Ah Spring, it is the season of rebirth. The improving weather and increased daylight revitalize our desire to opt outside and become more active. With that, the door chimes at the neighborhood running store are ringing with the steady flow of eager new runners.
Running is an activity that has the potential to offer both physical and psychological rewards. It seems simple, right? Put sneakers on feet. Head out the door. Begin. Why, then, are so many people sidelined quickly by injury or frustration?
As a coach and an avid runner, it is my privilege to be an ambassador for this sport. For this edition of the Coach’s Corner, I am offering my TOP 10 pointers for novice runners as well as those returning from extended time off. Come back to this consult anytime you or someone you know, needs a little RUNNING 101.
COACH DAWN’s TOP 10 RUNdimental Rules for New Runners:
1. Sneakers – The wrong footwear can stop you in your tracks, literally. One of the most common sources of pain and injury to the inexperienced runner, improper footwear should not be dismissed. Your local running specialty store is the best place to purchase your sneakers. There you’ll find a shoe wall covered in a rainbow of brands and types galore.
DON’T BE INTIMIDATED. The associates are trained to guide you through the process of choosing the shoe that is right for you. They can use gait analysis and discussion to help you become an informed consumer. From sneakers and insoles to gear and recovery tools, you can expect to learn from this shopping experience. If you browse the local big box sporting goods chain, you will not likely find personnel who have the same depth of knowledge. Depending upon the type of sneaker you choose, you can expect to invest anywhere from $110-$150 per pair. This purchase is worth every dollar! And remember, choose function over fashion.
2. Gradual increase – In other words, avoid the trap of TOO MUCH TOO SOON. This concept is often overlooked, resulting in another common cause of pain and injury. What is your goal? Assuming that goal includes sustained running, this lesson is crucial to long term success. By definition, running requires that both feet are off the ground at the same time during the gait cycle. Hence its classification as a high impact sport. To safely grow your endurance, your musculoskeletal system requires time to adapt to stressors of use and impact, while your cardiovascular system responds and adapts to an increased demand for oxygen. Additionally, the mind is training to endure longer intervals of sustained running. Becoming a runner is a growth and recovery process.
For most, the process begins with a run/walk interval format. You may have heard of Couch to 5k training plans. These plans are designed to increase the time spent running, systematically, over approximately ten weeks. If you are a beginner, returning from injury or a long break from running, this design will guide your body through a gradual increase in workload with reducing periods of active recovery. Ultimately, if you want to make running enjoyable and sustainable, it requires patience. This is particularly challenging for athletes who are coming in with a high level of fitness from another activity or sport that doesn’t include running. However, allowing for sport-specific adaptation prioritizes the long-term goal: going the distance. WTN offers direct coaching as well as Couch to 5k and 5k to 10k running plans.
3. Pace – Related to gradual increase is the topic of pace and the basic tenet: TOO FAST TOO SOON. In the beginning, you should practice in a zone that doesn’t push your heart rate beyond an aerobic level of 1 or 2. There are zones of effort which correlate to physiological variables such as heart rate. Search, and you will find different labels for these zones. Today, we will focus on cues for staying in aerobic 1-2 (AKA easy or comfortable pace).
Appropriately referred to as “conversational pace,” this level of work should allow you to speak in full sentences while running. I will often suggest that novice runners use the talk test to guide their rate of perceived exertion (RPE). Ideally, you run with a friend and have an ongoing chat. If alone, go ahead and have a good old talk with yourself every so often to assess your effort level. Maybe even sing a line or two of your favorite song. Either way, if you are able to talk without “running” out of breath, then you are doing it right! Don’t get caught up in the numbers (minutes per mi. or total mileage). Let your heart rate or RPE be your guide to these runs. Pace will improve with time. At first, you will make gains as your body adapts to the demands of running. Later (upon completion of run/walk programming), you can add in workouts with pace changes to stimulate further growth. Learning how YOUR relaxed pace “feels” is critical, because while the numbers may change as your fitness grows, the conversational test will remain a consistent measure of effort.
4. Schedule – The idea of a new routine is exciting. However, after the novelty wears off, the commitment can become a challenge. Life is hectic. Motivation wanes, and energy fluctuates.
Successful runners, both recreational and competitive, have this in common: CONSISTENCY. The first of three “Essential C’s,” it means putting in the time when it feels like you don’t have the time or the desire.
It all comes down to a routine. Most beginner plans include three days of running per week. It is important to follow the program. The momentum and increased workload assume that you have done your homework and adequately prepared your body for the upcoming weekly assignments. For this reason, consistency is key. Sit down with your calendar and schedule workouts (running and otherwise) as you would any other priority or appointment. Remember, this programming is also working on the mental component of training. You are training your brain to push through obstacles like monotony and fatigue. Sound like work? Sure. Running is a metaphor for life. What you get out of it is tied to what you put into it. Every moment cannot be exhilarating. However, the saying is true: You will never regret completing a workout, but you will often regret the workout you skipped. Plan accordingly.
5. Warm-up and cool-down – On that note, as you plug workouts into your schedule, allow time for a warm-up and cool-down routine. You will need just 5-7 minutes on either side of your run. However, this time can improve the quality of your running and recovery. Prepare your body for the workout with some dynamic stretching. Dynamic stretching activates and prepares the body for the demands that follow. It uses momentum and purposeful movement to increase blood and oxygen flow and improve range of motion. Your body will thank you for the prep work as you begin your run. After your run, a simple static stretching routine will help to restore your muscles and start the recovery process. Static stretches are isometric, meaning that you hold a position for 30 seconds to allow proper time for the muscles and soft tissues to respond, relax, and lengthen. This is done following your workout, while the muscles are still warm. WTN offers a complimentary dynamic warm-up menu when you subscribe to the newsletter.
6. Attire – What to wear? The choices seem endless. In reality, some wardrobe choices are individual: length and fit of shorts, tights versus pants, etc. However, there are a few general rules to help guide your choices. First, pay attention to the 20-degree rule. If the thermometer reads 50 degrees, then you will likely feel like it is closer to 70 when you are running. Of course, wind and rain also play a role here. Still, this simple rule of thumb often holds up. Dress as if it were 10-20 degrees warmer, and you will be less likely to overheat. A close relative to this rule is the idea that layers are your friend. In winter, a quality base layer will have you comfortably running in the cold. New England’s changeable weather patterns are best managed by items that can be stripped and carried, tucked, or tied to your waist. Examples include arm warmers, lightweight wind and water-resistant shells, as well as buffs to be worn in an array of positions to protect your neck, face and head.
The topic of running attire is deserving of a separate post. Still, the 20-degree rule, along with the following short on fabric, will carry you through most months.
Fabric technology is a pretty cool topic if you are into that kind of thing. If not, don’t fret. Just avoid cotton! Cotton is a lovely, comfortable fabric when you are not running. Look for tech fabrics that are lightweight, breathable, and sweat-wicking. This includes socks. Yes, socks matter. Look for synthetic and or wool blends to help with moisture-wicking and reduction of blisters. Sock thickness is a variable of personal preference. In a nod to safety, colorful items are also a plus to keep you visible — other essentials to consider: hats or visors, sunglasses, and petroleum to coat areas prone to chafe. DON’T FORGET THE SUNSCREEN! Be mindful and invest in a few quality pieces that will last. There is plenty of information online these days. Again, your local running store can be a reliable resource for advice. Of course, WTN is always happy to be your concierge should you desire a consult or shopping assistant.
7. Form – Without seeing you run, it is difficult to critique your form. This is where the trained eye of a coach comes in handy. However, my goal here is to provide the beginning runner with a couple of simple proprioceptive cues for proper running position and alignment.
Running is a perpetual forward motion. Think of your belly button as a third eye, always peering in the direction where you are headed. Starting from the top, allow me to paint an image of proper form.
Run tall. Don’t look down from your neck. Imagine a kite string gently pulling you from above. Use your eyes to gaze down and assess the terrain, but look ahead, not directly in front of your feet. Your neck is neutral, and your shoulders are down and relaxed. Elbows are bent at approximately 90 degrees with arm swings hinging from the shoulder joint. Hands are in a relaxed position (imagine holding an empty toilet paper tube without crushing it). Your torso is tall, and there is no bend at the waist. Instead, lean from your ankles, which provides a forward momentum that requires you to continue in a pattern of running versus walking. From head to ankle, you are working to maintain neutral alignment and to avoid unnecessary tension. This requires core engagement and muscular endurance. Can you guess the next bullet?
8. Strength – To maintain form, resist fatigue, and reduce risk of injury, strength is essential for runners. This doesn’t require massive amounts of weight, excessive time in the gym, or complicated lifting movements. For the average runner, a basic strength program can range from bodyweight to resistance bands and light dumbbell work. You may work out at home, in a group class, or a gym setting in as little as twice per week. Try incorporating workouts after a short run if you want to lengthen the duration of the activity. The idea is that you are training the muscles that you use for running. Which muscles are those? A whole-body approach is appropriate for the beginner. Of course, priority should go to the areas where weakness most often leads to injury, including, but not limited to, the trunk, hips, and glutes. Do not neglect those legs and arms. A suitable circuit will often include exercises that activate your core while strengthening other muscle groups. Should you prefer to go it alone, there are plenty of routines available online for runners. Proper form is essential, so a class or trainer is a good option for those new to this kind of work. WTN also offers downloadable strength training programs for beginning runners who want to work out on their own, but will benefit from a prewritten, focused plan.
9. Track your progress – You’ve put in the time and followed the plan. Don’t forget to celebrate your success along the way. Keep a log, electronic, or on paper, to track your training. Make notes on variables like how you felt before, during, or after a workout. What obstacles did you overcome? Maybe you ran through a blustery rain. Did you have to get creative to fit in the time? Perhaps you ran around the soccer field during your daughter’s game. Find one positive thing to write about your training for each session. Keeping a log will allow you to look back at all that you have accomplished. Your notes will serve as confidence and motivational boosters. It is a record of your COMMITMENT, which is the second “Essential C” of running. My last point is the final “C.”
10. Company – The third “Essential C” is CAMARADERIE (aka company). This can be virtual or in person, but should not be underestimated. We are out here — a growing community, ready to welcome new members to our tribe. Once you start looking, you will find us everywhere. Diverse and inclusive, we are run groups, clubs, coaches, friends, family, fun runs, text messages, and online chats. It brings us happiness to celebrate your milestones: first run, first mile, first 5k, first finish line, etc.
We provide support through setbacks and cheer for your accomplishments. Better yet, we serve the vital function of accountability. Find a companion to run with, and you will be much less likely to bail on that workout! Bonus, you might have more fun too! Enlist a partner or a coach to check-in, and you will be more likely to check that box on your to-do list. We are experience and sharing. We are runners. You are cordially invited to join us at any time; the more, the merrier.
Treadmill vs. outdoors (road/trail/track) – There are pros and cons to each, some of which are dependent upon personal preference. If your end game includes a 5k on the road or trail, I highly recommend doing some training outside. Still, the treadmill is a perfectly good option for this programming. It may prove convenient on days when you want to incorporate a strength session immediately following a run. I tend to advocate for the outdoors if you can make it happen. We are cooped up by jobs and life. Taking time to get outside allows for much-needed sunshine and fresh air. You could even make it a family affair! Find a path or a quiet loop and bring the kids along on their bikes. Or, opt to make it a peaceful time of reflection and let your mind wander as you appreciate some time to yourself.
Either way, congrats on choosing a life that includes running. I hope you will find it to have a long-lasting positive influence on your well-being.
Have questions about any of the WTN coaching options? As always, I am only an email or a phone call away.