So, You Want to Be a Runner

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Let go of your preconceived notions. Find your stride, seek your rhythm and discover the runner inside you.

At one time or another, most people have at least considered the idea of running as a fitness-enhancing pursuit. After all, it’s one of the most convenient and effective forms of cardiovascular exercise around. Plus, running is a pretty straightforward skill that most of us manage to master not long after we’ve learned to walk.

But being physically able to run is very different than “being a runner.” And looking at hardcore runners such as marathon world-record holders Paul Tergat and Paula Radcliffe can dissuade you from becoming a runner yourself. One look at those sinewy, fat-free bodies and you might feel excluded from the sport.

But you don’t need a marathoner’s physique to qualify as a runner. In fact, you don’t even need to run fast. Today, people of all shapes and sizes are lacing up and enjoying the journey at their own pace. Want to be a runner? Here’s how.

Make Running a Habit

This is somewhat obvious: You can’t be a runner if you don’t run. But, like a lot of people, you may find running cumbersome at first.

You might be excited to get out the door, but after only a few minutes, your breathing gets heavy, your lungs burn, your legs feel like tree trunks and you ask yourself, “This is fun?”

“Most people don’t fall in love with running instantly,” says Joe Henderson, a running coach, columnist and author of Run Right Now (Barnes & Noble, 2004), one of 27 running titles he’s authored. “If you’ve gone out a few times to give running a try but you’re just not having fun, have patience.”

The former Runner’s World editor says to give running time in more ways than one. First, let yourself ease into the activity. “We all were runners once, if only in childhood,” notes Henderson, “but it takes awhile to get that skill back. I advise runners to allow themselves at least three months for this break-in period.”

Also, give your individual running sessions adequate time. “Most people who find running distasteful don’t do enough of it. They stop before they get warmed up and into a rhythm,” Henderson says. “I recommend going a half-hour from the start, even if it requires walking all the way. Gradually add brief stints of running, and then lengthen them until you’re running the full 30 minutes. That’s about three miles, which I think of as the ‘addiction point.’ Once runners reach this level, they’re often hooked.”

Dan Finanger, the national running-club director for Life Time Fitness, recommends planning your running days and times in advance to instill a sense of commitment. “Schedule them like meetings,” he advises. Finanger, who oversees more than 35 running clubs with some 2,000 members, notes that running with other people can help strengthen your commitment to running and help you build your running repertoire (for more on that, read on).

Buy the Right Running Shoes

As a kid you probably chose sneakers based on color and design. But for an adult, buying proper running shoes is a bit more complicated, because having the wrong shoe will not only slow you down but also contribute to pain, even injuries. Where you buy your shoes is also important — a specialty running store will provide expertise that most chain stores can’t offer.

Dave Zimmer, co-owner of Fleet Feet Sports in Chicago, has a sign in his stores that says, “You can’t buy your running shoes by the color.” Employees there (all runners themselves) start by asking customers about their running history, current goals, any injuries or nagging problems, and the experiences they’ve had with other shoes.

“We create a dialogue to find out what they’re doing,” Zimmer says. “Next, we measure the foot length, width and arch length.” The shape of the foot also helps narrow down shoe options. Then comes a “test drive” on the sidewalk or a treadmill to analyze gait and foot strike. “By watching them run or walk, we can come up with the appropriate stability type for their needs.”

Jennifer Kimble, a runner in Dallas, used to buy her running shoes at a large chain store but now buys them from a running specialty store. “I had always been intimidated by a ‘running store’ because I didn’t consider myself a runner. Now I realize that it makes all the difference in the world,” she says. “I discovered I need a motion-control shoe to keep my foot from overpronating, which can lead to foot, leg and knee problems.”

A good pair of running shoes will set you back anywhere from $75 to $125 and should last about 500 miles — anywhere from three to six months, depending on how much you run. Aside from your being properly clothed for the elements, a good pair of running shoes is all you need, making running a relatively inexpensive sport.

Build a Running Repertoire

By varying your workouts, you can increase speed and endurance and enhance your running enjoyment. Finanger encourages his runners to incorporate three workouts into their week: a “challenge” workout, which could be a hilly course or speed work; a tempo run; and a long run. The basics are below. (Always include a 10- to 15-minute warm-up and cool-down.)

Fartlek: The funny name is a Swedish word meaning “speed play.” And that’s exactly what you do: Play with speed. Pick telephone poles, trees or street signs as mini finish lines. Pick up the pace until you hit one of these markers, then recover as long as you need to before hitting the gas again.

Tempo: Set aside the middle of your workout to run at a certain pace. Hold that pace — or tempo — for the duration. Tempo runs can vary in pace, from easy to moderate to hard.

Intervals: Choose a distance (say 400 meters) or time (two minutes) in which you want to run a certain pace, typically faster than you would run in a race. Recover before repeating a set amount of times. When you recover, either match your recovery time with your interval time or double it. Shorten your rest time as your conditioning improves.

Long, slow distance: Like the name says, run long and slow. The objective is to build endurance. A typical rule is to add 10 percent each week, so if you run 40 minutes one week, you would add four minutes the next week. You should be able to hold a conversation while you run, and you can allow yourself walking breaks as needed.

Sign Up for a Race

Racing might seem intimidating. But the majority of participants in most road races aren’t vying for the top finish; they’re racing against themselves and a clock. A race is a good place to get a benchmark on your fitness level and your progress. Racing gives you a reason to run, a reason to build your capacity. It helps you get excited about running and to identify yourself as an athlete. It also helps you get out the door on days when you don’t feel particularly motivated.

When Kimble ran her first race, her goal was just to finish. “I was excited to be able to run the whole race without stopping, and I finished in a pretty decent time,” she says. “I felt intimidated at first, but knowing how many others were out there with me was inspiring. It definitely left me longing for more.”

The best distance to try first is a 5K, recommends Henderson, noting that 5Ks are the most popular distance and are only a short step away from normal training. “Anyone who is already running two to three miles can handle 3.1 miles,” he says. “Once you’ve completed some 5Ks, I advise a natural progression of distances: to 8Ks and 10Ks, and then, if you like, to half-marathons.”

Call Yourself a Runner

For some people, self-identifying as a runner is more difficult than logging the miles. Being a runner, however, has less to do with speed or fitness than it does with attitude.

It was that way for Kimble, who is delighted to have found her passion at age 30. After her second child was born, she took to running to lose weight. She signed up for a running class at a local running store and joined the store’s group runs. “I didn’t consider myself a runner at all,” she remembers. But she followed her training plan religiously, learned more about the sport, signed up for races and watched her confidence grow as her finish times went down.

“I remember when others used to ask me if I was a runner,” recalls Kimble, “and I would say, ‘Well, I’m not sure you could say that,’ but when you’re meeting friends at 5:30 a.m. three times a week, and each run is farther than the last, you begin to see yourself as a runner.”

The best way to comfortably adopt a runner identity is to be around other runners, and the best way to do that is to get involved with competitive events — even if you have no interest in being a real competitor. Joe Henderson observes that most runners’ confidence peaks after finishing a race, and he shares the opinion of the late George Sheehan, one of running’s greatest wordsmiths, who said: “The difference between a jogger and a runner is an entry form.”

Competing in a race, Henderson says, will permanently change your mindset. “Once you enter a race and join the community of runners, you don’t jog anymore, whatever your pace might be.”

Kara Douglass Thom is a multisport athlete and writer living in the Minneapolis area. She is the author of Becoming an Ironman: First Encounters With the Ultimate Endurance Event (Breakaway Books, 2001) and a children’s book, See Mom Run (Breakaway Books, 2003).

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