Tuesday Tutorials - Running for Beginners!

If you read my New Year's Resolutions post already, you might remember my profession of my love for distance running and my desire to get back into it. After exactly a week, I am delighted to report that I have clocked up 20 miles over the past 7 days - well on my way towards my personal goal of running 1000 miles this year! Yay!
With a couple of you expressing interest in working towards a similar goal, I decided to share with you my tips for becoming a runner, and a running-lover! I could honestly write a thesis on this, from my own experiences of trials and errors and from advice I've picked up from articles, books and from talking with trainers, so I apologise if this is a lengthy post (I really did try to limit it - I promise!)
Obviously, there are many, many more helpful hints out there, and there is also the chance that some of the ones listed here will not be helpful or apply to you, but this is just my two cents. Hopefully, you'll get something out of it!


Get yourself checked out & your feet decked out

Just stating the obvious here, but do not embark on an exercise programme without making sure you're medically fit for it. If that means consulting a doctor, do it! Aside from that, probably the most important advice I could give to any running beginner is to buy a good pair of shoes before you go out for your first run. Not only will spending the money on a decent pair of runners kick-start your motivation and commitment (we don't wanna fork out €80+ for nothing now, do we?), but wearing proper running shoes is arguably the most important method of preventing injury. I have always used, and continue to use, Asics runners because I have found them to be the most comfortable for me, but there are many cheaper options out there if you are wary about spending money on something you haven't tried yet!
When buying shoes, be sure to try them on. Your regular shoe size is often not the same as your runner size - I'm normally a UK 5 but wear UK 6/7 in Asics, depending on the model. It also helps to wear sports socks when testing out new shoes, as these are often thicker than regular socks. If you are buying your shoes in a specialist shop, they will sometimes offer to test your gait free-of-charge, which will give you lots of information about your running patterns. Though you may think that this kind of analysis is reserved for more seasoned runners, learning about your foot type and pronation is important in helping you decide on the best model of shoe and for helping you to start out -ahem- on the right foot.
With regards to running socks, buying a couple of good pairs is definitely helpful, but not essential. I recently invested in a few pairs of 1000 Mile socks and they have worked like a dream, but I have worn simple sports socks from Primark too! Running socks essentially prevent your feet from blistering, overheating and smelling (charming, I know), but these tend to become bigger concerns when you start to cover longer distances. For beginners, generic sports socks or even just soft everyday socks are all you really need.
As a final note on shoes, be aware that even the best pair of runners won't last forever. The lifespan of a shoe will vary enormously depending on your average mileage, your running style, the quality of the shoe, your weight, how light you are on your feet, the model of shoe, and many other factors, but a general rule of thumb is to replace your shoes after about 400-600 miles - usually, at this stage, there are visible signs of wear and the shoes have lost most of their 'cushiony' feel. This usually means that I get about 6 months out of mine before I need to change them, and for me, forking out the cash twice a year is worth avoiding potential injury!


Don't start running completely cold turkey

If your level of fitness is very limited, I would not suggest diving head-first into a very high-impact exercise like running. Unless you have been exercising regularly for a couple of weeks, I would advise you to gradually introduce yourself to running using the run-walk method. This can be something as simple as jogging for 30 seconds, then walking for 30 seconds, or jogging for 5-10 minutes during a 30-minute walk. When I first began running, I couldn't last longer than 10 minutes before needing to slow to a walk! Over time, you can gradually decrease the time spent walking and bump up your run-time until running for half an hour is a breeze. If all you can manage is an extra minute of running each time, don't worry! Be the tortoise, not the hare.
When I say start off slow, this does not apply only to running novices. Every run should start off slowly, specifically with a warm-up. I recommend starting every run with a 3-5 minute warm-up: it gets the circulation going, and essentially 'wakes up' your muscles. Cool-downs are equally important, as they allow your elevated heart rate to slow down gradually and your breathing to return to normal, prevent dizziness resulting from sudden changes in exertion levels, and supposedly reduce the likelihood of muscle ache caused by lactic acid build-up!


Set yourself goals

Successful runners are often goal-oriented people. Hey, the fact that you even want to start running means that you have set a goal for yourself! Decide on how you plan on tracking your runs (distance, time, speed, effort levels, number of runs per week - whatever!), and base your goals around this. While I'm all for long-term goals, like being able to run a certain race in 8 months' time, I often find that short-term, achievable goals are what really keep me motivated. Aim to complete 3 runs next week, aim to go for 5 minutes longer tomorrow, aim to up your weekly distance total by half a mile, whatever it is, write it downcommit to itachieve it.

Find out what works for you and -ahem- run with it

How many times have you set your heart on doing something, gave it a shot for 2 weeks, then abandoned it out of boredom, impatience or lack of motivation? For me, the answer is countless. Running is one of the only things that has been in my life (albeit, sometimes sporadically) for over 5 years. This, however, did not happen by chance.
In order to prevent the novelty from wearing off, you need to commit yourself to finding out what works for you in terms of your running. First things first, pick a route. Are you going to run outside? In the park? Along the coast? On a local track? On a treadmill? Countless options are available to you, all you have to do is choose one. Apps like RunKeeper can help you to map outdoor routes to accurately track speeds and distances (I also use it to log goal progress, treadmill workouts and other exercises like walking or strength training!) Be aware that different terrains will affect your running in different ways: outdoor running exposes you to the elements, dry sand can be very hard to run in, road-running can be hard on knees and hips, treadmill-running is ofter lower-impact but also somewhat 'easier' due to propulsion of the belt, level surfaces reduce risk of injury but are less physically challenging than uneven tracks - the list goes on.
Choose a time of day to run, and stick to that time. While I'd love to be one of those people that rolls out of bed at 7 AM, hops into their shoes and goes jogging into the sunrise, this is not realistic for me. I schedule my runs for the time of day at which I generally feel most energetic, which for me, is an hour or two after dinner (about 8 PM). I find that having a specific, designated hour for working out  each day means that I'm less likely to skip a run, because I know that by 8 PM, I will not be able to continue scrolling aimlessly on my laptop without the no-workout-guilt rearing its lovely head. By choosing a set time, you are automatically clearing your schedule to make room for an hour that is dedicated completely to you and your running, rendering the whole 'I'm too busy to run' excuse somewhat inadequate. Obviously, if you know in advance that you'll have places to be or people to see at your usual running time, use the opportunity to try a run at a different time of day - you might discover that you like that time even more!
Use running rituals to motivate yourself when you simply cannot BEAR to drag yourself out the back door. This might be something as simple as listening to an energetic, upbeat song, changing into your running gear, or repeating an affirmation or mantra. My running ritual is lacing up my shoes and drinking a Berocca. I don't know what it is about these two things, but they have this sort of decisiveness or finality about them. It's like I know that once I've drank that Berocca, I'm going to finish my run, no matter what.
Keep your runs interesting. 60 minutes can seem like an awful long time if it's spent willing the timer on the treadmill screen to reach 0. For me, runs are always easier if I can distract myself from my own exhaustion. One of the distractions I've found to be most helpful is a good running playlist. Update your music player with new songs that have a fast, pronounced beat and catchy verses. For best results, look for songs with a specific BPM that matches your footfall when you run: these have the added benefit of helping you keep your pace, whilst also making you feel like a badass movie hero. Alternatively, if you cannot be bothered with making your own, there are heaps of running mix tapes available online (Spotify has some great ones!) If music doesn't get your blood pumping, there is always the option of listening to a pre-downloaded audiobook or podcast: these are especially useful for longer runs. If neither of these are appealing to you, there is a BRILLIANT app called Zombies, Run! that effectively lands you in the midst of a zombie apocalypse where the only way to survive is to run faster and farther than ever before! Using a mixture of recorded 'radio transmissions' and your own music, you are assigned missions and challenges that require you to gather supplies for your town, go on imagined reconnaissance missions, or sprint away from a swarm of fast-approaching zombies (the app's in-built interval training function). The app logs your running stats, allows you to build a virtual town from supplies you have gathered on runs and also offers a beginners 8-week 5k training plan. If none of these options tickle your fancy, running with a partner  or running club is another way of alleviating the tedium of that last mile. And if none of my suggestions are attractive options to you, you could always just try the 'zen' running experience of focusing on your breathing, on your surroundings and on wiping out any stresses or worries that may be playing on your mind.
One of the biggest challenges that runners encounter is overcoming a plateau. The seeming lack of progress or achievement caused by a plateau can have serious implications on a runner's motivation. To prevent yourself from getting stuck in a physical rut (or in the mental rut of boredom, for that matter), change up your running routine. Alternate long, steady runs, recovery runs, interval training, hill running and sprints. If you've been running at the same speed for the same length of time and covering the same distance, choose to increase one of them. Try to include at least 1 interval or fartlek run a week to see major improvements in your running ability and overall aerobic fitness. Many running plans give guidelines for interval training, but you can create your own by simply alternating high-intensity sprinting with moderate-intensity running using set intervals. (For example, a 30-minute tempo session might include a 5 minute jog to warm up, 5 minutes of sprinting at effort level 8-9, 5 minutes of moderate running at effort level 5-6, another 5 of sprinting, followed by another 5 of moderate running, finishing off with a 5 jog to cool down.)
Another way of sustaining motivation I've found to be really effective is to find yourself a running plan and stick to it. When you can see written down that you should be able to complete a certain race by the end of a certain number of weeks, it really discourages you from just throwing in the towel when the going gets tough. I have a couple that I tore out of a Women's Running issue about 4 years ago (you should see the one I'm using now - it's in bits it's that old!) that I follow depending on whether I want to up my distance to a half-marathon or just boost my 10k race pace. There's loads available on their website if you want to take a look, but there are so many other free plans available online if they don't take your fancy.
Sign yourself up for a fun run. I never really bought into the whole race thing until recently when I ran my first Colour Run (the Irish equivalent of the Rainbow Run). I had such an amazing time at it and it really encouraged me to keep up my training in the months before it (though it was only a 5k!) There are so many themed races held throughout the year in every country, from fancy dress races to 'electric runs', and they are very open to beginner runners, as there is usually more emphasis on enjoyment than race times. Plus, most fun runs end up raising buckets of money for various charities through registration fees, so you're actually doing someone else good when you participate in one! (:

Be S.M.A.R.T. about injury

Injury is the thorn in every runner's side, nature's way of saying 'screw your good intentions, try beating your PB with a stress fracture!' It can be so frustrating to have trained for so long, only to be confined to the couch for months because of Runner's Knee. With running, and any strenuous cardio, a certain amount of discomfort and post-workout soreness is expected. By including S.M.A.R.T. practices in your workout routine, you can help to prevent these minor aches and pains from developing into something more serious.

Stretching
A good stretching routine is a crucial element of any running plan, but it is often the aspect that runners (newbies in particular) neglect. I myself learned about the importance of stretching the hard way when I got shin splints a few weeks into my training for my first 10k. Running engages all of the major muscle groups in your legs - calves, quadriceps (muscles at the front of the thigh), hamstrings (muscles at the back of the thigh), glutes (muscles in that fiiine behind of yours) - as well as other supporting muscles in the ankles, inner thighs, hip flexors and lower abdominals, so it is important to make sure that these muscles are stretched well to reduce muscle fatigue and ache, to speed up muscle recovery and to reduce your chances of injury. It is important to remember that stretching should not be performed on 'cold' muscles (i.e. muscles that have not been warmed up or worked out), so the best time for stretches is soon after you have finished your run, not before it. My current stretching routine, and the one I have lived by for a long time, is a combination of this lower body stretching routine, this glute stretch and these calf stretches (these are great for preventing and treating those dreaded shin splints). Incorporating yoga into your fitness routine is also a great way of improving your flexibility and muscle elasticity, as it also builds strength while stretching! I found this video great for yoga novices like myself!

Moderation
Runners, especially beginner runners, are commonly advised to avoid the "terrible toos" in their training: too much, too far, too fast, too soon. Like I mentioned earlier, there is no point in running to the point of pain or exhaustion, as this can quickly lead to injury that can leave you out-of-action for weeks or even months. It is generally advised to all runners that mileage shouldn't be increased by more than 10% each week to enable the body to adapt gradually to the more formidable demands it is being put under. Another important point here is to be sure to incorporate rest days into your training. You do not need to run 7 days a week, and in fact, you probably shouldn't. Rest days are needed to allow your muscles to repair and rebuild themselves after exercise, and it is this process that makes them stronger. If muscles are not able to do this, the tiny tears that occur in muscle fibres during exercise are less likely to be mended, which actually results in weaker, more injury-prone muscles.

Active Rest
'What!?' I hear you cry. 'I'm supposed to rest when I'm trying to get fit? That can't be!' Well, actually yes. But if you are one of these people who simply can't bear to tear themselves away from the treadmill (yes, they do exist!), there is always the option of active rest. Active rest can take the form of any exercise that doesn't place a large strain on the muscle groups that you are supposed to be resting. For runners, one of the best active rest exercises is swimming, as it is much lower impact and uses the arms more than leg muscles. However, lower-impact exercises that use the leg muscles are also fine, like walking or cycling, as long as you don't go crazy with them - remember it is active rest after all.

Responding to your Body
This may be the most important step in injury prevention, but all it involves is simply listening to your body. Running creates some amount of discomfort the majority of the time, but there is a very big difference between running through a slight irritation and running through pain. If your body is sending you pain signals, there is obviously a reason, so you should slow down or stop. Do not feel as though you waste a workout if you stop due to pain, as ultimately this could save you months of missed workouts due to injury. Being responsive to what your body is telling you does not only apply to the time you spend running: if you start to notice new pains during everyday activities like walking up and down stairs, this may also be telling you something about the condition of your muscles and joints. It is important to educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of the most common running-induced injuries so that you can recognise them and take preventative measures before they cause serious damage. This article gives great advice on the top 7 most common running afflictions!

Treatment
If you do get injured, take responsibility and minimise your time spent out-of-action by treating it properly. While every injury has different ways of rehabbing it, as a general rule for most running injuries, the age-old RICE method of Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation works quite well. If you have an injury, find out as much as you can about it online or through talking with an experienced runner or physiotherapist so that you can find out how best to get yourself up and running again (oh god, the puns just keep coming).

My final advice to all you budding runners out there is to enjoy yourself! There is a reason why running is one of the most popular exercises out there: it is, in fact, quite enjoyable if you allow it to be. If you spend the entire run wishing it was over, and don't let yourself experience the glorious 'runner's high', you will never enjoy it. But reminding yourself that you are creating a stronger, fitter, healthier body and mind with every step you take will hopefully guide you towards a fun and happy running experience!

Let me know if you guys have any other tips for fledgling runners and I can post them here! If you guys do decide to embark on your own running journey, let me know. I'd love to see how you get on, and maybe we can help each other out along the way! (:

Lots of Love, and best of luck!
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