Practical advice for beginning runners

Long ago when I decided to start running, I had absolutely no clue what to do.   I thought that I would just walk out the door and start walking, then eventually I would work my way up to running and that would be that.

Um, not so much.

Over the past three-ish years since I took my first tentative (and painful) steps as a wanna-be runner, I've learned a lot.  A LOT.  Most of it is totally common sense stuff if you've been running for a while, but I wish, oh how I wish someone would have told me this stuff when I was first getting started.

So here, from me to you, is my best advice for a beginning runner.

1.  You need good shoes.  When I first started out, I thought that I needed all the latest gadgets like a NIKE+ SPORTWATCH (OMG THEY MAKE IT RED NOW!!!), or really cute t-shirts with sayings like "Run Like Zombies are Chasing You" or "One Bottle of Wine =5 Miles" or whatever.  I love those things, and I wanted those things, but the only thing I really NEEDED was good running shoes. 

Now here'e the thing about running shoes.  MY perfect running shoes are probably not going to be YOUR perfect running shoes.  As someone who ran a half-marathon in poorly fitting shoes, I can tell you that it would be in your very best interest to go somewhere and get fitted by a professional.  Then, PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD try them out.  Oh, and did I mention make sure that they fit???  In a nutshell, if your feet hurt when you run, if you get blisters , if your toenails fall off, or if YOUR FEET HURT, you are probably wearing the wrong shoes.

2. Set a running plan.  I'm a big fan of the Couch to 5kplan, and I used it when I first started running.  You start out doing a mixture of walking and running at specific intervals, and gradually increase your running time while decreasing your walking time.  But if this plan doesn't work for you, set your own.  Then stick to it (mostly).  Even if your running plan is as vague as "Run Monday, Wednesday and Saturday for 20 minutes," it's still a plan.  And you need a plan. 

3.  Set some running goals.  When I first started running, my goal was to run a 5k without embarrassing myself (much).  After that was accomplished, I set other racing goals, all the way to running a half-marathon.  If road races aren't your thing, though, that's ok.  Right now, for a variety of reasons (like no childcare... and no childcare) I'm not running races, but I still set a goal to run 1,000 miles in 2013.  The important thing is that you have a running goal to work towards at all times.  Maybe your goal when you start will be to run one mile without stopping, or to increase your speed per mile.  It doesn't matter what the goal is, just that you're working toward something that's important to you.

4.  Find a support system. Maybe your spouse/best friend/neighbor/kids/sibling or whoever is already a runner and that's part of what's egging you on.  If so, fabulous!  You have a built in support system already.  If that's not the case, though, find someone (or a group of someones) that you can talk running with.  Most cities have running groups that are free to join, or if you're not much of a joiner (like me!) you can find plenty of online only groups, like this Facebook group my friend Natalie and I started.  I can guarantee you that your non-runner friends' eyes will glaze over after you have spent 15 minutes talking about your latest race pace time, so it's important for you to find other people who are doing the running thing too, so you can ask questions, set group goals, or just encourage and motivate each other.

5. Listen to your body.  When I first started running, I hurt ALL. THE. TIME.  Most of the hurt was normal (soreness), but sometimes, it just wasn't.  A good general rule of thumb is that if the same spot hurts for two days in a row, take two days off.  As you get more used to running, you will get better at knowing what's normal running pain (HA!) and what might need some attention, but at first, err on the side of caution and don't overdo it to the point of causing yourself permanent damage.  

6.  If you don't push yourself, you won't get any better.   If you run at the same speed, or run the same route, or run on the treadmill at the same incline all the time, your body will get used to it (quickly!!!)  and you will stop growing as a runner.  So switch things up.  Some days run faster.  Some days run longer.  Run a different route.  Whatever you need to do to change things up, do it.  You will be a better runner for it.

7. Cross training is important.  If you're serious about becoming a life-long runner, you need to do some cross training, too.  Running only works certain muscle groups, but you can increase your stamina and your speed by regularly working on the muscle groups that SUPPORT your running muscles.  I like to kick box and ride the stationary bike.  Some runners swear by lifting weights, and others love the elliptical.  Whatever your choice, it really is important to switch your exercise methods up in order to become a more solid runner. 

8. Take time off.  There are days that I REALLY don't think I want to run.  Usually, I talk myself into it by saying "Ok, I'll put on my shoes and just run a MILE.  Then I can stop."  Except the mile come and goes, and by then I'm pretty well into it with no interest in stopping.  However, it is important to take rest days to let your body repair itself.  Pretty much everything I've read says four or five days of running per week is PLENTY, no matter what level of running you're at.  Also, if you're going on vacation, or have something important going on in your "real" life, you can take a more extended break.  Be prepared, though.  For me, if I stop running altogether for more than three or so weeks, I feel like I'm starting all over.  I think what you're going for here is balance and common sense. 

9.  Hydration and good nutrition are a must.  It took me months of trial and error to figure out what kinds of foods would fuel me for long runs.  What works best for me is a combo of carbs and protein, like an egg white omelet wrapped up in a tortilla or peanut butter and banana toast (my favorite go-to meal before a race or a long run!).  This is what works for me; you have to figure what works for you.  You do need SOMETHING to fuel all the energy you will expend while running, though, and as a matter of... um... gastrointestinal preference, I usually wait at least 45 minutes to an hour after eating before I run.  Oh, and you need water.  Lots and lots of water.  You need it before your run, during your run, and after your run.   

10.  Figure our what motivates you!  Something made you decide to start running.  Maybe it's a weight loss goal, or an overall attempt at a healthier lifestyle, or maybe its' just something you've always wanted to do.  Whatever your reason, it will get old QUICKLY if you don't enjoy what you're doing.  Personally, I get such a rush from my own personal achievements that it keeps me coming back for more.  I'm super competitive, and running is a perfect (and healthy) way for me to use that to my advantage.  Maybe for you, running is a social outlet and that keeps you interested.  Whatever the reason, figuring out what makes you tick will make you a more consistent and dedicated runner.

At the end of the day, though, the best advice I could give to anyone who is just starting on his/her running journey is pretty simple - HAVE FUN, and the rest will fall in line. 

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