Learning to fly: getting started as a runner

I often get asked a lot of questions from people who are interested in running, or interested in returning to running after a long absence. My successful journey as someone who was quite out of shape, with terrible knees, has prompted people to believe that maybe they can jump back in too. This was especially true after I finished CIM. So I thought I would jump in here with part 1 of a frequently asked questions guide.

1) Which shoes do I buy?
This is probably the number one question, asked in a few ways (which do you wear, which are the best, which ones will protect my knees?). The short answer: there is no one shoe that’s best, or one brand that’s best. I say this as a quasi-ambassador for several shoe companies which I love.

The honest answer is that the best shoe is the one that fits you the best, that is comfortable and works with your stride and gait. Some people heel strike. It doesn’t work for me, and my personal opinion is that you best protect your joints through a gentle, high turnover mid-foot strike, but everyone is different. One thing I know for sure is that a shoe is not going to eliminate the shock of running hard. Physics doesn’t go away just because a shoe company’s marketing department says it does. Shoes are made to protect the bottoms of your feet, not absorb 100% of the impact of running like a rhino.

So which shoes do I wear? Honestly, the shoe you will see most of the time on my feet is some kind of Skecher Performance. GoBionic, GoUltra or Night Owl. They’re unpretentious, comfortable, and fit me great. Yes, I wear test for them and get them free. I also own 10 other pairs of shoes but choose most often to wear the Skechers. Take from that what you may.

Other than the Skechers? I’ll pop on my Altra Provisions or Torins for longer distance calf training on rockier terrain, and when I do a foot-strength day I’ll go with my Luna Mono running sandals. Running in sandals is ridiculously awesome.

2) How do I start? How far do I run? How fast?
The answer to the first question is easy: start. Get out there. Walk if you have to. Start slow, move up, listen to your body. One of the best ways to get into running is to run/walk. You can also download an app called “Couch to 5K” which will help beginners start running. Most importantly, don’t just sit around. Go out.

How far? Honestly that depends on your starting level of fitness, what day it is, etc. I will sometimes run a mile, sometimes 3, sometimes 10. Some days I’ll run 200 meter repeats, or sprint between light poles with rest in between for 20 minutes. A better question is how long should I run for? Start out walking for 15-20 minutes, and keep up that amount of time as you run/walk and eventually run. Eventually you’ll be getting in around 2 miles in that time. Move up from there. Check out my coaching section for online running courses from James Dunne.

Speed is less important than effort. There’s two kinds: perceived and indicated. Perceived effort is generally a poor way to measure how hard you’re going out. Any number of factors, both physical and mental, can affect how you feel. A better way to measure effort is through the use of a Heart Rate monitor. They’re cheap and, while not exact, give a pretty good idea of how hard you’re pushing. Start off easy. There’s “zones” of heart rate that indicated how much fat you’re burning vs sugar. Generally you’ll want to do a lot of “zone 2” at the beginning to teach your body to burn fat for fuel. Later you’ll work on making your lungs more efficient. A great book to read is “The Cool Impossible” by Eric Orton. He goes into great detail about HR based training. The book is also filled with running-oriented cross training which will help keep your body healthy and hopefully prevent injuries.

3) How did you run a marathon? I could never run that far.
I heard this one a lot earlier this year. The answer is “it is all relative”. When I go out and decide I want to hit up a 10 mile run, I consider that a “long” run. On average, I run about half that distance regularly. However, for a lot of people, a 5k is long. For some, 10k. For Ultra runners who compete at the 100 mile distance, a 25 or 30 miler is “long”. Sometimes a 50.

Point is, if I can go out and easily run 10-12 miles, bumping that up to 26 is difficult but not impossible, in the same way that someone who regularly runs 5k distances in training can go out and do a 10k. The body adapts, and as humans we’re designed to run. It is in our DNA. You just need to go out there and start off, to slowly throw off the decades of sluggish desk sitting and begin to rediscovered what you really are: a running animal.  Once you’ve experienced being out there, 10 miles out with your feet your only means of propulsion, you’ll never want to stop.

4) What’s the most important piece of gear you use?
Honestly? Lube. I can run in any pair of shoes, or no shoes at all. I can run in a t-shirt or no shirt, a pair of cut-offs or $50 running shorts. I can carry water in my vest, in a hand-bottle or just skip the water. But if I skip the lube, I am going to be sorry.

Ok, lube? What? Let me back up. If you’re in amazing shape, with very low body fat, you might not have this issue. Certain… parts of many runners rub while they stride. Skin on skin friction in this case can cause serious pain. Chaffing. Just general badness of the type that frankly could be enough to make me not want to go out and run. For me, it is that bad. Thank goodness for a tip I read from an Ultra runner: use Chamois Cream.

This stuff was originally made for cyclists to smear on the pads inside their shorts to help keep friction down and generally improve comfort. The stuff I use is Chamois Butt’r, and outside of the ridiculous name, it is basically the best. Comfortable, non-staining and effective. It laughs at sweat. During my marathon I carried a little bottle of it for re-application and never had to open it, it lasted all 6 hours.

I use it hiking, I use it biking, running and even when I am going mall shopping and know I’ll be walking around for miles. It is hands down the most important piece of “gear” I’ve discovered, and I’m not sure I would run as often or as far without it. It wins the Panther Best Gear Ever award.

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