Maybe you want to hit your stride for the first time ever, or you took a long break from running because of say, a global pandemic — either way, getting back into the swing (or pace) of things can be daunting. The key to keeping up your excitement for the activity is simply taking it slow — and following the below advice from a pro runner, a run coach, and a sports psychologist. Let these beginner runner strategies guide you towards uncovering that runner’s high, securing your best race ever, or simply committing to a regular running routine you actually enjoy.

Beginner Running and Racing Tips

1. Let go of pace

When you’re first getting started (or back on the horse) with running, you should probably go sans-technology (meaning, forgo the smartwatch or fitness tracking app). “Instead, abandon pace and go by effort,” says Elizabeth Corkum, Road Runners Club of America and USA Track and Field run coach based in New York City. “Enthusiasm is great when bottled and stored the right way, but it can also blind you to smart thinking.” What does smart thinking look like exactly? Going at a pace that feels good for you at the moment versus trying to hit a certain speed that your watch dictates — and walking intervals are always welcome.

If you need some convincing, letting go of pace worked for pro runner Molly Seidel in the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta last February 2020, in which she finished second — her first time racing a marathon no less. Instead of constantly checking her watch, Seidel kept up with those around her. “I would say definitely try and stay in the moment,” she told Shape. “Don’t be too focused on the watch. Don’t be too focused on the pace.” One caution for those going for 26.2 or any longer distance, though: “Try and remember, it’s a very long race and you want to stay patient the first half so that you have something left for the second half,” says Seidel.

2. Meet your body where it is right now

If walk-run intervals were your jam six months ago, but you haven’t walked much since, it’s probably a good idea to start with some more frequent strolls, aiming for three times a week, suggests Corkum. “It gets those muscles, tendons, and ligaments primed for running.” The same goes for those who ran 10 miles (16 km) a week but took a few months off from running. It’s probably smart to start with some walk-run intervals, alternating between periods of strolling and periods of pounding the pavement. See how that feels before going for a straight run.

And while it can seem frustrating to go back to workouts that once felt easy or to go at a slower pace than you used to be able to maintain, it’s crucial to start slow, explains Corkum. That’s how you avoid injury and remain motivated to keep running.

New runners need to set reasonable expectations,” echoes Robert Weinberg, PhD, sports psychologist and creator of the National Academy of Sports Medicine’s “Mental Toughness” course. “Don’t ask too much of yourself too quickly, and don’t compare yourselves to others too quickly,” says Weinberg. Figure out what your physical activity has looked like over the past few months, and take it one step at a time in building up your endurance.

3. Be kind to yourself

There’s no denying that running is hard. Some runs will feel really hard (hi, windy winter weather!), while others will feel pretty damn easy. “The victory is in just getting out there and allowing your body and mind to have that time in motion,” says Corkum. Keep that in mind, no matter how the run goes.

Also, it’s great to set high goals for yourself, but Seidel suggests not getting wrapped up in those intentions, especially if they don’t come easily. “At the end of the day, you can take away something positive — no matter what you run,” she says. Maybe you clocked your longest mileage, simply stayed engaged in the joy of moving your feet late in your long run, or passed five people in the latter half of a race. “Find something positive to focus on, on every run, so that you can keep taking the positive momentum forward,” adds Seidel.

Running
Credit: Fitsum Admasu/Unsplash

Finally, coming back to your “why” of running — what made you want to start a regular routine in the first place — is always helpful. That’s especially true if that reason is internally motivated (eg wanting some stress relief), rather than externally (eg wanting to fit in with your friends), says Weinberg. Reminding yourself of the reason you wanted to get out there and clock km in the first place will keep you motivated to do it.

4. Get some good gear

Summer heat and humidity, for example, can make running feel extra tough, so Corkum suggests making sure you have apparel with sweat-wicking properties. Also, non-cotton socks will keep your feet from sloshing around as you’re speeding up, and an anti-chafing balm will definitely come in handy. (BTW, you might want to learn how to prevent chafing in the first place, too.)

If the temperatures are dropping, make sure to bring some added layers, such as a long-sleeve (still sweat-wicking) shirt and maybe a running hat and running gloves if it’s super chilly. Believe it or not, what you wear can directly affect your performance and your overall experience. So, gearing up for the conditions can be that little boost you needed to achieve a new PR or just get comfortable pounding the pavement again.

5. Make it social

“A lot of people figure that running has to be hard all the time or you have to hurt for it to be worthwhile,” says Seidel. “I find that running, for me, is the most fulfilling and the best when I use it to connect with people and to just have fun more than anything and use it as a stress reliever.” Maybe you sign up for a run club and do your long runs with a group on the weekends, or perhaps you recruit your best pal to sign up and train for a race right along with you. Either way, a run bud will make the time fly by and give you a good way to connect to others. (It helps to find someone who’s at a similar skill level and pace, too, so you don’t have to worry about keeping up or slowing down.)

“I think that’s probably the biggest thing for someone just getting into running: If you’re struggling to make it a consistent habit, find a group, find a running partner, find someone to share it with. And that not only helps you get out the door, but it also just makes it much more fulfilling,” adds Seidel.

6. Build up slowly

Most run coaches will suggest the 10 percent rule for runners. This essentially means you’ll increase your weekly mileage by 10 percent each week. But if you’re brand new to the sport, start super slow and consider focusing on time rather than mileage. After those first few weeks of just finding your groove, maybe add five minutes to every workout or 10 minutes to just one of them. “Small but challenging adjustments,” are the way to go, shares Corkum. This not only protects you from overtraining but also gives you small wins along the way as you see your fitness improve.

With this in mind, make sure you give yourself enough time to train for a race if you want to put one on the calendar. You want to build up to it slowly while feeling confident in your training, adds Corkum. If your first race is a half marathon, and it’s only eight weeks away, that’s probably not enough time to safely build up to your best, risk-free performance.

7. Give yourself rest days

“We have to strike a balance between having the consistency needed to make adaptations and rest and recovery,” says Corkum, who suggests new runners consider an every-other-day schedule so that you’re running about three or four days a week. “Creating a habit takes time, but then it’s part of your lifestyle,” she says. After four to eight weeks, assess how you feel and if you’re ready to add another day of running to the schedule.

8. Practice dissociative thinking

Dissociation is essentially the mental process of disconnecting from your thoughts, feelings, memories, or sense of identity, according to the American Psychiatric Association. This tactic tends to work well for people brand new to running, says Weinberg. So, dissociating yourself from running or taking your mind out of the activity can help you steer clear of fixating on how hard the workout might be, which, in turn, can be useful in keeping your mental space from turning negative. You can easily do this by chatting with a friend or listening to music, an audiobook, or a podcast. “You’re not associating with pain or fatigue, but focusing on something positive,” he says. The catch is still paying attention enough to know your surroundings — especially when you’re trekking around city streets.

Running
Credit: Cameron Venti/Unsplash

9. Then, turn to associative thinking

On the other hand, you might start to practice associative thinking or getting in touch with your body, says Weinberg. Ask yourself, “What’s my heart rate or breathing rate?” “How are my legs feeling? “What are my arms doing?”

Seidel says she practices this kind of mindfulness frequently and that it helps her in her workouts and competitions. Checking in with her body throughout a race, for example, helps her to be less critical, she adds. For example, if you’re feeling horrible at a certain point in a run or race, ask yourself why instead of telling yourself the run is ruined, she suggests. “Look at it objectively,” adds Seidel. Meaning, even if you’re not feeling great, you simply let that thought on and out of your mind — observe it — rather than letting it ruin your run.

10. Focus on your own run or race

This beginner running tip applies for race day, but also during your training. Focusing on your abilities is the best thing you can do for your mindset on the run and how you feel afterwards. So, quit constantly comparing your pace, finish times, or mileage to the person next to you (or next up in your social media feed).

Admittedly, that can be easier said than done, but just remember that “‘the only thing you control is yourself and your own training,'” says Seidel.

11. But don’t be afraid of competition

Competing against others can sometimes be just the driving force you need to perform at your best, so it’s also okay to try to beat out that person next to you on the starting line or even nearby during a training run. Keeping up with a faster person may bring out a speed you didn’t know you had. “I love just going out and being able to just focus on the racing and not necessarily pay attention to the split,” says Seidel. “I want to just focus on who’s around me and stay engaged and make those aggressive moves in a race.”

12. Practice visualisation and goal setting

Another helpful mind trick is visualisation or picturing yourself running. “Feel it, smell it, touch it,” suggests Weinberg. “See yourself going through the run, maintaining a nice pace, focusing on rhythmic breathing, noticing the trees, enjoying your surroundings, etc.” This will all help you better prepare for your runs (in a race or otherwise) as you’ll have a positive image in mind of you completing your mileage.

Short-term goal setting is also smart for both your regular run routine and race days. Figure out what you want to achieve mile to mile, rather than thinking about the entire run or race in one setting, says Weinberg. That goal might be making it from one tree to the next or stopping at a certain water station along the way. This gives you small wins to celebrate throughout the course, without leaving you overwhelmed with the thought of long miles.

13. Have an open mind

Seidel says she didn’t go into February 2020’s Olympic Trials expecting to even place in the top 10 — but she also didn’t rule it out. “I went into [that race] with a mentality of, ‘I just want to run as hard as I can,'” she says.

Seidel says that’s a crucial piece of advice for those doing their first race, particularly a half marathon or full marathon: “Don’t limit yourself with perceptions that you have going into a race,” she says. “You definitely have to be smart with it — don’t try and totally blow it out of the park in the first half. But I think going in being realistic, but also not counting yourself out just because it’s your first one is key.”

This story first appeared on www.shape.com

(Main and Feature Image Credit: Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty)

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