I’ve done a lot of talking about getting ready to start running, but you know, at some point you have to transition from the state of thinking about something to actually doing it. Procrastinators know this moment well. It can also seem a little daunting, because if your time in high school was anything like mine, running has all sorts of horrific associations with it.
But at some point, you’ve just got to do it.
However, I can tell you confidently that after years of avoiding that whole fitness thing, you’re not going to be able to just tie your shoes on one day and burst out of your front door to knock off a couple quick miles before breakfast. And if you can, let the record state that I hate you for it.
It’s rough to get started on something you’ve dedicated years of your life to avoiding. But it’s worth giving it a shot, because you might decide (like I did) that you love the shit out of running. Throwing yourself into a wall repeatedly isn’t going to help you discover that love, though. You have to start out slow and work your way up as you build your body, and that’s okay.
So how do you get started? Here’s the tricks that worked for me.
You have to walk before you can run
You’re not going to be able to run a distance that you can’t even walk, or run for a length of time for which you can’t sustain a good walking pace. So that’s the place to start. Walk. Walk a lot. Walk everywhere. And don’t just meander – walk like you have a purpose. Walk quickly enough that it does make you breathe a little bit harder, and keep pushing yourself over the weeks until you can walk fast enough that the next logical step really does seem like running.
I know that walking is not exactly the most electrifying exercise in the world. But if you don’t partake in regular physical activity (even as much as walking to the bus stop every day) it’s probably the best place to start, a ramp-up to more difficult exercise. It’s also nicer to the environment than driving everywhere. Get an MP3 player and get yourself some podcasts; I time a lot of things where I don’t need music for pacing (like bike rides) with podcasts, and it also makes the activity more interesting.
Once you’re good with walking, it’s time to kick it up to the next level.
Just as a note, before you even try out these tricks, you need to warm up first. Stretch, walk a bit (I normally do a quarter mile or a little less) and then do a quick stretch again if any of your muscles are feeling tight. You really don’t want to just bomb out of your front door and hit the ground running. Trust me. Also, cool down at the end, just do the same thing in reverse. Your muscles will send you a nice fruit basket once they get over hating you for exercising at all.
This is a piece of advice I got from a friend of mine who was in the Army. (Actually, oddly enough, all the good running advice I’ve ever gotten has been from Army people.) I’m personally not a fan of intervals because I prefer to run on trails, but I know they work really, really well for some people.
It’s simple. You start out on a sidewalk where there are light poles, telephone poles, whatever you can find at regular, fairly closely spaced intervals for a good stretch. Say you’re on a stretch of sidewalk with ten light poles. Run from pole 1 to 2, then slow to a walk from 2 to 3, then run again from 3 to 4. You get the pattern. Once you can do that without dying, start making the running intervals longer. Run from 1 to 3, then walk from 3 to 4, then run from 4 to 6. You get the idea. After a while, you’ll be able to get rid of the walking intervals entirely.
This is actually the method that I used to learn to run, taught to me by the Army recruiters. They called it the Airborne Shuffle. Since it’s difficult to try to describe wholly as text, have a terrible video that I have prepared as an illustration:
The basic idea is that you run, and you push yourself to keep running until you feel like you can’t keep going any more, at which point you drop down to what is effectively running in place. You’ll be barely inching forward, but you should still be shuffling your feet at close to the pace you were using to run. Shuffle until you’ve caught your breath, then start running again.
What I particularly like about the shuffle is that it prevents your muscles from cramping, which is something walking has never done for me. Particularly when you’re starting out, your muscles are going to be angry with you, and they will cramp out of sheer bloody-minded vengeance if you just give them half a chance. Shuffling keeps your muscles moving but lets you catch your breath.
And trust me, when you’re first starting out, you want every scrap of breath you can get your lungs on.
When you’re starting out, I think your body tends to go into full-scale holy shit what are you doing to me red alert. You’ll get muscle cramps (hint: don’t stop moving unless it’s a 10 second pause to stretch it out) and you’ll want to start panting for breath.
Don’t do it. It’s a trap. You’ve probably noticed that if you start panting, that can lead pretty easily to wheezing, and then you’re crouched on the side of the trail with your head between your knees and a helpful old lady asking if you need an ambulance while her pekapoo sniffs at your shoes in the meditative way dogs have of showing they’re thinking it’s a good time for urine.
You want to avoid this.
The best way to do this is count paces while you breathe. For example, breathe in for three, breathe out for three. If you hit a point where you feel like you need to breathe faster than that, slow down and catch your breath. You can mirror this effect by trying to talk while you run, but this tends to creep people out if you’re clearly by yourself.
Another Army guy trick I learned is that you should breathe in through your mouth, but out through your nose. This makes your exhalation slower and keeps your from sucking wind too hard, so to speak. (Though if you do this, I recommend you carry some kleenex along.) Again, if you’re doing this and you hit a point where you feel like you’re not getting enough air, slow down.
There are no cheat codes.
Don’t get frustrated
You’re going to be slow when you start. You’re going to have to stop and walk or shuffle so that you can catch your breath. It’s okay. It will get better, I promise. The first few weeks are the toughest, but you will see improvement, and you will start feeling good. Don’t get frustrated. It’s a work in progress, it’s a challenge, but you can do it.
Hi, I’m Rachael. I’m a fat nerd. I also run, bike, and have done kung fu for eight years. I’m not writing this because I want to be some kind of fitness guru. Hell no, that would be ridiculous. I’m writing this because I’ve got a lot of friends that struggle with the [metaphorical] Fitness Demon and I’m hoping my experience might make things a little easier for them. I’m also writing this because it’s a lot of stuff I wish someone had told me, back when I was making attempt after unsuccessful attempt to get into this exercise thing. If it helps you out, great.