Advice for new runners

Those who have known me for three years likely think of me as an athlete, but those that have known me longer know how improbable that label would have seemed just five years ago.  For those who don’t know the back story here, let me sum it up as briefly as I can.

I was not athletic in high school.  The pictures below are of my high school letter jacket, with its roster of choirs on the back and its academic letter and National Honors Society pins on the front.  You get the idea. 🙂

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Then I married a boy with incredibly high metabolism who loved to bake things, and proceeded to gain 20 pounds in four years.  Determined not to let the weight gain continue its trajectory, I started exercising and watching what I ate…and I failed miserably to do either of those things for three years.  Count ’em.  Three years of trying to be “better” about what I was eating and exercising as I knew I should be, and mostly doing neither.  As a Masters’ graduation gift from my parents, I got my first nice bike: a Bianchi Milano.  I was determined to ride to Alewife Station and back everyday as a part of my summer commute–a distance of 3 miles each way.  Despite the pretty new wheels and a ton of resolutions, I failed again.  I did ride to the station occasionally, but often I would leave the poor bike chained at the station, too exhausted to ride back in the same day.

The next year (read: another year of trying mostly failing) was the first year of Tread on Trafficking, which at the time was a small Boston-based fundraiser run by a couple of friends.  I set my first goal impossibly high, which at the time meant 75 miles of running in a couple of months and my fundraising goal at an equally improbable $500.  Through that experience, I learned much of what has become the bedrock of my training (and fundraising) framework, which have brought me, five years later, to the current season of a half marathon, a 150 mile charity ride, and a full Olympic length triathlon and the lofty goal of raising $7,000 across three charities.

All to say: even if you’ve never been athletic, even if you’ve tried and failed before, you CAN make that fitness goal happen!  I’ve chatted with a number of new runners, inspired by everything from the weather to the bombings here in Boston, and I wanted to pass along some of what I’ve learned to them and to you, by way of help and encouragement.  So here, in no particular order, are the foundational things that keep me motivated and on track most days:

1. Find an activity you find at least somewhat enjoyable.

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying “The diet that works is the one you stick to”? That’s not to say that it’s all about your willpower, but rather to point to the obvious.  If you love cheese more than life itself, a dairy-free diet like paleo is failure waiting to happen.  On that same note, not everyone is a runner.  If you hate running, but you’ve heard it burns the most calories in the shortest period of time, you might be tempted to force yourself to run, but in my experience that’s a losing strategy.  Do you enjoy volleyball?  Do that!  Never miss a chance to play Frisbee?  Bingo–you have your exercise plan!  That’s not to say do what’s easiest–even folks who might like running, at least at first, are going to find anything more than a few minutes torturous.  But if you love the feeling of gliding across the ground under your own power for the 30 seconds or so you can do it right now, you might choose running.  If you huff and puff after 20 minutes, but love that flying feeling of coasting down hill, you might choose cycling.  The what part of any diet or exercise plan might be the most important part, so take some time and be really honest with yourself.

2.  Make a plan.  Take it seriously, but hold it lightly.

“Take is seriously but hold it lightly” is a phrase that gets used around my church a lot in taking about spiritual/religious disciplines.  The idea is that you’re serious about doing it and about your commitment to seeing it through, but you don’t punish yourself if you slack a little or push yourself (and those around you) towards driven perfectionism.  Sitting down to figure out which days and what time of day you’re most likely to actually follow-through is an important step.  If you know you’re not a morning person, don’t plan to run in the mornings.  If you know that Tuesdays are often long days, plan to make that one of your rest days.  (Often you’re looking for 3-4 exercise days and 3-4 days off for starters.)  Then enter it into a spreadsheet or calendar and set up calendar reminders or post the schedule to your fridge.  You might have to flex the original plan around a bit to make it work–that’s the “holding it lightly” part–but having a plan to start with can help turn the best of intentions into actual action.  As a side note: it takes a good bit of self-love to regularly not break an appointment with yourself.  If you’re not there yet, try running with a group–more on that later.

3.  Set goals that are entirely reasonable.  Then increase them by about 10%.

So you’ve decided that running/whathaveyou is your thing and you’ve carved out time in your week that you plan to do it.  Now it’s time to set an intention, as they say in yoga.  (I set intentions instead of goals because they work better with the “holding it lightly” thing for me–if your personality is such that you know you respond well to lots of structure and a bit of pressure, go for a goal instead.)  At this point, it’s good to know what you think you can realistically do.  Can you run to the end of the street?  Can you get out and run for 20 minutes a day every other day?  Whatever it is, make sure that when you look at it you think “Oh yeah, that’s completely doable.”  Then set your initial intention/goal to do 10% more than that–just enough to make it hard, but not enough to make it impossible.  Think of striking the balance between doable and challenging as dangling a carrot in front of a horse–too far away and he’ll sense a set-up for failure, too close and he’ll just have a snack, but somewhere in the magic middle and he’ll start lean forward, moving one step at a time towards the carrot that’s just out of reach.  Once you can get your teeth on the carrot you’ve placed out there, move it out another 10%.

4.  Find a reward structure that works for you.

Speaking of carrots, rewards are key!  If you follow your plan for a whole week or meet your intention/goal, it’s really important that you take a moment to celebrate that victory, no matter how small.  And like everything else so far, you know best the rewards that will work for you.  Massages, a purchase from a favorite store, a day trip to a favorite spot, whatever would motivate you.  For me, I get really motivated by congratulations, so part of my reward strategy is simply to post my personal bests on Facebook and let the “likes” start to roll in.  Some folks keep track of each day on a spreadsheet and find that really motivating–I don’t but you might.  Again this comes down to being honest with yourself and what you’d be willing to really work for.  The only thing that’s off the table in the beginning is food.  It’s taken me a lot of work to get to the point where I can use food rewards in a way that’s actually helpful.  Especially if you’re trying to lose weight, note that it can be a slippery slope to equate “reward” and “ice cream” in your head, since it can feed into the “no ice cream” equals “deprivation/punishment” mentality.

5.  Don’t get hung up on who/what you are or aren’t.

This one has nearly side-lined me a number of times.  It might just be a personality quirk, but in case it’s useful, I’ll throw it out there.  Don’t let yourself fall into the mental trap of labels.  Sure, maybe you’ve never been “a runner.”  And you might not be one professionally anytime soon.  But don’t get tripped up on the “I’m not a runner” thing.  You’re not that same person you were last week or last month.  And you don’t have to run 50 miles a week to be a “runner.”  Similarly, when you start to get into your groove and people say things like “I didn’t know you were a runner!” resist the urge to correct them.  The word “runner” is not a burden of performance expectation or a life sentence, it’s merely a descriptive word for this moment.  Smile and graciously accept yourself wherever you’re at now, acknowledging where you’ve come from and what you’ve accomplished, and shrug off the rest.  Chances are you’re not doing this to be “a runner” and that’s completely fine.  If you get a few years along and discover that you’re probably a triathlete, you can shake your head about that later.  You do you (as they say in the Boston area) and try to ignore the words that get attached to that process along the way.

6.  The whole three-weeks-to-form-a-habit thing is malarky.  Find another way to ensure regularity.

That rule that you’ve heard about doing something for three weeks and then it becomes a habit?  It’s bunk.  Habits vary in difficulty and therefore can vary from 18 to 254 days in the time it can take to make or break them.  Don’t expect that after a few weeks it’ll just happen on autopilot.  It will certainly get a bit easier when your calendar has adjusted to the new activity, but you’ll need something more than just momentum to keep it happening.  Rewards will help, but I find I need more than that.  For me, it’s often about finding a group of people to run/ride with that are expecting me and that I look forward to seeing each week.  Doing it for charity helps me as well–both because I feel like people have paid me to do what I said I would do (and will ask how it’s going) and because the magnitude of the cause often puts my laziness/soreness in perspective.  It’s going to take time and a bit of trial & error to figure out what works for you, but just know you’ll need something to keep the gears greased!

Have another tip or trick that’s worked for you?  Add it in a comment below!

8 thoughts on “Advice for new runners

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