This blog has MOVED!

Please visit for the most updated content. All these posts and more can be found over at the new URL.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How do I start running?

So many posts to draft and so little time!!!  I'm churning these out just as fast as I can now that I'm on winter break!!!!

I was recently asked this question, and even though it has nothing to do with horses, I've been asked it enough times that I've decided to put into writing the advice I usually give.

"How do I start running?"

It doesn't get much more broad then that, folks.  I'm going to share what's worked for me over the years and how I would start if I had it over to do again. But course at first there's a bunch of caveats. I'm not a trainer, a doctor, a therapist, or had any formal training in running (junior high track doesn't count). At least on horse subjects I've paid lots of money for instruction both in and out of school....but on the subject of running I can't give you anything more than the perspective of a recreational, rather slow runner who still loves it over a decade later. 

Prior to finding Jeff Galloway's book on running (more on that later), my experience with running was in public school PE. Twice a year during the mile test the instructor said RUN and you took off.  You had to finish 4 laps around the track within certain parameters and you were judged for your efforts according to the time charts.  Walking got you nasty looks and perhaps you got yelled at.  There was no coaching or training or instruction on how to pace yourself around the track.  Basically, you ran as fast as you could until you *had* to walk.  And then you attempted to run again at some point but it was a futile effort.

As you might imagine I quickly figured out that: Running = being uncomfortable, out of breath with a burning sensation in your chest.  I may have dutifully answered "aerobic" for what type of exercise was running on tests....but I certainly hadn't experienced that aspect of it....

You might (not) be surprised to learn that no one's times ever improved in the mile.  Certainly not mine. 

A life long love for running was certainly not born on the packed dirt of my high school track.

It wasn't until I went to high school on half time as an upperclassman (I took classes at the community college for the remainder of my credit hours) and started running on my own around town and on the trails (with the goal of being thin of course) near where I lived where I discovered that if you ran at a pace BELOW your maximum it was actually possible to run for whole MINUTES at a time....and it was even kind of fun.  I gradually increased my time slowly until I was doing 20-25 minutes at a 10 min/mile pace. 

I distinctly remember coming home after a run when I was 16 or 17 years old after running a whole 3 miles...and deciding I would run a marathon.  I knew I wasn't fast - all those people lapping me during the PE mile test proved that to me. I had also discovered during my runs that at the 10 or 12 min mark running became EASIER. I didn't know until MANY years later it was because I have mild exercise induced asthma, but at the time I just assumed that me needing such a long warm up just proved that I was a slow and steady runner, further proving my "turtle status" - BUT having just finished a run that was longer than any run any I had known had ever done (I don't come from a family of runners), I was pretty sure that for my 18th birthday I would do a marathon. 

After realizing that a marathon was 26.2 miles, I knew I needed help so bought Galloway's Marathon running book. 

And I think it was at that point I became a runner. 

Galloway was only the first in a long line of running books and articles I've devoured over the years.  Nothing is more frustrating for me than a person that does a ton of research and education in a subject.....and then stops any continuing education, convinced that they now know it all and gives advice to other people (I see this more in the horse world.....) based on *current* knowledge that is now 20 or more years old.

When I look back at what I thought were *facts* about running and how to train for running endurance ten years ago, it's interesting what has remained the same and what has changed.  This article would look vastly different if I had written it even 5 years ago.  I would have been very specific in my shoe advice (you must go to a specialty running store and buy shoes that are correct for your biomechanics), espoused the dangers of the beginning or recreational runner doing too much speed work (injury risk!), recommended ice baths and "vitamin I" as follow ups to long runs (I'm sure my family still remembers my screams as I lowered myself into post run ice baths), and recommended a book that outlines the proper stretches to do prior to running (even though I never did them with any regularity).

When I started to draft this post I hadn't intended to tell my running story - just sort of happened.  But I hope what you realize if you are someone who has come hoping to recieve a blue print for the best way to get started in running, is that this post will only reflect my current understanding *right now*. Give it another 5 years and this post might look really different. Do your own research, listen to your body, and make the program yours. 

(this should be a flow chart, but I'm lazy and do you have any idea how many wretched posts I have in my draft folder?  Time to press the accelerator on this one!!!!)

Phase 1

1. PS PE got one thing right. Go out and run a mile.  On a track. Time yourself.  Or don't.  But it's sort of nice to have a baseline and you will repeat this mile test any time you want to see what kind of progress you've made - and it's motivating to see your times drop like a rock, which is practically guaranteed in the beginning. I've read that doing the 1 mile test is the best test of fitness and predictor of future quality of life etc. so if I was you, I'd do it :). If you don't have a track available, stalk schools and universities until you happen to find one without a locked gate and fence.  But don't wait to start your run program until you can find one - go ahead and go to step 2 - just keep an eye out for a suitable track so you can get that 1 mile test in ASAP.

You probably feel wretched from that 1 mile test. I'm guessing it was mostly anaerobic? Let's call that "red" on the scale of green, yellow, red. Let's stay out of that red zone for now.  From now on, you want to be in the green - a pace that is easy, perhaps you can even hum or talk/yell at your dog. From experience I can tell you that as a beginning runner it was hard for me to find my green pace - it was a foreign concept that I should run slow enough that it should be "comfortable". Near the end of the run if you want to kick it up a bit, you can go a bit closer to yellow.  Yellow is strong but not anaerobic.  Another way to get an assessment of pace is to watch your breathing in conjunction with your steps.  A green pace can have varying breaths with the steps - perhaps a 3 steps inhale 2 steps exhale, but sometimes it might be 4/3 or 3/3.  A yellow pace is going to be closer to 2 footfalls inhale, 1 footfall exhale.

Depending on your current level of fitness, chose either 1, 2, or 3 min run intervals. A 2 or 3 min run interval has worked for me the best. At the end of the run interval (that should be in the green level, especially for the first half of the workout) walk for 1 min.  By the end of the 1 min walking you should be totally recovered and ready to start running again.  That means if you are light headed and still puffing at the end of that minute you need to reduce your pace and/or running time.  However, if you are on the other end of the spectrum and you feel totally fine at the end of your run interval DO NOT SKIP YOUR WALK INTERVALS. It is especially important to take your walk intervals at the beginning when you don't feel like you need them.  This is what is going to train your body to be able to go further and faster.  If at the end of your planned run you want to skip the last couple walk intervals, fine - but don't do it at the beginning of your run.

Some people like to increase their time by adding more intervals - for example, you might start up with 3 reps of 3 min run/1 min walk.  Then increase it by 2 for a total of 5. My preference was to run based on time. For example, I would run for 20 min - at the end of 10 min I would turn around and whether it took me 10 or 8 min to get back home, it still counted as a 20 min run, no matter how fast I did it :).  This has the added benefit of creating a "negative split" where you run the last half of your run faster than the first half, which is desirable. If I knew I had to get in a certain number of intervals regardless, I would have been less motivated to go home faster.

My recommendation would be to start with a 10 min run, working gradually up to 30 min. 

How often? 3x a week is a good goal and leaves time for you to try incorporate other things that are good for the body and mind - a hike, a bike ride, a horse ride, snowboarding, etc.

Once you can run for 30 min using a 2/1 or 3/1 interval and stay within the green zone, with perhaps some yellow near the end, you are ready to start adding some intervals. Now would be a good time to repeat that 1 mile test.

Phase 2

I used to believe that speed work was only for advance runners looking to improve their PR's and that it inherently carried such a high risk of injury that it would be foolish for a recreational runner to do any serious intense speed work.  I've changed my mind.  High intensity interval training (HIIT) is the number one thing I wish I knew about 10 years ago.  Done right (take appropriate rest days, listen to your body) it can reduce the overall mileage and time needed to achieve a certain level of fitness. I won't expound on what HIIT has done with me, except to point out that if Galloway and his run/walk intervals were the first life altering revelation I had about running, HIIT was the second.......13 years later.

The goal is to work up to 8-12 intervals.  An interval is composed on 60 seconds of running *as close to your max* as you can, and then 75 seconds of recovery. You can walk, jog, skip or do whatever you want during that recovery interval.  Let me take a moment to explain what *as close to your max* means.  It is the red light on our scale. It is you pushing with every step telling yourself FASTER.  It's as fast as you can possibly force your legs to go without any regard to the fact you will have to repeat this feat 75 seconds later, 8 more times.  To get the benefit of HIIT, you HAVE to run your intervals *hard*.  In training, we have a tendancy to settle into a "medium speed" - our slow/easy runs end up a bit too fast and our hard/fast runs end up a tad too slow.  Constantly remind yourself of this fact fly down that road with your fists and knees pumping without any regard to people stopping to stare at the trail of snot coming out of your nose and the unconcious grunts escaping your gritted teeth. 

I managed 5 intervals my first time out. And I had to walk my recoveries.

I can guarantee you this: 1.  it will suck. 2.  it will get you results. 3.  it is THE most efficient way to get the most "bang for your buck" during a workout.

Sprinting is AWESOME strength training.  Strength training is about recruiting more muscle fibers to do the job.  Sprinting is the most specific strength training for running that you can do - which is why once I starting sprinting on the flats, I started being able to run up hills even though I can't regularly train on hills. 

Repeat 3x a week. To be perfectly honest, I usually manage 2 of these a week with my other 1-2 workouts being a long run or someother variation.

One reason is because I'm a STICKLER for not doing an interval run unless I feel almost 100%. No twinges, no feeling like I might be getting sick, no soreness from something else.

Total HIIT workout should be 30 min or less. Warm up by slowly jogging 5 or 10 minutes. Stretch (I like to do dynamic stretching). Then take off. 1 min as hard as you can. 75 seconds recovery. Repeat. Keep track of how many you were able to do. Repeat 2-3 a week - as long as you aren't sore.  If you are sore, take an extra day to recover!!!! 

Phase 3 (sorta at the same time as Phase 2, but separate because I consider HIIT a higher priority than these runs)

About 3-4 x a month I like to throw in a tempo run.  A continuous tempo run is a run that is in the yellow/orange range. Sometime that is slightly faster than your comfort zone, but isn't in the red zone like an interval.  A good goal is to see if you can spend 20-30 min in a yellow/orange range.

1-2x a month I do a long run.  I define a long run as one that lasts over 60 min.  Go back to your "roots" of run walk and your green zone and start experiment with doing that pace over longer periods of time.  Start with 60 min and increase your runs by 30 min or so each time you go out for a long run.  Once your runs exceed 90 min, start carrying some sort of "fuel" (food) and start eating 250-300 calories for every hour.

Sometimes I'm not in the mood for a super structured run, (or more likely, I've forgotten my watch). In that case, substitute a "Farlek" run for a interval run.  Pick in object in the distance and run towards it (red zone style!).  When you reach it (telephone, tree, bench, rock) recover at whatever pace and until another object calls to you. :)

Whenever I can, I try to fit in some trail runs. The trails near my house are flat flat flat.  So, if I happen to be visiting in an area with *real* trails with *real* hills, I make sure I pack my running gear and squeeze in a 30-60 min run. It's always exciting to see my progress from one trail run to the next.  I used to not be able to run up any kind of incline, and even without doing any sort of regular hill work, unles the hill is REALLY steep I can charge up it like it ain't no thang now :).

Of course, I adjust my HIIT run schedule from phase 2 if I do one of these runs - If I'm sore from a trail run I take a couple of extra days for recovery, or I have a long run planned for the weekend maybe I'll skip my second HIIT run that is right before it. It's all about being flexible, keeping it fun, and listening to your body about when you need an extra couple days.

As you move through phases 2 and 3, remember that once you've completed/conquered a workout you need to re-adapt it. Change SOMETHING about it for the next time. Increase the number of intervals on the HIIT, increase the time on the long run, push yourself a little faster or a little longer on the tempo run.   Remember the tendency towards the middle and keep yourself from falling into the same routine for every run.

Phase 4

Let's say you are at the following stage:
- You can do a couple hours at an easy pace +/- walk runs
- You can do HIIT runs as described above consisting of 10-12 intervals
- 30 min tempo run in the orange zone is very doable
- You have to work pretty hard to put yourself in that anaerobic zone. 

What now?

Now's the fun part. 

Now you have the base to whatever you want with it. 

There are "types" of training and depending on what you want to do, you will adjust where you are on that continum.

- Volume - increasing mileage or number of workouts
- Intensity - increasing intensity.

Depending on your time, availability, resources, LIFE it may be easier to ramp up one or the other. Stay flexible and adapt. I used to do more volume.  Now I do more intensity because I have less time.

Whichever direction you decide to go, make sure you continue to listen to your body and take appropriate rest days.

By this time running is a habit instead of "motivation" so I don't worry if I need to take days off - I usually can't wait to get back on the trail.

Continue to incorporate HIIT and a mix of the runs described in phase 3. Remember to change the stressors of each run. I like to keep a log of pace/time/distance/terrain and then I give it a difficulty rating.  I like to see runs that stay in the 4-5 star range.  Too many 2 or 3 star runs means that I'm slipping into that comfortable "middle" ground. It's fine to have some comfortable steady state runs - they are my "candy" when I'm having a bad day etc. But it shouldn't make up the bulk of my running.  Examples of "stressors" that I could change once a run has slipped from a 4-5 to a 3 or so are:
- altitude/elevation
- speed
- time
- distance
- heat/time of day
- terrain (hills)
- decrease rest interval
- increase sprint interval
- increase number of intervals
- etc.

I find that keeping a simple record of my runs becomes more important in this phase so that I can find the next logical step. Here's a practical example of how this might work, based on my running log.

I want to do a HIIT run tomorrow. Here's a summary of my last month of HIIT workouts.
Date - Distance - Duration - Pace - Difficulty - # intervals
11/7 - 3.00 - 27:40 - 9.22 - 4/5 - 8
11/18 - 3.15 - 30:00 - 9.52 - 4/5 - 9
11/23 - 3.80 - 36:00 - 9.47 - 3/5 - 11
11/25 - 3.14 - 27:48 - 8.85 - 4/5 - 10
11/28 - 3.41 - 30:34 - 8.96 - 5/5 - 9
12/6 - 3.22 - 30:39 - 9.52 - 3/5 - 9 (miserable weather)

The distance/pace/duration numbers include warm up and cool down which isn't identical between workouts, but in general you can see that I either run further or faster or increase the interval numbers etc.  Based on this history, what should tomorrow's HIIT set up be?
- I could increase my intervals to 12
- I could shorten my recovery interval from 75 seconds to 60 seconds and run the 3.41 mile course with the same 9 intervals, like my 11/28 workout (that course is my favorite home loop).

Because it is unlikely I could fit in more intervals to my 3.41 mile course and keep it within the 30 min widow, option 2 seems reasonable.

I tend to run more by feel when I get to phase 4, and less by what my watch tells me to do. My HIIT runs stay very structured, but I use my green-yellow-orange-red light "feel" to make sure my other runs are where I want them. I still take walk breaks during my long runs - but it's when I want to take a pretty picture or just because. Instead of hitting certain paces during races, I run them by feel - which is fun because it's so flexible and fluid.  
As a side note, I've finally accepted that starting over after a break is a perfectly normal thing in running for a recreational runner.  :).  Life gets in the way and sometimes running has to take a back seat.  Whenever more than a few months has gone by since my last run, I start at phase 1 and work myself back through the phases. Sometimes I only spend 1 run in phase 1. Sometimes I hang out there for a couple of weeks.
General comments - in a FAQ style :), with some fun links to read :). They aren't linked to the original source - but you should be able to easily get the original studies from these links. 

Why shouldn't I run when I'm sore? 
 Ultra DOMS article

Another DOMS article

Don't want to run but you aren't sick, sore, and you are afraid you are just starting to make excuses not to go running? 
- Go out for one mile.  If you still don't want to be out there, turn around and come home.  Trick I still use that I learned way back on day 1 from Galloway.

Hills aren't necessarily easier on your body than speed.
- I did hill training a long time ago because it was presented as a good way to increase the intensity of the work out without the danger of speed.  I have chronic, ongoing injuries from both uphill (achilles) and downhill (IT band) training. It wasn't until I starting doing a lot of flat land HIIT training that I've been able to run hills without tweaking something.

Trails can be easier
- I've avoided trails in the past for "serious" runs because I had been told that they are harder - lots of balancing and core, hills, softer footing etc.  That's all true, but I find I'm much less sore and tired and achy after a trail run than one of a similar speed and distance on roads. I don't know if it's because every step is different on the trail so it distributes force more evenly and not in the same place in my body?  I'm still wrapping my head around how I can be faster and less sore over terrain and I'm not sure.  It worth a try and seeing how your body responds - don't just assume trails are too hard for you.  One thing that is definitely harder about trails - it's very easy to fall.  I've NEVER fallen on the road.  I've had some spectacular falls on the trails multiple times in the last 6 months, and I've seen other runners take some *awesome* spills, and almost everyone has a story of how they've biffed it.  

Do NOT run through soreness. Do NOT take NSAIDs prophylaxically before a run, or for DOMS after a run without indication of injury or pathology. Do NOT take excessive quantities of antioxidants.  DO take rest days.
- If you are sore after a run, congratulations - your muscles are adapting to the training you just put into them.  You'll come out of that soreness stronger and ready to go.  It is normal to be sorer 48 hours post workout than 24 hours.  Really really really REALLY sore after a work out - like thanking the Lord that public restrooms have handicap bars in the toilets and thinking of installing them in your own bathroom?  You over did it.  If you don't have an injury, stick it out.  Take extra rest days, get plenty of sleep and don't do another hard workout until you aren't sore again.  You really stressed your muscles and luckily didn't get injuried and your muscles will heal and get stronger, but in the mean time you might be more vulnerable to injury so take care of yourself?
- NSAIDs will reduce the amount of adaptation your muscles do - not all inflammation is bad and inflammation is helping to signal to the muscles the adaptions they need for the *next* time.  You've put in that hard work out - now don't reduce the effectiveness by taking something that reduces the benefit you are recieving!!!  Additional reason not to take it - it doesn't actually lessen the duration or pain of DOMS (neither does massage or ice baths or going out for another run.....). So unless you have an injury that is creating pathologic inflammation, put down the vitamin I
- Mega doses of antioxidants will actually downregulate your innate antioxidant producing pathways.   
From the NY times

Science of running

Another Science of running

Shouldn't I be stretching?
-Maybe maybe not.  

NY time article

Another NY times article - this one that describes some of the dynamic stretching I like. 

Science of Running

Will running make me thin?
- Probably not.  I used to run to be thin. I ran all my marathons slightly heavier than I am now - approximately the weight I started training at. There's many reasons to exercise beyond weight - the health benefits beyond weight are significant and profound.  I find that running helps me crave the right foods and in moderate amounts regulates appetite. However I find that long distance running (or any prolonged cardio) (and the research I've seen supports this) stimulates a ravenous appetitite that will force you replace the calories burned (and possibly more).

Yet another NY times article
And another - I know there are a lot of NY times articles here - but the nice thing is that they (and Science of Running) link to the original research so you can read it yourself.

What about shoes?  Don't I need fancy shoes?
 - Maybe maybe not.  I'm totally on the fence now.  I run barefoot now and have less problems than I have ever have. I've run in the wrong shoes for my biomechanics and blamed them for an injury. I ran in the right shoes but the heel height was different from a previous pair and I blamed them for another injury. I've had a couple of shoes that I was really happy with, but always had little nagging issues that have totally resolved since going barefoot. Do your own research, maybe see a podiatrist, and try to figure out what is going to work for you.  I've seen research saying that the biomechanics and the "right" shoe is a concept that doesn't work. I've seen that running in the wrong shoes will ruin you.  I've seen that barefoot running is either a miracle or will be the death of us all.

Yet another Science of Running article (there's others out there to, but I'm running out of time I can devote to this post...)

Do I need to strength train?

Here's an article
And here's another that repeats (uses the same interview by Gretchen) info from the previous one, but has some tidbits.

(My current goal is to be able to do a full one legged pistol squat.  Wouldn't that be cool?  I'm good at squats, so I like them. I also do some pushups. I've ditched planks and ab stuff because I hates them.  Hates them I say.  And it's amazing how much more motivated I am to do some weight training now that I've given myself permission to not to do ab stuff).


  1. Loved this post! It made me excited about running again..except it's been 30 degrees outside! Any tips on cold weather running? I feel like I also read somewhere that cold air (below 30? 20? degrees?) is harsh on human lungs when exercising and can do more harm than good....but if that were true, we wouldn't have winter I'm not so sure about that.

    The problem I have is that the minute temps dropped below 50, I have not made it outside to run again. A huge part of it is lack of appropriate running cold weather gear. My hands and feet tend to get really cold at the barn (the only thing that keeps my feet warm right now are insulated snow boots), so though the general recommendation is to use the same running shoes you'd use in the summer, I'm not a fan of getting my feet cold and wet thanks to the mesh on the sneakers and the slush on the sidewalks/mud on the trails. And I often have a problem with my core getting very warm very rapidly when exercising, which has made it difficult for me to stay consistently comfortable when doing HIIT or run/walks. What would you recommend gear-wise?

    1. I had never run in cold weather before this year. Like you, the temps drop and then I just don't go out side. But this year I was still super motivated to run, even during a cold snap that meant it was in the mid 20s. So I tried it out. The first thing I did was buy a pair of winter running knicker length tights. Figured I was worth it if I made myself go out and run. I also bought a pair of smartwool arm warmers. For an easy run I or wool long underwire pants with running tights on top of them, a tech tshirt, a fleece vest, arm warmers, and a light zip jacket. And mittens and a beanie style hat, AND my summer weight "buff" which is like a face scarf. The uv summer weight one was great because it's light enough I can still breathe through it, but it keeps me warm and keeps me from sucking cold air (I have no idea if it's true that cold air is bad for lungs, but I hate being cold and doing this keeps me warm....). For runs that I was running harder and was going to break a sweat I new knicker length tights, mittens, beanie hat, buff, tech tshirt with arm warmers, and that light zip jacket that would end up around my waist.

  2. For some reason in really cold conditions like above, I think more about whether I could survive the night if something happened and I was stranded, even though I'm running close to my house. Hence, even though I know I won't need the light jacket, I bring it anyways around my waist. I don't tend to take these sort of orecautions when the weather is nicer. I'm more likely to wing it. I also will bring a headlamp and my phone with me even if I don't think I'll be out after dark, which although good practice, I don't bother with usually.

  3. Awesome! Thank you so much! I like the idea of the face scarf to warm the air as you breathe in. Lighter than a ski mask. It's good to know exactly what what has worked for someone else so as to have an idea what to start experimenting with gear-wise. Thank you for sharing!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.