Your Most Frequently Asked Running Questions – Answered
Running can get you trim and slim, and is peaceful and delicious.
I frequently tweet about my runs – including a gorgeous 8.5-mile run I did along the ocean this morning that just blew me away – and every time I do, I get asked running questions.
Today I thought I'd answer those questions, for a few reasons:
1. I love talking about running – and it's your fault you got me started.
2. The more I can encourage others to enjoy this glorious pasttime, the better.
3. I'd love it if my passion for running could inspire others in some small way.
I should note that I am not an expert. I'm not even an advanced runner — aside from running track and cross country in high school, I've only been running steadily for the last 4 years. In that time I've done three marathons, a few half marathons, a couple of 20K races, a bunch of 10Ks and 5Ks and other road races, and have rarely missed a week.
Recently, even though I haven't been training for races, I've run my best-ever 10K (44:30) and 5K (19:55), blowing away previous PRs done more than a year earlier. I've decided to run my first half-marathon in a year and a half – take a look at my training plan.
So take any advice I give with that in mind. And let's dive into the questions!
Q: How do I get started running?
A: Slowly. Most beginner's make the mistake of trying to go too long or too hard — being too ambitious. I did that, so I know. You think you can do more, so you do.
However, this is a mistake. You end up getting too sore (some soreness is normal at the beginning of any new activity) or worse, injured. Please, take it easy at first, I beg you.
If you're out of shape, and especially if you're pretty overweight (20-plus pounds or more), start by walking 20-30 minutes, a few times a week. After a few weeks of this, start doing some faster walking intervals — quick walking for a minute or two, alternated with slower walking.
If you feel you're ready for running now, or if you've done the above walking routine for at least a month and are ready to incorporate running, I suggest run-walking. That's warming up with walking for 5-10 minutes, then jogging for a minute or so, alternating with walking rest periods.
If you think you can run without the walking, do it for short periods at first — 10 minutes, then 12, then 15, and so on. Add some time every 2-3 runs, but don't be too quick to add the distance. And don't add faster paced running in yet.
The key principle is this: your body will adapt if you give it time. Start slowly, let your body adapt to that, then gradually gradually add time. Later, when you're used to running (after a couple of months), you can add intensity.
You'll be tempted to ignore this advice and be more ambitious. But listen to me, and you'll have a much better experience with running.
Q: What's the best way to motivate myself to run regularly?
A: Three things that work brilliantly for me:
1. Get a running partner. I can't tell you how great this is. My partner is my sister Kat, who is a wonderful person to have a conversation with – I really look forward to our runs together. She's pretty reliable too, and I make sure to wake myself up and head out the door on time to meet her so that I don't stand her up in the dark. Find someone to meet up with, and you will rarely miss a run.
2. Make a rule: just lace up your shoes and get out the door. That's all you have to do. The secret is – and don't tell anyone I told you this – you'll run once you get out the door. You don't have to run long, but as long as you run a little, you'll continue to build up the habit.
3. Focus on the enjoyment of it. Don't focus on how hard it is, or you'll never keep doing it. Think about the beauty in the surroundings as you run. Enjoy the quiet and solitude, or the conversation if you have a running partner. Use it for contemplation, for stress relief, for release.
Q: But I hate running! Why should I run?
A: If you really hate it, don't do it. I'm not saying running is the best thing in the world, and that everyone should do it. No – instead, find an activity you really enjoy, like cycling or swimming or yoga or hiking or tennis or whatever.
Or, if you like, try starting out slowly, as I described above, and get a partner who you enjoy spending some time with. Running is very enjoyable if you don't overdo it at first, and if you can have a great conversation while doing it.
Q: I've been running regularly, but how do I build up my long runs? I can't run for more than a few miles (or maybe 5 miles).
A: If you've been running regularly, you might set your sights on a longer race, like a 10K or a half marathon or something like that. If so, the best way to do that is one long run a week.
Take note of that – don't make all of your runs longer. If you've been running 3 miles a day (for example) 3-4 times a week, don't suddenly make all your runs 4 miles. Just pick one day a week to go longer.
Gradually increase that long run by half a mile to a mile each week. But it's not good to keep increasing without rest — so if you increase for 2-3 weeks straight, cut back on your long run one week before progressing the next. So, if your long run progresses each week like so: 3.5 miles, 4 miles, then 4.5 miles, take a cut-back week where you just do 3.5 miles on the fourth week. Then go back to 4.5 miles, then 5 miles, and so on. Cut back on every 4th week or so, or you will risk injury.
Another thing to note is if you're increasing the duration of a run, cut back on the intensity. So do your long runs a little slower at first — later, when long runs aren't a problem for you, you can do faster-paced ones, but that's more of an intermediate/advanced tactic.
Q: I did a long run of 10-plus miles and chafed badly. Tips?
A: Yeah, that's something every runner has to experience once. As you go past the 10-mile (or so) mark, you'll feel things you've never felt on shorter runs: you'll chafe in the crotch and nipples, which are not places most people like to have pain (with some possible exceptions among you).
It's best to avoid this pain by using some kind of lubricant – Vaseline works well, or BodyGlide if you can find it, or in a pinch, if you're a parent of a baby like I was when I was training for a marathon, diaper rash cream.
Apply the lubricant to the areas in your crotch that your running shorts touch. I use Band-Aids for my nipples. Or if you're a male, run without a shirt for those longer runs. Females will want to also put lubricant around the edges of their sports bra.
Q: Any advice on running clothes and shoes?
A: Runners don't have to buy a lot of equipment, but investing in good clothes and shoes is important.
Actual running clothes really help. If you've tried running in cotton, it's uncomfortable – it can chafe, it's heavy once you start sweating, and just doesn't feel great after rubbing against your skin over and over. Running fabric is light, doesn't chafe until you go over 10 miles, and magically wicks sweat away from your skin. This includes real running socks.
I'm not qualified to give advice on running shoes – go to an actual running shoe store if you can and get the advice of professionals, who can watch you run and tell you if you're an over-pronator or a supinator or neutral or whatever. Failing that, do some reading online to figure out what kind of shoe you need. It's important – wear the wrong kind of shoe for too long (months) and you can get an injury.
After that, it's trial an error to find the brand that works best for you. I personally love Asics.
Q: What about pre- and post-run nutrition? What should I be eating and drinking before and after a run?
A: This is something runners worry too much about. Honestly, unless you're doing a marathon, pre- and post-run nutrition isn't that important.
I usually don't eat anything before I run, even on runs of 8-10 miles. Even when I do sprints or hills. Sometimes I'll have a banana or a handful of raisins.
For a run of 15-plus miles, you'll want to get some carbs before and during and after the run, either in the form of a sports drink or gels, or some kind of easily-digested food like bananas or gummy bears.
After a run, I don't worry about getting anything. It's not that important unless, again, you did a really long run. After a half marathon race (or longer), it's good to get some carbs and protein. Chocolate milk is perfect for this.
If I'm really hungry after a run, I'll eat. My favorite breakfast is oatmeal with nuts and berries and flaxseed.
As for hydration, it's important, especially for longer runs. I always, always have a glass of water when I wake up, before I run. I usually don't need to hydrate during a run unless it's 10 miles or longer. Hydrate immediately after a run. You normally only need water.
Q: I heard steady-state cardio isn't that healthy for you. Does it erode your muscles or something?
A: It's healthy. Most people into fitness who bag on "cardio" or endurance running just had bad experiences with it. They would rather do weight training or shorter, intense workouts, and that's fine.
But they usually say running is not that healthy because they see fat people on treadmills who never get any fitter. That might or might not be true — are they sure it's the same fat people, month after month? – but even if it is, it's probably because of diet. Those people are on the treadmill but are eating junk food.
Studies have shown that running improves health, time and time again. Sure, evidence shows that while you're running a marathon, you're at higher risk of things like heart attacks, but … duh. You're putting yourself under a lot of stress, and you should be sure you're pretty healthy before attempting a marathon. Also, after a marathon, you're at higher risk of a cold, because of a weakened immune system. But regular running actually improves your immunity, as long as you're not taxing your system as much as a marathon.
Some people worry about losing muscle because of running – mostly because they look at marathon runners like the Kenyans and think that means running will make you skinny. This isn't something to worry about unless you run as much as the Kenyans do – 100-plus miles a week. For the casual runner, your body won't make adaptations this extreme.
To save muscle, be sure to do resistance training with weights. I do weights three times a week, but I think twice a week would be sufficient. I recommend basic compound lifts, going heavy once you've gotten used to them: squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, lunges, pullups, dips.
Strength training helps running, in my experience. Since getting stronger, I've been running better than ever, despite minimal running training.
Q: How can I stop from getting shin splints? Or other injuries?
A: I've been lucky to have been running injury-free for most of the last four years, with a couple of exceptions (a twisted ankle once, pain in my heel during my first marathon training, back injuries a couple times from weight training).
Shin splints usually happen to beginners, and it's usually just your body not adjusting quickly enough to the demands you're placing on it by running so much. The answer is almost always rest. Rest a few days, or a week, and start again slowly. If you still have pain, rest a little longer. Don't overdo it when you return.
Most other running injuries are a result of overuse, in my experience. Meaning, you're running too much, or you've added too much running too quickly. Our bodies need time to adapt, and even if we give it adequate time, every person's body has its limits.
The answer for most injuries is just rest, and when you return, to cut back on volume of training.
Some injuries are the result of using the wrong kind of shoes, in which case it's probably smart to get a professional to look at you – either to get the injury treated or to get the right kind of shoe. I'm no doctor, though, so don't take my word on injuries.
Q: Should I only do steady-state runs? Or should I mix it up somehow?
A: If you're just starting out, just start with regular running – don't add intervals or other challenges in yet. Your goal is to let your body adapt to the basic activity of running, and you should do that gradually.
But after you're past that stage, you'll definitely want to mix it up. There are too many ways to mix things up than I can mention, but to name a few: long runs, sprint intervals, longer intervals, hill runs, hill repeats, tempo runs, tempo intervals, faster-paced long runs, fartleks, and more. I've done all of these and love them all.
I recommend you add these different types of runs into your training one at a time, and that you go easy at first. Adding intensity needs to be done with caution – if you do intervals, for example, don't do them all out at first. Just do them at a lower intensity, and after a few weeks, increase intensity a bit, until your body is used to them.
What kinds of runs you add into your training depends on your goals. Longer runs build endurance for longer races. Hills help you build strength. The other runs add intensity for various goals – increased VO2 max, the ability to run faster for longer, and so on. I'm not going to outline a pace or plan – that's what online running sites are for. :)
Q: Any recommendations for reading about running?
A: There's so many good ones out there that I can't be comprehensive. But I'll name a few to get you started.
Any books by Hal Higdon or Jeff Galloway are good for beginners. Once you're into the intermediate phase, I recommend The Competitive Runner's Handbook by Bob Glover and Shelly-lynn Florence Glover. For intermediate to advanced marathoners, you can't do better than Advanced Marathoning by Pfitzinger/Douglas, though be warned this is not an easy plan.
My favorite running philosopher is George Sheehan, and you must read Running To Win, no matter what your level.
Runner's World magazine, website and forums are great, though the tips can get repetitive once you've read them for awhile. I also like coolrunning, completerunning and a bunch of other blogs (like Mark's).
Q: What about a good diet for runners?
A: I don't buy that runners need a special diet or need to eat anything other than what's healthy for most people: real, whole foods. Some people think runners need a huge amount of refined carbs, like pasta, but this is a myth based on the idea of carbo-loading for marathons or other longer endurance events. If you're not doing a marathon, you don't need to carbo load, and you don't need sports drinks either.
If you're running, you can eat a little more calories than most people, but it's not an excuse to pig out. And if you're trying to lose weight by running, you might actually eat more if you get really hungry from your runs. I would resist the urge to eat more if you're trying to lose weight. Eat moderately, and don't think you can pound down those donuts just because you did a 3-mile run. You'll gain weight this way.
A better plan is to eat a nutritious diet of real foods: whole grains if you're going to eat grains (whole oats, sprouted grains are my favs), lots of fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds, beans, and if you're not vegetarian or vegan, lean meats and dairy. My diet has limited grains (basically just oats), seeds like quinoa, beans and nuts, lots of fruits and veggies, and some soy (tofu, soymilk) but not too much.
On a diet like this, you'll be healthy, and adding in an activity like running will only make you healthier. Like I said, I've been running better than ever on this diet, losing weight, and feeling great.
Q: Does continuous jogging help in reducing weight?
A: Yes, it can help. It's not a silver bullet, though — jogging won't cause you to lose your gut overnight.
Losing weight is simply burning more calories than you eat, over a good period of time. Not a week or two, but more likely a few months or a year or more. As running burns a good amount of calories, it'll help you get into a caloric deficit, especially as you increase your endurance and can run for a longer time.
There's a school of thought, especially in weightlifting circles, that sprinting intervals is better for burning fat. And if your workout time is very limited, this is true — if you can only work out for 20 minutes, you'll burn more calories sprinting or doing some other intense exercise rather than just steady-state running (or jogging). There are a couple of problems with that thinking, though:
1) sprinting is very intense, so if you're not in good shape it's not smart to just start sprinting;
2) the intensity of sprinting means you need more time to recover — so you shouldn't do it too often, and if you try to do it every day (or even every other day) you're risking burnout or injury;
3) sprinting can't be done for very long — it's usually limited to about 20 minutes or so (otherwise you're probably not really sprinting), so the amount of calories you burn are limited — while you can run at medium intensity for much longer, meaning you can burn many, many more calories running instead of sprinting, and thus burn more fat.
That said, I think sprint intervals are a great compliment to any running or fitness program, as long as you don't overdo it.
Back to the original question about weight loss: the biggest component of weight loss is really diet. You can burn 600 calories in an hour of running, but you can easily eat 2-3 times that much (or more) at a restaurant in one sitting. So if you don't control your diet, almost no amount of running will help you lose weight.
Have more running questions for me? Ask me on Twitter, and I'll try to add some of my answers to this post.
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