Beginning Running: The First Of Many Miles

This extract is from The Runner's World Complete Book of Running by RW USA Editor Amby Burfoot. You can now preview it, free, for two weeks without risk or obligation.

All running programmes for beginners are the same: they move you from walking, which anyone can do, to running, which anyone can do if they have the determination.

The difference between walking and running isn’t speed or biomechanics. It’s determination.

If you have the determination to stick with a simple programme, you’ll soon be a runner. Trust me. It won’t be long before you learn that I’m right.The beginning of your life as a runner just might be the most exciting time in your entire running career. Of course, you won’t necessarily realize that at the time. It may take months or years before you can look back and see what you’ve achieved. But rest assured – you will.

Getting started . . . first steps . . . the beginning of a great adventure. In many ways, beginning to run is a declaration of personal independence. A statement that says, ‘In a world that confronts me with mechanical convenience and idle luxury at virtually every turn, I have decided, nonetheless, to improve my physical fitness.’

Later, of course, you realize that running offers so much more than a flatter stomach, more muscle tone, and a longer and more energetic life. For most of us, body and soul both tune in to this stimulating activity we call running. Running strengthens the body while it soothes the soul.

So what are you waiting for? The sooner you get started, the better.

Walk Before You Run

More than a few training programmes – especially the New Year’s-resolution variety – are doomed almost before they start. Why?

Because the schedules are overly ambitious and complex. Or, in direct contrast, they are completely lacking in a goal. The first step for an exercise programme (after a medical checkup) is to ask yourself, what’s realistic for me?

Think ‘simple’. Think ‘goal’. Think ‘long term’.

Unless you are coming from a strong (and recent) background in another physically demanding sport (such as cycling, martial arts, tennis, basketball, football or cross-country skiing), don’t jump right into a running programme. Instead, begin with a run/walk programme. An excellent goal for a run/walk programme is four workouts per week, with each one lasting 20 to 30 minutes.

The Best Places To Run

One of the first questions that beginners ask is, where should I begin my running? It’s probably not best to start on the street right outside your door, though certainly many runners do, if for no other reason than convenience.

Running on a smooth, soft surface is the key, so even if you’re relegated to the roads, try to run on the verge along the road’s edge. Avoid roads with a steep camber to them; these can throw off your foot-plant, leading to sore muscles and injuries. Whenever possible, choose tarmac roads over concrete (concrete is harder), and always run against oncoming traffic. This makes you more visible to the driver (especially if you’re wearing light or reflective clothing) and allows you to spot threatening situations before they develop.

Pavements may offer better safety from traffic, but concrete’s hardness can provoke shinsplints and other aches and pains common to the beginning runner. Also, pavements often force you to run up and down the edges at junctions – not a great way to develop your running rhythm.

Running Hills

Eventually, you will encounter hills. You won’t consider them a friend at first, but they can actually help you improve your fitness. Physically, running hills builds muscular and cardiovascular strength. Mentally, hills add a challenging touch to an advanced workout and therefore can be a good weapon against boredom. But both uphills and downhills add entirely new and taxing elements to your running programme.

Olympic Marathon gold medalist Frank Shorter once referred to hills as speedwork in disguise. Treat hills as such; you’ll probably be ready to run a hilly course at about the same time you might be ready to attempt an introductory pace/speed session on the track. Therefore, avoid hills in the very early stages of your training programme and introduce them in very small doses (and sizes) after you have logged more than a month of flat running at a comfortable pace.

If you do eventually add hills to a programme as you advance beyond the beginner stage, start with some slight inclines; save the mountains for the future. Be particularly careful to avoid pounding on the descents. As with flat running, hills that feature grass and soft paths are preferable to hard surfaces.

Regardless of where you decide to walk and run, do some light stretching before you begin the workout. Stretching reduces muscle tightness and allows for a more comfortable stride action.

The Next Level: Racing

The late running philosopher Dr George Sheehan once noted that the only difference between a jogger and a runner was an entry form. There’s much truth to that statement. Most local races contain a number of runners who are lined up primarily to finish the course, even if just slightly faster than they might run the same route during a typical training jaunt.

The point is, if you’re curious about racing – and you sense improved fitness in your training runs – try it. It’s natural to feel anxiety over where you might place or how fast you will (or won’t) run, but recognize such thoughts as the self-imposed barriers that they are.

In your first race, be careful, above all else, not to start too fast. The excitement and adrenalin that you feel will tend to make you run faster than your accustomed pace, but you won’t notice it. At least, not at first. Then, after a half-mile or so, you might realize that you’re gasping for breath and your legs are beginning to feel like anchors. To avoid this, concentrate on total relaxation at the start and during the early going. Breathe comfortably, settle into a moderate pace and enjoy yourself.

There’s an old running maxim that holds for everyone from beginners to Olympic champs: if you start too slow, you can always pick it up later; but if you start too fast, your goose is cooked. It takes most runners several races to find their perfect pace – a pace that spreads out their reserves equally over the full distance.

Watch Out For The Bug

With the possible exception of the very beginning of your running programme, the next most dangerous time for a novice runner is just after completing that first race – especially if the initial racing experience has been both a successful and enjoyable debut.

The danger, of course, comes from being bitten by the racing bug. The temptation for some runners is suddenly to race every weekend, but this multiplies the possibility of injury or burnout.

Along the same lines, beware of ‘marathon fever’. Some novice racers run a couple of local 5K events and, flush with excitement, jump right into training for a mega-marathon, such as London, Paris or New York City. Resist the temptation. The marathon has been around since the ancient Greeks. It will still be there when your running has progressed to the point that your first marathon experience can be an enjoyable run. It doesn’t do you any good to enter a marathon that reduces you to a survival crawl punctuated by self-doubt and tagged with the postscript ‘I’m never running one of these things again!’

Instead, prepare yourself for the transition to marathon running with a gradual introduction of weekly or biweekly long runs. A long run, by definition, is what’s long for you in relation to your present level of training. For runners training for their first marathon, the long run might start in the 10- or 12-mile range and gradually progress over several months to distances approaching 20 miles.

Also, some race experience at the 10-mile and half-marathon distances can serve as dress rehearsals for the big one. Both the long runs and the race distances between 10K and 26.2 miles will prepare you mentally and physically for the marathon challenge.

You don’t have to finish a marathon, however, to be a runner. There are lots of great runners who never run 26.2 miles. A runner is someone who runs; it’s that simple – and that grand. Be that someone. Be yourself. Be your own runner, whether the challenge is four times around the school running track or running the London Marathon.