For the past two years, I’ve been teaching a class for novice runners on a university campus. But this is no typical college course – we spend more time running together than discussing and debating.
The group meets twice a week for 50 minutes at a time. For homework, I suggest that class members do an additional run or two each week.
For that course, I’ve shrunk the lectures I’ve been giving my students into lessons that I can recite in minutes or write in a single paragraph. I give my students only those nuggets that are most important for them to learn in our 10 weeks together.
The full version of this article contains those 15 lessons. Think of them as crib sheets for your basic ‘running course’. Learn them, and you can make it through your first running efforts with flying colours.
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1 Welcome to the start line
This might be your first try at running, or a return visit, or an attempt to improve on what you already do. The less running you’ve done recently, the more you can expect to improve your distances and speeds in the next 10 weeks. On the other hand, the less you’ve run lately, the more likely you are to hurt yourself by doing too much, too soon. That’s why it’s so important to set two related goals as you start or restart your running programme – to maximise improvements, and to minimise injuries. You win by improving. You lose by getting hurt.
2 Buy the right shoes
Shoes are the biggest equipment expense for runners, so it’s important to get this right. Spend wisely by buying well-made shoes from a serious brand. Search out a model that fits you properly, and is designed for the surface you’ll run on most often – road, track, or trail. If you’re not sure which shoe will work best for you, go to a specialist running shop where staff can advise you (there is a list of such shops at the back of this magazine). After you buy your shoes, remember that even the best have a limited lifespan. Plan to replace them after about 350-500 miles of wear.
3 Make a plan
The two basic raw materials for a running routine are time and space. And the two main reasons given by those who don’t run? ‘I don’t have time for it’, and, ‘I don’t have anywhere to do it’. Let’s dissect those excuses. You can run well and get in great shape with as little as a 30-minute session every other day. Think of it as the time you won’t waste by watching TV. As for finding places to run, anywhere that’s safe for walking is also fine for running. Off-road routes (parks, bike paths, playing fields) are better than busy streets, and soft surfaces (grass and dirt) are better than paved ones, but any choice is better than staying at home. Map out the best courses in your immediate neighbourhood. That saves time, solves the ‘place’ issue and makes it much more likely that you’ll actually do your planned runs.
4 Take the mile trial
Friends who hear that you’ve begun running will soon ask what your best mile time is – so you might as well get used to it. Before long, you’ll be calculating your pace per mile on longer runs, but you should begin with a simple one-mile test run (four laps on a standard track) to determine your starting point. Think of this run as a pace test, not a race. Run at a pace a little beyond easy, but less than a struggle, and count on improving your mile time in later tests as your fitness improves.
5 Get F.I.T.
Kenneth Cooper, a giant in the fitness field, long ago devised a simple formula for improving as a runner. Run two to three miles, three to five days a week at a comfortable pace. It’s easier to remember as the F.l.T. formula: frequency (at least every other day); intensity (comfortable pace); and time (about 30 minutes). Even with some walking breaks, you can cover two miles in 30 minutes, and you might soon be running three miles in that time. It’s important to run these efforts at an easy, comfortable pace. Think of yourself as the Tortoise, not the Hare. Make haste slowly.