My Three Most Important Tips for Beginner Runners
By Mike Smith
One of the greatest joys I get as a coach is assisting someone to get off the ground for the first time. While the action of running is a simple activity, starting a running program isn’t as easy as it looks. One of the very reasons I started coaching was to help people go about this activity in a way that sets them up for success. Here are my three biggest tips for beginner runners:
1. Target one thing at a time: Exercise is measured in three ways: intensity (how hard we go), duration (how far we go), and frequency (how often we go). Many times beginning runners try to make gains in each of these areas at once, introducing this new stress to the body and at the same time trying to run farther and faster each time they run. This is too much to adapt to at one time and the fastest way to lead to frustration, wasted effort, and disappointment. Instead, target just one piece at a time, and in this order: First, frequency: without worrying about how fast or how far you’re going, slowly build up the number of days you are able to be active. Before anything, give your body time to accept this new stress and make the necessary adaptations to accommodate it efficiently. Once you’re consistent in the number of days you are able to be active, then pick one or two days a week to explore duration, see what happens when you add another 5-10 minutes to a run. What do you notice? If you’ve started with a run/walk program, you might focus on increasing the ratio of running to walking, extending running segments and/or shortening walking portions. Lastly, once frequency and duration are off the ground, focus on intensity. By this point the musculoskeletal system has adapted to the impact of your new activity, and can now safely handle the exploration of different paces. No, this doesn’t mean to take off in a full sprint. Again pick one or two days during the week to time yourself over a route or part of a route, or throw some light pickups into the mix of your run. I cannot stress enough that all three of these criteria, how often we run, how far, and how fast, should be increased gradually. Patience must balance enthusiasm when starting, and patience will pay off big.
2. Make a positive association with running: One of the biggest reasons people who want to start running don’t do it is based on a negative thought or feeling about the activity. This usually comes from memories of discomfort during the times they have attempted running in the past. I often hear, “I tried running for a week but it hurt so much I hated it. I’ve decided I’m just not a runner.” Upon further inquiry I find that these people had no proper guidance in how they started, which mostly leads to mistakes in the first 30 seconds: going too fast (“but it felt easy at first!”), being very uncomfortable by 5 minutes, walking at 10 minutes, and repeating for a few days until they give up discouraged. After a week of this, when they look at their running shoes by the door, all they can think of is aching knees, burning lungs, and the thought of “I’ll never get better”. Who wouldn’t want to quit then? Instead, trick the brain to want to go again by making these first efforts positive experiences. Start easier than you think you should, finish feeling good, and celebrate the very fact that you’re out there! Once the activity becomes something positive that you look forward to and not something you dread, you’re more likely to keep getting out there.
3. Focus on yourself: Lastly, when running with others, be sure to only measure progress against yourself. Everyone’s background and starting point is different, everyone’s body unique, thus the way we improve will vary greatly as well. While the company of others is helpful, don’t compare yourself to them (even other beginners), instead concentrate on your own individual progress. Look at the changes you notice in your body, the differences in how you feel when finishing a run, or your ability to go a little bit farther than before. One of the greatest aspects of this sport is that progress, success, and victories can all be measured by yourself, no matter how fast you cover ground. Don’t ever say the words, “I’m slow”! Slow compared to who? Fast and slow are relative terms and will always be. No matter how slow you tell me you are, you’re faster than the person on the couch who wouldn’t dream of doing what you’re doing. Accept your own starting point, wherever that is, seek improvement in the right ways, and watch the magic happen.