Saturday, December 27, 2014

So you want to be a runner...

I'm not really one for new year's resolutions (because I find that my goals and wishes change throughout the year anyway), but of course, along with everyone else in the universe, I do want to be in better shape. Not to have a "hot bod" or whatever, but to be more fit, to be a better athlete.

Whatever the motive, it's a pretty popular goal every January, right? I used to devour fitness magazines by the dozen, and this is the time of year where every single media outlet puts in their two cents about getting fit. If I had a dollar for every time I saw the phrase "new year, new you," I could probably buy myself a new treadmill.

These days, there are TONS of fitness options out there, but it seems like, almost universally, when people talk about getting fit, they start to follow it up with "I should start running" or something like that. And while I totally applaud that, I also have to fight really hard to resist the urge to start dishing out caveats, because while running CAN be as easy as "Lace up and go," there are some things you'll want to consider first. Running is beautiful in its simplicity and in the fact that humans in general were meant to run - it's already in us to be able to run, unlike skating or pitching or dribbling, which require a lot of practice and drilling before you build up the muscle memory. If you can walk, then you can run. In that sense, it's a GREAT way to get fit. But it's also extremely common to take the universality of running for granted and get started on the wrong foot, so to speak. So this is why I'm here.

Look, I'm not an elite runner. I'm also not a medical expert. I'm really just... a regular person. In fact, I'm a mother with a demanding full-time job, and I've been an overweight, unathletic book nerd my entire life. (Well, I'm still overweight. I'm still a book nerd too.)

But... I do have, among other things, 3 full marathons and 28 half marathons under my belt. I know a TON about being a slow, fat runner with a really busy life, one who has had to start from zero so many times, unremarkable on paper but remarkably passionate about this sport that I participate in. And I'm here to offer you some tips, in case you're thinking about getting into running (or back into running) for the new year.

(Before I begin though, let me issue the usual "check with your physician" warning. Make sure that you can actually do this. If you have medical issues that running would only exacerbate, then maybe you should consider a different activity.)


1. Before you run, get some gear.


Running is interesting in the sense that it can be remarkably simple and inexpensive for people who need it to be, and at the same time, it can be the type of sport where people spare no expense. Between race registration fees, GPS watches, hydration systems, traveling expenses, etc, running can get outrageously pricey - but on the other hand, all you really need to run is two good legs.

In my opinion, you do need a few things before you get started. If you're getting into running to do something good for your body, then you also want to make sure that you are taking the proper precautions to protect your body while you are running. If you are planning to get serious about running, here's what you need to invest in, bare minimum:

Properly-fitted running shoes. Go to a running specialty store (like Fleet Feet Sports or Road Runner Sports) and have an expert find you some shoes that are right for you. Usually they will watch you run on a treadmill and analyze your gait to find you the right shoes based on your biomechanics. Running in the wrong shoes can cause all sorts of pain, in various places, because everything in your body is interconnected, so do yourself a favor and invest in a proper pair of shoes that are fitted to you. PS - I know it's popular to run in minimalist shoes, and I understand the philosophy behind it, but I honestly don't believe it's for everyone. It might be for you, but on the other hand, it might hurt you. Make sure, above all things, that you are doing what's right for your body.

Also, by the way, invest in some non-cotton running socks. You can try the fancy expensive ones at your running store, or you can buy the 8-dollar pack of Champion socks from Target. (That's what I run in most of the time.) Whatever you do, don't wear cotton socks (or cotton anything) when you run - cotton doesn't wick away sweat very well, and this can lead to chafing and blisters.

Properly-fitted running bras (if you need one). Never is chest support more important than when you're bouncing up and down. Whatever size your chest is, make sure you're wearing the right running bra, and that it's meant to support high-impact activity. The bra I wear to yoga is definitely not the same bra I wear running. Do the jumping-up-and-down thing in the fitting room. (Don't worry, the sales associates are used to it. When I used to work for Lucy, I totally recommended that my clients do that.) Also, take into consideration the fact that you will have to wriggle out of that thing while sweaty - for that reason, I prefer bras that fasten rather than ones that go over my head, but you know, your mileage may vary. If you're particularly large-busted, I highly recommend bras from Moving Comfort (and they're available through lots of different retailers).

As far as necessities go, that's all I can think of. Regarding apparel, I've seen people run in all sorts of things - from basic sweats to technical fabric to absolutely nothing at all (*waves at Bay to Breakers*). As far as things that are nice to have (but not necessary), here's what I recommend (and these are mostly applicable to outside running and not treadmill running):

- Body Glide or Sport Shield. If you have lots of body parts that rub, either of these will help prevent chafing.

- A running watch (with GPS or without) or downloading apps for your phone. I have an ancient Garmin Forerunner 205 that has stood me in good stead for years, as well as a newer Forerunner 10 and a Bia Sport. If you'd rather make use of your phone's GPS capabilities instead and you don't mind carrying it around, a lot of people I know really like using Map My Run. FWIW, I like using my run/walk interval timer on my watch. It's my most-used function.

- Speaking of carrying things, I sometimes wear a SPIbelt to carry my phone, keys, and ID.

- Speaking of ID, stay safe by wearing a Road ID tag, in case something should happen to you while you're out running.

Again, running can be totally simple and minimal, or it can be the most gear-happy sport ever. It's kinda up to you :) Personally, I find that having new toys to play with or new tops to wear can help motivate me to run.

2. Now get moving.

Runner/writer John "The Penguin" Bingham famously once said, “If you run, you are a runner. It doesn't matter how fast or how far. It doesn't matter if today is your first day or if you've been running for twenty years. There is no test to pass, no license to earn, no membership card to get. You just run.”

I absolutely agree with this. You don't have to be able to run ten miles straight to be a runner. You don't have to complete a marathon (or any races at all) to be a runner. You don't have to run a 6-minute mile to be a runner. If you run any at all, then you are a runner.

There is one technical difference between running and walking, and it's not the speed. (I can't tell you how many times I've been running in a race and I've been passed by someone who is race-walking.) The actual difference is that when you walk, you always have at least one foot touching the ground at all times, and you're stepping from foot to foot. When you run, you're jumping from foot to foot, which means that at certain points, you've got both feet off the ground.

That's it. It's not about the speed. I used to run 13:00 miles, and race-walkers can go as fast as 12:00 per mile (or even faster), so it's not a matter of speed. There's no shame in walking, and in fact, taking walk breaks helps your body last longer through a run. Running coach Jeff Galloway swears by run/walk intervals, and so do I, whether you're using it as a stepping stone to being able to run long distances non-stop, or whether you're using it as an actual run strategy.

If you're new to running, that's where I recommend that you start. Don't expect to bolt out the door for five straight miles, especially if you haven't worked out much in any capacity recently. I highly, highly recommend a Walk to Run program such as this one from Runner's World or the hugely successful Couch to 5k program.

While you run: Take it easy when you run. The "talk test" is a good rule of thumb - you should be running slow enough that you could talk a little bit as you run. Not a long-winded conversation, but you should be able to get through a sentence or two at a time without dying. And I know what you're thinking - there was a time when I was like, "Talk test? If I run any slower, I'd be walking." And you know what? That might be true. You might have to spend more time walking than running at first, and that's totally okay. Just keep sticking to it. Your fitness will improve, and you will be able to start running more and more. You're in it for the long haul, so keep an eye on the big picture.

As you run, try to keep your breathing rhythmic. Again, this may require you to run slower/walk more. I think I time my breathing with my steps, but that would require that you run to a rhythm too (which isn't a bad idea, actually) - sometimes I chant a short mantra in my head to help keep myself in rhythm. Again, figure out what works for you - whatever you do, make it purposeful and deliberate. You are in control of your running. There is no god or law that says that you have to sprint until you're dying. Do what works for you, right now, at your current ability level.


Also while you're running, drink water. You don't have to guzzle down a ton, and you can definitely google recommendations for how much to drink, but I generally like to take a sip every few minutes or so (it usually times out well with my walk breaks) to keep my mouth and throat from drying out. Some people can run a few miles without drinking anything at all, so, again, depends what's right for your body. I recommend drinking though - carry a water bottle with you, or plan your route around water fountains. Hydrate while you're not running as well.

Running form: There is lots of information out there about proper form while you're running, and you can definitely look up that information, but the few tips I can give right now are:

1) Stay loose. Don't tense up. Stay relaxed while you run.
2) Run pretty. Visualize good form in your head while you run. When you think of the ultimate runner, they're not flailing their limbs and they're not hunched over. They leap from foot to foot with grace - they're not hulking out and cracking the pavement when they land.
3) Be present. Be in tune with your body. I know lots of people like to listen to music when they run because it helps them tune out (and I definitely do this on the treadmill), but I definitely recommend taking some time to be body-aware while you run.

It might be hard, but it shouldn't hurt. Some pains ease up as you run, as your body goes through the process of warming up and adapting. But sometimes it doesn't. If it doesn't, then walk it out.

3. Don't run too much.

Especially if you're new, take some rest days. You don't have to run every day to be a runner. Rest days are when your body heals and progress is made, so if you overwork your body, you're going to be more prone to burnout and injury. Rest is as important to running as running.

This doesn't mean that you have to be total idle (although you could). You could use those days off from running to do other physical activity such as swimming, biking, yoga, weight lifting, or even just walking.

And as I said earlier, be body-aware. If there's something wrong with your body, don't try to be a hero and push through it anyway just to get a run in. Trust me on this one. Take care of your body, and it will take care of you.

4. Keep at it!

This is the hardest part - staying motivated. Very few people stick to their new year's resolutions in the long run. How can you make sure to stick to running?

I'll be the first to say that I don't have the perfect track record when it comes to motivation. I have gone long stretches without running, but I always come back to it somehow, and it's really just because I love running and I love the running community. Here are some motivational tips that work for me:

Sign up for races. I know, I said earlier that you don't have to sign up for races to be a real runner, but races are GREAT for keeping you motivated because 1) you have an end goal to shoot for, and 2) you're financially invested, and there are no returns. I totally, absolutely have a hard time running regularly when I don't have a race to train for, which is why I constantly sign up for races - they help keep me honest. And seriously, there is nothing like race-day excitement. I could easily run a 5k on my own (at my trail or on my treadmill), but there is just something about lining up with other people and hearing the metaphorical gun go off and seeing other people of all levels running the same race and then crossing the finish line.

Katherine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, once said, "If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon." I honestly think this is true for ANY distance race. From the other runners, to the volunteers, to the spectators, races are this wonderful little bubble of hope and positivity and achievement.

When choosing a race though, make sure it's one you can reasonably finish. I definitely maintain that if you can run a mile, you can run a marathon, but it's probably not smart to pick a marathon two months out from your first day of running. Research training plans, check the distance/elevation, course finishing times, race size (how many people), etc, and then have at it! And hey, there's no shame in picking a race for its awesome bling. Medals and t-shirts are a great motivator :)

Surround yourself with other runners. Running is a popular activity. Chances are, you know a lot of runners (like me!). A lot of my friends have become runners, and a lot of runners have become my friends :) I'm also a member of many online groups for runners (I even moderate one on Ravelry.com), and therefore my social media feeds are chock full of people's posts about their workouts and races, from total newbie runners to veteran ultrarunners, and it helps keep me going. This is also how I find out about races, by the way.

Find yourself a cheerleader. It doesn't have to be another runner (although that helps), but find someone who understands and supports your goals and won't let you take the easy way out. This person should be the person you text when you're feeling lazy, and they'll text you back with "Go! You'll regret it if you don't!" Or they'll tell you to stop being insane and take a rest day when you have the stomach flu. They'll help hold you accountable.

Reward yourself with new gear. As you get more into running and start to go longer distances, you might find that you want a GPS watch or a hydration belt or whatever. (Me, I like getting commemorative tattoos.) Go for it! You've earned it!

Change things up. I do a lot of half marathons because it's my favorite distance, but I do enjoy the occasional 5k, just to mix it up. I do a lot of my weekday runs on a treadmill out of necessity, but I love getting out to my trail on Sunday mornings for the scenery. Running is only boring if you allow it to be, you know? Find new places to run, or new people to run with, or new energy gel flavors to try, or new races to sign up for. Do fun runs, and do hardcore runs. Do a hilly trail race, and do a flat road race. Or even volunteer for a race! Or plan a running vacation! (I rarely travel anymore except for destination races.) The running world continues to grow, and there's a lot of ground to cover.

Educate yourself. I read a lot of articles about running, and I talk to lots of runners about running. There's always some new tech, or new style of workout, or something, and even if I don't end up trying it out, I just like to be aware of the major discussions going on around running. Staying connected to the world of running helps me stay motivated.

Think like an athlete. It's possible that you've been conditioned to think of running as grueling punishment or something humiliating you had to do for PE class in front of all the other kids. I would like to encourage you instead to think of it as a sport in its own right and to think of yourself as an athlete. I know some people are super motivated by changes in the appearances and "looking hot," and there's nothing wrong with that, but if you're like me, that won't be enough. I am, however, motivated by time goals, PRs, and stuff like that - athletic achievement. I spent many years of my life working out to lose weight and look better, and it ate me up inside; it really triggered something ugly and awful in me, and it made me feel desperate and depressed. The moment I mentally switched over from "exerciser" to "athlete," it changed everything for me.


So yeah... there's a lot more I could cover, I'm sure (I may write a follow-up post), but for now these are just some tips to get started.

I'd like to offer my hand to anyone who is getting into running or getting back into running and needs a motivational buddy. Remember, I'm not a coach or a professional, but if you'll let me, I'll try my best to help you achieve your goals. YOU CAN DO IT.

Good luck! If you have any questions or any advice you'd like to add, feel free to comment on this post.

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