five km, you probably only need to drink water before you run and once you get home. No need to worry about carrying water with you unless the temperature is well over 20C, or as you go out for longer distances at higher pace. But the bigger issue is sports drinks or gels. As it happens, I can run for three hours without needing either, but some runners do find them useful on runs over two hours. That is their call, but I will tell you now: no beginner runner needs a sports drink or a gel. They are filled with sugar, and you haven’t burned enough calories to need it, nor do you need the electrolytes. Once you start running half marathons you may want them, but as a beginner runner they will only cost you money and prevent you from losing a pound or two.
Why believe me on the above? Because in October of 1989 I weighed 280 pounds. I was only 25, but I looked terrible and was not healthy. I started walking at first, then walked more, then needed orthotics, then got good shoes, then started running, and everything else you read above.
I am sure there are lots of other ways to get into running shape, but this list worked for me. Happy trails!