Seven secrets to becoming a runner and sticking with it for life

It's our first Fitness Friday, folks. I'll try to have something on exercise as you head into each weekend and begin to think about how to incorporate a little movement into your leisure time. Thirty minutes a day, five days a week -- that's all I (and your doctor, and the CDC) ask.

This week, "To Your Health" BFF Jennifer Van Allen of "Runner's World" magazine has some tips for starting a running program and staying with it. They come from a new book, the "Runner's World Big Book of Running for Beginners" that she has co-authored. (A few years back, Jen introduced me to Bart Yasso, unofficial "mayor of running." Still a big highlight for me.).

OK, here are Jen's Seven Secrets to getting moving, getting fit, and becoming a runner for life.

With running, as in life, you discover some secrets to success the easy way, by hearsay for example, and you pick up many more the hard way. Below are some I learned over the past 20 years, during 49 marathons and ultra-marathons.


1. Have it your way. Running guru George Sheehan famously said that “we are all experiments of one.” That is so true. There are are some non-negotiables when you first hit the road: start slow and finish strong, never run through pain and invest in running shoes and replace them before they wear out (it’s the cheapest and easiest way to get fit without getting hurt).

But the rest - -and there is a lot -- is open to individual interpretation and limited only by your imagination.  So find a way to fall in love with running, and don’t be distracted by people who try to convince you that you’re doing it wrong.  There are many standards of success -- run a mile in less than 10 minutes, break 30 minutes in a 5K, run a marathon, finish a sub-4-hour marathon, qualify for Boston, run 40 miles a week. They’re perfectly fine goals, but if they’re not within reach, or they don’t personally matter to you, ignore them.  And ignore anyone who tries to convince you that you must run a certain pace or number of miles to be a real runner. 

If you run, you’re a runner. Want to race? Great. Hate to race? Who cares? Running requires precious time and energy that you could otherwise spend with the people you love and your life’s work. If you’re not enjoying it, it’s a complete waste of time.

2. Don’t undo your roadwork at the dinner table.  It’s easy to get into a cycle of entitlement eating, indulging in unhealthy treats and eating back the calories you burn running -- and then some.  Keep in mind that most people overestimate the number of calories they burn and lowball the number they consume.  For any run of an hour or less, it's fine to run on empty. Anything longer, or if it’s been a long time since you’ve run, have a 100-200 calorie snack an hour before heading out. Make sure it’s high in carbs (your body’s favorite fuel) and low in fat and fiber (which can cause GI upset). For a great list of pre-run meals, click here.  And here is info on weight loss for new runners.

It takes some strategizing to get your dieting and running efforts in sync.  If you let hours pass between eating and running, you'll lose the energy you need to run fast and burn calories. Overeat before you head out, and you’ll be sidelined by GI problems.

3. Follow the 10 minute rule. The first 10 minutes of any run are going to feel tough. You’ll likely feel stiff, achy, tired and ticked off. That’s okay, and a natural part of transitioning from being sedentary to being in motion. If you keep pushing your body forward -- even if you’re walking -- your weariness will soon evolve into exhilaration. We promise. Just commit to 10 minutes of movement.  You can do anything for 10 minutes. Just don’t get back on the couch.

After 10 minutes, you can call it quits with the satisfaction of knowing that your mission is accomplished. But more often than not, your muscles will feel warmed up, your heart rate will be elevated and you’ll start to feel energized, even excited to exercise.  However good or bad you feel beforehand, a workout will make you feel better. Even if that workout is a 10-minute stroll.

4. Learn the difference between good pain and bad pain. Pain is not, as the old saying goes, weakness leaving your body. That said, running isn’t going to feel comfortable, or easy. Not in the first few weeks or even months. But it shouldn’t feel like torture. Learn  to distinguish between the muscle aches that go with pushing your legs and lungs farther and faster than they’ve gone before, and the more alarming pains that should stop your run, and prompt some rest and a call to a sports medicine specialist ASAP.

Any pain that persists or worsens as you run, or after you’re done, is something that deserves at least two days of rest and possibly a call to the doctor. Same goes for any pain that’s sharp, makes you change your gait to compensate (which can cause more injury), or is located on one side of the body but not the other. Seeing a doctor is an investment of time, energy and money that few people have to spare. But it is much better than wasting sleepless nights worried about worst-case scenarios, or running through pain and turning a small irritation into a full-blown injury. Learn more about the difference between good pain and bad pain here.

5. Take your run like medicine. The hour before a run is tougher than anything you’ll encounter out there. Before you go, a flood of excuses will threaten to get between you and the road. You will always have e-mails to answer, dishes to wash, laundry to do, phone calls to return. But if you don’t take care of your body,  it won’t take care of you. Research has proven that regular exercise will help prevent diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease and cancer, among other conditions. It can help improve the quality of your life, help stave off depression, help you stay sharp as you age, and even help prevent age-related declines such as falling.  Here is more about how running improves your health.

You can’t control the chaos the day and your life may bring. But running will help you handle whatever comes.

6. Learn how to talk back to negative voices. At some point during a run of any distance you’ll start hearing these voices:

-I’m too slow.

-I’m too tired.

-I hate running.

-I can’t do this.

-I don’t want to do this.

-I should be working instead.

-I should be home instead.

You can’t prevent these voices from haunting your run. But you can develop a strategy for vanquishing them.  Make a list of reasons why you run. Fitting into your skinny jeans is perfectly acceptable. Add up your miles each week, so when you hit the wall at mile 2 of a planned 3-miler, you’ll know that final mile is nothing compared to all the miles you’ve already logged. When someone passes you, don't take it personally; it’s not a referendum on how fit  you are.  It’s proof of what's possible.

Bart Yasso likes to say that what’s important is not “how far you go, but how far you’ve come.” Stop thinking about it as a run and think about it as outside time, which studies have proven is medicine itself. Have a bank of mantras close to mind that feel meaningful. One of my favorites is “let the road rise to meet you.”   Learn more about how to develop the perfect mantra here.

7. Go with the flow. Let your running life evolve as your life changes. The state of your work, family and social life will have a huge impact on how much time, emotion, energy and interest you can bring to running, and what you need from it. There will be times when you will love how running helps you test your physical and mental endurance. And there will be other times when surviving the workday and keeping your kids and partner fed, safe, healthy and happy feels like an endurance test, and you need to rely on running for relaxation.

If you hogtie yourself to goals that no longer fit, burnout and bitterness are all but assured. Keep setting new goals that work well with your lifestyle and your state of mind. Change things up: Hit the trails. Run your regular route in reverse.  Run with friends so the workout also serves as social hour.  Stop racing. Or start. Mentor a friend. Start a streak. Set a weekly, monthly or annual mileage goal. Strap on a GPS watch and use your run to explore new places.  One of the most beautiful things about this sport is that it is wide open to personal interpretation.

And if you need help, ask for it. Please reach out to us at Runner’s World. Our experts on nutrition, weight loss, working out, injury prevention and training are available 24 hours a day at thestartingline@runnersworld.com.

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.
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