Where I Began as a Runner and 5 Uncommon Tips for Newer Runners

Progression pics

This post lists 5 uncommon running related tips targeted at new or intermediate runners. The following lessons attempt to be distinct from the usual advice given to new runners like "get fitted for running shoes" and "run your easy miles slow". That advice is useful, but here I venture to give recommendations that you are less likely to see elsewhere. First, I'd like to give some surrounding context or you can click here to skip past the background and get right to the 5 tips.

The Usefulness of Anecdotes

"How long will it take to achieve goal XYZ?" is a natural question often wondered by those embarking on a new journey like running or fitness in general. While general rules of thumb exist, it is difficult to apply them broadly because everyone starts from a different initial point and picks up on the learning curve at different rates. Individual anecdotes, however, can help clarify the path ahead. Such stories can help us set rough expectations, especially if we see ourselves as similar to the author of the story. Thus, there is value in sharing such stories and here I briefly share mine.

Journey Towards Becoming a Runner

Progression pics
Three year progression. From left to right: Tim at his heaviest (245 lbs, 2017); Tim after Detroit Marathon 2019 (225 lbs); Tim after Detroit (Virtual) Marathon 2020 (205 lbs).

I am currently 26 years old and for all of my life I have been overweight. Despite a persistent desire to improve health, it wasn't until I was 21 years old that I began to make real progress. It was at this age that I learned the correct strategy for lifting weights to improve strength. My heavy bodyweight and tendency to enjoy simple and monotonous daily tasks like lifting allowed me to attain results quickly which then reinforced my desire to continue working out.

At age 24 and after three years of focusing on powerlifting, I accidentally became a runner. The switch occurred after setting a side goal of running a quick 5K which led to an infatuation with distance running. When the switch to running occurred, I weighed ~210 pounds and could squat 315 pounds. During the first year of running, I developed bad eating habits and stopped lifting in favor of running more. Consequently, weight gain and lost of leg strength followed and my running pace declined by about 1 min/mile during this time. Yet endurance improved. At the end of the first year running, I ran my first marathon at a weight of 225 pounds and with legs that would struggle to squat 135 pounds.

The second year of running was much more consistent than the first. I lost about 20 lbs through improving diet and running more. This fitness improvement translated to a decrease of ~1 hour in marathon time (from 5:28 to 4:30). Currently , I am striving to improve marathon performance during the third year of running by returning to the gym to rebuild muscle. Check out my Strava if you'd like to get an idea of how often or fast I typically train.

Experience

In short, I am a fairly new runner who has about 5 years of experience with fitness and 2.5 years experience running. I've been obese for my most of my life and am currently overweight despite running often. I enjoy compound lifts and working on my upper body more than is needed for running. Fitness progress hasn't always been monotonic - about 1 year into lifting, my body composition was at its worst due to heavy fast food and alcohol consumption (see the left most picture in the previous section). Currently, I am 5 foot 10 inches tall and weigh 205 lbs. My typical running pace is around 10 min/mile and I run 5 times per week. Even if you consider yourself quite different from me, I'm confident that you'll find something useful in the following 5 tips!

Tip 1: Gear Matters

running gear
Some of my favorite running gear accumilated over the years.

A common piece of advice for new runners is to go to a running store and get fitted for shoes. The idea is that running shoes are better for running and different runners have different foot strikes that benefit more from a specific type of shoe. This advice can be extended from shoes to running gear and clothing in general. For example, when I began running regularly, I wore my regular cotton undergarments. Consequently, I would experience chaffing on my large thighs due to moisture build up. Simply changing to athletic undergarments completely fixed this problem. For cold weather training, running gloves, ear warmers, headbands, tights/pants and special quarter zips exist that can help keep you warm despite being relatively lightweight.

The lesson is, then, to browse around in-person and online running stores and see what is offered. Talk to the staff and to your friends. Determine what challenges can be solved by investing in new clothing or gear. However, don't go overboard and buy a bunch of stuff before you establish a routine. Rather, treat yourself to a new top or a new running watch as a reward for sustaining consistent training effort. Build up your repertoire over time. Appreciate each new piece of clothing or equipment and exploit the excitement of using it to further bolster your motivation.

Tip 2: The Influence of Diet

food pictures

Beau Miles is an incredibly interesting and entertaining filmmaker. In one of his most popular documentaries, Beau endeavours to eat nothing but canned beans until he has consumed his body weight (85 kg) in beans. This feat took a vast amount of mental willpower and 40 days to complete. To gauage how the bean diet affects his overall health, Beau focuses on observing changes in how he feels while running. "How I feel when I run correlates to what I eat," quips Beau before going on to explain how he felt after his first run on the Bean diet, "I feel like that's the first run I've ever done. You would never run if that's what it felt like. Maybe that's the reality check. You know, I've been running around pretty fit for two decades and you wonder why people don't do... why they don't run more."

Beau's Human Bean experiment reveals an important truth about running - what you eat will affect how it feels to run. Each person's reaction to a particular food is bound to vary, so bettering your diet is an individualized journey that we each get to embark on. For me, there are certain foods I avoid before completing the day's run. For instance, heavy foods like red meat make me feel particularly sluggish. Then there's also foods that I avoid all together like spicy peppers which tend to cause serious digestive issues during runs. Cutting out certain foods for the sake of running might be difficult, but it is likely that we are better off for it. Running motivates us to improve diet and a better diet improves body composition which helps us run. One of the kinder cycles in life.

Tip 3: Consistency is Key

In a recent podcast interview, Alexi Pappas tells how the rule of thirds has guided her training. Pappas, a Greek-American Olympian, filmmaker and author, describes the rule of thirds as follows: 1/3 of your training should feel good, 1/3 of your training should feel ok, and 1/3 of your training should feel “crappy.” The idea is that some runs should feel good as we improve fitness, some runs should feel fine as we run easy to build an aerobic base and some runs should be tough as we push ourselves to new levels of fitness. One key lesson is to not let tough or disappointing runs discourage you. Growth happens when it hurst most during, for example, the last mile or the last run before a rest day. The key to improving is to embrace the pain and stimulate your body to improve.

Another important point to remember is that not all runs will be fast. Not all runs will be finished. And not all races will result in personal records. But that's okay. In his book "Atomic Habits," James Clear states, "Missed days hurt more than good days help," referring to the importance of consistency in habit formation. James goes on to explain how just showing up and, for example, having a bad workout is okay. Bad workouts help us maintain fitness rather than lose it. Showing up also helps us maintain habits. Applying this wisdom to running tells us the importance of showing up and getting the run in. Even if the run is bad, the subtle improvements of a bad run will compound and make a difference on the days when we do have a good run.

Tip 4: Follow a Training Schedule

example of a running training schedule
Example of a training schedule. I'm unsure about copyrights so I just made up a representative schedule. I'd recommend finding a schedule made by a running coach rather than following this one.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, 38th Governor of California and 7 time winner of the Mr. Olympia bodybuilding title has frequently offered this nugget of wisdom during his speeches, "You can have the best ship in the world, but if you don't know where you're going, then you're going to float around and not get anywhere." Put another way, Arnold tells us that you need to have a plan to make meaningful progress. Once you're able to get out and run 10 or 15 miles a week, it is helpful to find a training schedule that fits your needs. My first schedule came from the book "Faster Road Racing: 5K to Half Marathon" by Pfitzinger and Latter. I highly recommend this book and still refer to its schedules today during non-marathon training blocks. Some online resources offer free schedules. For instance, RunnersWorld is a great resource.

The benefit of a schedule is the clear structure and motivation it gives. You may wake up sore one day and think yourself incapable of the planned 6 mile run. But instead of succumbing to the allure of a day off, trust the schedule and get out there and give it a try. The schedule will challenge you and meeting those challenges will be rewarding. Following a plan laid out by a running coach rather than by your whims is also likely to be more efficient for obvious reasons. My first 10 week schedule took me unbelievably far and at a surprising rate. My longest run went from 4 miles to 13.1 miles (half marathon) in just 10 weeks. In short, go find a schedule that works for you.

Tip 5: Most Issues have a Remedy

The unifying theme of the first 4 tips is that most issues have a remedy. Do your feet develop blisters during summer runs? Follow Tip 1 and buy some blister preventation tape or use Gold Bond to protect the vulnerable areas of your foot. Does your stomach hurt or you feel lightheaded after 20 minutes of running? Follow Tip 2 and experiment with avoiding certain foods or try introducing new healthy foods to your diet. Becoming good at running (or good at many other activities) requires you to become resourceful. Thankfully, the internet contains a wealth of information and, over time, you will become better at using it to answer questions related to running. Sites like YouTube are great places to find solutions to problems you didn't even know you had or know could be remedied.

In summary, the final lesson is to pay attention to your body, your motivation and the challenges that come with running. Never stop learning ways to improve the situation. Be proactive. Keep conquering your personal challenges, one at a time and you'll go a long way. Good luck!

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