Lessons Learnt

Each and every new runner is unique, as are their experiences. But while we can’t tell you everything you need to know, we can at least give you a good start. Here, John Bingham and Julie Welch offer you an insight into the things they wished they’d known when they started out.


1. Three steps forward, two steps back
I thought that once I’d started running regularly, I’d become increasingly better all the time. I thought my progress would be linear. For a while, that’s exactly what happened – I became faster with nearly every run. But suddenly the progress stopped. From that point on, I experienced a cycle of improving, hitting a plateau, slipping backwards, regrouping, and then moving on. It took a while, but now I’ve accepted it.

2. Garbage in, garbage out
At first I had no idea how food worked inside my body. I didn’t understand the correlation between what I was asking my body to process and how I was asking my body to perform. As I began to realise food as fuel rather than viewing it as a comfort or a recreation, I discovered that the foods I wanted and the foods I needed were more or less the same. Of course, I still give in to the occasional craving, but at least I don’t ignore the effect of food on my performance.

3. Sometimes less is more
I never considered myself the smartest person ever, but I knew I had a great capacity for hard work. I applied this aptitude to my running, so that when I read that one day of speedwork was good, I thought that three days must be better. If everyone else increased their mileage by 10 per cent per week, then I’d increase mine by 20 per cent. Eventually, I learned that improvement comes when you learn to balance effort and recovery. Now I know that I need to mix lots of easy-run days around my harder training sessions.

4. My body, my self
In the early stages of my running, I waited for my body to somehow magically change into that of a runner’s. I expected my legs to grow longer and leaner, my muscles to become tight and sinewy, and all my joints to work as if greased with WD40. This never happened. My body may be leaner now, but it’s still basically the same body I had when I started. It just works better.

5. Size matters – at least when it comes to shoes
I’d worn size-eight shoes since I was 17. So, when I shopped for my first pair of running shoes aged 42, I bought – you guessed it – eights. I didn’t even try them on. And I assumed that running shoes should hug my feet, fit snug to my toes and be laced up tight. I didn’t lose all of my toenails before I realised this was stupid, just most of them. Now I buy shoes which really fit, without considering the size on the manufacturer’s label.

6. Being a runner is a journey, not a destination
I was convinced that I could get into shape and stay there. I thought that once I achieved a certain distance or speed I could relax and enjoy the view. But there’s always something new to learn, some new work-out to try or some new pace to achieve. Running is a continual process of assessing and evaluating where you’ve been, where you are, and where you want to be.

John Bingham, aka the Penguin, writes our monthly column, ‘The Penguin Chronicles’. He has broken five hours for the marathon and since 1998 has taken our Get-You-Round Team in Training pace group around the Flora London Marathon. He's published some great books and has his own cool website


1. Someone has to finish last
But chances are it won’t be you. I avoided races for a whole year because I assumed they were only for people who thought they were going to win. That meant I missed out on one of the best ways of improving, plus an opportunity to meet other runners and have a lot of fun. What helped was entering my first race with a friend who ran at my pace. I figured that if I was going to be a backmarker then at least I’d have company. As it happened, we finished nearer to the middle than the rear of the pack. But if you’re still worried about finishing last, target one of the bigger races where there will be runners and walkers of all standards.

2. Join the club
Sometimes all you want to do is take yourself off on your own and relish the peace and solitude; but at other times it’s great to know there are a lot more people like you out there. I wish I’d known about the importance of running colleagues and the benefits of belonging to a club – the chance to be coached, the impetus it gives your race schedule, the social opportunities and the travel. More importantly, things that sometimes didn’t seem worth the effort when I ran on my own – like speedwork, long weekend runs and following a proper training schedule – were much more attractive once I had other runners around for motivation and support.

3. Horses for courses
I could have saved myself time and embarrassment by choosing the right club for the right reasons. Out of vanity, I joined the one in my area which had the famous name and the internationals. Of course, it was far too elite for someone of my modest ability, and after four weeks of getting outpaced on training nights, I felt too humiliated to go back. Eventually I found another less high-powered one nearby, having tracked it down through a race advertisement in RUNNER’S WORLD. I really gained in confidence and improved much more quickly once I was running alongside equals.

4. Drink, drink, drink
Running should be a joy – if not, what’s the point? It never occurred to me that some miseries were simply down to water – or rather, the lack of it. Feeling bad-tempered, drained and exhausted after a week of regular training wasn’t due to the fact that I was out of condition, that I was a useless runner, or that I had some horrible ailment. In fact, it was because I was dehydrated. Nowadays I make sure that I’m well watered before, after and during running. If there isn’t a drinking fountain or somewhere for me to stash supplies along the route, I take money so that I can buy drinks from a garage or shop.

5. The best-laid plans
As I started out from a reasonably good fitness base of cycling and aerobics, I assumed running would be easy. I didn’t know that the best way of training to be a runner was to run, and thought that I’d achieve the results I wanted by substituting a lot of sessions with gym work or the bike. I also aimed high when I should have gone for smaller, more achievable goals. Consequently, I failed to achieve in six months what I had expected to be doing easily within six weeks, and felt demoralised. Once I’d learnt to set myself attainable targets, my enthusiasm returned; and by focusing purely on running, my pace and stamina improved dramatically.

6. Don’t suffer more than you have to
The first race I ever trained for was the Flora London Marathon. Between mid-February and the end of April I was doing weekend runs of between 12 and 20 miles. For two or three hours every Sunday for six weeks my skin chafed in all kinds of embarrassing places, and any bit which wasn’t rubbed red raw was blue with cold. I wish I’d been told that it isn’t noble, or necessary, to suffer; that if you’re training in winter your best friend is a thermal top, and that every runner starting out should invest in a jar of petroleum jelly for nipples, toes and all the bits that rub together.

Julie Welch started running in 1996 after being sent to cover a race for the Sunday Telegraph. Since then she has been a committed runner, joining East End Road Runners and completing five marathons. Her autobiographical book, Long Distance Information, tells the tale of her transformation from coach potato to marathon runner, while her more recent book, 26.2, is a collection of interviews with London Marathon runners.