Runner's World once wrote a profile of Sacramento attorney Dan Kinter, telling how a simple running program transformed his life. Dan was obese and hypertensive, heading for his 60th birthday and likely diabetes. His self-transformation began with a promise to himself: he would exercise four or five times a week for the rest of his life. No vows about food. No performance goal, weight goal or body image goal. Over the next year, Dan progressed from slow walking on a treadmill to completing a 15-mile run. By the first anniversary of the start of his exercise program he had lost 71 pounds, completed two 5K road races and a 10K race, been taken off blood pressure medication, and regained a sense of well-being he hadn't enjoyed for decades. Later that year he completed the California International Marathon-26.2 miles.
Such stories ought to be far more common. Obesity is epidemic in America today, even among school children. It predisposes us to a host of health problems-heart disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes.... It reduces quality of life, shortens life expectancy, and burdens our health care system unnecessarily. We waste tens of billions of dollars on ineffective diet programs, and get more out of shape every year. The bottom line from decades of weight-control research is simple: effective long-term weight-control requires regular aerobic exercise. Dieting without exercise provides only temporary weight loss.
So why don't we exercise? The usual excuses are (1) lack of time or opportunity, (2) physical inability or (3) simple distaste for physical exertion.
Squeezing some exercise time into your schedule is easier than most non-exercisers think. In fact, you are likely to find that exercise pays back the time it takes. You might identify your least productive hour of the workday, keep it clear of appointments, and get out for a regular run or gym workout. Or you might get up a little earlier and exercise before breakfast. However you accomplish it, regular exercise will typically improve your concentration and productivity at work. And by improving sleep quality, it can reduce the number of hours you need to sleep.
Many friends cite bad knees, backs, etc. when they deline my invitations to run with me. Obviously running isn't for everyone, but almost anyone can find some type of exercise that is suitable for them.
Why Americans Hate Exercise
A simple distaste for exercise underlies most other excuses for not exercising, and our culture tends to reinforce this distaste. Most Americans are required to participate in gym class or sports during adolescence, when bodies are awkward and self-confidence is shaky. Many of us recall gym class with a shudder. Many of us endured verbal abuse from frustrated high-school coaches. We were made to run laps and do push-ups for punishment. If there's a better system for teaching people to hate exercise, I can't think of it.
Most of our sports media encourage us to be watchers rather than doers, to stay on the sidelines and just be vicarious athletes. Rather than democratize sports, the media deify a few extraordinary athletes who are paid fortunes to endorse shoes, clothes and all sorts of other consumer products. The rest of us are supposed to just buy the stuff and keep staring at the TV. We can "Be like Mike" in our fantasies while our bodies slowly atrophy on the couch.
The media messages are pretty discouraging. Exercise should hurt ("No pain, no gain.") You can't do this, and would only injure or embarrass yourself trying ("Don't attempt this at home, kids!") You will almost certainly lose ("There can only be one winner," said John Tesh in one of his idiotic Olympic commentaries.) Losing is shameful ("…The agony of defeat."). Some sports-phobic feminists argue that competitive sports such as football encourage male aggression and violence supposedly re-directed against women. (Remember the claim that more women are abused on Super Bowl Sunday than any other day in the year? Although the Atlantic Monthly completely discredited this claim, the bad behavior of some sports figures makes such myths plausible.)
So America keeps getting flabbier and weaker. We feel so guilty about being out of shape that we spend thousands of dollars on health club memberships and exercise paraphernalia. But we don't use them much.
Discovering (or Rediscovering) the Athlete Within You
Professionalism has corrupted the whole concept of sport. The point is simply to have fun, to find a physical activity you enjoy just for itself. This can take some time and experimentation.
My own biases are obvious: running is the activity which helped me lose 30 pounds, and improved my mood, sleep, work productivity, resistance to colds and flu, and self-confidence. It's simple to do, which is good for me since I'm not all that coordinated. It's cheap, which appeals to my Scottish heritage; I just buy running shoes once in a while. And it's efficient, since it burns more calories per hour than any other form of exercise done at the same intensity. Running takes me to the prettiest, most unspoiled landscapes in my community, and has deepened my appreciation for the remaining open spaces of New Castle County. Running clears my head and lets me think. Running lets me get out with just my wife-no kids, no colleagues-for a special time. It gives me social contacts with other runners.
There's something very primal about running. Jeff Galloway says it's the original sport. Imagine way back, when we were nomads who would not invent agriculture for another hundred thousand years. Some scout would pick up the pace, try to be first to find the herds or get to the new grazing lands. There was honor in this. Social dominance. We evolved to run. Small children run more than they walk. Somewhere in the path to adulthood we lose this sense that running is fun.
People can rediscover running at any age. Many high-school and collegiate runners will typically take a long hiatus from running before resuming in their thirties or forties. Many others start at running for the first time in their forties or fifties. Most adults start with weight-control objectives, but many who stick with it find their greatest enjoyment comes from the running itself rather than the associated benefits.
Regular running lets you discover the athlete within you, whatever your age or speed, whether you run competitively or socially or alone. When you put your running shoes on, head outside, get your heart and lungs going and settle into your stride, you are a runner, no matter how slow your pace. Non-runners may call it "jogging," but runners hardly ever use that term. Non-runners may smirk at the sight of a gasping novice, but other runners will always respect the effort.
Getting Started - Basic Advice
If you are a runner, you probably know all of this. Perhaps you have tried to convince non-runner friends or family members to take up running, and discovered how hard it is to articulate the rewards they are likely to find in it. If they did start running, it was probably your example more than your words that got them going. Try to recall what got you started. What kind of advice helped you most? Look for chances to bring the people you care about to running.
If you are not a runner but you're still reading this, you're ready to give it a try. It's as simple as it looks. Here are eleven suggestions to get you started:
Here's a pretty standard 100-day training program to get you into shape for a 5K race. First, you may want to calculate your optimal heart rate range for training. The usual formula is subtract your age from 220 and calculate 70 and 80 percent of that figure. Take quick pauses during walking or jogging sessions to time your pulse at your wrist or neck: count heartbeats for 15 seconds and multiply by 4. (You don't need to get obsessive about this: a comfortable running pace will get you into your optimal heart rate range pretty much automatically.) Next, use a car odometer to measure approximate mileages of some courses you'll cover. If you can't yet run comfortably, start by walking these courses several times a week, gradually increasing the pace of your walking as your conditioning improves. When you are comfortable maintaining a brisk walk, try some jogging intervals. Gradually increase the length of these, maintaining a pace which keeps you able to talk. Stick with it! The hardest part is getting started. Your motivation and enjoyment will increase as your aerobic fitness improves.
If you're shooting for a 5K (3.1 miles), you'll want to build up to a once-a-week long slow run of 60+ minutes, so you'll be confident you can cover the race distance. If you're shooting for a 10K (6.2 miles) try to build up to a 9- or 10-mile long run. The operative word here is slow: do these long runs at a pace one to two minutes per mile slower than the pace at which you realistically expect to do the race, and take walking breaks whenever you need them. Most runners schedule their long runs on weekends.
Try to work in three or more 30-40 minute runs each week as well. You can do these any way you want-just getting out there is the main thing. You might try some weekly hill-training: the upgrades will build leg power, and the downgrades can get you accustomed to a quicker stride rate. Be careful not to overstride on the downgrades. A second weekly run might be used to develop pacing: after some warm-up running, you can time yourself on short (quarter- or half-mile) intervals to experiment and get a sense of the effort levels required to run the pace you'd like to run in your goal race. To get really accurate distance measures, try an outdoor track (if your memories of running on a track aren't too loathsome!) Walk or jog between these intervals; add an interval each week. You might use part of a third weekly run to focus on developing an efficient running form: head up, chest out, hips forward, efficient foot push-off. One common indicator of an efficient stride is a quiet footfall. You mostly increase speed by increasing stride frequency, not stride length.
It will take a little time and experience to figure out a reasonable goal for yourself. In the meantime, don't overdo the running. If you want a break from running, try adding or substituting some bicycling, swimming or other aerobic exercise to complement your running program. Take a day or two off from exercising each week to stay fresh.
This sample schedule is based on running times (in minutes) rather
than distances. Each week has long, form, hill, pace and easy
running days as well as two rest days. You can do cross-training
(e.g., bike or swim) on one of these rest days if you want. Work on form,
hills or pace is optional: apart from the weekly long run, the other runs
can be just plain runs. Rest days are just as important as running days.
Every third week is an easy week (skipping the pacing run), and the final
week is a taper before your race, when you build up energy reserves for
the race effort. Feel free to adapt this to your own physical abilities,
objectives and weekly routine.
Suggestions For an Enjoyable First Race
Your first race is an opportunity to set a baseline performance standard for yourself over an accurately timed and measured distance, and to see how you measure up against runners like yourself. The relaxed post-race atmosphere is also a perfect opportunity to meet other runners.
Eat a quick-digesting high-carbohydrate breakfast a couple of hours before the race: cereal, bread or toast, juice, whatever; limit the coffee, which is a diuretic. Drink some extra water and count on using the porta-potty before the race. Wear your running clothes unless you know the race provides changing facilities. Get to the race start 30 to 60 minutes early so you have plenty of time to get your race packet, wait through the porta-potty line, stash your extra clothing and do some easy warm-up. Some runners actually wear the race T-shirt in the race; others (including me) save it until they have "earned" it, and race in a different shirt. Pin your race number on the front of your shirt, but don't pin the portion you'll tear off and give to the official in the finisher's chute to record your finish place. If you can find a map of the course, note a few landmarks to look for. Many races have mile markers so you can gauge your pace during the race.
You'll be surprised how nervous you can get. You're supposed to be nervous because this race matters to you, but you can keep your nerves under control by reminding yourself that you're doing this just for yourself, and that everyone else is just as nervous as you. Take a position in the middle of the starting pack and shake your arms and legs to stay loose. The start of a race feels totally different than the start of a regular training run. Your nerves will make you run much faster than you think you're running, so make a mental effort to start slow.
Running an evenly-paced race is generally the most efficient racing strategy. You should have a target race pace and try to maintain it. Just do what you've trained yourself to do. The most common novice error is going out too fast and getting exhausted before the finish. It's much better to start too slow and run "negative splits," picking up the pace through the race and finishing strong: you'll feel better at the finish and more confident that you can improve on this performance down the road. Try to note your time on the clock as you finish. Keep your position in the finish chute, hand the official your tag, catch your breath and start enjoying the post-race atmosphere.
The nerves are gone and you feel totally relaxed. Jog a little to let your muscles cool down gradually. You can get a drink and snack, chat with other runners, cheer on incoming finishers. Get some warmer clothes on if you need to. It will take a little time for the race officials to post the results. You can verify your finish time and place and note these on the back of your race number. Stick around for the awards and see what it takes to win an award in your age group. Maybe you did win one!
After the race, you can really savor the accomplishment. Drink extra water through the rest of the day to help flush the lactic acid out of your muscles (lactic acid is what causes muscle stiffness). A positive race experience will increase your enthusiasm for running, but you should avoid the temptation to run hard for the next few days, until your body is fully recovered.