I’m not exactly what you would call an elite runner. I’ve never run a marathon, and though I have a half marathon in my sites, I haven’t run one of those yet, either. I have run a 10-miler on snowy roads, a four-miler in -16 degree crosswinds, and an 18.12 mile race in the summer (known as the Sacketts Harbor Challenge—as a cool a race as a runner can find), and I’ve knocked down lots of low mileage events.
My times are good, but overall, I’m focused on being a devoted, low-stress runner. I’m not “in training” until I am, and even then, I’m not too worried about following an exact plan.
In fact, I didn’t even start running until I was about 37 (I’m 40 now). I had run a little before then—slowly, awkwardly, hacking and gagging much of the way. And then, after I was severely sickened by celiac disease, put on rest for six months, and finally eager to prove to myself that I was well, I became a runner. Almost overnight. Celiac disease, as I’ve written, made me into a runner.
People tend to make a big deal out of running. There’s special clothing (some of which you need, much of which you don’t); there are fancy watches (I run with a $10.00 watch from Walmart); and there are all sorts of apps and training programs.
I tend to be a no-frills kind of person when it comes to gear. For one thing, I’m cheap. For another, I think running is about freedom.
When I think back over how I came to discover that, I find that I did three things that really helped:
1. Walk First
For me, this was easy. I had a high-strung German shepherd puppy that would destroy my house if he didn’t get 3 miles a day, minimum. I started running by walking him—walking fast. I did this for nearly a year before running.
If you have a dog, get out there—it’s good for the dog, and good for you. If you don’t have a dog but always wanted one, this is the excuse. If you can’t have a dog, either begin by walking alone (45 minutes to an hour at one time, if possible, to build up endurance), or go to an animal shelter and ask to walk a dog. They’ll be happy to lend you one.
2. Ditch The Gear
Maybe I’m alone on this one, but a GPS watch got into my head. Plenty of good runs were spoiled by my GPS watch before I lost my patience one day, tore it off my wrist, and heaved it, mid-stride, into a river (it had been telling me I was running a 1:45 mile).
I felt guilty at first, but then a miraculous thing happened: I learned how to listen to my body. I ditched the music, too. I ran without a phone. I concentrated on settling in, seeing the road, and accepting what my body could do that day.
Some days, it wasn’t much. Others, I flew. Because I wasn’t all amped up on music, I learned how to feel the road beneath me—an essential thing for any runner to know. One day I’ll do heart rate training, but for now, all I care about are how many minutes I’m out there.
3. Don’t Focus On Time—Exactly
Let’s say you want to run your first 5K. And let’s say you want to finish in 30 minutes, a 9:40 pace. A beginner risks killing her motivation—by failing—watching the time count down to 9:39 on every practice run.
Try this: If you’re really trying to run for a whole 30 minutes and never have before, focus on runs of 15 minutes, or half the time you plan to be out on the road in the race, for the first few weeks. (I started training for a ten-miler by halving my target time of 73:00 minutes and shooting for that in my first weeks).
Then, each week, up it by three to five minutes. Work gradually to avoid injury, which is not the same thing as soreness. Soon you’ll be at at about three-quarters of the time you hope to be running on race day. Stop there. Adrenaline will carry you the rest of the way.
Of course, for every person these strategies help, there will be others they don’t. Running is an individual sport. But in a world where retailers, websites, and magazines are telling us we need to do this, have that, and approach running in a flashy way, it can be helpful to remember a very simple fact: humans have been running for a long, long time, and it can come to us naturally—if we let it.