Lisa Jackson banishes any novice nerves by dispelling a dozen of the most common running myths
Taking up running is sure to be one of the best decisions you ever make. Besides the undoubted health benefits, you’re bound to feel more energetic, more positive and more enthusiastic about life in general. But in order for running to work for you, you need to approach it in the right way. We don’t want you to run too fast, too far or too much, too soon, which could result in you getting injured or finding it so challenging you’re tempted to give up before you get to the good bits.
It pays to make sure you don’t hold any mistaken beliefs about running as they can become stumbling blocks to success. What follows are some of the most important things you need to know when you’re starting out, to help you run the right way from the word go.
Myth #1: If you’re not fit, slim or fast you can’t run
Fact: Almost anyone can run!
Before you first start running, you may believe all runners are faster or slimmer than you. But look more closely and you’ll see runners in all shapes, sizes, ages and fitness levels. If you’re worried about your ability to run, by all means see your GP for a check-up. But unless you’re advised against running for health reasons (or genuinely feel your joints can’t take the impact at your current weight, in which case start out by walking and, once you’ve lost some weight, progress to running), there’s no reason you shouldn’t run. If you need further convincing, attend a parkrun (free weekly 5K timed runs held on Saturdays in parks around the UK and the globe), or watch footage of the Virgin London Marathon where you’re sure to see people who are having heaps of fun and yet aren’t in the least bit fleet-footed or model-skinny.
Myth #2: You need to be fully kitted out to start
Fact: You can get by with the bare essentials
One can often spot newbie runners by their box-fresh kit – and how much of it they have. In fact, there’s a saying in the running world – “All the gear and no idea” – that sums that up.
When it comes down to it, you really don’t need a GPS watch that talks to you, expensive bone-conducting headphones, trainers that cost more than an air ticket and sports gear made from fibres developed for intergalactic space travel, so don’t let a lack of ready money stop you from starting running. All you need to invest in, really, is a good pair of trainers (research has shown expensive trainers aren’t necessarily better than cheaper ones) and a sports bra (jump up and down in it to check it’s supportive enough) and some shorts or leggings.
Sportsshoes.com and Decathlon are great places to buy bargainous gear, but when you’re buying trainers make sure you go to a specialist running retailer such as Run And Become, Runners Need, Up & Running, Run4It and Sweatshop, so you can get good advice and try on (and run in) numerous pairs before you make your selection. As for the rest, clothing you already own will do just fine: for example, it’s okay to wear bog-standard cotton socks and t-shirts (ones made from technical fabrics do a better job of drawing sweat away from your skin, but they’re not essential), and the watch you use to make sure you aren’t late for work will also, miraculously, measure how long you’ve been running for.
What you can’t run without, however, is a positive attitude, and the ability to keep pushing on when the going gets tough. Sadly those are things you definitely can’t buy online!
Myth #3: You need to run eyeballs-out fast
Fact: Run a bit slower and you’ll feel better
Think your running speed has to be quick-as-lightning fast, as if you’re running to catch the last bus home? Do this and don’t be surprised if you feel tempted to chuck in the towel after your first outing.
The important thing with running is to be able to keep going, so setting out too fast is counterproductive and can leave you feeling discouraged. Always warm up with at least five minutes of brisk walking to gradually increase your heart rate, get blood pumping to the muscles where it’s needed and enable your body to adjust from being sedentary to moving, and to help prevent injuries such as pulled muscles. This will also allow your body time to start secreting synovial fluid, an egg white-like substance that reduces friction in your joints when you run.
Most experts now discourage pre-run static stretching, where you hold muscles in a stationary position for 30 seconds or more, as studies have shown stretching cold muscles can lead to injury, in much the same way a frozen elastic band is more likely to snap than a warm one. Instead experts such as Dawn Morse, the founder of Core Elements Training, who has an MSc in sport and exercise sciences and teaches sports therapy courses, recommends doing dynamic stretching. That means stretching with movement, which will help to warm up your muscles, keep your pulse rate up, mobilise your joints and help you run more efficiently. Morse suggests dynamic stretches for a few minutes as part of your warm-up – here are some examples.
Once you’ve fully warmed up, you can break into a gentle run. Remember, running is not sprinting! Use the so-called ‘talk test’ to assess whether you’re running at the right pace. According to this test, if you can speak whole sentences, you’re running at a sustainable speed. And if you can only say short phrases or words, you’re going too fast and should slow down. By the same token, if you’re able to sing ABBA’s entire back catalogue, you’re running too slowly. Running at a comfortable pace will make you enjoy each run, meaning you’re much more likely to turn up for your next session, raring to go.
Myth #4: Walking is cheating
Fact: Walking is super smart!
Many new runners believe that if they walk during a run they’ve somehow failed, that they should have been able to push on through regardless. There’s a lovely expression therapists trained in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) use in instances such as this one; it’s, “Stop should-ing on yourself” and it applies here too.
There is no rule written anywhere that decrees you should be able to run any distance nonstop, and in fact, even elite ultrarunners have been known to walk. Caroline Wöstman, for example, in 2015 won the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. There are five major hills in that 56-mile race and on the third of them she took the first of what would be several subsequent walk breaks. The crowds, knowing she was in the lead, went berserk trying to encourage her to start running again, but she stuck to her pre-planned walk breaks and ended up winning the race by a staggering 21 minutes. So if it’s good enough for Caro, walking should be good enough for you, too.
So why exactly is walking during a run a good idea? Simply put, it significantly reduces your injury risk, enables you to run faster and helps your body to recover more quickly after a session. You’ll also feel a lot more in control during a training run and finish feeling stronger. Walking and running use different muscles so it’s almost as if you’re using two different sets of legs.
Wonder how much walking you should do when you’re a beginner? The nine-week NHS Couch to 5K running programme (available as a podcast) suggests runners start out by doing a five-minute brisk walk and then alternating a minute of running with 90 seconds of walking for a total of 20 minutes. You can then gradually build up the length of your runs until you’re capable of running non-stop for 30 minutes. My book, Running Made Easy, has a similar programme, where you run for just 60 seconds and walk for three minutes, repeating this cycle for a total of 16 minutes, and work up to being able to walk/run for 40 minutes.
Don’t forget, walking makes sense even for more experienced runners. Former Olympian Jeff Galloway, a renowned running coach who’s helped millions of wannabe runners in America reach their running goals using his Run-Walk-Run method (known as ‘Jeffing’ by his numerous fans), says marathon runners can improve their times by an average of 13-plus minutes if they walk-run, and half marathoners are on average seven minutes faster if they walk-run rather than run the whole way.
Myth #5: If a run doesn’t feel easy to begin with, it’ll only get worse
Fact: It’s normal to feel less than frisky at first
Many first-time runners are surprised by how tough the first few minutes of a run can feel. “If it’s this awful now, it’s not going to get any better,” they might reason, and promptly forsake running and all the benefits it can bring. But they’re wrong. It’s important to remember your body needs time to adjust from being sedentary to becoming active: your heart has to get comfortable with beating more quickly and your lungs have to become accustomed to working harder too. It can be helpful to think of this less-than-lovely part of a run, which can often be the equivalent of slogging through peanut butter with logs for legs, as the ‘toxic 10 minutes’. It seldom lasts longer than that. Rest assured, however, once your body has warmed up you’ll get into a rhythm and running will feel radically different. So vow to distract yourself during those crucial 10 minutes, knowing it’ll all feel easier from then on in.
Myth #6: Running is boring
Fact: Running is as interesting as you make it
It’s true that putting one foot in front of the other isn’t the world’s most interesting activity, so it’s up to you to make running fun. If you’re running on a treadmill, play around with the incline or speed you’re running at: if you’re running outdoors, you could try fartlek (a Swedish word for ‘speed play’), where you play with your speed by running at different paces. So you could, for example, jog to the nearest lamppost, sprint to the next dustbin, and then walk to the park gate. Speed sessions and hill repeats will add further variety to your training.
Companionship is another way to spice up your runs: if you’re chatting to a buddy about the latest Netflix boxset you won’t have time to be bored. There’s a surprisingly common misconception in the running community, however, that you can’t talk while you run, as if runners have to take a vow of silence before they can lace up their trainers. Of course this is patently absurd, especially when you consider chatting to fellow runners is one of the greatest pleasures running has to offer. There’s an old Zambian proverb that says ‘If you want to run fast, run alone; if you want to run far, run together’, and beginners would do well to remember this.
However, there are a few things you need to bear in mind. Firstly, if you find chat-running hard at first, persevere: it’s just a new skill that, like any other, will get better over time with practice. Secondly, it helps to run with a similarly chatty runner so you can ‘pass the talking stick’ and take turns in telling stories, as that way neither of you will get too breathless. It’s probably best not to talk if there’s no one with you as you might get some strange looks.
Podcasts and audiobooks can be a great substitute for live human company: try Running Commentary (two running-crazy comedians interview other runners – while out running), Happy Place (TV presenter Fearne Cotton chats to inspiring people about what makes them happy – yes, unsurprisingly, running gets mentioned a fair few times) and Running for Real (in which 2:36 marathon runner Tina Muir interviews experts such as nutritionists, sports psychologists and coaches). Audiobook sales are up 43 per cent on last year, and as most audiobooks take an average of 10 hours to listen to, you can be assured of plenty of entertainment en route.
After running for a while, many runners find even more creative ways to put smiles in their miles. Some go on quests to locate interesting restaurants or local attractions they’d like to visit, while others, like Donna Brown, turn to technology to enliven their runs. “I’m a true geek,” she says, “and used to be massively unfit and often found running boring. But then I discovered Pokémon GO. Now I run between Pokestops [locations players can visit and receive free items] and get rewards for covering 50K a week.”
Other runners use woman’s best friend to keep them motivated, either by running with their dogs, entering canicross events (crosscountry races where runners are harnessed to their dogs and run as a team) or, like Katy Allaway and her marathon buddy Nicola, finding dogs to pet during training runs. “Every dog we see is a perfect reason to stop and stroke it,” says Katy. “It was disappointing that when we ran the London Marathon there wasn’t a dog at every mile marker, just waiting for us to come by.” Running is only boring if you allow it to be.
Myth #7: You have to drink loads or risk dehydration
Fact: Drinking too much can be bad for you
Yes, runners do need sufficient amounts of water to keep their blood liquid enough to quickly deliver oxygen and nutrients to their muscles and eliminate waste products. But it’s a myth that runners have to be permanently slugging on a water bottle for fear of getting dehydrated. In fact, drinking too much can be more risky than drinking too little as it dilutes the concentration of sodium in your blood. This can result in a potentially fatal condition known as hyponatremia, where runners experience stomach discomfort, dizziness and bloating. Hyponatremia is rare, but can occur in longer races if you drink too much water. So how much is too much? According to the International Marathon Medical Directors Association, you should be guided by how thirsty you are, and drink between 400ml and 800ml of fluid per hour during a race or training run. If it’s hotter you’ll need to drink more as you’ll be sweating more, and if you’re running faster you’ll need more fluid too. According to nutritionist Anita Bean, the author of Vegetarian Meals in 30 Minutes, the sweat test, which involves weighing yourself before and after a run, is a good way to assess your fluid needs. “You shouldn’t drink so much that you end up gaining weight,” she says. Another way to check your hydration levels is the pee test: your urine should be a light yellow, straw colour – if it’s dark yellow or orange, you may have mild to severe dehydration.
Myth #8: You need to run every day
Fact: Rest days are vital
Many beginners get so enthused by running, and the incredible sense of achievement that training sessions give them, that they adopt a ‘more is more’ approach and decide to run every day. This is a big mistake, as your body needs time to adjust to the additional demands running places on it. Having a rest day at least once a week will mean you’re less likely to get injured and you’ll therefore make better progress. According to Dawn Morse, rest days help strengthen your body, sharpen your focus and keep you motivated to keep training. “Running results in micro-tears within your muscles and soft tissue,” she says. “Your body repairs these micro-tears during rest days and through exercise adaptations this micro-damage stimulates your body to increase muscle size and the number of mitochondria within the muscle fi bres. (Mitochondria are your cells’ powerhouses, which turn sugars, fats and proteins into energy.) This enables you to run more effectively (faster or further) during your next training run.” If you absolutely have to do something on your rest days, you can always cross train by doing some cycling, swimming or weights, or try doing stretching and strengthening exercises such as yoga, tai chi or Pilates.
Myth #9: Blisters are inevitable
Fact: They’re not!
Blisters form when something rubs against unprotected skin and can also be caused by moisture in your trainers. They can be truly agonising and suck the joy out of even the shortest run. Ask experienced runners how they avoid blisters and you’ll hear a multitude of answers – what’s key is to try different things and work out what’s best for you. Start with the right shoes: “Ensure your running shoes are at least half a size bigger than your everyday shoes so that your feet can swell during longer runs without rubbing against the inside of your trainers,” says Dr Juliet McGrattan, Women’s Running’s in-house health expert and the author of Sorted: The Active Woman’s Guide to Health.
“You could also try different lacing techniques – look online for some ideas – to prevent your foot moving around inside your shoe.”
Your choice of socks is also important. Some runners swear by double-layered socks, such as 1000 Mile Original Socks, which are a sock within a sock. The inner layer hugs your foot while the outer layer moves with your shoe, thereby eliminating friction on your skin. Alternatively, try wearing two pairs of socks (but make sure they’re not too thick so they don’t squash your toes or cause you to sweat unnecessarily). Whatever socks you choose should be made of a quick-drying fabric that draws sweat away from your skin, and you should also make sure that you put them on carefully so they’re wrinkle-free as wrinkles can create friction against your skin.
Another blister-avoidance tactic is to liberally slather your feet in Vaseline before you run, or to use an anti-blister balm such as Body Glide Foot Glide. Or try applying blister tape (such as KT Blister Prevention Tape or Meglio Zinc Oxide Tape) or plasters (Compeed is a great brand – the plasters contain a moistureabsorbing gel that acts like a second skin and cushions your foot against rubbing).
Finally, Dr McGrattan advises against over-moisturising your feet and instead letting them toughen up a bit.
Myth #10: Races are only for the super-fast
Fact: They’re for absolutely everyone
For many new runners, entering races can seem daunting. They worry about what others will think of them, and also whether they’ll be made welcome, when in fact races are the equivalent of going to a party where you’ve got something in common with every single guest. Don’t believe us? Then look at the chatting that goes on between strangers in the loo queue, observe how many runners are talking as they pass by in a race, or browse YouTube for goosebump-inducing footage of strangers holding hands as they cross the finish line. Yes, there are runners at every race whose sole purpose is to get from A to B as quickly as possible. But you’ll find that the majority of the field is much slower, and that far from being competitive, the atmosphere at most races is one of collaboration. Everyone is up against the same enemy – the distance – and everyone is willing each other on. Remember, too, that without slower runners there wouldn’t be a race. There can only be one winner, but she wouldn’t be a winner if she didn’t have others to compete against, so simply focus on finish lines not finish times.
Myth #11: Coming last is humiliating
Fact: Coming last is exhilarating
This writer is somewhat of an expert on this topic, having finished last in 25 of the 110 marathons and ultras they’ve done so far and so feels more than qualified to comment. Rather than being greeted by slow clapping from one or two individuals as you cross the finish line in last place, you’re far more likely to be greeted with tumultuous clapping and wild cheering, in much the same way the race’s winner will have been welcomed home. In fact, expect a few bruises (from being slapped on the back so much) and very sore hands (all that high-fiving). Everyone’s who’s spectating knows what courage it takes to struggle to the finish and will be sure to give you the hero’s welcome you deserve. There’s a wonderful race slogan that says ‘Finishing dead last is better than did not finish, which is infinitely better than did not start’. Remember those words when a fear of finishing last makes you hesitant about entering a race.
Myth #12: Everyone’s going to be looking at you
Fact: Most people won’t
You won’t believe the lengths some people go to avoid being stared at while running. Some beginners have admitted they’ve run under the cover of darkness so they wouldn’t be seen, while others have said they ran carrying shopping bags so they could pretend they were just in a hurry to get home from the shops! The truth is, unless you go out for your runs wearing fairy wings and a tiara, or run with your arms flailing windmill-style like Phoebe from Friends, most people are too tied up with their own lives to pay you any attention. (Even if they do notice you, heed Phoebe’s advice to Rachel: “Don’t care if people are staring, it’s just for a second and then you’re gone”). And anyway, when you do get attention it’s likely to be admiring glances or even thumbs-ups and shouts of encouragement.