On Running

Today’s post comes to you courtesy of Reader Kassandra A., who asked me:

Long shot here to get a response from you but still worth it for me to try. ;) I am going to attempt to start running. I am a 34 year old mother of two who tends to delve into my enormous TBR pile of books to escape the reality of life more times than is most likely healthy. *shrug* The way you have talked about your running routine has brought an already (although very dormant) existing interest in doing the same for myself to light. If you have insight into how I can get started (and keep going) I would love to hear your thoughts. (from email)

I got this email and thought, but why would you ask me? I’m not a professional or anything. Then I sat down and looked at my running journals. They’re year-long sort-of-diaries (I like this kind) where I can note mileage, my route, speed (if applicable) and notes about how a particular run felt. I’ve been running for almost three years now, keeping a log for about a year and a half. So, maybe I do have something to say, even though I’m not a professional.

I don’t run for speed. I don’t run to race. I do not do team sports–for one thing, I am too much of a control freak, and for another, I do not play nicely with others, and for a third, I have a giant problem with authority and coaches yelling at me. I started running because it was something I could do on my own, and because I had a little extra to invest in a treadmill. That meant I could work out but still be in the house if the kids needed me. As a single mum, that was incredibly important. Plus, to be totally honest, it saved me from having to go out in public and sweat and puff. I had fifty extra pounds of misery hanging on me, and running in public sounded like the kind of gruesome torture you read about in a Stephen King novel. (Remember Ben Hanscomb from IT? Like that.) So, running on a treadmill in my sunroom satisfied a lot of my requirements–something I could do alone, something I could be on call for the kids during while I did it, something I could work into my daily schedule that didn’t require much of a commute.

The book that probably helped me the most was No Need For Speed. From that, and from the Couch to 5K plan, I got the idea that I didn’t have to run fast, or even very far, to start out with. The permission to not be very good at it at first was a godsend.

So, right now I’m clocking in five miles a day, four or five days a week. I run about an eleven-minute mile, more or less. Which isn’t very fast according to some, but considering I’ve been sedentary most of my life, I find it pretty goddamn impressive. However, it took me over two and a half years to get here. I repeat: Nearly. Three. Stinking. Years.

I started out with six minutes of walking at two miles an hour on the treadmill, then one of “jogging” at 2.5mph. For a half hour. For a month. Then it was five minutes walking and one “running.” I was stuck there for a while. Four and one. Three and two. Then, two minutes walking and three running. Then I increased the speed slightly, so I was walking at 2.5mph and running at 3. Then, one minute of walking and four of running, repeated for a half hour. Then, eleven minutes running and one minute walking.

Then, one day, I did my first 20-minute run.

It was the first time in my LIFE that I had ever run for 20 minutes solid. I finished shuddering, shaking, heaving, sweating.

I was hooked.

Since then I’ve pretty much stuck to the ten percent rule, with a speed-or-effort rule added on. That ten percent increase can be either in speed or mileage, but it cannot be both. Which means I have to keep track of things pretty carefully, so I finally broke down and got a training diary. That’s been the #1 tool to keep me motivated–looking back over it, or (what I’ve taken to doing) writing down goals for the week’s workouts and then marking them off as I hit them.

So, here’s my advice for starting to run, and for (hopefully) keeping up with it:

1. Get or make a running journal. Even if you’re starting out with the walk/run, keep a record. This will help with motivation and with getting into the habit of organizing things later when you have actual mileage to keep track of. If you can do it on a spreadsheet and make graphs, go for it.

2. Start small. Remember what I keep saying? It is not important what you write, it is important that you write. The same goes for running. This is an investment in you. Be conservative. Weekend warriors burn out. The smaller you start, the more gradually you add, the longer you’re going to keep doing this. It’s like weight loss–the small, steady, incremental loss sticks around the longest.

3. You are not in a race with anyone, even yourself. I had a lot of trouble in ballet until Madame told us all, “You think everyone here is looking at you. They are not. They are watching their own silly self in mirrors, girls. Nobody cares about your bottom. They are too busy with their own.” (And with how hard she worked us, damn. She was right.) This was one of the Two Most Useful Pieces Of Advice I Ever Received.[1] When you’re exercising, you feel like the world is staring at you. Just try to keep reminding themselves that they’re not–if you’re on a treadmill at the gym, the other people around you are thinking you’re looking at them, which makes them too busy to critique you.

4. Be kind to yourself. Look, I know myself. I know that if I get sick or injured, I will push it. I will ignore the signals my body is giving me, because I’m terrified of being lazy. I have this weird mental thing that tells me “If you skip even one day you’ll skip another, and then you’ll wake up in six months without having worked out and you’ll have eaten a store’s worth of Cheetos and choco donettes and YOU WILL BE FAT AND FUCKING MISERABLE!”

My issues, let me show you them.

Now, rationally, I know this is a cognitive distortion. I know that I am capable of going back to running even after I miss a few days/weeks because of travel, illness, injury. But each time I have to throttle back, even if it’s something as simple as just realizing I’m coming down with a cold and maybe I shouldn’t go at my usual pace, or as overwhelming as the Great Bouldering Ankle Sprain Ridiculousness (MONTHS. Months of training I lost out on, and my ankle is still a little tender after a hard run on pavement. Dammit.) each bloody time I have to struggle with that perfectionist, workaholic part of me. The judgmental, critical, nasty voice inside that pushes me in an unhealthy way. The gentler I am with myself, the more I ignore that nasty voice, the more I end up running in the long run. (Ha ha.) There’s another thing:

5. Remind yourself about the long-term. Publishing and parenting are great practice for this. I’m used to things taking an aeon, to small sustained efforts that build up to a finished product. The trouble is, with exercise, you don’t get a finished product unless it’s greater quality of life sometime down the road. Running is a process, not a destination. I am not logging miles to stop once I hit some number. My goal is simple: to just keep going, no matter how fast or how slow. Long-term, I am going to be glad I did this when I’m eighty. (My knees may not be so glad, but the rest of me probably will be.) Plus, I feel better when I run. The endorphins and burning off of stress hormones evens me out, makes me less anxious. In the long term, that makes me a more effective writer, parent, and human being. I have no trouble being the tortoise here.

6. Make It A Habit. Nevertheless, there are days when I just don’t fucking want to run. I’m tired. I’m upset. I’m achy. I have cramps. I got a bad review or two, or a revision letter. Or some other goddamn thing. This is when the habit kicks in. I’m a great believer in training your habits. My morning runs actually start the night before when I put the pile of exercise clothes on the chair next to my bed. I get up and immediately put a Sports Bra of DOOOM on. After that, well, I can’t just take it off, so I have to put on my running pants and shirt. Then it’s time to let the dog out, get breakfast, and get laced up because I’m already in my running clothes and I’d feel ridiculous taking them off at that point. See? The habit literally forces me to run. So does the “Feel Better After” Rule.

7. The “Feel Better After” Rule. When even habit isn’t cutting it, I make myself a bargain: if I do not feel better after a run, I’ll quit for good. The thought of never having to run again holds a certain attraction on those days, and I start out determined to have the worst run ever. After about fifteen to twenty minutes of sustained effort, what do you know? I start feeling better. I lose the bargain every stinking time. Plus, if I’m having a low-down day, often a run will pep me up and give me the energy to get through it. It’s kind of counterintuitive that effort will actually give you more energy, but I swear it’s true.

8. The Five-Minute Trick. I love the Five-Minute Trick. Cliffs Notes version: do not think about the total run. Just think about the next five minutes. (Or if it’s that bad, the next three minutes.) This is easy to do on a treadmill, you can often program them to keep track of the total time for you so you don’t have to. When I run outside (which I’ve only recently started doing) my version of this is the touch-it trick–I have frequent little posts that I tap or I give myself a little nod when I pass. That way, I’m not thinking about a five-mile run. I’m thinking about making it to the driveway of the middle school, to the walkway to the elementary school, to the park, past the house with the yappy dog, past the chihuahuas, past the sharp turn at the end of the Green Track. See? Little tiny bites to make it manageable. Plus, every little one is a reward. It’s the same frequent intrinsic rewards principle videogames are built on. By treating each five-minute chunk as a task and marking it in my head as I pass, I get a shot of happy dopamine telling me I’m a good girl. It works wonders.

9. I will if you will. My climbing partner’s husband tells me this is the longest she’s ever stuck with a sport. “It’s because she has a partner,” he told me, nodding sagely. This goes both ways. On days when I don’t want to push myself to climb, I go anyway because she’s depending on me. I end up climbing, having a good time, and feeling better. Running is a solitary sport for me–I can’t stand running with a partner unless it’s Miss B. I know a lot of people find partners to run with. That might work for you. On the other hand, you might be a solo creature like me.

We live in different parts of the country, but I’ll make you a bargain, Kassandra. If it helps you to think of it this way, I’ll keep going if you will. How does that sound? If you want to start, know that I’ll be over here cheering, and that I’ll keep going with you.

And now that I’ve rambled on like I know something about something, it’s time for me to brave the grocery store for some watermelon. Yes, I know it’s going to be a roller derby in there, it being a holiday and all. (Happy Fourth, by the way. Tonight’s going to be loud.) I’m prepared. I ran this morning and I have sharp elbows.

Bring it.

[1] The other came from my grandfather: “People may or may not be smart. Mobs are always stupid. You remember that, you’ll do just fine.”

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