Around this time of year, many people start running – either for an autumn marathon or for a shorter race during the summer. If you’re one of them, then you have my complete admiration and support.
Some marathon first-timers may have already tackled shorter distances – a 5-miler or 5km race – or run regularly for a couple of years . Others will be new runners, starting from scratch and hoping to go from zero to 5, 10 or even 26 miles in a few months.
When I started marathon training, eight years ago, I was one of the absolute beginners. I hadn’t played any sport since my schooldays, and my eating habits weren’t great. Fortunately, every day I walked 30 minutes to work and back, although I had to spend the day at work before they would let me walk back. I didn’t smoke at all or drink very much, and I was in reasonably good health and weight. Still, it was no easier for me to start and keep up running.
Eight years and five marathons later, what advice can I give you?
Obviously, you should see your doctor before you embark on a sports training regime, even if it’s not for a marathon. Apart from checking for any underlying conditions, the doctor can give you valuable advice on how to complement your training with good physical and nutritional practices. (A couple of quick tips I can give you right now: stay well hydrated, get enough sleep, eat a proper breakfast and lunch, always do your stretches before and after your run.)
But what surprises me now, looking back on my own first steps, was how the key to starting a new running regime is mental, not physical.
You have to be positive and constructive about running – in your mind and in your words. If you find yourself dreading the prospect of training and the race itself, then you need to change how you think about it. It’s a challenge, so have a sense of adventure about it. Speak positively about it with your family and friends – pretty soon you’ll internalise all your positive words without even realising it. If you’re telling people how awful it will be and how unfit you are, even out of false modesty, then you’re your own worst enemy and biggest obstacle to achieving your goal. (If any friend makes fun of you for your new running regime, rather than encouraging you, then you should be reflecting on whether this person really is your friend.)
Self-consciousness is a common problem. Running in shorts or figure-hugging gear can be intimidating if you think people will be looking at you. In that case, you can always go running in a light, loose-fitting tracksuit – there’s no prescribed uniform for training. If you’re not in great physical shape you’re probably worried that people will laugh at you. I assure you that this doesn’t happen – so many people of all shapes and conditions are running in public every day that it is a common sight; nobody really notices runners any more. Nobody is looking at you. Run with one or more friends, if that makes you feel more secure at first – though at some stage you’ll have to be grown-up and run alone.
Your marathon, half-marathon or 10K race can seem an intimidating prospect. But the good news is that you don’t have to run it tomorrow – you have months to get ready. Start modestly and build up your fitness gradually – these little successes will give you a solid foundation for confidence in your running and in yourself. (The first time I ran for half an hour, I was proud of myself. A few weeks later, after I ran an hour for the first time, I was buzzing so much that I could have run through a brick wall.) Don’t overdo it; slow and steady training finishes the race.
There will be aches and blisters and hard days. Just accept it. Don’t feel sorry for yourself – you’re running by choice, not obligation. The longer you keep up your training, the less aches and blisters and hard days you’ll have. But every runner has them now and then, from beginner to champion.
After a long day at the office, or even before a long day at the office (depending on when you prefer to run), the thought of training can seem like a drag. This feeling can continue even in the first few minutes of your run. But it soon disappears, once you hit your rhythm. The lesson is: don’t give in to the feeling of drag. And try not to be stressed when you run. Before you head out, take some deep breaths and roll your shoulders a few times – this will help shake out the pressures of your day.
Finally, the golden rule: enjoy your run.
If you’re at the starting line of a great running adventure and you have any questions to ask or experiences to share, feel free to leave a comment.