Pain and misery. Those are the words that came to mind when I thought of running in the past.
When I was younger, I had to do a newspaper route on Saturday morning. I'd usually finish around seven AM, at which point I would come across dozens of runners getting their early-morning exercise in. Watching these lean and wiry weekend warriors go about their day, I could only think of one thing: “Why are they willingly exposing themselves to this much misery?”
The thought of running for fun or relaxation was as alien to me as liking peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. No being in this universe could ever make like it. (By the way, anyone who says PBJ sandwiches are fantastic is clearly wrong — peanut butter is pure nastiness)
Thing is, humans are incredible runners. We've evolved to be the most efficient runners in the animal kingdom and it shows. In any given week, there are about half a dozen ultra-marathon races in the USA. Grueling and seemingly-insane, these races regularly feature courses that are 100km or even 100 miles long. Some events can last as long as three days!
Do these ultra-endurance athletes just not feel pain or are they cut from a different cloth?
As of writing this, most of the world is in lockdown due to the coronavirus. As a result, gyms have closed. And if there's one thing I need, it's daily exercise of some sort. I tried resistance bands and kettlebells to reasonable success. But something was missing.
In a moment of sheer insanity, I put on my running shoes and ran for a bit. And then the next day, I did the same thing. Before I knew it, I was running five times per week.
And somehow, I actually started enjoying it.
Here's how I did it.
Take a random person who's brand new to running and ask them what their goal is. Odds are you'll hear a couple of common answers: a 5k, 10k, half marathon or (if they've got testicular fortitude) a full marathon. And, as with most goals, they never achieve it.
When I started running, I set a simple goal:
100 meters further.
That was it. I didn't care about some race six months into the future, nor was I particularly worried about my average pace. With every run I did, I wanted to go 100 meters further than I did last time. On my runs, I would run two streetlights further than I did last time before turning around and heading back home.
Day after day, week after week, I repeated this pattern. And every time, I noticed I could go a bit further. The run wasn't nearly as tough as it once was. I challenged myself to run 200 further. After about two months, I had started running 7-8 kilometers (4-5 miles) without too many problems.
And to my great surprise, I didn't dislike running any longer. I was even looking forward to it.
My friend Tim Gorichanaz once told me that the most important factor to become a good runner is the amount of time you've spent on your feet. In short, it's all about putting in the reps. An accomplished ultra-marathoner himself, he knows what he's talking about. He's been trying to get me into running. Turns out all you need is a global pandemic in order to get me off my ass.
I wholly attribute my success in running to the philosophy of Marginal Improvement. Super small steps, repeated often enough, eventually lead to fantastic results. It doesn't matter how small your improvement is on a day-to-day basis. Over a long enough timeframe, it really starts to add up.
Having a system where you set small goals is a foolproof way of building a habit or working towards a grander goal.
If you're not in good shape, you can make your running experience even easier. Start out by running for 30 seconds, followed by 30 seconds of walking. Do that five times and you're finished for the day. Next day, you can add a sixth interval. This'll increase the length of your workout by 20% but you'll hardly feel it. Alternatively, you can try running for 45 seconds, followed by a full minute of walking.
In the beginning, small wins matter the most. And the best way to create wins early on is to shift your mental framework. Adopt strategies that make it almost too easy to succeed, ones where you just need to be a tiny bit better.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention gear for a moment. You don't need the next-gen, stem cell-infused, thrice-blessed Nike ultra-fast racing shoes and the latest in ball-crushing running shorts technology in order to run.
I run on semi-decent $75 Nike running shoes. And what a difference they've made. Before I bought them, I literally could not run for more than a mile. After that, my shin splits would have me in tears.
Now, in retrospect, a large part of that was due to my terrible running form. But it was further amplified by having some decent footwear.
You don't need expensive shoes in order to run. People have been known to run marathons in flip flops, construction boots, and clown shoes. Don't buy into the marketing. Just buy a decent pair of shoes and you're golden.
Second, figure out if you're the type of person that likes music on their run. I noticed that my pace would vary, depending on the tempo of the music I was listening to, which made for a variable pace.
As a fix, I started listening to military running cadences. These songs are normally sung by soldier while marching or running, which means they've got a super consistent tempo. They're also made for singing along, which practically guarantees that you're going to be breathing regularly. All in all, I would highly recommend it.
If that's not your style, there are a number of playlists out there with music curated by their beats per minute. Depending on your pace, you can find plenty of lists on Spotify that have 130BPM all the way up to 200 if you really want to go fast.
However you do it, just make sure that you're comfortable.
As with all exercise, having a clear strategy will massively improve your odds of success. With a plan, it becomes easy to build it into a habit. Mindlessly embarking on runs “whenever I feel like it” doesn't work. You'll burn out, miss days, and plateau.
Even the simplest system will work. Running 100 meters further than last time works. Adding one interval to your training works. Adding 30 seconds to your run works. Above all, marginal improvement works.
Endurance will come surprisingly quickly. Don't worry if you're huffing and puffing in the beginning. Your body adapts unbelievably fast. Stick with it for 30 days and see how far you get.
Make it easy to succeed by setting an easily-attainable bar for success. Split up a hard task — like running a 5k — into easier sub-goals, like running a 500 meter interval. Then move on to the next 500 meters. Keep your eyes on the closest goal, the rest will come.
Running doesn't have to be painful, nor does it have to be miserable.
With the right mindset and philosophy, it becomes a habit just like any other. One you'll get better at with every passing day. And one day, you'll find you don't hate running all that much.
In six months, when the gyms have hopefully opened up, I hope to still be running.
I hope you'll do the same.