101 (And Then Some) Running Tips for Beginners

I’ve only been torturing myself running for about four months and I’m not quite a marathoner or Olympic athlete yet, but during these four months, I’ve learned more about my physical, mental, and—dare I say it?—emotional self than during all of grad school or even that whole seven months I spent unemployed on my couch, inferring the days of the week by which channel was showing the “House” marathon.

I think I’m finally ready to talk out of my ass and share my sage words of running wisdom. Actually, I read this awesome article in Women’s Health Magazine where “Runner’s World” folks offer up expert advice for runners lacing up their trainers for the first time, and I thought that they missed a couple of things.

So, since this is my blog and I can do whatever I want, I’ll share my hard-won advice first and then let the real experts step in.

marching band tbt

(Semi-relevant side note: in senior year of high school, I was the drum major of my marching band (Marching Mustangs, represent, whaaaaaat) and part of my responsibilities included leading the warm-up run and the stretching (guess which one I hated less). At 17, I wasn’t the most politically correct individual (not much has changed), so the word “tar-tar” was part of my vocabulary (okay, that has changed—now I just say “lame” since, you know, that doesn’t have any other meaning…) and I’m not proud of it. Anyway, possibly the only time anything I’ve ever said or done has become a trend, “tar-tar” caught on, and even the instructors were known to have said from time to time, or at every rehearsal, “Don’t be a tar-tar. Do the run-run with the Ron-Ron.”  That’s it, that’s the story. I just wanted an excuse to tell it.)

Without further ado, here are the Ron-Ron’s run-running tips:

1)  Fight the Blerch: The dude who writes The Oatmeal recently did a ridiculously amazing treatise on why he runs. Part of what induces him to run is fighting the Blerch, his inner voice that “represents all forms of gluttony, apathy, and indifference.” My Blerch is mostly an asshole rather than a saboteur sitting on my shoulder and encouraging to help myself to another slice of cheesecake. We all have a Blerch. Find yours and punch it in the face. Simple enough, right?

2)  Celebrate every accomplishment, no matter how trivial: This blog makes no secret of the fact that running and I aren’t BFFs yet. It’s not just a matter of not really enjoying it as much as I feel like I should be by now, but also that I am simply not very good at it. Now I know that running is not one of those things for which you can expect immediate results, and when I’m feeling particularly sluggish or lame, I think back on where I was just a few months ago. What was appallingly difficult then is now mostly tolerable; if I am still slow, it’s not because I physically can’t go faster. So now I choose to rejoice over everything. You just ran the longest distance ever in your whole life? Go, you! You improved your average pace by 3 seconds? Hell yes! You ran without stopping? Mazel tov! My running app is also pretty cool for informing me of various accomplishments. Since it tracks like 17 million different things and my runs are slowly building, I’m bound to break some kind of elevation/duration/pace/distance record every now and then. The app even emails me a congratulatory trophy! Apparently trophies are important within my mental rewards system. I’m a sucker.

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3)  Obey the urge: Say you’ve just started your run. You’ve got your cutest running capris and bedazzled sweatband on (fellas, amirite?), or your new Victoria’s Secret push-up sports bra, and you’re pounding the pavement when it happens. The urge. To poop. Okay, I’m pretty much letting the cat out of the bag here, but everyone poops–even the ladies. I know this because during my freshman orientation in college, the upperclassmen read and acted out portions of the book Everyone Poops.  This is a real thing, and it can be really embarrassing/inconvenient if it sneaks up on you, especially when you’re on longer, ahem, runs. So just do it, even if you don’t think you need to. Okay, I’ll stop mothering you now.

4)  Why Are You Hitting Yourself: You may have to remind yourself daily why you’re out there doing what you’re doing. Runs are long and rest days seem to go by in a blink of an eye, but you’ll be less likely to lose perspective if you set and stick to reasonable long- and short-term goals that are both quantitative and qualitative.

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I hate fitspiration quotes but I am putting one anyway.

5) Stop comparing yourself to others: I am 100% guilty of this in all aspects of my life. That kind of shit goes way deep, too deep for a mere blog such as this to deconstruct. Running for me is something that requires a lot of mental and emotional effort, to push myself to keep going or to keep going faster. I’m not the type of person who is motivated by vengeance–if I was, this blog probably wouldn’t exist because I’d never be running on empty, mwahaha! I used to tell myself that I’m just competitive with other people, and I am, but only to a point. I don’t put in 100% to “beat” anyone, because if I did and they still beat me, then what? Instead, if I am beaten, usually based on some arbitrarily defined scale of win/lose that I made up, I just use it as fuel to make myself feel like crap. I’m trying to get away from that practice. Rather, I remind myself daily that everyone is different and that to get results some people are more willing or able to make sacrifices to their time or lifestyle than others. It’s silly to expect the same results as someone who exercises more regularly or has a healthier diet (i.e. eats less shit) or ran crosscountry in high school and thinks their 6:00/mi running pace is slow or is an Olympic athlete–but I still do it. Like I’ve said before, it’s important to have goals, but make sure they’re realistic and don’t let them get away from you.

6) Run through the stitches: I get side stitches in pretty much the same place every single run. It sort of goes without saying that they really, really suck. Theories for the cause and treatment of side stitches abound but I think of them sort of the same way I think of hiccups: they’re annoying but if you ignore them and breathe normally, they’ll go away. But ignoring pain is sort of difficult, especially when the very act of breathing hurts. Some sources suggest that you slow down until the pain lessens, but as appealing as that is, my stitches go away and then come back with renewed vigor when I resume my normal pace. Others say to try leaning into the stitch, but all that does to me is give me a stitch on the other side and temporarily hate the person who made the suggestion (sorry, boyfriend). Still others say that you should change your breathing rhythm to exhale when your left foot hits the ground. It sucks, but the only thing that has worked for me is to just run through them.

7) Stop and Smell the Roses: I know it wrecks my pace (as calculated by my app) but sometimes I just want to take a freaking picture. Look!

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NASA Run
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8)  Vary your runs: You can get stuck in a running rut just like anything else. When I start getting a little too comfortable with my route, I try a couple of things:

  • Find a new route: Ask around or use the Interwebs. There are a lot of running spots out there. Just don’t forget to consider things like whether you’ll be running into the sun, if there are annoying headwinds, personal safety, and hydration (especially for longer runs).
  • Look for different route types: I really like out-and-backs more than loops because I like knowing exactly when my halfway point is.
  • Try some intervals: Run the same route you usually do but sprint to the end of the corner and then resume your normal pace. I’ve actually tried skipping as a warm up and I really don’t care if people think I’m weird.
  • Run during a different time of day.
  • Run the opposite direction (for loops).
  • Listen to a different playlist or no music at all. Every now and then I run without music so that I can listen to sound of my gait and make sure I’m not lumbering around like an elephant (no offense to elephants).
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9) Don’t Be Afraid to Look Stupid: Despite the myriad stretches and strength-training exercises I do all the freaking time, I may be getting shin splits. I’m not sure if it’s the distance or the frequency of my old running plan, but it huuuurts. In reading up on the Interwebs about shin splint prevention, I read about heel-walking, where you walk on your heels with your toes in the air, keeping your legs straight and basically waddlng like a penguin. I did it for a half-mile during my last run and even though I am sure I looked ridiculous, it did seem to help work my shin muscles a bit. More on shin splints here.

10) Follow a Plan: If like me you’d rather leave the construction of workouts in the capable hands of the experts, track down an appropriate training plan. Look into what assumptions each plan makes about your running background; a lot of plans assume that you can run 2-3 miles without stopping right off the bat, which might be beyond your starting ability (it pretty much was for me). Probably the most important fitness tip is to listen to your body (#16 below!), which means that it’s possible that a cookie cutter running plan will not “work” for you and you might need to modify it. I think this concept deserves a post to itself. For example, the first half marathon running plan I tried had me running increasing distances five days a week, up to 9 miles at the beginning of the third week. My knees and shins just couldn’t hack it. I switched to a different plan specifically for novices, which is a good plan for me because it only requires 4 days of running and one cross-training day a week and slowly escalates the distance up to race day, but is not so good because the first time I’ll be running 13.1 miles is on race day. I might still modify one running day to incorporate intervals. The point is, find and follow a plan if you like, but make it your own!

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Fact: these are my actual feet. I’ve already almost lost one toenail! Overshare!

11) Your Feet Are Going to Look Ugly: Running will make your feet fall apart. You’re going to get blisters and calluses and scrapes. Just accept it.

12) Pacing: I have my RunKeeper app set up to tell me my duration, distance, and pace every 0.5 miles. I’m terrible at pacing myself. My comfy pace is about 09:45/mi, which means that I can have a conversation without hyperventilating and my muscles aren’t on fire. But when it comes to days when I want to push it, I really struggle to find that new pace and stick with it. The app is sort of an inescapable nag, and sometimes when I’m halfway through a mile and my pace is pronounced to be like 46 minutes/mile, I don’t see the point of continuing. But I do it anyway, because I can’t stand the not knowing.

That’s all I got for now. And now to the experts! I saw the article “EXPERT ADVICE BEGINNERS RUNNING TIPS: 101 Greatest Running Tips from Runner’s World” originally on Pinterest. It has since been repinned from my “Run for it” board 303 times when this blog went to press, if that gives any indication of how people love article titles with numbers—like this one or “4 Reasons Why ‘Strong is the New Skinny’ Is the Most Loathsome Fitness Expression Ever” (coming soon on this blog, I just decided)–UPDATE: Jezebel beat me to it!

I didn’t put all 101 tips here but cherry-picked the ones that I thought resonated with me and my current running sitch the most. I’ll weigh in on a couple of my choices as well. Read the full article here.

 4 Wear good running shoes “Spend at least $60. A good pair of running shoes should last you 400 to 500 miles and is one of the most critical purchases you will make.” -John Hanc, author of The Essential Runner

*As I’ve said before, I have these and I love them. I’ve put at least 200 miles on them so far and they’re still going strong. They’re breathable and washable, which cuts down on my natural foot stink (my boyfriend is a lucky man).

5 Think big (and wide) “Buy all shoes, both street and running, slightly longer and wider than your bigger foot. Also, avoid pointed shoes. You’ll save yourself needless foot pain.” -Ted Corbitt, ultrarunner and 1952 Olympic marathoner

* I’ve already noticed a need for a bigger shoe. When you really start putting on the miles, your feet may swell or you may form calluses/blisters, which could affect the overall fit of your shoe. I’ve already seriously messed up–but thankfully didn’t lose–two toenails because of fit (I think). I’m probably going to get my same pair a half size up pretty soon.

7 Listen to the rumbling “If you feel like eating, eat. Let your body tell you what it wants.” -Joan Samuelson, 1984 Olympic marathon champion

* Feed the need. I’ve discovered that I simply can’t do fasted runs. I really need something in my belly, even if that something is an energy bar I ate an hour or two before. Usually what I do is eat one as I am driving home from work, which takes about 1.5 hours, and then I’m ready to go run when I get home. The rest of the day, I eat when I want to eat and (mostly) what I want to eat. The only real dietary rules I follow involve ensuring that I get carbs before I work out and protein after.  Even the protein I don’t consider to be essential because I am not very focused on muscle building at the moment. I think it’s very easy to get fixated on Calories and carb ratios and grams of fat. To keep some perspective, I have to remind myself that above all, food is fuel. Calories are a measure of energy.

10 Make time for a quickie “If 15 minutes is all the time I have, I still run. Fifteen minutes of running is better than not running at all.” -Dr. Duncan Macdonald, former U.S. record holder at 5000 (set when he was in medical school)

* Just plain good advice amiriiiite?

13 Warm up, then stretch “Try some light jogging or walking before you stretch, or stretch after you run. Stretching ‘cold’ muscles can cause more harm than good.” -Runner’s World editors

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* At the advice of a friend and fellow runner (shout out to Shannon!), I’ve incorporated a stretch about 2 miles into my longer (5+ mi) runs. My “warm-up” is actually part of my run. I force myself to take it easy for the first half mile or so while I let my body work out all its kinks and then kick it up. At the end of the run I do a series of stretches (Shannon recommends the pigeon yoga pose) shown here.

14 Stay “liquid”… “Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate! In cold weather and warm. We use water to sweat, lubricate joints, tendons, and ligaments, and to carry blood efficiently to major organs. I work all day at hydrating.” -Dr. Alex Ratelle, former masters running great

* I am really terrible at remembering to do this on my own.  The two strategies I’ve seen work best are 1) keeping a gallon container with graduated markings indicating the time horizon by which you need to drink the water and 2) setting an alarm to drink/finish/chug a glass of water. 

16 Listen up! “You must listen to your body. Run through annoyance, but not through pain.” -Dr. George Sheehan

* This has been an issue for me. I’ll come up with any reason to stop, even if I am not tired. I am like a drug addict. “I’m cool, man, just let me walk for a second. I can start running again anytime I want, and I’ll be even faster if you let me walk off this stitch.”

17 Create your own running creed “My whole teaching in one sentence is: “Run slowly, run daily, drink moderately, and don’t eat like a pig.” -Dr. Ernst van Aaken, renowned German coach

*Mine is: “If I can snowboard with a broken arm, I can run through this!” It needs a little work.

19 Take what you can get “So-called ‘junk miles’-those slow miles done on easy days or during warmups-do count. They burn calories as effectively as fast miles; it just takes longer. Regardless of pace, each mile you run burns about 100 calories.” -Hal Higdon, runner/writer/coach

*This is the dude who came up with the training plan I am following.

26 Build with care “If you put down a good solid foundation, you can then build one room after another and pretty soon you have a house. After your base mileage, add hills, pace work, speedwork, and finally race strategy.” -Rod Dixon, New Zealand Olympian and 1983 New York City Marathon champ

30 Go steady “Day to day consistency is more important than big mileage. Then you’re never shot the next day.” -John Campbell, former masters running star from New Zealand

32 Stay above bored “A 40-minute run punctuated with a half-dozen 30-second pace pickups (not all-out sprints) can really jazz up an otherwise boring training run.” -Amby Burfoot, Runner’s World editor and 1968 Boston Marathon champ

*This, along with #26, has been an interesting challenge to resolve. Do you work on distance and then improve pace? Or do you improve your pace with shorter distances first? Right now I am just focused on adding distance and I’m not worried about pace during the long runs. I add in an interval day every week to keep things interesting and improve speed and endurance.

44 Rest assured “Back off at the first sign of injury. Three to 5 days off is better than missing a month or two. Take regular rest days.”-Pattisue Plumer, two-time U.S. Olympian

*Along with #30, this goes along with my number #1 running rule, which is to straddle the line between challenge and overtraining. You don’t want to spend a running day with your ice-packed legs propped up on a couch or wobbling around like a cowboy. Taking a rest is not weakness–it’s storing up strength to come back even faster, stronger, and–above all–wiser!

45 Divide and conquer “Pick one thing each year that you need to improve, and work on that. It might be improving your diet, getting more sleep, or increasing your mileage. You can’t work on everything at once.”-Bob Kennedy

*It’s important to remember that we are not machines. My focus for this year is building distance and endurance. I still try to improve my diet and get more sleep, but that’s all to achieve the primary goal.

49 Up the ante “Move into a hill session gradually, running the first few repeats moderately and increasing the effort as you go along.” -Frank Shorter, 1972 Olympic Marathon Champion

*I have only does hills a few times, but they killed me in a good way!

58 Just “Q” it “Quality counts, if you want to stay fast. Don’t do all your workouts in the comfort zone.” -Ken Sparks, Ph.D., top masters marathoner

*I must hammer this into my skull.

62 Get over it “If you have a bad workout or run a bad race, allow yourself exactly 1 hour to stew about it-then move on.” -Steve Scott, coach and U.S. record holder in the mile

 *Ugh, good to know. Then maybe posts like this wouldn’t need to be written.

63 Be patient “Expect to put in 6 to 10 successful track workouts before you begin to see some payoff in your races.” -Marc Bloom, runner/writer/coach

*Along with not comparing myself to others, I really need to just be patient. Results don’t come overnight and sometimes they manifest in unexpected ways–like how I can handle longer distances without getting sore, even though I still sort of feel like dying.

71 Stay on pace “It’s better to run too slow at the start than too fast and get into oxygen debt, which is what 99.9 percent of runners do. You have to learn pace.” -Bill Bowerman, renowned University of Oregon coach

85 Don’t be in a rush “Thanks to the race-day adrenaline rush, any pace will feel easier than normal. So make a conscious effort to hold back in the early miles.” -Lorraine Moller

*The challenge here will probably involve overcoming the pre-race jitters and beginning adrenaline surge as you weave through other runners.

73 Snap out of it “Occasionally pick up speed-for 2 minutes, tops-then settle back into your former pace. Sometimes this is all you need to snap out of a mental and physical funk. Pick a downhill stretch if you can, and really lengthen your stride.” -Mark Plaatjes

*My boyfriend suggests actually picking up the pace at the crests of hills–that’s when you can really pass other runners.

78 Be vigilant “During the hard training phase, never be afraid to take a day off. If your legs are feeling unduly stiff and sore, rest. If you’re at all sluggish, rest. Whenever you’re in doubt, rest.” -Bruce Fordyce, nine-time Comrades Marathon champion from South Africa

*I love this philosophy!

79 Pamper your muscles “When I’m training for a marathon, I soak in a hot tub every day, and get a weekly massage.” -Anne Marie Lauck, two-time Olympian

*I could probably get behind this.

83 Wait for the weights “If you strength train, shelve your routine about a month before your marathon, to help you feel fresh on the big day.” -Steve Spence, 1991 World Championships Marathon bronze medalist

*I’ve already cut back on a lot of my strength training, opting for resistance bands and bodyweight over weight machines, but this was really due to time constraints rather than energy conservation.

84 Hone in on the range “Rather than going into a marathon with just one goal-such as finishing in a very specific time-develop a range of goals so that you increase your chances of success.” -Jerry Lynch, Ph.D., marathoner and author of The Total Runner

*My primary goal is to finish my half marathon. I would love to do it without walking, but that the walk/run is a perfectly acceptable approach for a first half marathon, or so I’ve been told. My time goal is to do it in less than 2 hours, which equates to somewhere about a 9:15/mi pace, but as my comfy pace is about a minute slower than that, it’s something I’ll have to work up to.

92 Be a copy cat “Visualizing perfect running form will help you stay relaxed. Visualize before the race. Then, once you’re in the race, pick out someone who’s looking good and running relaxed. This will help you do the same.” -Gayle Barron, 1978 Boston Marathon champion

*Oh man, I thought I was crazy for doing this! I tend to visually imagine myself throughout the entire running process: lacing up my shoes, picking my playlist, warming up, and going through the motions of good form. It’s as much to get me into the mindset of going for a run as for getting the run right.

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96 Train with someone… “It may seem odd to hear a coach say this, but I think a really great training partner is more important than a coach.” -Joan Nesbit, coach and world-class runner

*I’ve heard this from every single runner I’ve polled about what motivates them to keep training. I guess I’m lucky I’ve got this guy.

99 Find a reason why “We run to undo the damage we’ve done to body and spirit. We run to find some part of ourselves yet undiscovered.” -John “The Penguin” Bingham

*Soooo many references to this post.

100 Feel the magic… “For me, running is a lifestyle and an art. I’m far more interested in the magic of it than the mechanics.” -Lorraine Moller

*I think she’s talking about drugs the Runner’s High.

101…But do what you must do “If one can stick to training throughout many long years, then willpower is no longer a problem. It’s raining? That doesn’t matter. I’m tired? That’s beside the point. It’s simply that I have to.” -Emil Zatopek

*Mind over matter!

Running Woes: Why My Boyfriend Deserves a Medal

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Running has brought out my Dark side the way nothing else so far in my life has.

People extol the virtues of the meditative aspect of running, but the only thing I can fixate my mind on–besides whatever cramp/stitch/flyaway hair/headwind/insect is irritating at that particular moment–is the three-way conversation the demons in my head are having about what a fuck up I am. It goes a little like this:

Demon #1: Oh, are you tired? Do you want to stop already? You know why, right? It’s because you’re a total screw up. You’ve been running for, what, three months, and you can still barely make a mile without wanting to stop? That’s pathetic. This is probably why you suck at everything you’ve ever tried. You should just give up now because you’re never going to be as good as you want to be, just like everything else. Oh my god, your pace is so slow! What is the point of even trying? You are such a loser.

It actually gets a lot worse than that, but for the purposes of maintain a little credibility as a mildly sane person, I will refrain from elaborating further. When I feel like crying, the second demon chimes in:

Demon #2: Really? Stop being so fucking melodramatic and just run. Jesus Christ.

And then from nowhere:

Demon #3: Ugh, you can’t even mentally berate yourself properly. Eye roll.

So with that half-drill-sergeant-half-bitchy-girl-taunt soundtrack running (no double meaning intended), it’s a little hard to distract myself with thinking soothing thoughts of furniture arrangements or how pretty the sunset is or whatever the fuck people think about when they run. I have actually broken down and cried. This is some deep-seated shit gurgling up to the surface. WHERE IS MY RUNNER’S HIGH ALREADY, GOD DAMN IT!?

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Ahem.

My boyfriend, who sometimes runs with me, has encountered my crazy more than once. Poor guy. He probably thought he was dating this cool, confident girl and instead she is wrestling some pretty gnarly emotional problemas du inadequacie that only seem to come out when under physical stress. I think he’s learned at this point that a good distraction is, I kid you not, to argue with me about hypothetical rocket trajectories, politics, and other scientific principles. So even though sometimes he pisses me off, he is still awesome and deserves a medal for dealing with an occasionally weepy and negative running partner.

Allow me to attempt to address the question “What’s the point of even trying?” then. I have never been a runner. Running has always physically defeated me, even when I was 15 and “in shape.” So now I would like very much to punch running the face and force it into submission. It’s not even really that. I don’t want to make running my bitch. I want it to be a life companion. I want to enjoy a nice jog in the evening. I want to take a run to work out problems of the day or write blog posts in my head about things other than how fucked up my psyche is.  And you know, sometimes that happens. It’s rare, but sometimes I am happy being right there on the beaten path listening to my own footsteps.

It’s not even about being the best anymore (if it ever was). It’s about doing my best. (Barf. I know.)

So here are some positive things about my running so far:

  • My knees don’t hurt anymore!
  • My feet are falling apart but I mostly wear close-toed shoes anyway!
  • In April, I ran 6 miles and then could barely move the next day. A few days ago, I ran 7 miles in about the same time and wasn’t sore at all! Progress!
  • Sometimes I can have conversations with the boyfriend (like about rockets) and my responses are longer than monosyllabic grunts!
  • Today I tripped and skinned my knee and the heels of my hands and I kept going for the rest of the activity!
  • I’m contacting all the people in my life who I know to have completed or are in the process of training for a half or full marathon to get advice for how they keep going. I have something in common with people that I didn’t have before!
  • I have caught myself using “short” and “three miles” in the same sentence!
  • Sometimes I don’t want to run, but I do it anyway, and 98% of the time, I’m glad I did.
  • I enjoy nodding at fellow runners as we pass one another, especially other lady runners (that sounds mildly creepy). You go Glen Coco!
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I anticipate that the biggest challenge will be to remember all of these things when I am actually out there on the run. Otherwise, all of that positive reinforcement goes out the window and the second I want to stop, no reason to keep going seems important enough. I just don’t give a fuck.

Maybe I need some kind of mantra. I sort of found one in “If I can snowboard with a fractured arm, I can run a half marathon!” but it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Also, I didn’t know it was fractured, and that might have made a difference.

I of course am welcoming suggestions for a running mantra and for medal designs for the Boyfriend of the Millennium.

Let’s get real for a second

Sometimes stories frustrate me. If a character that initially seems to be extraneous or if a secondary character is given too much screen time or too memorable of a personality, I just know with my spidey sense that they’re going to come back into the story in a significant way. And that frustrates me, because I still optimistically believe that I can be genuinely surprised by stories if I just don’t try hard enough.

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And when I am not surprised, it seems almost disappointing. My bubble of hope is burst partly because I’ve read too many books–story mechanics dictate that we have to care about a character before we give a shit about whether they live or die. Or get Avada Kedavra’d by Snape. Or sacrifice themselves to Darth Vader so that Luke will realize his true Jedi destiny.

Like a seemingly offhand joke told by the murder victim that will be discovered in the next scene, this post is an attempt by me to make myself seem more human and therefore more deserving of your empathy, dear reader. Like the celebrities in People going about their business buying groceries and posting letters, I’m just like you! And you should care about me!

Well, maybe that was too desperate transparent of a dramatic introduction. The truth is, this is the post where I reveal a bit about myself so that you know that I’m not just another “fitness” blogger just trying to make it in the big, bad blogosphere. Actually, I kind of just want to elaborate on why I’m doing all of “this” in the first place.

A few years ago, I had a bit of an eating problem. That alone probably doesn’t differentiate me from a lot of women. What almost makes me stand out is that my weight woes didn’t really hit me until college–not because I didn’t have any weight issues but because I was fortunate to be too distracted by other stuff I was doing to really take stock in what I looked like and–this is the crucial part–compare myself to my peers.

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I have always been tall. Aside from a short stint around puberty when I just wanted to be like everyone else instead of a Hanson brother, I enjoyed the illusion of specialness offered by standing head and shoulders (sometimes literally) above the crowd. And–although this didn’t hit me until my 20s–weight can go a longer way for an Amazon than a person of more limited height. (The converse is also true, that losing weight does not have as significant a visual impact as on a shorter person.)

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I made it all the way to college before I started feeling self-conscious about my body. This was partly because body image had never been a topic of conversation amongst my friends in high school. This was also partly because I fell in love with Arizona iced teas, which are like 300 Calories each–so in a way, drinking too much did lead to my freshman 15.

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But the biggest reason I had escaped the usual teenage torments that lead many young women towards eating disorders, stuffing their bra*, or smelling like a baby prostitute was because in high school, I characterized myself less by what I looked like and more by what I could do and what I was good at. I mean, what I was good at was band, of all things, but I was good at band. Music simultaneously formed my identity and provided me with confidence. Plus, most of the dudes I dated in high school were in band too, so…

Despite being tall, the weight eventually caught up with me, coinciding with a total lack of dating prospects. I lamented my weight while doing almost nothing (effective) about it. Weight Watchers points tracking didn’t help. A fancy gym membership really didn’t help. Grad school stress and a “writing diet” of predominately sugar did more harm than good, and by graduation I was up about 25 pounds from my freshman college weight. Graduate school got me a couple of degrees, a lot of debt, and no job prospects. I had taken out loans when interest rates were at their peaks and graduated into an economy where employers told me to my face that they couldn’t give less of a shit about my education. I was still fat. And my welcome home actually found me suddenly single, yet again passed over for someone else. Receiving messages of inadequacy at me from every facet of my life was debilitating. I actually made myself sick; my uselessness was disgusting to me. It literally churned my stomach to the point where the thought of even a sip of water was nauseating. The only thing that seemed to quell the nausea was maintaining an empty stomach.

I essentially stopped eating. For months. This was a pretty big deal, guys, but no one really said anything about my lack-of-eating habits at first. Maybe that was because they didn’t feel like they should. Maybe that was because I was really good at hiding the fact that I wasn’t eating. Maybe that was because for the first time in years, I was no longer overweight. I hope I don’t seem like I am blaming them because I am not, not at all. I don’t think I’d know how to bring it up either.

I should probably add a disclaimer in here about how I don’t recommend this method for weight loss. I really, really don’t. For a long time I was weak, I would get dizzy walking up a flight of stairs, my hair was falling out, and I looked exhausted though, yes, thin. Even now, I don’t enjoy it when people compliment the transformation, because the change occurred during and because of a really low period in my life and I’m not proud of it. Anyone can starve themselves to death as long as their head is screwed up enough.

All in all, I lost about 40 pounds over about three months, but it was a bit longer before people started saying, “Hey, um, are you okay?” or informing me that I was thin in a less-than-complimentary fashion.

But by that point, a weird thing had happened: I enjoyed the feeling of control that not eating gave me. It was like a daily competition to see how much I could deny myself, and I caught myself thinking things like, “Do I really want to eat this? I’ve already made it this long on nothing…” I remember thinking that 40 pounds was a lot, but it wasn’t enough. I was still useless and fat, but if I could just be thinner, then everything would be okay. If I could just be thinner and perfect, then maybe I’d be worth something, maybe I wouldn’t ever get passed over ever again, and maybe my life would just fall into place.

Eventually, I realized that this could not go on indefinitely. I don’t remember what it was that flipped the switch. It wasn’t my doctor telling me I’d likely have to start worrying about organ failure if I kept losing weight at that rate. I still think she was being a bit alarmist. It wasn’t my then-roommate telling me that I was shriveling up. It wasn’t my then-boyfriend implying that my thinness was actually robbing me of my ass, apparently my only attractive asset. I honestly don’t remember. I just started eating again, but I didn’t eat a lot and I didn’t eat well. I was still treating myself like crap, and I had quite a few relapses. It’s actually strangely difficult physically and emotionally to start eating like a person again.

For the past two years or so, I’ve been living with the threat of gaining all that weight back hanging over me. I’m already up about 15 pounds from that lowest point, something that I’m acutely aware of because the thinness was defining me, however temporarily. I am still a little worried about what gaining all of it back would mean for my self-identity, and that worry is what worries me. That worry is what started this blog–because I want fitness to be a vehicle that helps me accept myself for who I am and what I am good at, not what I am and what I look like.

I don’t want to think about weight loss or even building muscle as a solution to unhappiness. I don’t want to obsess over every pound gained or lost. I don’t want to suck in or flex when I look in the mirror. I don’t want to beat myself up over every cupcake consumed. That is no way to live.

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I want to get away from the Calories, pounds, and progress pics of fitness. I want to not be embarrassed by my body when I go out onto the beach in my swimsuit–not because I have a “bikini body” but because I genuinely don’t care. I want to eat a cookie when I feel like it. I want to hike or run with my boyfriend without becoming instantly winded. I want to open jars and rearrange furniture without having to ask a strong person to help. I want men to stop warning when things I’m about to pick up are “heavy.” I want to be a runner because I’ve never been able to run. I want to  earn my 20-minute shower. But most of all, I want to get back to basics and be defined by what I can do.

I didn’t really intend for that to become an autobiography, but there it is. Shit just got real. To answer the question of my first postthat is why I am doing this to myself. Sometimes I feel like I’m about 85% of the way there, but I still have bad days where fitspiration photos rob me of all of my self-confidence and the futility of fitness becomes overwhelming. I have a long way to go!

 

* All right, so I might have stuffed my bra.

I am consistently inconsistent

So I haven’t posted in a while…and I haven’t gone running in a while. I could make probably 17 different excuses, but none of them are particularly interesting, so I’ll refrain. But it’s been a hard lesson to learn, because now that I’m back at it, it’s less like starting back up and more like starting over. What would have been ridiculously easy for me a month ago is now shamefully hard: I am winded and lethargic and even whinier than usual.

How running with my boyfriend has felt the past few weeks.
How running with my boyfriend has felt the past few weeks.

Getting back into the swings of things hasn’t been as simple as I would have thought, so I’m working on a few different ways to build up my endurance again. I also have to address the source of the problem, which is not having a ton of time to devote to the gym or  the trail. This is what I’ve come up with so far:

  • Sprint ladders (I love/hate them. I’ve been doing 20-second sprints with varying amounts of rest in between, from 10s to 1 min and then back down to 10s. I think I might try doing a 10-second sprint variation to really force myself to go all out to almost-puke levels, but there are plenty of other options besides sprinting on a track or a treadmill. It’s a little counterintuitive but sprinting actually helps increase your distance pace, so that’s a plus! And no matter what evolutionary biologists say, sprinting feels more natural to me than distance running!)
  • Gym classes (I took a Zumba class at the gym today, which basically combines different forms of dance and some minor stretching in a cardiovascular test of rhythm and endurance. Turns out, my not inconsequential hip and butt endowments did not imbibe me with any rhythmic abilities, and I still sort of look like an epileptic string bean (see below). The down side of something like Zumba is that I think I’d have to do it more than one time to really derive any enjoyment out of it. I spent the majority of the class blindly following the instructor’s movements without regard to form or my stringbeaniness, which could–for someone as uncoordinated as me–be a recipe for disaster.)

    Bonus points to anyone who can identity what this image is from. As a child from the 80s, I knew instantly.
    Bonus points to anyone who can identity what this image is from. As a child from the 80s, I knew instantly.
  • Running at work (I just found a running group at work that runs 2 mi/5 km self-timed races every third Tuesday of the month. That’s awesome, but for those of us with shit commutes, the prospect of sitting at a desk and then sitting in the car is naturally paired with sitting on the couch. I am literally so exhausted from sitting all day long that all I want to do is sit more. But we must not let the laziness set in! I’m starting to bring my running shoes to work, so now, if I finish and it’s still peak commute time, I kill an hour or so doing a run AND STRETCH and then I can sit foooooreeeeeveeeeerrrrrrrrr in traffic or on the couch.)

I would love to know if anyone else has suggestions for fitting in a good run into your busy day! In the future, I’ll try to be less consistently inconsistent about my posting schedule.

Why are you hitting yourself?

Remember when you were a kid and your brother/sister/cousin/neighbor/imaginary friend would pin you down and force you to repeatedly slap yourself with your own hand? All you could do was close your fist, which resulted in punching yourself in the face, arguably worse than a limp slap? And all the while, they’d be like, “Why’re you hitting yourself? Stop hitting yourself!

That’s kind of how working out feels to me. Working out is hard. It’s hard to start; it’s hard to keep going. It hurts. Often, you’re the only one who cares about accomplishing your fitness goals, so how do you remain accountable to yourself?

I’ve always exercised alone. This is good, because I can set my own pace and stop if I need to without feeling guilty for holding anyone else up. This is bad, because I can get complacent and take advantage of stopping anytime I want without anyone giving me shit for it.

Having never been a runner, for some reason I got it into my head that becoming one would be the most rewarding form of exercise. However, I downplayed the significance of one small factor: I hate running. I hate almost every single minute. I hate it a little less every time, but the fact remains that before all of my body parts start working together the way they’re meant to (usually sometime after the first excruciating half-mile), I can’t help but think about all of the other things I’d rather be doing with my time. Boredom and pain have joined forces to become my worst enemy in trying to become a runner. What gets me through it is knowing that on a geological time scale, I’ll be done relatively soon. It also helps to remember why I’m doing this to myself.

So let’s talk about goals! Why am I putting myself through the agony of exercise? What is the end result I’m going for? What types of goals should I be thinking about setting? These are my fitness notes-to-self:

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Baby’s first 10k bib.

Long-term goals: Set goals that will be reached in a few months or even a year. Remember that results do not happen overnight, so having a long-term goal in mind can help keep you always looking forward. It helps to have goals toward which you can measure your progress, whether that be on a scale, in a picture, or with a stopwatch.

  • Compete: When I first started running, I knew I’d have a hard time sticking with it unless I was working toward something concrete, so I registered for a 10k race about four months out from my first running attempt. I also joined a few other (short) running events that have come up since.  But competitions don’t have to be formal. You can race your past running personal records or compare different aspects of your runs from week to week, like pace and/or duration.
  • Quantitative and Qualitative: I would like to adopt a large breed dog within the next year or so but I worry that in some situations I won’t be strong enough to manage him. For example, if we are hiking in the wilderness and the dog gets injured, I want to be able to carry him back to civilization. That’s my somewhat far-fetched quantitative long-term goal: to lift 100+ pounds without injury. It sounds silly, but then so is going into a building to lift heavy things for hours every day. You’d better have a reason to spend your time on fitness, even if it’s a silly one. A qualitative goal would be to improve my overall endurance so that just the thought of climbing stairs doesn’t exhaust me.
  • Bikini Body: I swear to God every fitness regimen marketed to women is about getting your body bikini-ready for summer or losing holiday weight, which are, apparently, the only fitness-related things women care about. I’ll admit that although having the confidence in yourself and your body to rock a bikini is priceless, I have found that trying to mold my body in a specific way is not something that I find personally motivating. But I know that it works for a lot of people, and I’m sort of envious of that. I’ve had friends tape inspirational magazine clippings up on their bathroom mirrors or make a Pinterest board to have a daily reminder of what they’re trying to achieve. It’s certainly a simple everyday practice that can yield desired long-term results.

Short-term goals: These are the day-to-day goals that help you reach your long-term goals. Like the long-term goals, you can track both measurable, quantitative goals and qualitative goals like “I want to be able to zip up my pants.” Often, the biggest daily hurdle for me is finding the motivation to finish strong. Here are a few things I’ve tried or told myself to help with that:

  • “Just Keep Swimming”: Most of the time, you’re running, swimming, or working out in less than ideal conditions. The sun’s hot, the water is cold, your shorts are falling down, the wind is in your face, your side/calves/knees/ankles/earlobe hurts, and the person running on the machine next to you just let one rip.  If you’re really lucky, all of this will happen at the same time. Just don’t stop, unless, you know, you’re bleeding out of yours ears or seeing a plaid aura or something. If all you accomplished that day is that you kept going and you finished, then you have something.
  • Break it Up: I just started lifting weights earlier this month. Especially for the upper body, it’s tough work to get through all the reps. I’ve found that counting in weird ways to get to the number of reps I’m aiming for helps distract me from becoming overwhelmed. If 10 reps seems insurmountable, try counting 1-2-3-4-5 then 5-4-3-2-1. Sometimes I’ll count to 5 two or three times for 10 or 15 reps. Really it’s just about fooling my mind into letting my body do what it already knows how to do. For running, my friend Laila, a veteran of 3 half marathons and a life-long running enthusiast, recommends telling yourself “‘All you have to do is run for 2 hours’ or, once [you’re] at 7 miles, ‘It’s all downhill from here.’ Anything to make the miles go by faster.”
  • There’s an App for That: There are a ton of apps out there to help you track your progress. I use the basic version of RunKeeper, which tracks your running routes, distance, duration, pace (for every mile), elevation, and Calories burned. You can make notes about your runs, set running goals, start a running training plan, add pictures, or tag or “like” friends’ running posts.

    Bling sling.
    Bling sling. Injuries made fun.

Set realistic goals. When I first started working out, I kept it really light, trying to figure out what my body is comfortable with. Then I set goals that challenged my body just enough, like a game. I started lifting about 2 months after an injury that rendered my left arm pretty much useless (but I got a bedazzled sling out it, which makes it sort of almost kind of worth it), so I was terrified of injuring myself again and being out of commission for even longer.

Injury is what happens when your fitness expectations do not align with reality. For example, about two weeks into running, I decided to see if I could run the 10k I’d just registered for, the logic being that if I knew I could already do it, then I wouldn’t have any excuses to stop and I could just focus on getting faster. I set a steady pace of about 11:00/mile and went for it. About four miles in, my left (problem) knee began to throb, and not long after, as I started over-correcting for that knee pain, my right hip started to hurt. I stubbornly continued to run the full 10k/6 miles, telling myself that I was already so close. The next day, I could barely walk, and I couldn’t run again for another two weeks. Moral of the story: know your body!  There’s no shame in keeping it light or slow to start, but realistic challenges are what you get you results.

Bear in mind that some goals come with strings attached. For example, maybe I want six pack abs. I can do crunches and sit-ups and all of this crazy ab work until the cows come home (and cows apparently take forever to do that), but none of it will make much of a difference unless I also get rid of the belly fat that’s laying over those muscles like the insulating security blanket you don’t want to admit you brought to college. In order to “melt that stubborn belly fat” without taking Lipozene or whatever–which I do not condone–you have to make other sacrifices, like cutting out cupcakes refined sugar.

Set a lot of simple goals. You know how sometimes you write a to do list and you purposely include totally mundane daily tasks like brushing your teeth just so that you can have the satisfaction of crossing them off? Do the same thing with working out. My list looks a little like this:

  • Wake Up (For those of us with long hours and longer commutes, this is already a feat!)
  • Eat Breakfast (Whether your goal is to lose weight, get lean, or build muscle, do not skip breakfast! It should be your biggest and carbiest meal of the day!)
  • Pack snacks (Ever since I started working out, I am hungry pretty much all the time. I try to snack every 2-3 hours. Since my commute is 1+ hours (one way), I eat an energy bar when I begin my drive home. That way, I have enough energy to work out when I get home but I am not too full.)
  • Hydrate throughout the day (This sounds stupid, but I can never remember to drink enough water, so I keep a bottle on my desk and set reminders on my phone to down it and refill.)
  • Set your daily goals (For running, I set various pace/distance goals. For cardio machines like ellipticals or the stairclimber, I have a  time goal (45 min for the elliptical, 30 min for the stairclimber), and I mess with the difficulty if I feel like it’s getting too easy. For lifting, I have certain weights in mind for each exercise, and I do 3 sets of 10 reps. When that gets too easy, I up it to 3 sets of 15 reps. When that gets too easy (usually a few weeks later), I up the weight.
  • Go for a run/to the gym (I don’t like running on treadmills, so I use the RunKeeper app to design routes around my town that are the distances/elevations I want to do.)
  • STRETCH (Please for the love of all that is holy, stretch after you work out. Studies show that stretching beforehand doesn’t really do much toward preventing injury–although you should still get in a good warm-up–but stretching afterward can prevent soreness.)

As an over thinker, I love love love the feeling of accomplishment of crossing stuff of a list. As with most physical things, it’s all mental. I hope I’ve given you plenty to think about!