Seasoned runners make it look easy, but the truth of the matter is that starting a running routine is hard work. Beginner runners have a lot of distance to cover until their new endeavor becomes habitual. In the miles between, it takes persistence, dedication and a little bit of strain to push through the growing pains of establishing yourself as a runner.
While some of this struggle comes from the simple fact that running is hard work - and harder when you haven't done it consistently - many beginning runners are hampered from a lack of information. It's easy to go out and buy a new pair of running shoes, but understanding all the variables affecting your running experience and performance isn't as easily accomplished. On top of that, there's plenty of misinformation that circulates, especially on the Internet, and points beginners in the wrong direction.
There's no magic potion to make running easy, but with proper guidance any beginner runner can avoid some common pitfalls while better directing their own progression and growth. Here are five of the most important lessons you need to learn as a beginner runner.
1. Strength Training is critical to running injury-free
Running is an aerobic exercise, so most new runners are led to believe that cardiovascular training is the best supplement to running fitness. However, running also puts muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints under sustained periods of stress, and this stress can lead to injuries if it is not properly managed.
Strength training is one of the best ways to strengthen your structural system and stay injury-free. Strength training can be done in a weight room if available, but you can also get a valuable workout on your living room floor - use leg lifts, hip thrusts, lunges and wall squats to strength train without exercise equipment.
The most important areas of focus for beginners are the hips and the core. Research has shown weak hips are the primary cause of IT band pain, patella tendonitis (runner’s knee), piriformis issues, sciatica, and a myriad of other common running injuries.
2. Learn to run with proper form
A single run can result in thousands of steps being taken on the streets. When improper form is present, each step places unnecessary strain somewhere in the body - and this strain is a breeding ground for injuries and chronic pain. Proper form should be employed throughout the body not only to prevent injuries, but also to improve your running efficiency by maximizing your mechanics.
The upper body should be leaned slightly forward, from the ankles, to help generate proper extension at the hip. Arms should be relaxed and swinging to facilitate forward motion. Your hips should be fully extended to capitalize on the elastic energy contained in the hip flexors and to allow your foot to contact the ground directly under your center of mass. How your foot strikes the ground (heel, mid foot or forefoot) is not important if your leg is directly under you when it contacts the ground.
The easiest way to perfect your own running form is to improve your cadence. Start by counting the number of times your left foot hits the ground whilst running for 30 seconds. Let’s imagine yours was 40. Double that to get the total for 60 seconds (80); then double it again to get the total for both feet (160). Your cadence (for that particular running speed) is therefore 160spm.
If your cadence is less than 170spm, work to increase your cadence by 5%. Once this becomes natural, work to increase your cadence another 5% until you’re comfortable in the 170 to 180 steps per minute range.
3. Focus on your breathing
You should always breathe in and out primarily through your mouth when running. This allows you to take in the maximum amount of oxygen.
Your breathing can also provide a good measurement of how hard you are working relative to your current cardiovascular fitness. An ideal training zone for an easy run is one with a 3:3 breathing rhythm. This means that you will take three steps on every inhale and three steps with each exhale. If you’re breathing faster than this, you’re likely running too hard for an easy run day.
If you're unsure of how hard you are running, you can easily check your breathing rhythm and adjust accordingly.
4. Learn to pace yourself
In workouts and in races, pacing is extremely important to success. Unfortunately, proper pacing is something most runners accomplish through "feel," and this is hard to do until you've done a lot of running. Out on the racing course among dozens or even hundreds of other runners, it can be difficult to know whether you are on pace or far off. By the time you reach a mileage marker to calculate your pace, the damage may already be done.
Although this takes time to master, you can use your workouts to train yourself on how your ideal pace feels. Breathing tempo and foot rhythm are good measures, and if you have a GPS you can track your pace periodically. Just don't spend too much time staring at the GPS - you want to develop an innate feel, so focus on your pacing, check your speed every two or three minutes, and adjust accordingly until you can pace yourself with ease.
5. Make wise mileage increases
A lot of runners - and even coaches - will point to the 10 percent rule as the standard for increasing weekly running mileage. This rule states that runners should not increase their weekly mileage by more than 10 percent of the week prior. But there's plenty of research to suggest that this rule isn't as reliable as many might believe.
One reason you can't go solely off distance is that the variables can vary greatly. Hard running surfaces deliver a lot more strain than dirt trails, for example, so mileage should be increased with much more caution on cement paths. The padding in your running shoes, your own physical conditioning and even your running form can all conspire to affect how much or how little mileage increase you can handle.
In some cases, you might be able to handle an increase of 30 to 40 percent, but you need to listen to your body - if your shins, knees, hips or other structures are hurting, don't push yourself too hard. A single injury can provide a much greater setback than you stand to gain from adding a few extra miles onto a week.
Self-motivation is a great tool for runners, but it needs to be tempered with a health-minded approach.
If you’re a beginner runner, keep these five points in mind as you set out to tackle your first few weeks of running. You’ll have a much better shot at completing your training without becoming injured or discouraged.