When you set out as a runner, you’ll find that you have many more questions than answers. Am I too slow? How do I get faster? What can I do to stop it hurting? How long will it take before I get better? And there will definitely be times when you think you’ll never find the solutions you’re looking for. Don’t despair.
Running is a little like driving – the more you do it, the more you learn. That’s why we decided to speak to runners of varying vintages and experience and ask them what they wish they’d known before taking their first running steps. The lessons they’ve learned will apply to you too and put your mind at rest.
Dr Patrick Milroy
Listen to your body
It may sound odd coming from a doctor, but the knowledge that would have most helped my initiation into running would be to have understood my body and the messages it sent to my brain. All too often I ignored little niggles in order to complete an extra mile in training. If I had spent a little less time running in those early days, and a bit more time resting and stretching my back and lower limbs, it probably would have helped prevent a multitude of injuries.
Years Running 35
Variety is the spice of life
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, and become a habitual runner. You can find yourself following the same routine week-in-week-out, and repeating exactly the same runs and sessions on the same day of each week. While that may feel comfortable and familiar, it’s not actually the best way to improve. Mix up your training, try new sessions, enter races of wildly varying distances and you’ll be a better runner.
Years Running 45
Take Preventative Measures
I’m now a veteran runner and still enjoying it enough to probably fulfil my wife’s prediction of me being the “fittest man in the graveyard”, but I think I’d be fitter still had I stretched more, not scoffed at the benefit of gym-work for core strength and building up muscles such as my quads, and realised the importance of identifying and rectifying postural imbalances early on, I might have avoided many injuries and even knee surgery.
Years Running 13
When I started out I simply ran purely for the sake of it. I’d pull on my shoes, trot along for a bit and then head home. I enjoyed it, and I soon became fitter, but then the improvement stopped. I realised I needed a target, a tangible goal to aim for. Once I’d picked a goal race, I started to follow a schedule and added structure to my training. Every session had a reason behind it. Surprisingly, I found that running to a plan was really enjoyable and I started to improve all over again.
Years Running 5
Join a club
Joining a running club, in my case Dulwich Runners in London, made me realise just how much fun running can be, and how useful the support of a club is. A club can provide you with as much or as little competition as you want, a big incentive to go training when you’d otherwise spend the evening in front of the TV or in the pub, a whole new bunch of friends (some of them quite eccentric), great camaraderie at team events and access to a wealth of information.
Years Running 4
When I started running again after a long break, I simply chucked on an old cotton T-shirt and headed out of the door. After just a few minutes I realised I’d made a mistake. The sewn motif on the shirt was possibly the most abrasive thing to have ever come into contact with a man’s nipple. Before my next run I made sure that I invested in a soft, wicking T-shirt designed specifically for running. My nipples haven’t looked back!
Years Running 5
The mind is as strong as the body
Looking back to when I first started running, I can’t believe how defeatist I was both in training runs and races – giving up at the first hint of discomfort or hills. And then a friend bought me the Competitive Runner’s Handbook, which includes a great chapter about “mental training”, which I really took to heart (and regularly re-read before marathons or big races). By repeating mantras to myself such as, “I can do hills, I can do hills”, when normally I’d think: “Oh blimey, look at that hill”, I was able to push on and keep going. Obviously, you need to recognise the difference between real pain and temporary discomfort but by working on my “mind over matter” I’ve gained PBs and discovered my hidden depths.
Years Running 6
That racing isn't scary
I wish I’d known how much fun racing can be. Especially when you’re not a fast runner. Nobody is too slow to race. In fact, the back of the pack is probably the best place to be. Whenever I’ve run marathons I’ve been amazed at the camaraderie at the back of the field. Everyone is in the same boat. We might be uncertain that we’ll actually make it to the finish, but we’ll still be encouraging each other and helping our fellow runners as much as possible. It really is an unforgettable experience and keeps me coming back for more time after time.
Years Running 25+
The importance of patience
If you are by nature an impatient person who expects things to happen quickly, then running can be a frustrating sport. Progress is often hard won and slow coming. Anybody will make progress if they commit themselves to a programme of consistent training that they follow diligently. But it takes time and, as much as you might look for them, there are no short cuts. In fact, trying to take the short cuts often leads to frustrating injuries or disappointment, and inevitably wastes time rather than saving it. Don’t expect everything to happen overnight. No achievement worth celebrating comes quickly and without a great deal of sustained effort.
Years Running 8
Friends make running easier
For anyone with an unpredictable work schedule, the attraction of running is its infinite convenience and flexibility. Inevitably that leads you to training predominantly on your own when it suits you and when you have time to do it. When I started that’s how I did most of my running. Everything became easier when I started running with other people in my office. I was running more regularly, I made progress more quickly because I was training with people who were better than me and it was more fun.
Years Running 7
Fast running makes fast runners
As with many new runners, the idea of upping my pace until I was out of my comfort zone, let alone setting foot on a running track, filled me with dread. The idea of lung-bursting, vomit-inducing speed sessions obviously didn’t appeal, but more importantly I felt they weren’t for me. But then I was persuaded to have a go. And running fast didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would: in fact I quite enjoyed it. Better than that, though, after just a couple of months I found that just one set of repetitions on the track each week made my races easier, and my times much, much faster.
Years Running 5
I’m the only runner that counts
I played a lot of other sports when I was younger but I never enjoyed running, mostly because, relative to other sports, I wasn’t very good at it. Even when I started running in my 30s and made good progress I was disappointed with it because I always knew someone who was quicker than me. That hasn’t changed, in fact it’s become worse as I’ve become older; there are still plenty of people who are quicker than me but I don’t care. I’ve learnt that running is a sport where I’m competing with myself first and everyone else after that. I like that.
Years Running 6
It provides balance
Running isn’t the most important thing in my life – my partner and daughter are – but my life would suffer without it. It’s a constant companion, an ever-ready friend who smoothes my furrowed brow and puts a smile back on my face. Without running I would be stressed, overweight and irritable, and my sexual appetite would diminish. I would not have met some of the friends and allies who illuminate my days nor travelled to places that have inspired me. Running has been the most productive and most trusted pursuit of my adult life. And if I thought about stopping, my partner and daughter would kick me out of the door and tell me to get on with it.
Years Running 20+
Finishing a marathon is easier than you think
When I started running in the 1980s, the marathon was the benchmark against which runners were measured. If you hadn’t run a marathon, you weren’t really a “runner” and the road to completing a marathon, for a non-marathon runner, seemed long and arduous. Completing a marathon is still a worthy challenge but I now know that it’s not quite as daunting as I used to believe. I’ve surprised myself by being able to run the occasional marathon off relatively little training. There is a difference between simply completing a marathon and running a fast time, and when I figure out how to do the latter, I’ll let you know.
Years Running 15
there are Bras made specifically for running
This probably sounds ridiculous today in an age when we are so breast-obsessed, but when I started running I didn’t know that sports bras existed, never mind bras designed for running. I don’t actually remember it being a problem at the time. That’s just the way things were and I accepted it as part of being a woman. Wearing something that offered real support and didn’t chafe and cut into my skin made running so much easier. If you are a woman of a certain size you won’t completely stop the movement but you can make running far more pleasant with a running-specific bra.
Years Running 6
Ignore the sneers
Workmen seem to be twice as rowdy as normal when they see a woman running. At first, I’d be annoyed by the comments that would be shouted at me and respond by swearing. That just made them worse and they’d shout more. I soon learned that it’s much better to joke and laugh with people who, for some reason, find runners funny. They’re probably only doing it because they wish they could join you and, more often than not, a smile and wave will lead to them actually offering encouragement. It can even be quite motivating.
Years Running 3
Look after your feet
For the first few months of my running career I thought blisters and bruised toenails were a cross you simply had to bear if you were to call yourself a runner. But once I’d lost my first toenail – and waited months for it to grow back – I realised that pampering my feet would make my running a much more enjoyable experience. I’m now fastidious when it comes to cutting my toenails, I ensure that I have enough room in my shoes to stop bruising, and I moisturise my feet after every bath and shower. The result: I haven’t lost a toenail in months and I’m no longer afraid to remove my socks after a run.
Years Running 6
Not all shoes are the same
As a beginner, I had only the vaguest idea that different running shoes suited different people. That meant when I bought my first pair I was unquestioning when the man in the shop told me that the first ones he picked off the shelf were perfect for me. A few runs later and I had shin splints. I went to a different store, and was amazed to find that in fact not all running shoes – or running stores – are created equal. I was asked lots of questions about my running, had my old shoes examined and even ran up and down the street in lots of different shoes. Needless to say, I’d originally been sold shoes that were completely unsuitable for my running style. Now I make sure that I spend at least 30 minutes trying on shoes, asking questions in shops and ensuring that I only part with my cash for the perfect shoe.
Years Running 6
You are not alone
At first I was worried that people would think I was odd for being a runner. I’d heard so many people say that running was boring and the people who did it were freaks or mad fitness fanatics. But once I started I soon realised that I wasn’t alone. Every time I went out for a run I’d see people of all shapes, sizes and speeds doing exactly the same thing as me. Although I was running for myself, I felt so much better knowing that there were many more people just like me.
Years Running 15
Sex would be better
I know it sounds like a flippant comment, but I do wish that I’d known that one of the very pleasant side effects of being fitter and stronger would be that sex would be better and that running would have so many positive effects on my life in general. It might then have inspired me to train harder and more frequently and not in the half-hearted manner that I adopted in the belief that I was already pretty fit. I wasn’t. I just didn't realise it at the time. I was 15 years younger and thought I could do anything, party hard and train and race hard too. Now I understand what being in shape actually means and what benefits it bestows.