I have to preface this entry by clarifying a few things. First, as someone who took up running only four measly years ago, my running career is still in its infancy–adult infancy. (In four more years I will most likely have an addendum to this post.) I am nowhere near the skill level of some of my peers. Second, I struggled with the title of this entry because I didn’t (and don’t) want to imply that these “top 10 things” are steadfast tips that will work for everyone–rather these are merely things that I wished I had known when I first started running. Last, running is a literal journey and I am majorly fascinated by all of the knowledge I have acquired thus far, how far I’ve come as an amateur athlete and what I still have to learn as a runner and a triathlete.
Without further ado, a listicle of things I wish I had known when I first strapped on a pair of running shoes:
No. 1: Join a Running Club
Without a doubt the biggest contributing factor to all of my athletic success is 100% attributable to the running group I joined, Forest Hills Runners (FHR). I would not have achieved any of my accomplishments without this amazing group of people. There’s just something so profound about running with a tribe… I can’t help but think as a species we are dispositioned for the gregarious nature of “the hunt”.
When I joined FHR no one ever told me to run faster. No one ever told me “I had to” come to a track work-out. No one ever told me “I had to” sign up for a marathon or a triathlon. But all of those things happened because it was infectious; however, as a point of clarification, I didn’t feel compelled to do these things because of some artifact of adolescent peer-pressure. I ended up doing these things because I felt inspired, encouraged, and on a personal level–challenged.
Often times the company we keep is a huge part of how we define ourselves… and when the company we keep also happens to run, great things are bound to happen. I really can’t imagine what my life would be like now had I not found my tribe.
Not all, but much of what follows are things I learned after I joined a running club.
No. 2: Don’t Run to (necessarily) Lose Weight
If I had to list the benefits of running, weight loss would be near the bottom. I am not going to lie… shedding weight has been nice despite the financial impact of replacing my entire wardrobe. Without divulging too much information, for many years my persistent existential angst reared its head in a myriad of manifestations. It’s weird, but consistent running has done more for me, mentally, than I can possibly describe. Running is my antidepressant. Because of running I am a happier, more well-grounded individual.
Running is my respite. My Zen place. My go-to decompression zone. Which leads me to…
No. 3: Ditch the Ear Buds
I know, I know… and I hear what my four-years-ago-self is saying, “But I need my jams! There’s no way I can run without music!” I get it, I do.
This is a true story:
My first half-marathon I ran with my iPod nano and my playlist was impeccable. During the race I paced with a member of my running group running the first 12 miles side-by-side, and I wore ear buds. I didn’t speak a single word to my contemporary the entire race instead believing I needed Montel Jordan to tell me this is how we do it to get through the race. Seriously, how lame is that? It gets worse! My friend Jimi showed up to spectate and cheer, along with his trumpet, and performed the Rocky theme (strategically located at the top of a tough hill near the end of the course). Guess what? I totally missed it… I couldn’t figure out why my running buddy suddenly bolted ahead of me. Cheering is a powerful motivator, and in trumpet form it carries a 3x factor. And I missed it. This was the very last time I ran with music.
I didn’t speak a single word to my contemporary the entire race instead believing I needed Montel Jordan to tell me “this is how we do it” to get through the race.
Some interesting things happened when I ditched the ear buds. My runs became more thoughtful, poised and self-centering. Think about it… our attachment to our phones and the endless barrage of push notifications bombarding our every waking moment is completely insane. Imagine having an hour to yourself where nothing can penetrate your world. Running without music and being completely attuned to my body, my pace, my breath, my environment and my thoughts is one of the most important parts of my life. Leave your smart phone and jams behind.
And honestly, it’s one less thing to deal with before the start of a race. Which leads me to…
No. 4: Sign Up for a Race
Many years ago I was having a casual conversation with a complete stranger about running (I was very new to the sport) and was asked if I was currently signed up for any races. It had never, ever occurred to me to do such a thing; however, I was convinced and signed up for my first 5k. It’s kind of embarrassing because at the time I didn’t know anything about running, much less racing, but had some notion that I should carbo-load before the race. And so in preparation for my evening 5k I ate a gigantic pasta lunch.
A LOT has happened since that 5k, but one thing hasn’t… regardless of distance, nothing beats running in a race. Racing is not about winning an award or beating the person next to you–it’s about being surrounded by a bunch of people all sharing the same experience, the same course, the same elements and the shared excitement of crossing the finish line.
Committing to a race sets an intention and/or a goal. This could be anything from “just finishing” to seeking a PR (personal record) or simply looking forward to celebrating with friends at the post-race party.
No. 5: Run in the Right Shoe
I wish I had a picture of the shoes I started running in. They were clunky black cross-trainers that would’ve been useful in completing a Frankenstein costume.
Running in the right shoe is critical. Do you under-pronate? Over-pronate? Should you be in a neutral-performance shoe? Do you heel strike? If this is gibberish, I highly recommend visiting a running-specific store* and having your run analyzed. This is so, so important and something I wish I had known early-on in my running career. Forget what the shoe looks like. Forget brand loyalty. Just make sure you are running in a shoe that supports your body and running form.
Physiologically speaking, we are all vastly different from one another. The latest and greatest shoe by Mizuno might work perfectly for someone toe striking, but could be menacing for someone that heel strikes.
[*Most cities have a local running store. Aside from supporting local business, most big-box sporting goods stores will not have employees knowledgeable enough to ensure you are in the correct shoe.]
No. 6: Don’t Jog in Place at a Stoplight.
There’s really no reason to do this.
No. 7: There’s a Time and Place for #Runchat
When I first started getting into running I was very, very excited about all things related to the sport. Basically, I would not shut the fuck up about running. The problem is that only runners want to talk about running–co-workers do not give a hoot if you ran 16 miles over the weekend, in fact they probably hate you for it. I’ve since learned to only talk about running if someone asks me about it. (Which is almost never.)
On a related note, I urge prudent and judicious decision making on posting everyday runs on social media*. There are a few social media websites specific to running/cycling (strava.com is a favorite) that are designed to keep track of all of your workouts within the realm of other running/cycling/swimming friends and off of the Facebooks.
I’m very proud of my athletic successes and I am ok with experiencing pride in a way that’s very new to me. So I say, Instagram that medal. Tweet that PR. Post that over-priced finisher-pic…
*However, it is more than ok to publicly celebrate your achievements. And you should. If I record a PR, win an award, conquer a race or do something I am extremely excited about I am going to share that with the world. I’m very proud of my athletic successes and I am ok with experiencing pride in a way that’s very new to me. So I say, Instagram that medal. Tweet that PR. Post that over-priced finisher-pic or snowy sub-zero selfie.
No. 8: Pick Up a Running Watch (but not an iWatch)
Our species has run successfully without hyper-technological gadgets strapped to our wrists for a very long time. No one, in fact, really needs a running watch. But, this is an instance where I am very pro-gadget and would highly recommend the advantages of investing in a watch.
Prior to buying an entry-level Garmin GPS-enabled running watch I had no idea what my average pace was or how far I was running. (As it turns out I wasn’t running nearly as far as I thought.) Training with a run-watch has given me a fundamental perspective of what a 6:30 mile vs. a 9:30 mile pace feels like. After more and more experience, I no longer have to look at my watch to know how fast I am running, but I can peek down at my watch to see how far I’ve run or how far I have to go. I can plan my workouts and set goal pace by time and/or distance. It’s been a valuable tool for me especially training for longer distance races.
Aside from having a ridiculous set of metrics to track my progress, the thing I love most about my watch is seeing my runs replayed–where I ran, how fast I ran at certain elevations, when my runs slowed down or sped up. Where I kicked ass in a race or where I struggled. And, oh, the flybys.
So, why not an iWatch?
In short: The iWatch is utterly useless without an iPhone. By itself, the iWatch has no built in GPS–in order for this information to be acquired it has to do so through a tethered connection between your iPhone. Seriously, what’s the point? If you decide to run with your iPhone, there’s little data that your iWatch can collect that your iPhone isn’t already collecting anyway. So why spend over $300 just to have annoying and distracting push notifications sent to your wrist on a run? I’m a huge Apple fan and as a designer have been a Mac guy for over two decades. But in my estimation the iWatch = fail. When I run I want as little on my person as possible. Sorry Apple.
My first run watch was an entry-level Garmin, the Forerunner 210–an economical and solid GPS enabled run watch. I have since graduated to a tri-specific watch, the Garmin 920XT. There are other great brands out there including Suunto and Polaris; but I have had good luck with Garmin.
No. 9: Discomfort ≠ Injury, Injury ≠ End of the World
Up until a few years ago I was convinced every time something hurt I had a catastrophic career-ending injury. If my ankle hurt I had achilles tendonitis. If my hip hurt I had psoriatic arthritis. I spent the eve of my running career visiting an entire fleet of medical professionals every time something didn’t feel 100% and wasted a lot of time and money in the process.
At one point I had my knee imaged and had an orthopedic surgeon tell me, “well, there’s enough evidence of some damage that I could go in there and clean it up in surgery.”
What?! Thanks, but no thanks.
Any athletic endeavor is going to have an impact on the body–mostly positive, but occasionally manifesting as “ouch”. One of the biggest things I have learned is telling the difference between “ouch” and “ok, something is definitely wrong”. It’s a fine line, but an important one. Sometimes when I feel “ouch” all I need is a few days of rest, ice and extra TLC (stretching, massage, foam rolling, yoga, etc.) I guess what I am trying to say is… calling the knee surgeon a day after something feels off is generally a bad idea.
When the “ouch” is persistent I take extra precaution and remember that not running for a few weeks is not the end of the world. I’ll make a visit to see my sports massage therapist, and most importantly, try and keep a positive attitude. If the discomfort extends beyond a significant amount of time, that’s when I’ll make a call to see a professional.
While anything can happen, and the possibility of a severe injury could happen to anyone at anytime, there are numerous preventive measures that can significantly reduce the risk of being sidelined.
Which leads me to…
No. 10: The Importance of Preventative Care
Mix it Up
It’s no coincidence that after taking up the sport of triathlon I saw a vast reduction in “ouch” related nuisances. Hitting the pavement 4-5 days a week (or more) can put significant stress on muscles, joints and tendons. Throw in the repetitive nature of activating the same muscle groups over and over and the risk-potential for injury increases. Adding a few days of non-running activities such as biking, swimming or strength training gives your body a chance to recover from running while maintaining fitness and endurance.
All in Good Form
OK, so this is very specific to me. Personally, I had no idea that I over-strided and in the process was destroying my back by massively heel-striking. [Very important: We are all physiologically different. What worked for me may not work for everyone. If curious about changing your running form I recommend consulting a professional.]
I have to say that I was very skeptical that A) I was a heel striker and B) that not heel-striking would improve my running. Some video reconnaissance would later confirm: I was a massive heel-striker.
The founder of our running club, Owen Kendall, explained it to me thusly, “Stand in place and jump up in the air.” And so I jumped in the air. “Where did you land?”
“On the balls of my feet,” I responded.
“Would you ever jump in the air and land on your heels?,” Owen asked.
“Well, that’s exactly what is happening over and over when you run with your current form.”
Initially I was weary of the rewards of changing my running form (it did have its minor set-backs), but upon Owen’s advice I slowly rewired my brain to turn-over my legs with a shorter stride landing on the balls of my feet. Present day, my cadence is quicker and my push-off is more powerful and efficient–all of which has made me a significantly faster and less injury-prone runner. I could not heel-strike if you asked me too.
Changing my running form is probably the second best thing I did just after joining a running club.
Yoga and Core
A recurring theme for me is skepticism. Many years ago at a party I was lamenting to my newfound runner friends about my shitty back. I was told, “You have to start going to yoga.”
“You don’t understand, nothing is going to fix my back.”
Once more I was proven wrong. (When will I learn?!) Lucky for me my first yoga class was with an amazing instructor, Cara Gilman. I attended “Yoga for Runners” and my life was forever altered. While I don’t regularly attend class as much as I should, yoga has made a permanent home in my daily post-workout stretching regimen and my entire body thanks me for it.
Additionally, a strong core is vital to stability, strength and injury-prevention. I try and incorporate a core workout at least once a week. My favorite workout is here.
Stretching and Foam Rolling
In the past I might’ve stretched for four or five minutes after a run. Now, it’s something more like 45 minutes–it’s a time commitment. I had no idea how little stretching I was doing back in the day. Foam rolling? What is that?
There are a lot of gadgets out there for working out kinks and tight hamstrings, but nothing compares to the power of a foam roller. Youtube has an endless supply of instructional foam rolling videos, but essentially, using a foam roller is gravity + velocity = some sort of painful inertia. (I welcome any improved metaphor as I made it through both High School and College without a single physics class.)
I also use a stretch-out strap.
Ya know. I just thought of a million other things I wish I had known when I first started running. Like, “Why are people running like crazy before the race? Shouldn’t they be saving their energy?!”
Who knew there was so much to learn?