A Beginner’s Guide to Beginning

Colin Robertson MSc, ASCC, CSCS – School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University

Anyone can Run?

There’s a curious thing about running, an attribute almost unique to this recreational endeavour; and that is that most people are more than happy to just give it a go.
Now, I don’t mean that the majority of the population are out there treading the pavements as we speak, or chatting freely at work about their ‘personal bests’, or even flicking through the pages of their favourite monthly mag and talking themselves into the notion that yellow lycra tights actually can look good; particularly if they only cost £5 in a half-price sale.
No, what I mean is that when somebody decides that they’d like to get fit, lose weight or re-invent themselves by completing their local half-marathon, they simply don a pair of trainers, throw on some shorts and charge out of the front door like an extra from Braveheart; all guts and glory, brute force and ignorance. No permission required and no need to look for guidance, and definitely no consideration for how to actually perform the action.
Everyone knows how to run, don’t they? Is it not just a uncomplicated sequence of left – right, left – right, at a pace faster than that employed when shopping but slower than that opted for when escaping the advances of a bald bloke in a hoodie brandishing a cookbook at you and asking you for ‘just one minute’? Everyone knows how to run, don’t they?
Well, to be blunt, no.

There’s more to running than most people ever think, particularly when they’re first setting out. Running is the sport of champions; it defines the fastest people on the planet, and likewise those with the greatest endurance. Football teams, rugby teams and triathletes turn to running coaches for specific training, and there are entire areas of scientific research that focus solely on the biomechanics of running. Hundreds of millions of pounds are spent every year by footwear manufacturers on developing specific types of shoe that will support all of the known variations of potential foot placement for when a person is in motion, and there are specific areas of medicine, surgery and rehabilitation that are dedicated in their interest about the injuries and complaints associated with this sport. Running is not something that you should just assume you can do, no more so than you would believe you could swim if you had never experienced getting wet before. The sport deserves a little respect, so let’s show it some with a beginner’s guide to getting started and some general advice on how to keeping it going.

First Things First

As with most forms of exercise, if you are brand new to running – or returning to the sport after a considerable break – then it is wise to see your GP and have a health check. Running, as with most forms of exercise, stresses the cardio-respiratory system and as such has an influence over blood pressure. Therefore, it’s well worth booking yourself in for an MOT to make sure that all systems are tickety-boo before putting them under any undue pressure. Once that’s sorted we’re off… well, almost.

No Idea about any of the Gear?

If I’d had a quid for every time an athlete, patient or colleague presented me with the most ridiculous pair of beaten-up disco thumpers when I’d asked to see their running shoes then I’d be a rich man, a very rich man indeed. The biggest financial expense when it comes to running should be afforded towards your feet. Your ten-toed paddles are the point of contact for all of the activity and as such they’ll need the right type of support, and a pair of shoes that are purely worn for this one function will go a long way to keeping you injury-free and comfortable whilst you’re out there clocking up the miles. The best recommendation would be to go to a recognised running shop and ask the staff there for advice. A good running shop will make some measure of estimation regarding your walking and running pattern (gait) and then subsequently direct you towards the types of shoe that are made specifically for your running style’s needs (pronation, supination and neutral footers alike).
From here on in it comes down to affordability and preference, good shoes aren’t cheap but they’re probably not as expensive as you might think either, and they are certainly cheaper than the time off work required to take care of your Achilles tendon strain, and the sting in the wallet hurts a damn site less that of shin-splints or plantarfasciaitis. Failing this, the second best thing you can do is pick up a recent copy of a running magazine or conduct an internet search – looking for consumer guides/tests that explain and recommend the best of the current ranges. The one thing you should never, ever, do is go into a high-street sports shop and pick the pair you think look the best, or the ones have that have the most money knocked-off them, or worse still, ask the teenage Saturday staff what they think you should buy – they’ll no doubt offer an opinion, but sadly it’s somewhat akin to when a stranger asks you for directions to a place you’ve never heard of, you feel obliged to offer some help and so send them off in a random direction; but with an air of authority that almost convinces yourself. Think of your running shoes as you would the tires on your car or motorbike, the cheaper options always come with an associated risk and only a fool would shop in their local charity shop for something that they intend to travel on at 80mph.

Starting Off . . .

Okay, so you’ve got yourselves checked out by the doc and invested in a pair of trainers that you can’t pronounce properly, it’s finally time to actually have a bash at running; well, almost. Something that should be stated right from the start is that on every occasion it would be best if you could join a running club or seek guidance from a qualified instructor about how to run; technique, pacing and goal setting all included. However, due to normal life factors (work, family, finances, accessibility and inhibitions) there will be people reading this article that will neither be able to, nor simply won’t want to, take this step. So, instead, here’s a straight-forward, no nonsense guide to help get you going and pull you through.

Step 1: Walk before you can run – better still, walk and run in equal measure.

Your first goal should be to cover either a set distance or sustain a set time. Ideally, in both instances, this should equate to a distance that will take you longer than 20-minutes to cover. Why? Because on average it takes the cardio-respiratory system 10-minutes to go from a resting state to an active state and it is the period of time that follows this adjustment that will help to develop and enhance your physical (and physiological) fitness. It is actually this second phase of exercise (post the 10-minute warm-up) that will be developed, and progressed, the most as you improve. So, in order to do this, take measured steps right from the start. Instead of attempting an all-out 20-minute run, segment the session into pre-determined bouts of walking and running. An example of which can be downloaded here Beginners Programme

Step 2: Decide on your Distance

Now that you’re up and running, for 20-minutes at least, it’s time to decide what kind of distance you ultimately want to be able to run. Are you hungry for the feverish pace of a 5 or 10k race? Are you aiming yourself at a half-marathon, or even the biggy – the full 26.2 miles of fun run? Whichever it is, you need to decide and then aim the next phase of your running career at achieving that goal.

For the purpose of example, let’s say you’re going after a 10k race (6.2 miles), and currently you’re managing 2-miles during your 20-minute session. The first step recommended here is that you focus on overall pace. So, instead of just trying to run for longer, try and run further in your 20-minute session. Spend a couple of weeks just gradually increasing your pace, not necessarily over the course of the full 20-minutes, but certainly for bouts within that time.

One good tactic is to use lampposts as a marker – they are usually distanced out at 20 metres apart – and for one street you run down attempt to run every second set of lampposts at an almost sprint pace, then recover for the next set at your usual running pace. Repeat this process in each run you attempt, and try to add an additional sprint every time you go out for a run. Thus, you will further push your fitness up into new realms and increase your distance covered at the same time. The next step is to use distance as your goal. If, by now, you are managing 2.5-miles in your 20-minute session, then aim at completing 3-miles the next time you go out and record the time it takes you to cover this new distance. For the following 2-sessions it would be best if you consolidated this distance (repeating the 3-miles) and each session record your time taken in order to monitor your progress. Repeat these steps – increase distance, consolidate, increase distance – until you are up to the 10k mark. From this point it’s all about pace work, achieving your set distance and working towards covering it in a faster time (the lamppost trick is always useful, even if you make to the elite ranks).

Now, there is a train of thought that suggests you should train beyond your distance, so that the distance you will race at will feel relatively easier that the longer distances you are used to. However, there are two floors to this kind of thinking; 1) running longer is more of a conditioning tactic – one that prepares the joints and ligaments for longer time-periods of activity, stress and impact, which can be useful but doesn’t – in itself – make you a better runner (as potentially, you could simply end up spending longer practising how to run badly), and 2) the physiological process involved in longer-duration running is different to that of running shorter distances quickly, the two different demands effect the process of glycogen release differently and constantly re-enforcing a message that you could be out for quite some time does little to inspire your glycogen stores to release themselves abundantly as you fly along the tarmac at your tremendous race pace .

Put simply, if you want to run long distances then practice by building your mileage up until ultimately you are running long distances, if you want to run shorter distances quickly then you’ll have to train and practice to run faster.