Matt Fitzgerald—Running is probably the world’s best form of exercise. It builds fitness, increases health, promotes a healthy body weight, and can be done just about anywhere by anyone. Runners will also tell you that running is highly enjoyable. However, running does not make a great first impression on many beginners who experience the exertion of running as unpleasant. In fact, according to the 2011 Runner’s Survey conducted by Running USA, the perceived “hardness” of running is the number-one barrier to becoming a runner among non-runners.
There’s a Catch-22 here. You have to enjoy running to do it regularly and you have to run regularly to be fit enough to enjoy running. How does a beginner negotiate this paradox to become a runner who enjoys the activity and its many benefits? Learn how over the following pages.
Go At Your Own Pace
Many fitness experts encourage men and women to exercise at certain physiological intensities that are proven to be most effective in stimulating desired results. The trouble with this approach is that beginners often experience these externally imposed intensity targets as unpleasant, which discourages them from continuing their exercise program.
Research has shown that beginners experience exercise as far more enjoyable when they are allowed to select their own exercise intensity. Yes, the intensity is often lower with this approach and it takes longer to build fitness, but that doesn’t matter at all if it makes the difference between continuing and quitting.
Other research has shown that beginning exercisers who have a relatively pleasant first workout experience are much more likely to still be exercising six months later than beginners who are miserable in their first workout. So it’s important to do whatever it takes to make exercise as enjoyable as you can make it when you’re just starting out. One way to do that in running is to choose the pace you’re most comfortable with. Don’t let any internal sense of obligation or outside force compel you to go faster than you’re ready to go.
It’s not just the exertion experienced during running that discourages many beginners from continuing. It’s also the soreness experienced afterward. So-called delayed-onset muscle soreness is caused by muscle damage associated with unaccustomed levels of exertion. It’s another Catch-22. Once you get accustomed to the exertion of running, you will experience less DOMS. But you must first experience DOMS to become resistant to it.
While DOMS is unavoidable for the beginning runner, you can minimize it by “inoculating” your muscles to the stress of running when you start your running program. The muscles become more resistant to the stress of running after the very first exposure to it. Therefore, in your first workout you want to apply just enough stress to trigger this effect and no more, because doing any more will only result in more soreness without resulting in any more resistance to future muscle damage.
I suggest you make your first run very short—only about 10 minutes. And instead of running for 10 minutes continuously, break it up. Run faster than you normally would for 15 to 30 seconds, then slow to a walk. When you’re ready, run for another 15 to 30 seconds, then walk again. Continue in this manner until you’ve put in 10 minutes and stop, even if you feel you could do more. Sure, you feel good now, but you will feel sore tomorrow—yet less sore than you would if you continued. And most important, you’ll feel less sore after subsequent runs thanks to this inoculation.
Give It A Month
If you are consistent and you build your running sensibly, it will take you about a month to start feeling noticeably more comfortable when you run. It’s important to know this and set your expectations accordingly when you begin a running program. Going in with unrealistic hopes of getting fitter within a week will only set you up for discouragement and quitting. On the other hand, you’ll have an easier time sticking with it if you know that getting over the hump will not take longer than about four weeks.
Take a “no excuses” mentality into your first month of running. Don’t miss a single planned run for any reason, no matter how much you dread the next one. If you do this, you will progress at the maximum rate possible and find yourself enjoying your runs after four weeks and no longer needing to psych yourself into doing the next run.
Enter An Event
Nothing hooks a beginner on running like the magical experience of crossing a finish line. So if you want to get hooked on running, don’t waste any time in signing up for your first event. This may seem counterintuitive to some. Signing up for an event is more ambitious and potentially intimidating for the beginner than pursuing a more modest initial goal, but that’s actually part of the reason it works. The ambitiousness of preparing for a formal running event as a beginner is part of the reason you feel like you’ve really done something special when you cross that first finish line, and hunger to experience the same feeling again.
Plus, when I say “sign up for an event”, I mean sign up for a 5K, which is not too terribly daunting. Trust me on this one.