So you want to start running? You've heard it's inexpensive, great for your health, the best way to lose weight (and keep it off). You've got friends who run, and they're trim, happy, centred and productive.
Running also looks like a straightforward enough sport. There's only one thing that's bothering you: if running's so simple, why do you have so many questions? You're not alone.
Every beginner worries about how to get started and has a lot to ask - about how to get motivated, what to eat, how to avoid injuries and when, where and how much to run. No problem. We've got the answers - from experts who have been teaching beginners for years, and from others who've certainly been around the block. Every runner began with a first step. You can, too.
Make all the excuses you want. Then get on with it
You don't have time; you don't have the energy; it's too cold/hot/rainy; the dog ate your shoelaces. Uh-huh. Now go out and run. Online running coach Dean Hebert has heard so many excuses from his runners that he assembled them into a book: Coach, I Didn't Run Because...Excuses Not to Run and How to Overcome Them (£9.99, Authorhouse). "These excuses are real to people, and I don't diminish them," says Hebert. "I tell my beginner runners to concentrate on the one reason that brought them to running in the first place. A clear focus can work magic on your motivation."
Keeping a written diary is a highly successful way to stick with an exercise or diet programme. It doesn't have to be fancy or sophisticated. Indeed, where you place the diary might be more important than what you write in it. Put a calendar on your fridge or in front of your computer, write down every time you complete a run and how far/for how long you ran, and take pride in watching those numbers build up. (Or feel guilty when they don't! That'll get you out.)
Keep at it
Some runners win gold medals and set world records, but no runner has ever done every workout he or she planned. You won't either. Stuff happens, life gets in the way, but you can deal with it as long as you stay focused on the big picture. Shrug off the bad days, get back on the programme, and you'll still achieve your goals. Remaining persistent is crucial to improved running. "When beginners get discouraged or hit a plateau, I tell them to remember the time and effort invested and the progress they've made," says beginners' coach Jane Serues. "You don't want to slide backwards, you want to keep working towards the progress ahead."
Find a fitness friend
Beginners' running coaches agree that one of the best ways to stick with your exercise programme is to get a training partner. When someone is counting on you as much as you're counting on them, it's much tougher to blow out a workout. But it has to be someone of similar ability who is supportive, not competitive with you. "We emphasise the emotional power of training partners," says Serues. "One or two partners is good. Three or four is even better."
Pass on the extra carbs
Bread, bagels, pasta, potatoes and pancakes - you just can't get enough, right? Wrong, says sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, author of Nancy Clark's Food Guide for New Runners (£12.95, Meyer & Meyer Sport). Running two or three miles at an easy pace will burn 200 to 300 calories, an amount so modest that it doesn't demand lumberjack portions of carbs (or anything else) before or after. Clark advocates eating healthy foods throughout the day, and having a small snack an hour or two before you run. "Exercisers shouldn't skip meals early in the day or try to run on fumes," she says. "But you don't require special foods after a workout - just a snack that offers a few carbs and a little protein."
Drink water. But only when you're thirsty
Yes, runners sweat a lot. Yes, they need to consume water, sugar and electrolytes (ionised salts in blood, tissue and cells) when they run for 90 minutes or more, particularly in warm weather. But unless you're training for a marathon this spring (which you shouldn't be), you don't need sports drinks and an advanced hydration strategy. Sip a little water before your workout and a little more after. And skip the extra calories in sweetened drinks. "Beginner runners don't need a sports drink, because they're not running far enough," notes Clark.
Eat real food
Runners, even beginners, tend to be driven, results-orientated people. When promised short-cuts, miracle cures and unbelievable benefits from supplement and 'superfood' manufacturers, they're easily swayed. However, eating standard, simple, unprocessed natural foods will give you the same end results. "Every time one of those vitamin or supplement studies produces a negative result, I am reassured that focusing on quality calories is the best advice," says Clark. "I've always believed that the healthiest foods are
the real foods - the quality vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy and
lean proteins packed with everything runners need."
If you want to lose weight...
Sorry, but you won't automatically drop five pounds just because you run, says Clark. You also have to reduce your daily food intake. Each mile you run burns roughly 100 calories. Cut out a biscuit or two every day, and you can add another 100 calories to your weight-loss effort. "Reducing calorie consumption by just 100 calories a day will theoretically give you a 4.5kg weight loss by the end of the year," Clark says. "Drop 200 calories a day, and you'll lose 9kg (around one and a half stone)." Clark suggests cutting calories by eating smaller portions and fewer fried foods.
Stretch after you run, not before
Runners have long believed that stretching will give them a longer, smoother stride and reduce their risk of injuries. However, in recent years research has failed to prove either point. Beginner-specialist coaches Budd Coates and Jeff Galloway say they've never advocated stretching for their runners, and the runners haven't developed injuries. Dr Lewis Maharam adds: "A pre-workout stretching routine doesn't prevent injuries or improve performance, so there's no reason to do it. The time to do your stretching is after your run, or even later in the evening." Stretch (without straining) your calves, quads and hamstrings for a total of 10 to 15 minutes.
Expect a little tenderness
Sure, runners have to deal with occasional aches and pains. Especially beginners. However, these are temporary complaints, and don't lead to long-term damage. Last summer, the Archives of Internal Medicine published a study on a group of runners in their mid-70s who had been running for several decades. They were found to have better function and overall health and fewer disabilities than similar individuals who were not runners. When you experience mild aches and pains, follow the tried-and-true RICE prescription: rest, ice, compression, elevation and don't overuse pain medication and anti-inflammatories.
You're (almost certainly) not going to die
Yes, heart attacks happen, and they make headlines. But these events are extremely rare, averaging about one for every 800,000 half-hour workouts. Meanwhile, it's a well-established medical fact that runners and other highly fit individuals have a 50 per cent lower risk of heart attack than non-exercisers. It's more dangerous to sit in front of your TV. The heart is a muscle. If you don't exercise it, it becomes weak and flabby. Still, every runner should know the signs of a heart attack: unusual shortness of breath; chest, arm or neck tightness; nausea; and a cold sweat. If you experience these, stop immediately and call your doctor.
Wear the right shoes
You don't really need a new pair of running shoes when you begin running. You can run in your regular trainers or walking shoes. But when you're ready, the right pair will make your runs more comfortable, while adding extra injury-prevention features. Selecting these shoes can be a complicated process. That's why it's a good idea to go to a specialist running store. The experienced staff will make sure you get shoes that fit properly and provide the biomechanical support you need. "We'll show you what we see, enabling you to make the right choice," says David Newman, general manager of Runner's Need (runnersneed.co.uk). Expect to pay from £50 to £80.
You don't need a lot of expensive gear to run, which is good news in a recession. That said, you'll never regret the cash you spend on breathable socks, and even shirts and shorts. These garments, made from polyester fabrics, are a world apart from the scratchy material your dad ran cross-country in. The best are lightweight, soft and non-chafing. "You want the clothes to wick moisture away - cotton holds moisture and stays wet, which causes rashes and blistering," says Gilly Wight, branch manager of Up and Running in Leeds (upandrunning.co.uk).
Forget about gadgets
Heart-rate monitors, GPS watches, accelerometers that tell you how fast you're going - none of these glitzy products are really necessary for your first efforts. All you really need is a watch with a stopwatch function, available for as little as £8.99 at argos.co.uk, to help you keep track of your walking and running intervals. Don't worry about other fancy gizmos. But if listening to your iPod makes your runs go better, by all means take it with you - as long as you run in a safe place and are aware of traffic.
Most beginners worry that they're not improving fast enough. Don't compare yourself with others. Every runner gets into shape according to their own body's schedule. Physiologists have calculated that any and all running paces are fast enough to put you into the moderate-to-vigorous aerobic zone that delivers health benefits. So take your time and focus on going further, not faster. "We tell people that they didn't get out of shape in five weeks, and they're not going to get back in shape in five weeks," says Bob Glover.
If you feel out of breath or sick, you're running too fast, a mistake made by most beginners. "A lot of people think that they have to go at least a mile at a time, and at a fast pace," says Budd Coates. "I always tell my beginners to slow down and take more walk breaks." You'll learn that running should be a relaxed activity, and that you should 'train, not strain'. And, yes, beginning running includes lots of walking.
Run tall and relaxed
For the most part, you don't have to worry about your technique. That said, experts agree that you should run tall (not slouched) and straight (not leaning far forward or backward). Don't over-stride; that could put extra strain on your knees. "Run with your eyes focused about nine feet ahead," says Jane Serues. "Let your arms relax and take a natural, comfortable stride."
Whenever and wherever
Is there a best time and place to run? Sure: whenever and wherever is most convenient. Finding ways to fit workouts into your schedule is more important than fretting over the when/where questions. The streets around your house, a local track, the park, a treadmill - they're all good. Beginners should stick to relatively flat running as hills dramatically increase the muscular and aerobic strain of a run. So get out there and enjoy calling yourself a runner!