What I wish I’d known when I started running…

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Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It’s just a shame you have to wait for it. But what if you didn’t? Now, that’s such a wonderful prospect that we decided to call on a cast of experienced runners of all ages and abilities to give you the benefit of their hindsight, without the wait. Here, they share the wisdom hard-earned via years of running experience through the advice they would offer to their younger running selves, so you can avoid the same mistakes and use that precious knowledge when you need it most… right now.

Sam Murphy

Running coach, RW columnist and section editor

47, runner for 28 years

Dear Sam, (aged 19)

As you set off for your first ever jog on a beach in Queensland, Australia, with your running-fanatic uncle Billy, little do you know how running will shape your future. You’ll be shocked how a man in his forties can so easily outrun a teenager, and you’ll find yourself consumed by the challenge of going faster and further. But I can offer a few tips to smooth your way.

Keep off the pavements when you can. The unrelenting hardness and uniformity isn’t natural and leaves the same areas bearing the brunt of the force on each landing, literally paving the way to injuries. I know it’s not easy, living in a city, but there are footpaths, parks and playing fields, and a little further afield there’s countryside to explore.

Don’t be afraid to push yourself. If you had understood that a pounding heart, searing lungs and screaming muscles were not a signal of impending death, but of a fearless maximal effort, you’d have broken that 1:40 half marathon years earlier.

Don’t let that gym membership lapse. You’re doing a great job of combining running with cross-training, but there’ll come a time when your running takes precedence. You’ll end up with imbalances and weaknesses that will predispose you to injury.

So, enjoy your running, run far and wide and occasionally, push against your limits. Oh, and always wear a sports bra.

Jo Pavey

European 10,000m champion, four-time Olympian

42, runner for 30+ years

I wish I’d done less running on the road in my younger years as the surface caused too much impact through my joints.

I wish I’d known how to best place strength and conditioning work in my schedule earlier in my career. Done effectively, it can lead to improved performance. However, at one stage I overdid it and I ended up going to the track and getting injured running on sore muscles.

I also wish I’d realised that by acting on a niggle with a few modified days of training I could have prevented more serious injuries.

Finally, in my early career I wish I’d run more economically in races. Making frequent sudden moves to try to get in position leaves you exhausted in the closing stages.

Kathrine Switzer

Women’s running pioneer, first woman to run the Boston Marathon, winner of 1974 NYC Marathon

69, runner for 50+ years

At one time or another, we all get an injury that stops us running. My advice is to fill the time that you devoted to running with something that makes you feel accomplished – something else that you may have wanted to do but didn’t have the time for – like painting the house, or even something difficult like writing a book. Do something satisfying while healing and take pride in a new kind of accomplishment.

Michael Johnson

Four-time Olympic gold medallist and current 400m world record-holder

48, runner for 36 years

I would tell my younger self to look around a bit more to see what others were doing. My coach and I were doing some great things, but we were operating on our own. It would have been good to look around and see what other stuff we could try.

Joe Mackie

RW Deputy Editor

43, runner for 17 years

I wish I’d seen more clearly that running is the end, not the means. I’d tell myself not to focus so much on goals and outcomes. Not to think that PBs and finishers’ medals defined me as a runner. It’s great to have running targets in your mind, but don’t be so blinkered by them that you lose sight of the simple joy that’s there in every step, not just those that take you over a finishing line. Live the moment. Enjoy the journey. Smile. Oh, and don’t ever, EVER run a marathon without gels again.

Steve Smythe

Running coach who holds the longest span between first and most recent sub-three marathon of any Briton at 36 years

58, runner for 46 years

My younger self did marathons too early. I did my first at 18, but I wish I’d focused more on speed and run faster on the track and distances up to 10K.

One area of training which I swear by now and didn’t do much in my younger days is variable pace training (speedwork in which the reps are not all at the same pace). For example 6x1-mile on the track could be one speeding up, one with faster straights and slower bends – thus giving a better range of speeds. I also wish I had done more stretching and strength work when I was younger as my mobility isn’t great now.

Andy Dixon

RW Editor

44, runner for nine years

I wish I’d appreciated the value of the warm-up. When I was starting out as a runner, I saw it as a misguided badge of honour to be able to get up to speed in the first mile. Now I start a lot slower and let my body find its rhythm gradually over the first 10 minutes of any run. Like many people, my job is desk-bound, and I can feel my hip flexors easing themselves out during that initial phase.

I wish I’d kept easy runs easy. Again, earlier in my running career I would get fixated on pace during even easy runs, trying to maintain eight-minute miles or faster. Now I only go on feel. This means my body is setting the pace, not the watch.

I wish I’d not got so stressed at the start of marathons. Getting nervous at the start – and possibly wasting energy going out fast and overtaking fellow runners – is daft. It’s such a long race that how you do in the first mile or two has little effect on the ultimate outcome. Similarly, stopping for 20 seconds to drink or stretch a tight muscle isn’t going to harm you in the grand scheme of things – I stopped twice during my sub-three marathon PB. So, don’t panic and remember the bigger goal.

I wish I’d discovered run commuting sooner. It’s only during the last year or so that I’ve realised what a win-win it is. Training for last year’s NYC Marathon I ran the nine miles to work once or twice a week – this added easy run miles to my schedule, and broke up the repetitiveness of the marathon programme. And I’d arrive at work feeling de-stressed, energised and ready for the day.

Sarah Russell

Running coach

43, runner for 30+ years

I’ve been running pretty much all my life. I rowed for GB in my early 20s and running was part of our training. After having children, I got into competitive running and represented GB in the World and European Duathlon Championships. I took it all very seriously, but now, in my early 40s and after some serious health issues, I have a different perspective on life and running. While I still train hard, I don’t place as much pressure on myself. I recently found an old training diary and it’s no wonder I was injured all the time!

I raced too much, trained too hard and, if I’m honest, I didn’t enjoy it much. Now I listen to my body and I feel at peace with my running rather than fighting it all the time. Running now is about the journey.

Kerry McCarthy

RW Commissioning Editor

37, runner for 13 years

In my early running career I made several mistakes when it came to using energy gels, thinking that:

They were all equal and contained the same amount of sugar, sodium and other ingredients.

You should only take them when you’re already fatigued.

Swallowing five in the space of just three miles (as I once did during the New York City Marathon) would not be a problem for my gastrointestinal system.

They were for race day only and not for long training runs.

Once I’d learned the basic science of how much/what/when to take them, I saw a distinct drop-off in difficult situations such as passing out during a 22-mile training runs or sprinting desperately for the toilet during races.

Gareth Bryan-Jones

Former Olympic steeplechaser (Mexico 68), now ultra runner

73, runner for 60+ years

I’ve got gradually slower as I’ve got older. My fastest runs are now around eight min/mile, which is barely half the speed I used to be able to manage. Yet frustratingly, I now feel that I know more about how to train, how to race and how to avoid injury than I did when I could run those sub-five minute miles.

Use nerves to your advantage. Being nervous before a race is actually a positive. It’s the way that your body prepares for being pushed. In fact, I now feel relaxed about being nervous, even enjoy the feeling, using nerves to heighten my focus and my concentration.

Aid healing. My son Ali put me on to Emu oil. Now a combination of Emu Oil massages and ice packs helps me recover from most injuries. Recovery is slower than 50 years ago, but I’m sure if I had used emu oil and ice back then I would have had far less bother from injuries.

Go long. I discovered ultramarathons when I ran the 95-mile West Highland Way in my sixties and after that I was hooked. I now enjoy one or two ultras or long hill races a year. I still have stamina but my speed has gone, so I wish that I had discovered them 30 or 40 years earlier!

Mara Yamauchi

Commonwealth and Olympic distance runner, second fastest ever British female marathon runner

42, runner for 30+ years

Looking back, I realise that I was perhaps too focused on the next goal, outcome or result and sometimes neglected appreciating the here and now. The ability to stop, reflect and think before moving on to the next thing is so important – not just in running, but also in life.

I would also have stuck with a training formula that I knew worked. Runners are always looking for that extra thing for improvement, which is important. But it can send you off on a tangent, when what you should really do is just stick with a plan that works and be patient.

Jeff Pyrah

Sussex vet cross-country champion, winner of The Grizzly, Beachy Head Marathon and North Downs Run

42, runner for 34 years

I wish I hadn’t bought into the myth that lightweight shoes are only for race day and that you need a structured, cushioned shoe to avoid injury. It was only in 2010 that I started training in lighter, more minimal shoes and it felt very daring to break away from the norm! Now I wear them all the time – whether it’s for a track session or a marathon – and my running feels freer as a result. Plus, I don’t get the sore calves that I used to get when I switched from trainers to racing flats.

Martin Yelling

Running coach, former international runner and national duathlon champion

44, runner for 34 years

7 things I wish I’d known…

That it’s OK to have regular planned rest days

There are many ways to achieve a performance outcome

My legs would carry me faster than I thought. Push yourself

Talking toilet roll to every event is a really good ideal

Rivals are to be respected, but also taken down

My body really doesn’t like pasta the night before a race

It’s important to look around and enjoy the moment

Liz Yelling

Running coach, two-time Olympic marathoner, Commonwealth medallist

41, runner for 32 years

I wish I’d known that training harder, more, and more often doesn’t always equate to better performance. Balance, and getting better at listening to my body brought about results. One bad day at the running office doesn’t make you a bad runner. It can be turned around quite quickly.

I also wish that I’d learned how to be calmer when I found myself in stressful situations. Calm, focused and purposeful performances are what creates success. Relax and run hard – simple.