Start slow, wear what you like, watch out for zombies: a beginner’s guide to running
There’s a replacement to your pre-lockdown workout right outside your door. Experienced runners explain how to get started
The gyms, pools, and squash courts are shut. Joe Wicks is showing you how to get fit in your living room, but really all you want to do is get out of your living room. Now is the time to go for a run.
If you are worried you’re not a running type, don’t be. I wasn’t either until I decided that I didn’t feel safe going to the gym in mid-March. Eight weeks later, I finished my first half-hour run, covering an apparently respectable 4.83km in the process. Almost anyone can be a runner, it turns out. So why not give it a try?
Get the kit
The great thing about running is that you don’t need membership in a fancy club, expensive equipment, or a qualified coach. But you do have to get some stuff: a good pair of shoes is non-negotiable, as is a sports bra if you need one.
You don’t need to go wild for these things: yes, £200 will get you the pair of shoes that helped Eliud Kipchoge run the first sub-two-hour marathon, but beginners can settle for something much cheaper. But do resist the urge to just whack on the pair of throwback Nikes you bought for fashion purposes last year.
“For people who are starting out, it’s important not to get bogged down in the kit, and actually think about the action of running,” says Anna Harding, the host of YouTube’s the Running Channel. “But I would suggest investing in a new pair of specific running trainers, and, for women, a sports bra. You don’t know the state of your old shoes, and it’s important to take care of your feet and knees. Other than that, though, wear what you feel good in.”
When you first hit the road, you need to run slowly. Really slowly. So slowly you feel silly because of how slowly you are running. Slow enough that you’re pretty sure you could overtake yourself at a brisk walk.
The point of running is endurance, and the most important thing to do is to make sure that you keep your heart rate elevated for the entire period of every training run. That means, especially at the beginning, erring on the side of caution: if you run slowly and find yourself barely breaking a sweat 20 minutes in, then you can speed up, but if you go too fast at the start, those last five minutes are going to be tough.
Get with the programme
“Start slow” also applies to how you should build up stamina over the first few weeks and months of your run. Thankfully, there is a best-in-class option here: the Couch to 5k programme, originally created by Josh Clark, an American software designer, in 1996. The idea is simple: run three times a week for eight weeks, beginning with sessions that involve more walking than actual running, and ending with 30 minutes of non-stop jogging.
Your first session sees you running for a minute then walking for 90 seconds, and repeating the pattern eight times – enough to get an elevated heart rate for 20 minutes, and to get a solid eight minutes of actual running in. Four weeks later, the running has increased to three sets of five minutes, separated by three minutes of walking. And at the end of week five, the training wheels come off, and you run for a full 20 minutes non-stop.
When I first tried to become a runner, in 2009, I would manually create those routines, booting up GarageBand on an old laptop and recording myself saying “run” and “walk” over the top of whatever I wanted to listen to, then loading it on to an iPod Shuffle. No wonder I didn’t stick with it. These days, it’s easier: the NHS has produced a podcast and app that automatically coaches you through the first nine weeks of your run.
Find what motivates you to keep going
Some people think I’m daft for running to podcasts, wondering how on earth I can get into a good rhythm while catching up on Today in Focus. Sometimes, I think they’re nuts for running to music: no matter how good a tune is, it’s not distracting enough to save me from getting a bit bored 20 minutes in.
If you want something more active still, you could try Zombies, Run! The app, which first launched eight years ago, lets you play through audio adventures timed to encourage and motivate you throughout a workout. A stand-alone couch-to-5k version can accompany you right from the start.
“I started running when I was 20 or 21, and when we started Zombies, Run!, I was 28 or 29. Now I’m 37,” says Adrian Hon, the app’s co-creator. “I was a runner at that point, but I intensely remember the experience of not being a good runner. It came to me hard.”
Don’t worry about how you look
No one cares how sweaty you are, whether the top you run in is too bright or how fast or slow you’re going. So don’t worry about it. “A lot of the advertising, marketing, and branding around running is incredibly unhelpful,” Hon says, “because it makes people think that a runner is some athletic supercharged person in Nike gear who doesn’t sweat. People get really self-conscious about that, and they get embarrassed. But no one gives a shit. Really: no one gives a shit what you look like.”
Try to keep your distance
Pavement space is at a bit of a premium right now, and in some places, that has led to hard feelings between runners, walkers, and cyclists – not to mention the drivers who still get the majority of the road.
“It has certainly become more of an obstacle course as we try to maintain the two-meter distance,” Harding says. “And I think as runners we are getting a little bit of side-eye from pedestrians, perhaps because of some reports suggesting that
runners aren’t adhering to physical distancing.”
It isn’t all negative, says Hon. “Obviously, there are more people running. Which is nice in some ways – you feel like you’ve got company. But it’s also tricky; you’re having to weave in between people.
“It’s a bit of a game: how do I maintain physical distancing while running? But there’s a happy medium, and there can occasionally just be too many people trying to share one fairly thin pavement. You’ve got to be very forgiving. It’s hard – sometimes I get annoyed when people run close to me. But the risk is, I think, not as high as many other activities.”
Don’t compare yourself with others (unless it helps)
There are an awful lot of services that will track your stats, engage in virtual races, or let you join a global community of runners. But before you jump in, remember why you’re running. It’s probably not to be the fastest among your friends, and if you’re not careful, such features can be more dispiriting than motivating.
“People react to this stuff differently. In general, it is quite motivating to see yourself get faster, and to see yourself run further,” says Hon. “But when you have this social-media stuff … I think people are just too different. It becomes hard for it to be interesting or useful. Some people may like it, but the problem is that for most people unless all their friends are runners, their range of abilities are all over the place.”
Harding agrees: “The first thing to overcome is pride. For a lot of people, they’ll either compare themselves with where they used to be or to their friends who are running, or have been running a while.”
Just don’t stop
“Motivation is something that will hit you during your early stages of running,” Harding says, “and continue to hit you after your running journey. And so that first day of ‘I really don’t fancy it today’ is one to overcome. But to steal a slogan from a well-known brand … just do it. You will genuinely feel better. I have never gone for a run and regretted it.”