Spring has finally sprung and my fellow seasonal runners have come out to play. Yay! To me, there’s no exercise better than lacing up my running shoes and heading out for a run on a gorgeous day. It’s as much mental as it is physical – a time to clear my mind or day dream (depending on my mood), and get a great cardiovascular workout that can easily be adjusted based on how my body feels – shorter, longer, faster, slower, hills, speed-play…there are so many possibilities (and to think I once thought running was boring!).
If you asked teenage me if I’d ever call myself a “runner”, the answer would have been “helllllls no!” Though I was always an active kid and played soccer (ummm…that requires running – but it’s different!) and basketball (again…different kind of running) well into my teens, just going out for a run was never my thing. Heck, I didn’t even realize I was supposed to be doing things like running as a form of conditioning during the off season and between practices and games – nobody told me, so how was I supposed to know? Anyway, I dabbled in a couple of 5Ks (3.1 miles) in college when I took more interest in my physical fitness beyond simply playing sports. They were always tough, and I didn’t exactly train, but I was young and fit enough to get through them.
Then, when I moved to New York after college – totally out of my comfort zone and trying to make new friends in the big bad city – I decided to volunteer with the American Cancer Society’s Charity Runner program (now called DetermiNation). My original intention was to use my nutrition knowledge to simply educate the endurance athletes (many of whom had never run races in their lives) on how to fuel and recover, not to actually become one of them. But, I remember at the first meeting a guy talking about going through chemo and training for a marathon at the same time – INSANE! I was totally impressed but also left feeling like…”shit, if he can do it, I have no excuse!” That night, I signed up for my first half marathon (13.1 miles) – and then totally freaked out. Was I crazy? What was I thinking? Luckily, I managed to convince a fellow nutrition student to sign up with me (accountability! we would wake each other up for 5:00am speed work every Tuesday – whaaaaat!?) and the program provided excellent coaching. Before I knew it, I was making lifelong friends, and with each mile, I was training my body to do something I never thought it could do. At mile 5 of that half marathon, a woman ran up to my friend and I (wearing our American Cancer Society singlets), and told us she was a cancer survivor and thanked us for running – the race wasn’t even over and I knew I’d be signing up for another one. Not only was I doing something good for me that I actually liked doing, but I was raising money to help make a difference in a cause I believe in – talk about motivation!
Now, seven years later, I call myself a runner. I find myself putting the word “only” in front of things like 10K (6.2 miles) and calling 4 miles “easy” (seriously…who am I?!). I never thought running would become such a big part of my life – that my friends and I would catch up over a run instead of coffee or a beer (though we do that too!); that I’d need to run in order to feel like a normal person after my son was born; that I’d plan nights out based on how far I’d need to run the next morning; that when people ask about my hobbies, “I’m a runner” is the first thing that comes out of my mouth; and the list goes on…
When I see new runners in the park or running down the street, or hear about friends and family signing up for races (my little sister just signed up for a 5K – I’m so proud!), I get super excited and automatically want to dump all my running knowledge on them. Don’t worry, I refrain myself as much as possible to not overwhelm them. I have all this advice just built up, waiting to explode out of my mouth, so here goes…if you’re a new runner or thinking about signing up for a race, here are a few things I learned along my journey – I hope it helps you catch the running bug like I did 🙂
Find a training plan.
As a beginner runner, I had no idea what a training plan was or why you needed one. A training plan provides you with suggested distances to run – typically, beginner plans include 3-4 days of running each week, slowly building up your mileage over time to prepare you for race day. Depending on the race distance you’re running, training plans typically last anywhere from 6 weeks to 20 weeks. Training plans are great because they allow you to break up your bigger goal into smaller mini-goals – this way you can see the progress you make instead of being overwhelmed by the final distance.
If you sign up to run with a group, chances are they have a training plan you can follow, but do some research and find one that fits your abilities. I’ve heard great things about Couch to 5K, Runner’s World is a great resource, and I personally love Hal Higdon’s training plans.
It doesn’t matter how fast you go!
Start with whatever is comfortable for you. It may be a run-walk, it may be a slow jog, or you may already have the baseline physical fitness to start off at a healthy trot – whatever it is, the important thing is to keep moving forward.
All distances count.
Whether your goal is to complete a 5K or to run a marathon, pick a distance that allows you to push yourself, but doesn’t feel out of reach. You may start with a 5K and build up to a 10K, then a half marathon, then a marathon… you get the idea. Or you may realize that you really like 10Ks or [insert other distance here] and stick with just those. Heck, I was so excited the first time I ran a mile non-stop. If you run, no matter what distance, then you’re a runner!
Get the right shoes.
You don’t need super expensive fancy running shoes, but you do need a pair of sneakers that you find comfortable for running. My advice is to go to a running store where they watch you run and help you determine what pair is best for you. Many stores even allow you to run in what you buy and bring them back if they didn’t feel right.
Wear comfy clothes.
Yes, you can pretty much run in anything (I’ve seen guys in cargo khakis running down the river walk), but some things are going to be much more comfortable than others. There are plenty of workout clothes out there – tights, shorts, spandex, tanks, t-shirts, fancy strappy things, skorts, etc. It may take some experimenting to figure out what you like best (we all have our opinions), but start with what you’ve got and test out different run wear. And, ladies, PLEASE get fitted for the right sports bra – more bouncing means you’ll need more support than you would in a yoga class so you’ll need the right bra to keep the gals happy. I didn’t realize how important this was until after giving birth to my son (I actually had boobs for a few months!) – the right bra makes a world of difference.
Soreness is ok. Pain is not.
If you’re sore after a run, that’s totally normal. Stretch what needs to be stretched. Take an ice bath if that makes you feel good. Make the next day a rest day or opt for a lighter mode of exercise. But, if you feel actual pain – a tweak in your knee, a sharp jolt in your ankle…get it checked out. It may just require some rest, a little bit of TLC, an adjustment to your running form, or it could be the beginning for a more serious injury.
Make friends with the foam roller.
Foam. Roll. Foam roll. Foam roll! I had no idea what this seemingly innocent device was until muscles started getting tight and injuries started popping up. It’s essentially a self-massage device that helps relieve muscle tightness. It certainly isn’t the most pleasant feeling in the world, but for those of us who don’t have an on-call masseuse, it’s something you’ll want to learn how to use. Many gyms already have a few so if you’re a member, take advantage, but they’re relatively in-expensive so it’s something you can keep at home and use while watching TV.
Eat to energize.
Eating well is important whether you’re a runner or not, but you’ll soon realize that what and when you eat makes a big difference when you do lace up your sneakers and head out. This may take some trial and error, but generally, running on an empty tank or a full stomach does not make for an enjoyable run, so aim for a light snack 1-2 hours before your planned run, or at least allow 2-3 hours of digestion time after a meal. I could go on and on about this topic, but I’ll save that for another post.
Within 45 minutes of finishing your run, grab a snack or meal with protein (milk, poultry, fish, tofu, beans, nuts, etc.) and carbohydrates (fruit, bread, pasta, cereal, etc.). The protein will help repair and rebuild tiny tears in your muscles (it’s a natural process that happens with heavy training) so you’ll stay healthy and get stronger. The carbohydrates help restore glycogen (fuel stored by your liver and muscles) so you’ll have energy for your next workout. If your next meal is within 45 minutes of finishing your workout, that will be your recovery meal. But, if it’s 10am and lunchtime isn’t until 1pm, grab a snack – chocolate milk is my favorite, but a smoothie, cheese and crackers, or trail mix work well to.
Make sure you’re having fun!
Whether it’s listening to music you enjoy, exploring a new part of town, chatting with a pal while you jog, finding a trail (ah! the smell of nature…), or whatever makes running enjoyable to you, do it! If you’re not enjoying yourself, chances are you won’t keep doing it – and you shouldn’t! But before you decide you absolutely hate it, give it a shot – see what could make it more fun for you and if that doesn’t work, find another way to get active.