Friday, January 27

10 Things I've Learned About Running

I have never been a “runner.” Like, I was that girl during middle and high school who made any excuse not to run during P.E. I once went to the chiropractor and tried to use my back alignment to get out of doing the Mile Run (it didn’t work). It wasn’t like I was “unhealthy” – I was maybe a little chubby in early high school (certainly no more than I am now), and even in high school when I lost around 40 pounds, I still couldn't run because it turns out you need to eat food for that.
 Running in front of other people was only a little bit embarrassing, but I was never the last person in, so I really didn’t mind.

In college, I didn’t really exercise until I started dating J - a cross-country runner - and even then, I didn't go running right away. I lost weight at the beginning of the relationship (nervous weight? Anyone else have that issue?), but I still wasn’t “fit” by any means. I was healthier than I had been - I was eating better, snacking less, and moving more, though mostly due to a really hectic schedule - but I only went running once or twice that year, in the dark. I saw a raccoon crawl out of a gutter once and it was terrifying but also really cool.

When I graduated college and moved in with J in Iowa City, my habits changed dramatically. I was gaining weight at a record pace due to feeding both of us and feeling “encouraged” by his hefty boy portions which he was running it off without even thinking. I was just learning to cook – trying out unhealthy but delicious family recipes, still figuring out what worked for both of us and our bodies and our budget. 

We lived in this tiny apartment, but it was right next to this lovely trail that went all around Coralville. J encouraged me to try running with him. It was a disaster. I have no idea why, but I turn into a total baby when I run with him. Every time I run with him, my pace sucks, I whine, and I feel terribly guilty for feeling like I ruined the run for him. So I started running on my own, and I started loving it. I was still averaging a 12:30 mile, but I was going more than one mile at a time for the first time in my life. J gave me tips, and my pace and distance improved. I began running 2.5 miles pretty regularly, and finally made it to 3.1 miles one day. I was so proud of myself! A few months later, J and I did a community race together and I ran just around 5.4 miles – by far the most I had ever run (or have ever ran) at one time.

However, when I moved to New Hampshire for law school, I stopped running. I tried the first week I was there, but I wasn't used to all the hills, which killed my motivation. I bought a membership to the YMCA so that I could exercise again, but I barely ever went. Finally, the summer before my third year, I wanted to give running another go. I decided I wanted to run 8 miles at one time, so I made up my own running schedule. It continued until school started back up, when I got super busy and lost my motivation all over again.

I started running again this fall, first outside a few times, then inside at the local YMCA. I joined the Y in mid-December, and when I started running again that first week, I was only running a mile (and it was a tough mile). A week ago, I ran 3.5 miles. It’s funny how much my body, my mind, and my breathing has improved since running. I am getting less shitty at running – and I’ll take that.

Here’s what I have learned (particularly this time around):

(1) Stretch!

When I ran in New Hampshire, J always told me to stretch beforehand. I kind of did, but I couldn’t help feeling like I was wasting valuable time that I could use burning “real” calories, so I always half-assed it and my body was never warmed up. As our good Lord Ron Swanson says:

It’s not that I stretch for that long now, but I do around 6-10 minute of stretching every time before I run. Usually my biggest issue when running is my breathing, not my legs feeling tight, but I can definitely feel the difference now when I stretch and when I don’t. Basically, if it will help me feel even slightly better on my run, I will do it - and it does!

(2) Listen to your body

There's a fine line between listening to you body go, "Jesus H. Christ I hate this, let's stop and eat ice cream," and listening to your body to figure out when you need to speed up, slow down, or change things up, haha. Especially when I run outside or at a race, compared to running on a treadmill, I have a tendency to start out too fast, which messes with my pace and really hurts my breathing. When I run on the treadmill, I try to start out at a slow pace and then work my way up as my body warms up and it feels like. 

I'm also very aware of potential injuries, because it's terrifying for me. A couple weeks ago, one of my knees was really hurting, so I stopped, stretched, and then started again at a slower pace until my knee felt better. Last week, my stomach was killing me - I made it a mile, but then stopped and took a break. It felt better after ten minutes or so, so I got back on the treadmill and ran another 2.5 miles. It took more motivation to get back on after than at the beginning of my run, haha!

(3) Know what your goals are

Are there are people out there who aren't motivated by having goals? That is not the life I live. Right now, my overarching goal is to run 8 miles without stopping this year. Because I'm working on distance, I'm concentrating more on pace over speed - which I guess sound like the same thing, haha. What I mean is, when I first started running in December, I was running at a 4.5 pace (around a 13-minute mile). It was really comfortable for me, which means I could actually do the mile instead of wheezing and struggling through it. 

As I've started doing longer distances, my pace has improved a lot all on its own! I ran most of a mile the other day at a 5.0 pace (a 12-minute mile). My average now is around 4.7-4.8, which is slightly above a 12-minute mile. Now, doing at 4.5 pace feels like I'm walking. I think I've been gradually working my pace up because of those longer distances - I don't want to be running for hours if I don't have to, so I've naturally been upping my pace over time. That doesn't mean every run I do feels good or has a 5.0 pace. Sometimes I'm just having a shitty run and I have to do the whole thing at 4.5. That's life.

(4) Pace yourself - literally and figuratively

Especially as a "newbie" runner, it can be embarassing to only run a mile, or run at a 4.5 pace when the person next to me is running at a 6.0+ pace. It's so easy to compare what you're doing to the person literally running next to you, and through that embarassment, it's really easy to try to push yourself further than your body is ready to go. The last 5K I was in was in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the first 0.25 miles of the charity race included this massive hill. I had barely trained, let alone for hills, and it was a nightmare. When there were so many people aorund me, it was super embarassing to have to stop and walk the rest of the way up it - but if I didn't, I was going to wear myself out at the start of this 3.1 mile run.

I think there's also this idea when you stop running for a while that whatever you were doing before - 2 miles, 3, 4, whatever - is what you'll be able to pick right back up with. I don't know if other people are superheroes or something, but that hasn't been my experience. When I stop running, I have to start all over, which really sucks. I think we put pressure on ourselves to get right back to where we were before, and that takes time. When I started back up in December, I started running one mile at a time, and slowly working my way up. I've been improving every week except this one (I'm crampy and stuffed up, which isn't ideal...). It's slow progress, but it's progress!

(5) Fuel yourself properly

When I work out in the morning, I need either pre-workout (I use Vega, a vegan brand) or coffee, as well as something to eat. Sometimes I'm okay with just a handful of almonds, but if I've made some, I really prefer having an egg muffin beforehand. It's just enough food/fuel to get me through a high-intensity workout, but not too much where my stomach gets upset. I also make sure to eat around 30 minutes before I run, but not any sooner than that. When I'm at work or at home later in the day, I try to have a small snack - we have these Sargento Balanced Breaks packs at work that contain almonds, cranberries, and cheese, and it's just the right amount of food before a run (though I wouldn't usually suggest cheese or dairy before running).

I think the big lesson here is using trial and error to figure out what works for your body. Those egg muffins I make couldn't be more perfect for my body, but you need to figure out what works for you, and at what distance. Maybe I'll find that I need more to eat (or something different to eat) when I'm consistently running more than 5 miles. Maybe it won't effect me at all. We'll find out!

(6) Know what motivates/distracts you

What I'm really talking about here is what you listen to, if you listen to anything. When I ran in New Hampshire, I listened to the "Serial" podcast. My bestie Kendra suggested it, and while I'm not usually into a "crime" subject matter, that podcast was incredible. I only let myself listen to it while I ran, which was incredibly motivating for me. It was distracting and totally kept me from thinking about the run. After I finished it, I tried listening to some Harry Potter podcasts (don't mock me, I like what I like), but it was a total bust. I also have one audiobook (yes, just one) that I've historically loved to listen to while I run. It's called "Mr. Darcy, Vampyre" and yes, that is a "Vampire" with a "y," so you know it's going to be good. ­čśé It's totally the worst book ever written and the narrator is also awful, which makes it a great book to distract you from the trials of running.

Except that this book hasn't been working for me lately; What has helped me lately is music. I know, I know - how groundbreaking, M, that you thought of listening to music while you run. You are a sage. Honestly, music is really touch and go when it comes to me and running. If I don't know the song, it's difficult for me to feel inspired or pumped up by it, but if I know it too well, I'm basically counting down the seconds until it's over. However, since I've been focusing on my pace lately, I've also been purposefully choosing songs based on tempo. I've been totally jugment free while looking through my iTunes. I have a LOT of shitty radio songs from the mid-to-late 2000's, but some of them are honestly the best for my pace. 

For example: 2009's "Love Drunk." I loved that song in 2009, but probably have not listened to it since... And the tempo is exactly a 12-minute mile (5.0) pace. I would also suggest basically any angry/sexual Kanye West song. Or maybe that's just me. Whatever. Live your truth. Run to whatever motivates you.

(7) Mix up what you're doing

Remember how I was talking about how nice that 4.5 pace was for me when I first started running again? A few weeks in, that pace didn't work for me anymore, and I had to adjust. I would run half a mile at that pace, then half a mile at a faster pace. It became my "fall-back" pace, for when I was exhausted or needed a break. The thing was, once I found that I liked that easy, slow 4.5 pace, I was totally convinced that I should just keep going at that pace. If it was so easy for me, I should just do the 8 miles at that pace, right?

Well, yeah, I probably could do that. It would take me almost two hours of running, but I could physicially do it. Would it be pushing me? No. Would I really be making progress? Debatable. Do I want to be running that slow for almost two hours? Definitely not. Point being, I think the key here is being flexible, both with yourself and your expectations. When your body feels like doing something else, whether it's running faster or slower, mix it up. When you feel like running a little further than you had planned, go for it. When you realize you're not going to be able to make that distance goal you had in mind, forgive yourself.

(8) Stength Training

I'm actually a lot more comfortable with strength training than I am with cardio. I feel like my body packs on muscle really easily, but has a really hard time shedding fat. But as I said above, I'm terrified of injury, and the biggest way to prevent that, beyond stretching, is making sure your body can handle the pressure you're putting on it in the first place. While my big fitness goal this year is to run, I try to do weightlifting every time I go to the gym. My biggest issue here is that I know a TON of exercises for strengthening basically every part of me... except for my legs. I know about squats. I know about lunges... But I'm desperately trying to figure out some moves that will strengthen my quads and hamstrings! Send me some ideas!

(9) Consistency

As I explained above, this is not my first rodeo getting into running; my issue is staying consistent with my running. Kind of like with weightlifting, when you stop for a long time, it really sucks to have to get back into it while starting from scratch. You can't just pick up those heavy weights again and assume you won't injure yourself. You can't just start running a 9-minute mile again when it took you months to work up to that. It even worries me that I haven't really been running this week - will I have to start all over again? Will I feel up to running 4 miles? Basically, if you don't have to start from scratch, don't do it. Keep at it, because if you don't, you're going to regret losing all that progress you worked so hard to attain!

I was looking through my pictures the other day, and I found one from Iowa City where I ran just over 2 miles at a sub-12:30 pace. I was so proud of myself, and it reminded me to be proud of myself now. I used to run so often back in 2012-2013, and I think I had this idea that I was way fitter and ran faster than I do now, so I've been kind of hard on myself for running so slow... but seeing that picture made me feel really grateful for what I'm able to do and reminded me that I'm actually running better now than I did 4-5 years ago!

(10) Time of the day

J can't (won't?) run in the morning. I am the biggest morning person I know - it makes things difficult when we're trying to coordinate schedules. But since I have basically two opportunities to work out each day (once before work and once after work), I've had to figure out how my body responds to running at these times. If I properly fuel up before a morning working, I run just fine in the morning before work, though I am constrained depending on what time I need to be at work. I think all of my longer runs have been after work (not on purpose - just because that's how things have worked out) but I also feel pressure to get done so I can go home, relax, and eat dinner!

There's not really one time of day when I run "better," but J doesn't feel that way at all. He runs 3-7 miles at a time, but he'll only run in the afternoon. And while I need to have something to eat beforehand or I'm weak and useless, he can't eat anything before a run, at least for a few hours beforehand. We were both born in the same city, we're practically the same age, and we have similar ethnic backgrounds, but our needs before a run are completely different - which just goes to show you that your needs are probably going to be completely different than mine, haha. I feel like so much of running is figuring out your own body and how it responds to the pressure you're putting on it!

Do you have any running goals this year? Do you listen to music while you run? What motivates you the most while running? Do you have certain time/food requirements before a run?

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