5 Things I’ve Learned About Running

It used to be that when I saw someone slogging along on the street, I assumed they were both insane and close to death. “Why would you torture yourself like that!?” I would want to yell. Well, now I am that slogger, but the truth is that it’s only a slog some of the time, and even when it’s awful, it’s one of my greatest joys.

Since I became an annoying running evangelist last fall, I’ve had a number of friends express surprise, sometimes surprise so vehement it could be called ‘shock’, at what I’ve turned into. No one is more surprised than me. Here are five things I’ve learned in the  last few months, 5 things that changed my perspective and my willingness to push on:

1) Running as fast possible is a terrible goal

This sounds really obvious in retrospect, but it wasn’t to me! The biggest misconception I had about running was that the point of the sport was to run as fast as possible. So once a year or so I’d decide to give it a try. I’d start running, and about ten minutes later I’d barf. And then I’d be sore for days, and vow to never do such a thing again. How could people subject themselves to such horror? Why on earth would you do something that made you feel like you were dying the whole time?

I assumed there were people who could naturally run with ease, and people like myself. I assumed people who ran regularly did so because they ran with ease. That it was the other way around, that running regularly made running with ease possible, literally never crossed my mind.

That running at a comfortable pace could be a source of fulfillment was so far beyond my understanding. Which leads me to…

 
2) Your cardiovascular capacity will improve really, really quickly.

Every once in awhile when I tried those early torture runs (usually on a treadmill), I’d break through to the other side. I’d suddenly reach a point where I could breath, where my limbs were moving fluidly, and for a few brief seconds it would feel good. This never lasted, but I imagined this was how runners felt all the time.

When I started doing Couch-to-5k I was winded throughout any of the running segments. And then, really quite suddenly, I wasn’t. Running 5 minutes was a challenge, but three days later it wasn’t. And since running 5 minutes felt okay, running 8 minutes seemed possible, though a struggle. And then a week later that wasn’t a struggle either. I remember the first time I ran a full 22 minutes. I mapped it out afterward, and found it was about three and half kilometers. I was ecstatic: this was not something I’d ever thought I could do, because I wasn’t a runner. But if I could run three and half kilometers…then maybe I could run 5. That week I signed up for my first 5k race.

 

3) Your cardiovascular capacity will improve a lot faster than your muscles or joints

The first kilometer or two of many runs continued to suck, but then everything would just open up, and I’d feel like I could keep going for hours. Within weeks of running the 5k race (and finishing in 28 minutes), I was running 10 kilometers every Saturday, and another 20 or so spread across 5 days of the week. And then I was injured. And I ran on the injury. And then I didn’t run for 10 weeks, and it was absolutely brutal.

On the left, a photo of my smiling, holding a medal from the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. On the right are a series of statistics. They read: Overall Place 924/774. Gender place 358/4950. Category place: 75/801. Bib: 27207. Category: F25-29. Gender: F. City: Toronto. Province: Ontario. Country: Canada.

Me, happy after a pretty good finish, but barely able to walk, not yet aware that I’d torn my glute!

There’s a reason all of those books and websites harp on about only increasing your mileage by ten percent a week: because you will feel, mentally and lungs-wise, capable of so much more, but your body simply doesn’t have the base.

This isn’t true for everyone of course. I’ve met a number of people (all of them men), who’ve shrugged at the very idea of an injury, who’ve told the happy tale of how they went from an overweight couch potato to an ultra marathoner in two years. There are a few of us with pet theories about male bodies being less susceptible to certain kinds of injuries (hi, my pelvis is designed to come apart), but it may just be coincidence. My own husband is an avid cyclist and made the transition to running with nothing but a bit of soreness, while I desperately foam roll out my quads.

So: it’s a learning process. I am still trying to figure out how much I can do, how much irritation is all right to plow through, and when it’s time to stop. But the general rule is: first your lungs improve, then your muscles improve, then your actual skeletal system improves, and this last one in particular takes a loooong time. (I have no citation for this rule, it’s just something I see said on reddit a lot. Which leads me to….)

 

4) Literally everything is up for debate

Oh, you thought running shoes with lots of cushion were good? There are lots of people who disagree. You thought stretching was an essential component of recovery? There are lots and lots of people who disagree. You thought heel striking was terrible? Again, there’s much disagreement. You thought running every day was essential, or that it was terrible? Both could be true! And what about going to the gym, is that important? Maybe. Why do you get side aches, aka stitches? No one knows! Or, at least, there are a lot of different opinions.

I have never before been interested in an activity that has so much vehement disagreement around things that I thought were standard. When deciding what’s right for you, read lots, and take even the most strongly held opinions with a grain of salt. Around most issues, it seems like there’s less a right-and-wrong answer and more these-body-types-doing-these-kinds-of-training right answer.

Photo of a purple running watch on top of a book that is titled "Runner's Training Journal"

Not up for debate: making a plan, then tracking your progress is how you push yourself to become a better runner.

 

5) You’ll feel it later

This one goes out to people who still think they have their eighteen year old body. You know: go to the gym, then drink til three in the morning, then stumble to class, then home to do some reading before it was time to go out again…I treated the only body I’ve got pretty roughly for a long time without consequence. It no longer accepts such battering lightly. Being underslept is torture, an extra glass of wine is suddenly hard to recover from, and I simply can’t push myself without consequences.
Pace. Your. Training. I was doing very steep hill repeats one day, just to see if I could. I did nine of them, although by the end the pain and fatigue were really intense. But I finished them! And then I could barely walk, and had to wait a full week before I could even try running again. That was probably too many hills. I’d never done any hill work before, and these were very, very steep ones, and I did them as many times as I could. This is stupid. Pushing oneself is good, but again: the base has to be there. Part of the fun of running is the realization that you can push it. But this only comes if you’re already working in a comfort zone.

 

None of these thoughts will be news to anyone who runs regularly, but I thought they might be useful for someone contemplating giving running a try.

 

I start my training program for the Cleveland half marathon next week, and I plan to blog through the process, mostly for accountability, but also for the simple fun of tracking my progress.

PS: Bonus thing #6: Many runners like talking about running all the time. And taking pictures of themselves out on runs. And then posting them, along with their pace and route map. This seems both bizarre and boring from the outside, but I absolutely love seeing the runs others have been on, and dutifully post my own. So: just kidding, this isn’t a bonus, it’s just another picture of me on a run!

Self-taken photo. Only the upper half of my face is visible,. I am wearing a balaclava and a very brightly coloured neon yellow hat. Behind me is a snowy path, with a fence running alongside it. In the distance are two tall apartment buildings.

Running selfies: they cannot be stopped.

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