Training to Be A Runner: Now's the Time to Start
By Dylan Roche
Every runner’s story has a different beginning. Some might have started running as part of the track team in high school. Others might have made a resolution to do a marathon as part of a midlife reevaluation.
I’ll bet that there are several soon-to-be runners who will find the start of their journey in this coronavirus pandemic. After all, those who have never found the time to run will likely have more flexibility in their day. And going for a run is an excuse to get out of the house, something that so many of us are desperate to do these days. Finally, there’s no better way of coping with stress and anxiety than by going out and losing yourself in a long run.
Now, I don’t want to be naïve. There are plenty of people who can’t use this time to jump-start a running hobby. Plenty of people work jobs in essential industries, and they probably find themselves stretched far thinner in terms of time and energy than they were before this pandemic.
For others, they might be struggling to care for (and even provide homeschool lessons for) their young children, all the while jumping onto conference calls or checking business emails when they can.
But if you have the opportunity — run. Go out there and try it. Even if you’re somebody whose life has become much more demanding during the pandemic, see whether carving out a half-hour for yourself makes any difference.
When I look back on my running journey, it all started during a major life change. And I’ll be honest that there’s a lot I wished I had known then that I can try sharing with any newbie runners who are starting up right now.
It was the start of my freshman year of college. All of my friends were headed off to school in other parts of the country, and I was stuck at home attending the local community college because, quite honestly, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself. I felt depressed and alone, and I felt angry at myself for being unmotivated to pursue life the way I felt like I was supposed to be pursing it.
So after my first day of class, feeling frustrated and wanting to escape from all of it, I went to my closet and pulled out a pair of gym shoes I had never worn. Overweight and out of shape, I was determined to just go out there and make a change. I wanted to leave all my problems behind me, even if it were only for a half-hour. I wanted to accomplish just one thing, to feel as if I weren’t completely powerless, to do something I’d never done before just for the hell of it.
Sheer adrenaline powered me for three miles around my neighborhood before I arrived home and practically passed out on the front lawn. I felt exhausted, but I also felt better than I had all day. I had done it! I had tackled my first run.
I made a point of going out to run every single day after class. It changed my mood and my outlook on life. I felt motivated. I felt in control. By the time my friends came back from college for Thanksgiving break, I had dropped twenty pounds and probably looked a lot different, not just because I was thinner but also because I felt better about myself. I wasn’t as anxious or depressed the way I usually was, and I dressed better and just carried myself better.
In the years since, I’ve worked my way up from those three miles I struggled through, huffing and puffing but never giving up, to going out every day for an eagerly anticipated ten to fifteen miles. It’s the best part of my day, and it helps inspire me to make the most out of life throughout the hours that follow. That sounds like some cheap quote you’d see on a poster, but what can I say? It’s the truth.
But there’s a lot that I wish I had known in the early days, both that would have made my training program easier and would have given me the encouragement I needed when training got tough. Here’s what I can offer to any newbie runners out there.
It Won’t be Easy All the Time
I might as well get this one out of the way. I think people see trained runners who make running look so effortless, and then they get discouraged when they aren’t able to have such an easy time with it in the beginning. That’s completely all right! What if we gave up that easily when we were learning how to walk? We all would have left toddlerhood and still be crawling around until we were adults. Don’t give up that easily. Stick with it.
Running isn’t easy when you first start out. You need to train your leg muscles, yes, but you also need to train your heart and your lungs to handle the strain. Depending on your fitness level, start by alternating with walking and running. Run for five minutes, then walk for five minutes. See whether you can work your way up to running for a half-hour without stopping. Which leads me to my next point…
Keep your Running Form, Even if you’re Slow
One of the rules I put on myself in the early days was that I had to keep running or jogging no matter how slow I was. I told myself I wasn’t allowed to rest or walk. There were a few times (okay, many times) when I was jogging at such a slow pace that I probably could have gone faster if I were walking. The reason I forced myself to run slowly rather than walk was because I wanted to overcome the mental barrier. It’s easy to push yourself to go faster once you’ve learned not to give up no matter what.
On that note, be sure to recognize the difference between weakness and genuine pain. Weakness can be pushed past and overcome. Pain means something is wrong. And it’s important to differentiate. You won’t make yourself stronger or faster if you don’t push yourself — but you should never try to exercise through pain or extreme fatigue. You’ll end up hurting yourself and derailing your fitness efforts.
Set a Tangible Goal
Don’t let that goal be weight related. Sure, you might ultimately want to lose weight. And you probably will lose weight once you’ve started running consistently. But if you make your goal all about numbers on the scale, you’re going to get discouraged. You have very little control over those numbers on the scale, but you have plenty of control over whether you’re able to stick to a routine of running four days a week, or whether you’re able to run three miles in under a half-hour by Memorial Day Weekend.
Honor your Appointment to Yourself
Decide when running works best with your schedule. Mornings? Afternoons? Evenings? Whenever it is, make an appointment with yourself and honor it. Just as you wouldn’t flake out on an appointment with a client, you shouldn’t flake out on an appointment with yourself. If it helps, when you make the appointment with yourself, try to decide the route you’re going to take and what music station or podcast you want to listen to. This will give you something to look forward to. (Hot take here: There’s nothing better than ‘80s rock for an intense sweat session.)
Running doesn’t Equate to Free-for-All Eating
Everyone thinks that going for a run means you’ll be able to eat whatever you want. It definitely doesn’t. Don’t delude yourself into thinking you can eat an entire pizza because you went for a three-mile run. In fact, eating healthy is probably more important than ever because food is fuel — and you need a high-quality diet if you’re going to reach your maximum performance. I always aim to have a light meal about an hour before and an hour after exercise, something that combines carbohydrates for energy and protein for muscle recovery. Focus on whole grains, vegetables, fruits and lean proteins instead of a lot of processed junk food. Believe me, you will be amazed at how much better you feel.
I’m sure other runners out there will have plenty of other tips they can share with you, and you’ll likely discover some of your own along your journey. If so, drop them in the comments below! Above all, keep a positive attitude, tell yourself you can do it, and enjoy the process. There will be days that are hard, but they’ll just make the days that are good feel that much better.
Dylan Roche is an Annapolis-based writer and marathon runner. As a journalist focused on everything from fitness to arts and culture, he has written for a variety of publications, including Livestrong, What’s Up Annapolis, OurHealth Virginia, UpstART and Chesapeake Family Life. His first novel, “The Purple Bird,” came out in 2019. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @DylanIsWriting