I started on April 1st as a joke on myself. I didn’t expect to last long. I was 41, overweight, and out of shape. I figured my knees would give out. Something would give out. I went out on sand to see what I could do. I could not run a half mile. Heck, I couldn’t run two blocks!
By August I was running 6 miles on the beach from my house to Cannon Beach, twice a week. I’ve done this most of the fifteen summers since then. When cross country practice rolled around in 1994, I could keep up with all but the varsity runners during practice.
You can do that too.
If you’ve never run before or consider yourself a non-athlete, here are three approaches to getting in shape for the novice runner. Each focuses on a single aspect of running.
1. DISTANCE. Start with a short distance. Maybe a half mile to start, and run it at whatever pace you can manage, do it regularly, and after about three or four weeks, you’ll notice that it’s becoming easier. At that point start increasing your distance by fifty yards or so and see how that goes. At first every increase will seem hard, but once you’ve been at this—honest—it simply gets easier. One day you’ll be running a mile and a quarter and the next you will realize that you can run two miles. And then you'll work to three miles. This is how I did it the first time... but check out my "secret" below.
2. OR. Start with a given distance, perhaps the distance you want to be able to run, a 5K, which is 3.1 miles. Measure it out and run as much of it as you can, then walk to the end. Each day try to run a few feet further into that distance. After three-four weeks you will notice that you’re not as out of breath and it feels “easier.” It is.
3. TIME. Start with a time, say three minutes. Run three minutes (or two or only one), walk one minute, run three. Do this rotation once and after a week or when you can, add rotations until you're running and walking for a longer and longer period of time. When you can run and walk for a half hour, gradually increase the running time, say by a half minute in each rotation a week, and reduce the walking time, until you can run for an entire half hour.
STRETCHING. Not everyone stretches, especially before a run. Stretching for at least 5 minutes is probably a good idea, and most runners at least stretch after they’ve run. Trying to explain stretches without pictures is tricky. Have someone show you. The goal is to stretch each major muscle in the direction it will or has been working—front and back of thighs, front and back of calves, etc. Be gentle. Don’t bounce, don’t force. Relax into the stretch and hold each one for 30-45 seconds. The whole process requires only a few minutes.
MY SECRET TO SUCCESS. Here’s my secret to becoming a strong runner from a dead stop. Run every other day. Rest a day. That’s how I did it, and it’s still what I do when I’ve gotten out of shape and am trying to get back into shape. Run one day, rest the next. Most training programs include three rest days each week for novice runners. Maybe it seems counter intuitive, but resting will get you further faster. Putting 48 hours between your runs allows your body to heal any slight damage from your gradual conditioning (not pain, this should not hurt) and to build strength. It also allows you in the early weeks to reason with yourself: Run today and you won’t have to run tomorrow! Put your feet up after a run and rest.
SPEED. The only way to become a faster runner is to run faster. No magic. I became a faster runner when I began running with faster runners and started timing myself. I ran 9½ minute miles and then I ran 9 minute miles and then I worked to run faster than that. My best time ever was 25 minutes for a 3-mile run of steep hills. One summer I consistently ran 6 miles on the beach in 54 minutes, 9 minute miles. I’m proud of those times, but running for speed is a great way to injure yourself. Once you're in shape and want to speed up ask another runner or Google Fartleks (a Swedish term, “speed play”): race for less than a minute, slow down, race, slow down. Another way to build speed: At the end of a run, move those arms up higher, take longer, quicker strides and race for the last hundred yards. When you’re not in shape, running for speed just messes you up and wears you down. THEREFORE, don’t start with speed. I had been running for four and a half months back in 1994 before I bought myself a sport watch and began to time my runs. Just cover the distance and when that becomes “easy,” you can start shaving time by running faster.
PAIN. Running shouldn’t hurt. No matter what your high school coach or PE teacher told you, “No Pain/No Gain” is a crock. If you hurt after a run it’s because you’ve damaged something. That means your body has to repair itself AND get stronger. You want to focus on strength and not waste energy fixing damaged muscle. You might feel a twinge while you’re running, but if you are conditioning gradually and feel a twinge in your right knee, for example, it ought to go away if you keep going light for another couple or three minutes. If pain doesn’t go away, do not “run through the pain," slow to a walk, stop and stretch, take it easy, until the pain is gone. If you start running again and feel that pain, especially if it hurts worse or still hurts when you stop, you’ve damaged something. Stop running. Rest. See a doctor or talk to a knowledgeable coach. This probably won’t happen. Over the past fifteen years I’ve had shin splints and stone bruises and these injuries happened when I ran with someone I shouldn’t have tried to keep up with. All by myself, I pay attention to my body. I rest when I should. I don’t try to do it all at once. I feel TERRIFIC after a run. So should you.
GEAR. Neil Branson, my running god, used to tell his team that one great thing about running is that you don’t need any special equipment to do it. Compared to the football players who used to practice in the field where our cross country team warmed up, that’s true. But strictly speaking, it’s only wishful thinking. You do need gear. You need good shoes. Go to a running store where they carry many brands of running shoes. Bring a pair of old shoes to show them how you wear them down. They will put shoes on your feet that fit, and encourage you to run around in them a bit. Buy shoes from them, no matter the cost. Expect to pay $75-120 for correct shoes. Buy socks with a looped toe seam and try them on with your shoes before you buy them both at the same time. You need a tank and a light shirt. Until I’d been running for six months I’d never considered wearing synthetic fibers, but cotton really isn’t the best for gear you’ll sweat into for 30-60 minutes. A running store can help you here, too. Online, Road Runner is a good outfit. For women, I suggest Title Nine, which is helpful on the phone. This is important because you need a good sport bra and Title Nine will find you exactly what you need. If your thighs touch (women know what I mean) buy yourself knee length or capri tights instead of shorts or you’ll chafe. Everything you get should be absolutely comfortable when you try it on—though the bra will feel tighter than you’re used to, it shouldn’t pinch, cut, or chafe. Those running shoes will feel like heaven.
FORM. All I worried about at first was getting in shape to run. I didn’t worry about form or speed or anything else except to be able to run. Watch really good runners who make running look easy. It is easy for them because they are in shape and because they have developed an efficient form. They move their arms evenly, straight ahead of them and then down, as if plucking something from their hip pockets. If you’re holding your arms in front of your chest, you need a better sport bra. If you’re holding them too high, crossing them in front of your chest, or behind your back, you’re wasting energy. Relax your hands, keep your chin level with the ground, keep your feet running quietly on the ground. Bowen, a runner I knew from cross country used to say: Quiet feet are happy feet. And that’s true. If you’re slapping your feet on the ground, you’re hurting them, and pain is not part of our game plan.
LOCATION. LOCATION. LOCATION. It matters where you run. Cinder, wet sand, and earth are easiest on your feet and all your joints. Gravel can shift under you, but isn't bad if it's fine gravel. Pavement is hard on your feet. Cement is a killer. Running a track is boring to me, but the footing is perfect and it might be worth running laps to have that surface to run on. My favorite surface is wet sand at low tide, which is flat and giving, but tricky to manage in the winter, so I do some running on gravel and pavement. Avoid hills when you start—any slope at all is an additional challenge that you don’t need when you’re trying to get in shape. Run on the flat, even if that means driving to find a giving, flat surface. Once you can run your target distance, add a run on hills once a week. Be prepared to slow down or take a walking break when you run hills.* Don’t run downhill faster than you’d run on the flat. This is how injuries happen. [*I once won a 5k race in my age bracket by taking a 30-second walking break midway and then pushing all the harder through the second half.]
A last word about distance. The famous Oregon runner Steve "Pre" Prefontaine used to train by running a hundred miles a week. If he'd lived long enough, his joints would have turned to mush. You don't have to do that. You're not training to complete in the Olympics. You just want to feel stronger and lighter and maybe run in the Race for the Cure or the Shamrock Run. Running 12-15 miles a week might be your perfect end goal. Do some strength training on your off days, add a half hour walk each day and you have an excellent fitness program. You'll make your health care provider happy and your body will thank you.
Running is good for your heart, bones, immune system, and mental attitude. Once you’re in shape for your 5K, you can run more often than every other day, but still give yourself rest days, and you’ll probably feel more cheerful and alert because of it. My husband turned 60 last fall and brags, “I can still do hills.” That's him up top.
We’ve registered for the Portland Half Marathon 10 October 2010 and this month we began training: three miles each on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. The sun isn’t up when we go out, but we both prefer the mornings. When we can, we run the beach. Along about March we'll add some distance. We feel great on the days we run. I never thought I'd be a runner past 50, but at 57 I'm thinking I might become one of those crazy people who still run at 70.
PS It's June as I write this addendum, and we're running 24 miles each week—6 miles for the first time the other day—and we're feeling pretty good. I needed new shoes along about March and then just yesterday had to relace them to take pressure off the top of my feet.