I love endurance sport, but it wasn’t a straightforward road into it. I’ve started having people ask me about how to start running or biking so lately during my workouts I’ve begun thinking about the things I’ve learned. As usual, to better my thinking, I’ve decided to write down and publish the basics of each sport for someone brand new. I’m starting today with distance running.
I began running cross country during my sophomore year of high school to get in shape for soccer. Running on sidewalks in the afternoon heat and post-rain humidity of South Florida was not fun. However, racing was a lot of fun and the camaraderie was good so I stuck with it. But after graduation, I didn’t run again for six or seven years.
I was convinced to do a local 5k race with friends and realized running is not as bad as I thought it was. The cooler Chicago weather probably helped. After a couple of years doing occasional 5ks, I decided to start really training to do a triathlon and eventually a half marathon.
I fell in love with distance running again, but there were a few things I learned along the way that I wanted to be able to pass on to others who might be interested in starting running. I’ll start with what to expect when beginning to run, then go through a couple of techniques that should both help you run faster/easier as well as prevent injury, and finish with a couple of new areas you can grow into.
What to Expect
Getting in basic running shape sucks. There is no sugar coating it, it will not be fun for the first couple weeks or even month. The very first run may be fun, but then you’ll overexert yourself, get stomach cramps, and/or feel like you’re expending way too much effort for too little benefit. You must remember that this is temporary, and you must fight through this stage. Once you get a baseline level of endurance things will quickly get better (but “in shape” is a never-ending goal). As with any athletic endeavor, it won’t always be easy and it won’t always feel good exactly, but you’ll soon get to a place where you’re looking forward to the next hard session, looking forward to pushing yourself to run further and looking forward to the great feeling of finishing a hard workout.
There is a lot to love about the sport. For me, three things stand out: I think well on easy long runs, tracking measurable self-improvement is rewarding, and racing is a blast. However, the core benefit is the sport’s simplicity. You can put on a pair of shoes and go run anywhere and anytime, whether or not anyone else is with you.
Three terms will help you get started thinking about technique: pace, stride, and cadence. Pace is simply how fast you are running measured in minutes per mile/kilometer. If you’re like me, it may be tempting to go out and try to get the fastest pace possible. However when beginning, I think it’s better to run slow but consistent, rather than fast with starts and stops. You can then make steady, incremental improvement. The exception is if even the very slow running is tiresome, in which case the run walk run method is probably best. Apparently, it’s also good for any runner, but I’m not convinced yet.
The other two terms, stride and cadence, are what determines pace. Stride is a fancy word for taking a step. When you swing one foot in front of another, that’s a stride. This is where technique is most important to prevent injury. While there are lots of details you can research and ultimately proper form will vary based on body type, I have found two basic things to be helpful. First is to try to land each stride on the middle of your foot. Striking the ground hard with your heel first on each step puts more pressure on the knee and creates a higher probability for injury. A way to help do this, which is my second point, is to keep your stride short. It is tempting to try to increase the length of your stride to run faster, but this both increases the chance for injury and is not an efficient way to run faster.
If you want to run faster, the better way to do it is to increase cadence. Cadence is a measure of the number of strides you take in a period, usually a minute. Increasing the number of strides per minute is a less injury-prone and more efficient way to increase your pace than increasing your stride length.
Once you get in basic shape and start enjoying running a little bit, it helps to add some structure and variety to your training. In my training, there are four types of runs: endurance (long run), interval, recovery, and race. Endurance runs are long runs designed to help you improve endurance. On Interval runs you do repetitions of running at a fast pace mixed with recovery periods at a slow pace to improve speed. There are all sorts of interval workouts you can do based on your goals. Recovery runs are short, slow runs that are ideal after a hard workout. Races are (in my opinion) the most fun. Trying to run the fastest 5k or 10k etc. that you can is a blast. They also help provide structure and motivation for your training.
You’ll notice I talked a lot about fast and slow in the types of workouts. You can measure this with pace, but a more powerful way to measure this is with heart rate. There is a whole level of training using heart rate to determine how hard you’re working rather than just pace. For example, the same pace uphill vs. downhill would be quite a different level of strain, but would also lead to very different heart rates.
In summary, running will suck initially, but if you get over that hump, distance running is an amazing sport. Before you know it, you’ll fall asleep visualizing your next workout and excited to wake up before dawn to go for a hard run!
As always, my goal here is to flesh out my own ideas, but my opinions may change so please comment to add on or tell me where you disagree. If you find anything factually incorrect, I’ll buy you a drink!