Run for your life

Always wanted to run, but didn't think you could? Well, you probably can. We have everything you need to get started, at a pace you can live with

By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / April 16, 2009
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So you've never really tried to run, but you want to.

Maybe you're overweight, a far too common reality in this country. Maybe you're tired of feeling sluggish. Or perhaps you saw a cool poster of Steve Prefontaine and felt jazzed about sprinting for a finish line.

But before you can lace on those Asics, you get slapped with a cold, harsh realization. Who am I kidding?, you think. I'm not a runner.

Good news. Practically anybody can be a runner. And with the Boston Marathon coming up in a few days, this is the one time of year when even non-runners consider hitting the trail. All you've got to do is follow a few basic guidelines. I offer these not as scientific evidence, but merely advice from one, lone runner. (OK, so I include a few experts here, too. I also suggest you at least talk to your doctor before embarking on a serious workout regimen.)

Why do I run? Primarily to maintain my girlish figure. Without running, I fear I'd fall back into a routine established during the early part of the decade. We had a young child, a job that demanded a 45-minute commute, and not a lot of free time. I'd just turned 30, and my metabolism was changing. So eating badly and barely exercising left me on the wrong side of 20 pounds.

I'd jogged a bit in my 20s - no longer than six miles, usually less - but virtually stopped. One day in 2006 I set a goal: the Boston Marathon.

Crazy, right? Except it wasn't. I found it surprisingly achievable, provided I was willing to come up with a plan and put in the consistent work required. Don't worry. I'm not here to push you to Hopkinton.

But using this guide, you may be able to hit the road.

1. Start slow
"A large percentage of running injuries for beginners is a case of too much, too fast," says Brian Hamill, a coach for the Community Running group that meets at the MIT track on Monday and Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings. "When I get a beginning runner, somebody who is looking to ramp up their fitness level quickly, I make sure they never, under any circumstances, get three hard runs in a row."

For me, the key was trying to run a bit longer every time out. That could be a full mile more or simply to a telephone pole a few hundred feet ahead of my earlier long distance. Some runners run every day. Not me. Like Hamill suggests, beginners should never push for multiple days. In fact, when I was becoming a runner, I generally tried to run every other day.

2. Run early
For years, I woke up telling myself I would go for a run after work. Then the night rolled around, we had dinner, put the kid to bed, and the idea of throwing on some shoes felt about as appetizing as a bowl of moldy Velveeta. No thanks. Now I leave my running clothes next to the bed, set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. and, before I have time to even think, I'm groggily on my way to 6 miles. Do it this way and you'll get to spend the whole day realizing you already did the hard work.

3. No pain is gain
One reason runners get hurt is because some of them are a bit nutty. They feel a tug in the hamstring or a sharp twinge in the knee and, instead of saying, "Ah, a pain, I should slow down," they fall back on the "I'll run through it" cliche.

The right course of action "obviously depends on the nature of the pain," says Joe McConkey, head coach at the Boston Running Center in Brookline. "Typically, though, if the pain is in a specific area, do not continue running. If it is an overall pain due to general fatigue this may be simply from being at an unfamiliar level of exertion."

For me, a runner who has been at it for years, pain is a sign there's something wrong. So stop. Whenever I've had a minor pain and stopped, I've found everything to be fine when I head out a few days later. Remember, you aren't Kevin Garnett trying to suit up for the playoffs. You're an amateur. Treat your body with respect.

4. Eat smart
The fact that you're running for the first time in your life doesn't mean you should go on a glazed stick spree at Dunkin' Donuts. It also doesn't mean you have to start dumping protein powder into your Cheerios. Reality is, exercise works best for those who understand food. That means three meals a day, a couple small snacks, and a run.

Maybe you've heard of carbo-loading. That's the spaghetti and ziti served up as race day approaches and high-carb energy drinks. For now, forget about it. Unless you're churning out 100 plus miles a week, you don't have to pack in so many carbs.

"Just think of wholesome, good nutrition," says Miriam E. Nelson, the director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition and an associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts. "Many times when people start an exercise program, they also start eating better, too. Hopefully, this will happen. Try to stick to foods that are minimally processed."

For long run days, don't worry so much about what you eat. But the rest of the week, eat sensibly so you don't become one of those runners who gain weight as they start to exercise.

5. Set a goal
For me, the goal became running a marathon. I chose that because the idea sounded so outlandish. But it wasn't. I followed a plan that called for consistent runs four days a week and a longer run that eventually reached 20 miles.

Most marathon guides will tell you that once you've worked up to six miles, you could complete a marathon with four-to-six months of consistent training.

But now, before you've run at all, two miles probably seems like a cross-country trek. By the time you're regularly doing road work, 5 miles will be nothing. Find a cool 5K race in the area. After you're finished you'll realize you've been hooked.

6. Talk is cheap
New runners can be as annoying as former smokers. They can't let anybody who doesn't run pass by without making the "anybody can run" speech. And then there's that first big race. When it's done, the new runner will talk about it as if he or she has just returned from a tour of duty in Korea.

It's fine to be proud of your new running self. It's even understandable that you might become slightly obsessed. But try to pipe down. People don't generally like gloating, no matter how fast you can run.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at