For the past two years, I’ve been teaching a class for beginning runners at the University of Oregon. But this is no typical college course, because we spend more time running together than discussing and debating.
The class meets twice a week for 50 minutes at a time. For homework, I suggest that class members do an additional run or two each week.
I’ve shrunk my class lectures into mini-lessons that I can speak in minutes or write in a single paragraph. I give my students only those nuggets that are most important for them to learn in our 10 weeks together.
Think of these lessons as Cliff Notes for “Running 101.” Learn them, and you can make it through your beginning-running efforts with an “A” grade.
1. Welcome to the starting line. This might be your first try at running, or a return visit, or an attempt to improve on what you already do. The less running you’ve done recently, the more you can expect to improve your distances and speeds in the next 10 weeks. On the other hand, the less you’ve run lately, the more likely you are to hurt yourself by doing too much running, too soon. That’s why it’s so important to set two related goals as you start or restart your running program: maximize improvements and minimize injuries. You win by improving. You lose by getting hurt.
2. Buy the right shoes. They are the biggest equipment expense for runners, so it’s important to get it right. Spend wisely by buying well-made shoes from a major brand. Search out a model that fits you properly, and is designed for the surface you’ll run on most often-roads, tracks, or trails. If you’re not sure which shoe will work best for you, shop at a running-specialty store staffed by veteran runners and shoe experts. After you buy your shoes, remember that even the best have a limited lifespan. Plan to replace them after about 350 to 500 miles of wear.
3. Make a plan. The two basic raw materials of a running routine are time and space. And the two main reasons given by those who don’t run? “I don’t have time for it,” and “I don’t have anywhere to do it.” Let’s dissect those excuses. You can run well and get in great shape with as little as a 30-minute session every other day. Think of it as the time you won’t waste by watching a sitcom rerun. As for finding places to run: Anywhere that’s safe for walking is also fine for running. Off-road routes (parks, bike paths, high school tracks) are better than high-traffic streets, and soft surfaces (grass, dirt) are better than paved ones, but any choice is better than staying home. Major suggestion: Map out the best courses in your immediate neighborhood. That saves time, solves the “place” issue, and makes it much more likely that you’ll actually do your planned runs.
4. Take the mile trial. Friends who hear that you’ve begun running will soon ask, “What’s your best mile time?” so you might as well get used to it. Before long, you’ll be calculating your pace-per-mile on longer runs, but you should begin with a simple 1-mile test run (four laps on a standard track) to determine your starting point. Think of this run as a low-key test, not a race. Run at a pace a little beyond easy but less than a struggle, and count on improving your mile time in later tests as your fitness improves.
5. Get F-I-T. Kenneth Cooper, M.D., a giant in the fitness field, long ago devised a simple formula for improving as a runner: Run 2 to 3 miles, 3 to 5 days a week at a comfortable pace. It’s easier to remember as the F-I-T formula: frequency (at least every other day); intensity (comfortable pace); and time (about 30 minutes). Even with walking breaks, you can cover 2 miles in 30 minutes, and you might soon be running 3 miles in that time. It’s important to run these efforts at an easy, comfortable pace. Think of yourself as the Tortoise, not the Hare. Make haste slowly.
6. Find your pace. Okay, so I’ve told you to make it comfortable. Sounds simple. The problem is that most beginning runners don’t know what a comfortable pace feels like, so they push too hard. Result: They get overly fatigued and discouraged, or even injured. Here are some more guidelines. A comfortable pace is 1 to 2 minutes per mile slower than your mile trial time. Or you can use a heart-rate monitor and run at 65 to 75 percent of your maximum heart rate. (Note: Max heart rate is 205 minus half your age). Or, my favorite because it’s so simple: Listen to your breathing. If you aren’t gasping for air, and you can talk while you’re running, your pace is just right.
7. Remember to warm up and cool down. Don’t confuse a little stretching with a good warmup. Stretching exercises generally don’t make you sweat or raise your heart rate, which is what you really want from a warmup. A proper warmup begins with walking or running very slowly to ease your body into the session.
My recommendation: Walk briskly for 5 minutes (about a quarter-mile), then break into your comfortable running pace. (Don’t count the warmup as part of your workout time or distance.) When you finish your run, resist the urge to stop suddenly. Instead, walk another 5 minutes to cool down more gradually. Then comes the best time for stretching–after your run when your muscles are warm and ready to be stretched a little.
8. Don’t hesitate to walk. Walk is not a four-letter word for runners. Pausing to walk during a run is not a form of cheating, but a common practice among experienced runners. It is a form of interval training that breaks a big piece of work into smaller pieces, making it more doable. Mix running and walking in these ways: when you’re starting to run for the first time; to regain fitness after a long layoff, injury, or illness; to warm up before a run, and to cool down afterward; to make your fast running faster, which is the classic use of interval training; to make long runs longer; and to make easy runs easier. You’ll find that walk breaks work best when you walk for at least 1 minute but no longer than 5 minutes.
9. Run safely at all times. The biggest threat you’ll face as a runner on the road, by far, is the car. Traffic zips past you at just about a yard away. A moment’s attention lapse from either you or the driver can bring disaster, and you’ll be the one to suffer, not the well-protected driver.
The best way to lower this risk is to avoid running on roads. But for many of us, this is a near-impossibility. Or it’s an approach that adds time and complexity to our routine (if we have to drive to a park, for example). So most of us just learn to be extremely cautious when we run on the roads. We try to find low-traffic roads with wide shoulders; we run on the left side of the road, facing traffic; we obey traffic signs and signals; and we follow every road rule our parents taught us by the time we were 7. Every runner should run as if every car is a lethal weapon. Because it is.
10. Use pain as your guide. Runners get hurt. Of course, we rarely hurt ourselves as seriously as skiers and linebackers, but injuries do happen. Most are musculoskeletal, meaning that we recover rapidly when we take days off or other appropriate action (like ice treatment). And most are self-inflicted. We bring them on by running too far, too fast, too soon, or too often. Prevention is often as simple as a change of routine. Use pain as your guide. If you can’t run steadily without pain, mix walking and running. If you can’t run-walk, simply walk. If you can’t walk, bicycle. If you can’t bike, swim. As you recover, climb back up this fitness ladder.
11. Pay attention to your form. Running form is as individual as a fingerprint and is too inborn to change very much. But, with practice, you can make minor modifications to become a more efficient runner. Run “tall” and upright, not with a pronounced forward lean. Look toward the horizon, not at your feet. Run faster by increasing your stride turnover, not by overreaching with each stride. On uphills, shorten your stride, and drive more with the arms. Try to maintain even effort, not pace. When running downhill, let gravity work for you by leaning slightly forward.
12. Eat and drink the right foods. Sports nutrition is too big of a topic to cover thoroughly here. But, in general, the rules for good nutrition and fluid consumption are the same for runners as everyone else. Three areas of special interest to runners: (1) control your weight, as extra pounds will slow you down; (2) eat lightly an hour before training and 2 hours before racing; (3) drink 8 to 16 ounces of water or sports drink an hour before running, as dehydration can be dangerous.
13. Add a little stretching and strengthening. Running is a specialized activity, working mainly the legs. If you’re seeking more complete, total-body fitness, you need to supplement your running workouts with other exercises. These should aim to strengthen the muscles that running neglects, and stretch those that running tightens, which means strengthening the upper body and stretching the legs. Add a few minutes of strengthening and stretching after your running workouts, because that’s when these exercises tend to do the most good.
14. Follow the hard-day/easy-day training system. Most runs need to be easy. This is true whether you’re a beginning runner or an elite athlete. (Of course, the definition of “easy” varies hugely for these groups; an easy mile for an elite runner would probably be impossible for many beginners or even veteran runners.) As a new runner, make sure you limit yourself to one big day a week. Run longer and slower than normal, or shorter and faster than normal, or go to the starting line in a race where you’ll try to maintain your best appropriate pace for the entire race distance.
15. Congratulations: You’re a winner. One of the great beauties of running is that it gives everyone a chance to win. Winning isn’t automatic; you still have to work for success and risk failure. But in running, unlike in other sports, there’s no need to beat an opponent or an arbitrary standard (such as “par” in golf). Runners measure themselves against their own standards. When you improve a time, or increase a distance, or set a personal record in a race, you win–no matter what anyone else has done on the same day.
You can win even bigger simply by keeping at it for the long haul, for years and decades. You don’t have to run very far or fast to outrun people who have dropped out. It’s the Tortoise and the Hare story all over again. Slow and steady always wins the race.
While Joe Henderson encourages his students to move for 30 minutes at a time, the experts at the American College of Sports Medicine say you need only 20 minutes of continuous running, three or four times a week, to begin accumulating the important benefits of an exercise program. Pace is not important. The key is continuous movement.
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