First Steps | How to start running and actually stick with it

We’ve all decided to commit at some point or other. But how often has that actually been stuck to? A guide for non-runners and those that hate it, this article explains how to stick with it, improve rapidly, and most importantly, learn to enjoy it.


Running is an ability deeply rooted in the human species. For millennia it was essential to survival, moulding the human lineage both anatomically and psychologically to excel at it. As a result any able-bodied human is entirely capable of achieving a high level of ability.

In this article I talk about my own experience learning to love a skill I used to hate. If that doesn’t interest you skip to the second half for key ideas to help and encourage anyone wanting to make the shift themselves.

MY EXPERIENCE

I’ve always wanted to be able to run. I spent many hours reading and watching the likes of Kilian Jornet, Scott Jurek, the Tarahumara and the fell runners of the Lake District.

Unfortunately, my plans of becoming part of that world had a pretty major flaw: I hated running. Ironic, I know.

Each year, or season, or month I’d decide this was it. But every time, after a few days of pushing myself to my limits, the motivation would fade and I’d give up, quickly losing anything I’d gained.

This all changed about two years ago. Beaten into the mud trying to keep up with a friend (who happened to be undergoing Royal Marines selection at the time – perhaps I should have seen that coming…), I decided enough was enough. I made an agreement with myself to run every day for a month.

I got up and ran between 5:00 and 6:00am almost every single day for a month.

At first it was tough, both the running (I walked a lot in the first week or two) and forcing myself to actually go do it. But gradually it got easier to get up and go, and pushing myself became less and less unpleasant. My willpower rocketed and I actually started to enjoy running.

Improvement in ability quickly followed. According to my journal, I went from 5km in 40 minutes (14th Jan) to 21 minutes (20th April), in just over three months. I didn’t stop at one month. I still haven’t. I become in a sense addicted, and within 11 months ran my first ultramarathon of 45 miles.

I’m now the fittest I’ve ever been and it’s a fantastic feeling to know that I could step out the door at pretty much any moment and run a half marathon or more without even feeling particularly sore. I only make say this because it’s easier to get there than you might think.

If I’d been told (or for that matter believed) how easily it can be achieved, I’m sure I would have done it years ago. I’m telling you now – so don’t ignore me!

That said, I don’t have any hidden trick or method. The key is pretty basic: commitment (kind of goes for most things really…). But if you can find it in yourself to stick with it I guarantee you’ll be surprised at the speed of improvement and how easily the entire process spirals forwards.

Below are a few key points and concepts that will help anyone wishing to give it a go.


12 miles into my first ultra last December - the 45 mile Dorset Coastal Trail Series

1) COMMITMENT AND CONSISTENCY

Lets face it: motivation and drive, however intense, soon fades. Commitment and dedication don’t (The Truth About Motivation | Why New Year’s resolutions don’t work). Make the decision.

I challenge you to run every day for 30 days

1) DON'T GIVE YOURSELF A CHOICE. Make it a compulsory part of your day. You always have time for it really, just wake up earlier. You already made your decision anyway – so no need to think now.

2) DON'T LEAVE IT UNTIL LATER IN THE DAY. Might not apply to you, but if I leave something I don’t want to do I often don’t get it done. Ideally run first thing in the morning. You’ll feel great for the rest of the day and it won’t be hanging over you.

3) IF YOU DO MISS A DAY DON'T DWELL ON IT – that’s fine. In fact it’s probably a good idea from time to time. But don’t miss another! One leads to another and you enter a vicious cycle. Before you know it you haven’t run for a week.

4) TELL PEOPLE WHAT YOU'RE DOING. Accountability to someone other than yourself makes you much less likely to give up or miss runs. Even better, do it with someone – but if they slack don’t let it affect you.

5) TELL YOURSELF YOU CAN STOP AFTER 30 DAYS. After all, a month really isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things. And when you get there you may just find that you don’t want to stop…

Convincing yourself to run will soon become less and less difficult. And given time I guarantee you’ll learn to enjoy and even look forward to running. After all, it’s a natural part of being human.


2) TAKE IT EASY

This one’s important. Don’t push yourself too hard to begin with. I think this was probably my biggest mistake.

I guarantee that if you push yourself as hard as you can from the first run (which is more likely than you might think when you’re fired up and motivated), you won’t want to do another!

Instead build up slowly. Don’t go too easy; you still want to improve. But leave really pushing yourself for when you can better handle it psychologically (i.e. a few months down the line). Learn to enjoy it and the rest will follow easily.

In the first weeks walk if you need to, just make sure you’re consistently making an effort. Potentially even take an occasional day off, but don’t let that slip to two or more.

A NOTE ON RECOVERY

I expect many people will question my advice of running every day, and rightly so. The reason I suggest it is because the point of the first month is to change your state of mind more than your physical capabilities. But that’s dependant on you taking it easy. As soon as you start pushing yourself more and training seriously you’re going to need to start adding rest days.


3) EMBRACE THE PAIN

After the first couple of weeks you’ll find your willpower shoots up. In time the feeling of pushing your body actually becomes enjoyable and the initial pain and discomfort leads to an exhilaration that’s addictive (however masochistic that sounds!).

When you begin to hurt think how much effort you’ve put in to get to that hurt and make the most of it!

Sometimes you just need to break through. There are times when everything hurts for no particular reason. But if I just keep going that discomfort often subsides (often at about 5 miles for me). Weirdly, these runs usually end up being the most comfortable and enjoyable. In longer runs I find these releases come in layers. Enjoy learning how your body works.

4) KEEP IT SIMPLE

Keep it simple because it is simple. Don’t worry about intervals, fartlek, long runs or any other training components you may read about; this specialisation comes later when you’ve built a good base. For now just focus on consistency.

5) START RIGHT

Despite what you might think, there is a correct way to run, and it’s far easier to learn right the first time than to relearn. I won’t go into technique here as it’s worth an entire series of articles, but I will say that doing a little barefoot when you start will help you enormously.

The reason we don’t instinctively run correctly is largely due to the cushioned shoes we wear virtually from birth. If you compare the running style of barefoot and westernised adults (and even children), the difference is clear to see.

Barefoot was my entry point into running, and a way for me to add interest and meaning. But if you do decide to give it a go make sure you do your research and start very slow and short; it's easy to injure yourself before your feet muscles strengthen.

So do some research into technique, but at the same time don’t get too hung up about it. Just make sure you’re on the right track. You can fine-tune it later.


Also check out this article:

Training Barefoot | How it can make you a better runner

6) TAKE IT OUTSIDE

Running on a treadmill is dull. There’s potentially a value in its simplicity when you’re really pushing yourself (not that I see it), but it won’t do you any favours to begin with.

Run outside, and if possible on trails and even mountains. It’s far more interesting and enjoyable, and the hills will do wonders for your fitness. Stabilisation muscles and balance also benefit enormously from uneven ground.

Running different routes is also worth a mention. Naturally we tend to get very set in our ways and you may find it worthwhile to switch up your running routes (even just running them backwards). It makes a nice change and can also help you improve faster.

7) RECORD YOUR RUNS

This may seem like an obsessive step to take for someone just starting out. But it’s beneficial for a couple of reasons:

1) It makes you more likely to be consistent.

2) It can also be extremely motivating to look back on earlier entries and realise the improvement you’ve made.

Writing a journal’s perhaps the best way, because you can get down feelings and realisations which are a lot more valuable (and interesting to look back on) than distances and stats alone.

Run trackers like Strava are simple to use and record all sorts of information. I don’t like a need for technology in such a pure and simple skill but it can be useful and motivating to know the stats of your runs. Just don’t fall into the trap of getting obsessed.

8) GET MOTIVATED!

Whilst it’s true that motivation rarely lasts, it can still give you a huge boost.

Music can be highly effective to put you in the right mindset, but make sure you don’t start to rely on it. I also recommend reading about running, watching videos, and following top runners on social media if that appeals to you. Quotes and motivational videos can also be very effective.

Below are a few of my favourite favourites:

BOOKS

> Born to Run: The book that caused a revolution of barefooters and ultra-running. This was a huge inspiration for me. Just take the science with a pinch of salt.

> Eat and Run: Autobiography of Scott Jurek, one of the best ultrarunners out there. You wont have a single valid excuse after reading this.

VIDEOS

> Kilian Jornet: Arguably the world’s best mountain runner’s ‘morning run’…

> Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc: The most famous European ultramarathon.

> Motivational videos: Watch one of these when you can’t get out of bed! There are all sorts of others out there too if you dig around.


You have one huge advantage in the first month or so: the exponential improvement that comes with starting anything. You’ll reach plateaus sooner or later so make the most of it!

Your primary aims are willpower and enjoyment; fitness will follow and it soon becomes a positive feedback loop where each drives the other.

Lastly, thrive on being different. Take strength from the fact that you’re making an effort where most others aren’t, and in time you’ll begin to be able to do things that most others can’t.

Get in touch if you have any questions or comments - it'd be great to hear from you.


George



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