Last Wednesday, I was trudging up a hill barely able to breathe. Something was constricting my chest, and I wasn’t sure whether to blame a too-tight sports bra, the heart rate monitor I had wedged underneath it, my spring allergies, or my asthma acting up. (In hindsight: probably all four.) That wasn’t my only source of misery: I was listening to an audio track that was guiding me through some intervals, and I hated the instructor’s chirpy voice. And her taste in music. And I was wearing the wrong socks. And my shins hurt.
It was my first run of the season, and if it had been my first run ever (and if I hadn’t just signed up for a half marathon in a brief moment of insanity), I probably would have just said “fuck this” and quit. I was reminded of our own Meghan Walbert’s experience as a beginning runner, which she chronicled here. She, too, had a disastrous first run, one that almost put her off from continuing.
But here’s the thing: I’ve been here before. It’s one thing to be a true beginner, and another to be a returning beginner with the benefit of hindsight. Each of the little problems I experienced has a solution, and I have some idea of how to solve each one. But what’s more important than being able to solve those little problems is that I have faith it will all work out. I’ve run a bunch of half-marathons before, and even a full marathon once. I’m not going to be defeated by a simple three-miler around my neighbourhood, even if literally everything went wrong the first day.
So let me walk you through my thought process between that run and the run I did a few days later. Spoiler: The problems all turned out to be fixable.
First, fix your mindset
Unless you have an injury or issue so severe you’ve been told you need to avoid running completely, you can run. This applies to pretty much everything in fitness: you can lift, you can roller skate, you can do pushups every morning. That doesn’t mean you’ll do it perfectly on your first day, but there really is a path forward.
Even with all the problems I ran into, I knew that I’d managed to run before and I will manage to run again. If I could say anything to my past self, back when I was a true beginner, it would be to point out that lots of people have done this before me. I can be one of them. Problems that seem big in the moment will turn out to be nothingburgers when you look back on them years, months, or even weeks later.
In short, you just have to replace the thought “I can’t” with “I can, but how?” and get to work on figuring it out.
Prioritise your problems
When you have a lot of problems all at once, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the combined weight of all of them. But some have easier fixes than others, and some don’t even need to be fixed right away.
Being able to breathe comfortably was, of course, at the top of my list. I had four things potentially contributing: my bra, the chest strap, my allergies, and my asthma. So, we go through the list:
- Fortunately, my asthma is mild and I have an inhaler at home. I’ll use it next time.
- My allergies can also usually be controlled with an over-the-counter medication, I had just forgotten to take any.
- I have a few different sports bras I can try on. If none of them fit me well anymore, I might have to go shopping.
- The heart rate chest strap is adjustable, so that’s a quick fix — but I can also just run without it.
Besides prioritising your problems, you can also eliminate some of your problems by deciding you don’t need to solve them immediately.
So another thing I did was to decide which problems can be put off until later. They included the following:
- I can tell my socks aren’t going to be comfortable for 10+ mile runs, but for a three-mile easy run, they’re fine. I will shop for proper running socks later.
- Same for my shoes, actually: They’re fine for now, but will need to be replaced sometime this season.
- I had planned on using an app with audio tracks to guide me through my runs, but since I hate it, I can just do some easy runs on my own while I consider whether I want to use a different app or no app at all.
- Between my glitching Apple Watch and the heart rate strap I tossed on at the last minute but couldn’t manage to connect, I didn’t have a way to get a heart rate reading on the run. But I don’t need a heart rate reading to do my next easy run.
The heart rate issue here is a good example of how our brains can blow a small problem out of proportion. I’m used to checking my heart rate to be sure I’m keeping my easy runs at an appropriate effort level, so I really missed being able to see that number on my wrist. I spent hours after my run troubleshooting my tech issues, and I still don’t have a solution.
Ultimately, though, the problem is not “how do I get a heart rate reading on my watch” but “how can I go for a run”? That question is easy to answer: Forget the watch, and just run. I can still work on finding some workarounds and maybe even look into getting a new watch, but that’s something I can mull over the next few weeks, not an emergency to be addressed ASAP.
Have a big-picture plan
Like the tech issue, my training plan (or lack thereof) was weighing on my mind. I had figured I’d use a program from halhigdon.com, or maybe adapt the audio-based marathon training plan from the Peloton app. (That’s the app I hated. Sorry, Peloton.)
But here’s the thing: My half marathon is six months in the future. I haven’t run any serious distance in the last four years or so. I don’t need a specific training plan geared toward sharpening my performance for race day; I just need to get used to running again.
Get used to running again. That is my actual goal. As long as I get a few miles in, two or three times a week, I’ll be on the right track. I sat down and sketched out a very rough outline of the next few months. This week and next week, I’m not running longer than 30 minutes at a time. Over the following month, I’ll add a few miles here and there so that by the end of May I’ll be used to doing three runs a week, with my longest being a comfortable four or five miles.
I’ve written before about the pros and cons of Couch to 5K, a popular program among beginner runners. One of its strengths is that it gets people sticking to a program right away. One of its weaknesses is that not everybody wants or needs to stick rigidly to a program right away. At the start, the fact that you’re building a habit at all matters more than exactly how you build that habit.
Don’t let aches and pains derail you
Let’s return to that little thing I mentioned, the one that strikes fear into the hearts of a lot of new runners: something hurt.
For me, it was my shins. Shin splints are a common beginner injury (for true beginners and for returning-from-a-break folks alike), but I started feeling little sharp pains just a few minutes into my first run. Calm down, catastrophe-brain. You don’t give yourself shin splints in a matter of minutes.
Maybe for you it will be your knees, or your ankles, or your feet, or something else. The first thing to remember is that feeling pain doesn’t always mean you’ve damaged yourself. Sometimes you’re just feeling a new sensation and your body is like, “wait, what the heck?”
Anytime I felt that little twinge of pain, I would slow down or do something differently — like maybe I’d hop from the pavement onto the grass, or vice versa. It came and went, and by the end I was able to mostly ignore it.
Once I was home, I made sure to read up on how to prevent shin splints, and on beginner running injuries in general. Probably the most important thing for beginner runners to know is that the most common running injuries tend to follow sudden increases in mileage or intensity — in other words, running more or harder than you usually do. And the next most important thing is that resting doesn’t solve problems by itself.
Aside from extreme injuries like stress fractures, running through an injury is usually part of solving it. For shin splints specifically, this podcast episode from Strength Running (which you can listen to while you run!) is a great way to understand how to prevent and how to manage that particular injury. One excellent tip from that episode: If you notice your shins getting a little tender after a run, make your next run as different as possible. Try a different surface (road, trail, treadmill), a different pair of shoes, a different type of workout (maybe an easy run instead of hill repeats), and so on.
My second run
After that disastrous first run, and a lot of thinking and prioritising, how did I handle my second run of the season? Very differently.
First, I took my allergy medication. (I considered using my inhaler, but ultimately did not need it.)
Then, I did a try-on session with my collection of sports bras. Sadly, my favourite trusty old bras from my past life as a runner had worn out enough that I had to toss them in a prior decluttering purge. But I found three that still fit comfortably, and selected one to take for a test drive on that day’s run.
I thought about going without my watch, but I ended up reinstalling the Strava app. It can track time and distance, which is handy, even if I don’t have heart rate.
I drove to a nice, flat path at the park, instead of running the steep hills in my neighbourhood. I chose a path that makes a short loop, so that if I wanted to add or take off a layer of clothing, I could stop at my car.
I decided to do an easy run that day. And since I don’t need any specific audio track to do an easy run, I put on an episode of a podcast (Behind the Bastards, if you’re wondering) to keep my mind occupied. I like music for hard efforts and podcasts or audiobooks for easy days.
And you know what? That run went great. My clothing was comfortable, my lungs functioned properly, and I spent the run learning about how many people were killed by rampant food adulteration in the early 1900’s instead of listening to a coach shout motivational nonsense over bad music. (Look, this is my idea of fun, OK?)
I was able to keep my effort easy just by paying attention to how I felt, instead of constantly checking for a number on my wrist, and — shocker — my shins felt absolutely fine. I felt so good that I almost added another lap at the end. But the plan was for 30 minutes, and I’d hit my target, so I ended it on schedule. There will be other runs.
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