Every spring brings with it clear roads, nice lush trails and always an explosion of new or reborn runners outside. The year seems bright and shiny and new goals get set, sometimes held over from the year previous. That ½ marathon that didn’t get done last year – this is the one! I’m going to finish my first 10k race in under an hour! I’m going to set a new personal best in May! After coaching endurance athletes for over a decade I’ve pretty much heard all of them before. This applies to those of you who ran regularly last year and haven’t consistently since November (when you finished your last race) too. So I thought I might list off some of the biggest mistakes that I see new or renewed runners make early in season and hopefully it will make sure that a lot of those injuries I end up fixing in the fall don’t happen – at least to you.
1) Start as easy as you need to.
Many beginners start out with a walk/run protocol until they can run continuously for 20 minutes – and you should too. One mistake many beginners make is thinking that they can instantly hop out of their door and run forever without walking. They get 1 kilometer down the road, are gasping for air and their muscles are screaming, limp home and never go out again. I wonder why? This applies to reborn runners as well – sometimes those first few runs are hard on the body and it needs time to adjust and get used to the movement again. Try walk 1 minute, then JOG (not run) 1 minute and repeat for about 10 cycles – this is 20 minutes total, 10 minutes of jogging. This is a good starting point. Start with 3 times a week on non-consecutive days. You will know you are improving when things get easier and then you can progress to 2/1, up to 10/1 and then try for a long continuous run.
Also, it has been proven that aerobic conditioning is incredibly important. The majority of running at the starting stages should be at aerobic pace (meaning at least conversational). This can be very difficult for beginners, so watch your perceived exertion levels!
2) Warm up and Cool Down properly
Just putting your shoes on and going full speed right away is something even experienced runners shouldn’t do. My athletes all start out with mobility movements and drills before starting, then slowly ramp up to their workouts. High level athletes sometimes warm up for over an hour before their main workout starts! This is important for blood flow, getting your brain into movement and making sure all is okay before you start pounding on your joints. At the end of a workout, take some time to walk, evaluate how you feel and don’t just plop yourself down and stop moving right away. Don’t necessarily just stretch, either – often your muscles are too taxed and you are potentially doing yourself more harm than good by stretching immediately afterwards anyway. Treat every workout seriously, because if you want to perform well over time this is an essential habit to have right away.
Historically my athletes all tell me that if they had a crappy run it was because they didn’t warm up or do any movement before they went into their workout. It also significantly increases injury risk.
3) Progress yourself slower than you think you need to.
I can’t stress enough that the majority of overuse injuries I see are caused by their name – overuse. Some days are going to be a lot better than others for running, so ramping up mileage needs to be done weekly with a deload week once in a while (meaning just drop your total mileage by about 20%). There are lots of good plans out there and if the plan calls for 3 miles, don’t suddenly do 5 just because you are feeling great that day. My marathon runners spend months increasing weekly mileage from 50km per week to 70 and many more to 100 – you have to give the body time to adapt to stress under load. I often explain it to people that if you walked into the gym after hardly bench pressing 100 pounds and suddenly tried for 150, likely it wouldn’t go very well and you could easily hurt yourself, right? Running (and any other form of muscular stress) is the same thing. Start with alternating days, then add in a day once you feel capable. 4 days a week is generally plenty for most runners unless you are trying for a very fast time, especially when you add in other components, like…
4) Strength train. Both with resistance and while running.
Huh? How can you strength train while running, you ask? Well, the funny thing is that the body adapts to stress under load. Especially for beginners, getting into the weight room and lifting weights (properly) has been proven to be better for your running efficiency, allow you to recover from workouts faster and severely reduce your risk of injury. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean bench presses – the strength movements should be tailored to the muscles that you need to be better at running. A good strength coach (and I happen to know an excellent one!) can be your guide here. Strength training while running can be done with things like hill workouts, hard track workouts and even simple drills you can do at the end of a good run. Again, like anything else care has to be taken to do things properly at the start. There are lots of good beginner strength programs out there for endurance athletes.
It also doesn’t require a gym membership. I can outfit a decent home gym for less than $100, so if you need any guidance there or even if you don’t have a lot of space it can definitely be done. In fact, you can get a lot of strength from bodyweight movements alone.
5) Be realistic.
If a person comes to me having never run consistently and tells me they want to run a marathon, I tell them it will take 2 years to do properly and injury free. They usually walk out at that point. So many of us want that big goal without giving our body the time to adapt and get stronger while doing it. If you want to do a ½ marathon (without walking) be prepared to be running up to 50-60km per week. For a 10k it should be at least 30-40 – which requires time, commitment and preparation. Don’t be afraid to downgrade your goal if you find you haven’t put in the training time, you are better off to do that then do the race you set and possibly set yourself back for the future as a result. There are races pretty much every weekend during the summer – they will always be there. Would you rather have a bad experience or a good one? The road is long and if you take your time and do things right the first time, you can enjoy running for years without any issues.
All of this being said, a good coach is invaluable and will give you some perspective. Just please make sure you don’t come to them with a list of goals – pick a top one and have a secondary one, but don’t expect that you will lose 30 pounds while also running a ½ marathon. They are separate things and should be treated as such. If you are interested in exploring either your first race or your twenty-first and are going for a personal best feel free to contact me. I have helped dozens of runners get to that target goal they have been waiting for, whether you are just getting off of the couch or heading towards the Boston Marathon. Feel free to comment, subscribe and follow me on Facebook!