As global warming blesses much of the country with a premature spring, there is no better time to finally achieve your dream of becoming a runner. It’s probably too late for the Olympics, but the great thing about running is that literally anybody can do it, and it costs almost no money. No matter what your background is or current shape, you can become a runner, and gain all the benefits of running like being healthier, feeling better, and living longer. So here’s how you do it, from before your first run to after your 100th.
What should I wear?
Running shoes. This sounds obvious, but I still see people running in basketball shoes and Chuck Taylors. If you have no idea what you are doing, go to your local running store. They’ll (hopefully) have knowledgeable people to help you out, and many these days have fancy treadmills hooked up to computers that analyze your gait and suggest appropriate shoes. (One suggestion: Don’t feel pressured to buy anything you don’t like, but if the salesperson helps you find a shoe you do like, don’t be an asshole and walk out of the store to buy it online.)
As for the rest of your body, wear whatever feels comfortable. I can’t run without compression shorts, but some people like their normal underwear or no underwear at all. Technical fabrics are generally preferable to cotton as they’ll wick moisture away from your body better, but it’s really up to you.
What gadgets do I need?
None, though there are plenty that might enhance your run. I spend at least 10 hours a day staring at a computer screen, and am tethered to my phone, email, Slack, and Twitter. Running is my time to get outside and get away from that all. I usually wear a GPS watch, and sometimes bring my dog, and that’s it.
But if you can’t run without music or podcasts, get an armband for your phone or just hold it in your hand. Be aware that if you’re running outside with your phone it makes you a mugging target, and having ear buds in reduces your awareness of potential dangers, like cars. If you’re on a treadmill, not so much. There are also running backpacks, hip packs, or shorts with pockets if you need to carry money, keys, or an ID, and you can wear a normal watch or a GPS watch to track your run.
Where should I run?
You can run pretty much anywhere, so the place you should run is the place where you will actually stick to it. I loathe treadmills or running in circles around a track and live in the middle of the city, so I just walk outside my house and start running. Sometimes I go on routes I know if I want to hit a certain distance or time, and sometimes I just go wherever my free spirit leads me. Usually a few minutes of staring at Google Maps before a run will provide the requisite inspiration.
But if you are a treadmill runner or hate pounding on concrete, that’s great too! Treadmills can be very convenient, especially in the winter and summer. A well-surfaced track is a great option, or if you’re lucky enough to live near somewhere with trails you can go there. The important thing is actually getting out there and running; where you actually do it doesn’t much matter.
Should I eat before running?
You definitely don’t want to eat a meal within an hour or so of a planned run, but running on an empty stomach feels awful. I prefer running a few hours after a meal, like at 9 p.m. at night, but when I am going to run on an empty stomach, I’ll eat half of a banana and drink some water 15 minutes before I go out. A granola bar, handful of cereal, or piece of toast also work. Basically plain, basic foods, unless you have a stomach of steel.
Should I stretch before running?
Nope. You probably reflexively (heh) want to stretch, but I am going to advise you not to. Think of your pre-running muscles as cold pieces of gum. If you try and stretch them, they’re more liable to break than to stretch. But once you warm your muscles up they’re elastic and stretchy, just like a chewed piece of gum. So if you want to stretch, do so after warming up. I’m talking about after 1o to 15 minutes of running, and then you should be doing dynamic stretching, not static stretching.
Or, you can do what most non-elite runners do, which is just going out there and running. My warm-up is the first quarter or third of my run, as I start out pretty slowly. As I start feeling looser, I pickup speed.
How hard should I run?
This is so important that I am going to bold and italicize it: not very hard at all! Most of the time, running should be really easy. Maybe easy for you is a 7:00 minute mile, or maybe it’s a 13:00 minute mile, but everybody has an easy pace. If you can sing while running you’re going too slow, but if you can’t talk you’re running too fast. A comfortable pace is one where you could mostly hold a conversation during it.
The main reason people hate running is because they go out too fast, and then are out of breath, aching, cramping, and feel absolutely miserable for the rest of the day. The point here is to make running a sustainable, enjoyable, lifelong activity, and the way you do that is by slowing the fuck down! There is nothing shameful about running slowly; the shameful thing is not even trying at all. If you need to stop and walk every few minutes at the beginning, that’s perfectly fine. The important thing is going outside and getting time on your feet. Your endurance will improve rapidly.
How far should I run?
The abstract answer here is that you should run to effort, not distance. You should run comfortably for a distance that makes you work and challenges you occasionally, but is easy most of the time. How much effort you give can and should be affected by things like how you feel, the weather, and how much you’ve run lately.
Now here is some actually useful advice. If you have never run before or feel woefully out of shape, you should follow a Couch to 5K plan. These are made for people who literally cannot run at all, and via thrice weekly workouts gets them to run a 5K (3.1 miles, a standard racing distance) in nine weeks. The whole point of a Couch to 5K plan—and this blog—is that literally anybody can become an adequate runner with a bit of work. It takes no ability or skill at all, only the willpower to lace up your shoes and get off the couch.
How consistently should I run?
For running to be a sustainable hobby, sometimes you have to skip one. If you feel like dogshit, don’t go running. It’s okay to skip a run here or there to go out with friends, or do whatever. Skipping a single training session won’t set back your progress one iota. What will set you back is that slight calf niggle graduating into a full-blown strained calf because you pushed too hard, and all of a sudden you’re out for a month. You should do almost anything to avoid an injury.
All that being said, you should run through minor nicks and pains! Part of what you’re attempting to do is building the habit of running three or four times a week, no matter what else is going on. You’re not going to feel perfect for every run, but most of the time the biggest thing you’re at risk for is running a couple of minutes slower than usual. And besides, running when you aren’t at your best truly does build character.
What do I do after my run?
If possible, you want to avoid collapsing into a chair and doing nothing for an hour. In fact, you want to keep running for a few more minutes, much slower, as a “warm down” run. After that is a great time to do that stretching you wanted to do before your run. You can also eat a bit of protein, though until you get into heavy mileage this probably isn’t strictly necessary. A smoothie or some fruit also make for a great post-run snack.
More generally, when you’re running regularly, taking care of your body becomes a lot more important. It’s a great excuse to do all of those things you already should be doing: sleeping well, cutting back on binge drinking, eating healthy, drinking plenty of water. It also behooves you to do some stretching on your off-days to work out sore muscles, increase flexibility, and strengthen your tendons and joints.
I like to spend 20 or 30 minutes the day after runs (and sometimes five to 10 minutes right before runs) using a foam roller. I do so while watching TV, and if I don’t know how to roll out a specific body part I just enter “[body part] foam roller” into YouTube and watch a couple of videos. Foam rolling hurts like a bitch—especially because my IT bands are very tight—but you feel so much better afterwards. You can also do good work with a muscle stick (which you can build out of PVC pipe for a couple bucks) or a lacrosse ball.
By the way, don’t become a runner to lose weight.
Yeah ... about that.
Running can be a vital cog in a healthy lifestyle, but as a weight loss strategy it’s bad. An average-sized American male running three times a week will take roughly three weeks to lose a pound. It’s not too bad—if the average American male keeps that up for a year, he’ll lose 17 pounds and be looking mighty trim for that 10-year high school reunion! But that supposes no additional caloric intake, which is unrealistic for most people, and rewarding yourself with food occasionally for running will ruin any weight-loss plans.
Running can help encourage the lifestyle changes needed to lose a ton of weight, however. If I eat poorly for a few days and go running I feel terrible, which increases my determination to eat less and eat better. I drink more water, which helps prevent overeating and makes my skin healthier, and cut back on beer so as to avoid the misery of running hungover.
Great, can I run a marathon now?
If you’re ready to graduate from casual to serious runner, that’s great! But remember that the overall goal is to build a healthy exercise habit into the rest of your life, and lifelong runners aren’t built in a day, week, or month.
If you want to ramp up mileage, the general rule is no more than a 10% increase each week. Now, if you’re running three miles three times a week, you’re probably safe adding a fourth day and increasing your mileage by 33%. But while it may seem trivial, a jump from 20 to 25 miles is likely much harder than you think. You probably have the endurance and stamina for it, but your muscles, tendons, and cartilage aren’t prepared. They need to strengthen and gradually adjust to the increased workload and pounding; a sudden jump in mileage is likely to lead to a serious injury.
You also want to be aware of the 80/20 rule. While you don’t have to stick to it doggedly, it says that 80% of your runs should be easy, and 20% hard. Yes, even elite marathoners basically follow this rule. They might be running 120 miles a week, but the vast majority of those miles are easy miles (for them) and nowhere near race pace. Doing so builds endurance and strength, while preventing injury and burnout.
Finally, while some people can run forever just for running’s sake, the rest of us can be encouraged by a goal. Sign up for a race! No matter where you live, I can assure you that there are dozens of upcoming races, from fun runs to serious races, at all sorts of distances. While you probably aren’t going to win, having something to train for provides encouragement on those days where you just don’t want to get up and run.
And, believe me, we all have those days.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.