Performance19 Jun 2020

10 things I have learned as a runner


Be Active columnist Kate Carter (© Rich Maciver)

Kate Carter is our Be Active monthly columnist.

I started running eight years ago, with Couch to 5k. But because I’m now a fairly serious club runner (as in, I take my training fairly seriously, not “I cannot have fun when running, ever, or my club vest will be confiscated and I will be made to do 400 burpees as punishment”) people seem to assume I’ve been doing it forever.

But I haven’t got some kind of childhood athletic reserve to call upon - I didn’t do cross country at school, in fact I barely remember running at all. I did stand in goal having lacrosse balls hurled at me, but I’m putting that down as “surviving a terrifying ordeal” rather than “sport”. And when I did start running, more years than I care to mention and two small children later, it was really, really hard. Hideously hard. I vividly remember how brutal it was to run four whole minutes without stopping.

Thirteen marathons and more medals from other races than my doorknobs can handle, here I am. And I’m not alone: a huge number of recreational runners start later in life, and love it all the more for that. It really never is too late. Along the way, I’ve learnt a few things - but the great thing about running is that you are constantly learning, and I’ll almost certainly think of 10 other things I should have said as soon as I finish this, and go out for a run.

The first mile is always the worst

Now, I have heard rumours that there are folk who spring out of bed at 5:30am and hit their desired pace after three strides, but these people are quite clearly not human. Most of us take at least a mile to warm up, and that distance seems to get longer with each passing year. It now takes me 5k to warm up for a 5k. Give it another decade and it’ll take me a half marathon to warm up, then I’ll hit my pace for a whole 300m before needing a nice lie down. When your legs don't want to work, give them 10 minutes. After that, if they still aren't in the mood, turn around and run home. Hey, you've done 20 minutes! Great work.

Progress is not linear

Actually, to start with, it kind of is. Running does have a soothing simplicity to it: you get back what you put in. If you start training regularly, you’ll get more comfortable with running and you’ll get faster.

But in my experience, after the initial halcyon days when simply committing to a regular run knocks minutes off those PBs, the curve flattens out. However, that really doesn’t make it any less satisfying. The happiest I’ve ever been with a race result was when I knocked a whopping 20 seconds off my marathon time. Months of training to run 26.2 miles 20 seconds faster sounds insane to most people. Those people are probably not runners. They may well have a point, but they aren’t runners.

Running is hard, and that’s ok

Much as I spend my life waxing lyrical about the transformative effect running can have on your life, it’s important to acknowledge that it is, too, quite hard. Some runs are thoroughly enjoyable, some are really, really hard. Either because your heart and lungs are pumping furiously to hit your top speed, or because your legs just had other ideas that day.

That’s absolutely normal, and also kind of the point. No, bear with me: firstly, if getting fitter and faster is your goal, you need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Running is as much a mental game as a physical one, and battling through a tough run - even a very slow one - is training your brain as much as your legs. Don’t give up. Secondly, the sense of satisfaction of having done the run you intended, even though it was really, really hard, is actually even better than the feeling you get after the ones that seemed really easy. Or maybe I'm just a masochist. Actually, I run marathons as a hobby, there's no maybe about it, is there? 

It never gets easier, you just get faster

Ok, I stole this from cyclist Greg LeMond and a million inspirational memes on Instagram, but he’s right. It’s very easy to look enviously at the people who are faster than you* and think that they are finding it easy. They aren’t, I promise. A couple of runners, one running at 12 minute miles and the other at six minute miles, might have the exact same heart rate and be working at exactly the same intensity: one of them just happens to have more training in the bank.
*This advice does not apply to Usain Bolt

Every run has a purpose

If you read running magazines or websites you might have come across the term “junk miles”. I don’t like this term. Sure, there are days you should rest - especially if you are injured, tired, stressed, or, hell, just need a day off. But sometimes the purpose of a run has nothing to do with getting fitter, or getting faster. It’s to clear your head, or lower your stress levels. Those kinds of runs aren’t junk miles, for all that they don’t serve a training purpose: they are essential for your mental health. Slow down and embrace them.

Leave your ego at home

In my experience, the biggest mistake people make when they try to become a faster or “better” runner is not, in fact, not pushing themselves enough. It’s not holding themselves back. It’s running an easy run too fast because someone else overtook you, or because that friend you run with is a bit quicker than you and you are embarrassed to ask to slow down a bit, or because you don’t like the fact that your average mile pace is a minute slower than normal. Leave the ego - and quite possibly your watch - at home. It’s just counterproductive. If you don’t run truly easy, you can’t recover enough to run hard.

Don’t listen to anyone else

Just because someone else swears that barefoot running cured all their injury woes, or that breathing only through your nose is the way to run, or that the high tech gadget they’ve got strapped to their shoes, chest and wrist is *the* only way to measure effort - it doesn’t mean you have to follow them.

Run the mileage that’s right for you, use the kit that’s comfortable for you, breathe the way your body wants to. Stop listening to stuff like “but the sprinters do this” and “the Kenyans do that” as if a) all athletes train the same way and b) you are a professional athlete. Neither is true. Well, a) definitely isn’t and b) probably isn’t, unless you are, in which case, hope the training is going well!

Listen to the experts

Ok you know what I said about only doing what is right for you and ignoring everyone else in the last paragraph? There is one very big exception to that, and that’s injuries.

Your physio has studied for years to learn how the human body works. That bloke on the forum you’ve never met who reckons you’ve got plantar fasciitis based on the vague description you posted? He probably hasn’t. And don’t believe everything Dr Google tells you either: he’s out to make raving hypochondriacs of us all.

There’s no such thing as bad shoes

Or to put it another way, the right shoes are the ones that are right for you. On forums and groups, I constantly see people asking “what’s a good pair of shoes for me”. As per my previous point: your clubmates, running buddies and kind hearted strangers might well love that particular model - it doesn’t make it right for you.

Even if it is really pretty and/or cool and much nicer than the clunky bright yellow ones that the expert in the running shop reckoned were better for your particular gait. Sorry.

Running away from something is not always bad

I’m not advocating shoplifting, honest. It’s just sometimes, what you need is to get out of your house and run away from whatever is stressing you out. When I started running with that Couch to 5k what actually kept me going - because I didn’t, at that stage, even think I liked running - was the blissful time spent by myself, away from the demands of a baby and a toddler. Not having to talk to anyone, being alone with your own thoughts for the duration of a run, can be absolute heaven. Do remember you probably need to go back to the kids at some point, though. Sorry.