Whether you’re a casual jogger or treadmill junkie, you can take your sport to the next level fairly easily with simple changes. To get advice from bona-fide running experts, LivingHealthy spoke with four members of the Atlanta Track Club—all veterans of multiple marathons. Starting out, none of these runners believed they could run a marathon. But they did, each in their own way.
Brian Peabody, Jessica Rudd, Kat Richardson and Juan Pablo Aragon share their tips on motivation, training, breathing, pacing and other techniques to help runners (or aspiring runners) get started and get stronger:
Don’t scrimp on your sneakers. Your running shoes are your most important equipment. Go to a specialty store to get fitted for shoes that are best for your gait. The right shoe fit affects your running performance and lowers risk for injury. Running shoes aren’t cheap, so if you get sticker shock, Peabody suggests buying last year’s marked-down model to save money. “Just don’t buy cheapest pair of sneakers you can find,” he adds.
Replace shoes every 500 miles or so. If not, you risk injury, including stress fracture or plantar fasciitis (painful heel injury), says Aragon. If your shoe’s cushion feels soft, it’s time to go shopping. A running specialty store can even evaluate your shoes.
Start small. If you’re new to running, here’s an idea: “Find a street with electrical poles; run from one pole to the second, then walk to the third,” advises Richardson. Build up to running one mile without stopping to walk. Then work up to two miles without stopping.” Repeat and increase.
Don’t worry about being slow. “No matter how slow or fast you are, you’re still a runner,” Rudd says. “I started as a slow runner, and that was fine. You can run short or long distances. You can build the number of run days. When you’re ready—or if you want—you can start building speed slowly. You might surprise yourself with your progress.”
Practice good running posture. Keep your shoulders back and your head upright. Center your body over your landing. Lean forward at the ankles, not the waist. Work with runners who have good form and ask them to evaluate yours. You’ll improve your running—and avoid injuries—with good posture.
Take short, quick strides. New runners tend to over-stride, taking steps that are too long, says Peabody. That creates bad form. With short, quick steps, you can increase cadence and decrease effort because you’re not working so hard to overcome gravity.
Focus on foot fall. Too many people land on their heels or toes, not the mid-foot where the cushioning (and comfort) is. Try to train yourself to land on your mid-foot early on—it’s harder to unlearn a bad habit.
Maintain cadence. Keep a small metronome (sold in music stores) clipped to your running shorts, suggests Peabody. “Following the cadence will keep you from over-striding and improves your distance. Make sure it has a spring clip.”
Breathe naturally at first. “Don’t worry about breathing in the beginning; focus on your feet,” Richardson says. “When you increase your pace or distance, you’ll focus on deep breathing.”
Consistency counts. You start out planning a daily run, then life gets in the way. Too many people throw in the towel after a few mishaps. When you miss a day, get back on the horse. That’s life. Get back to your running.
Practice interval training. Build endurance with interval training—a run/walk pattern, advises Rudd. 30-seconds running/30-seconds walking. One minute running/one minute walking. Rudd often opts for three minutes running/one minute walking or five minutes running/one minute walking. Use it to accomplish any distance goal, from a 5K to a half marathon to a full marathon. Believe it or not, you can actually get a “best time ever” with interval running.
Build endurance slowly. Over time, add more miles and more runs per week, says Peabody. Start by running two or three days per week. Work up to adding an extra day. Add a little mileage to your runs. Make one day’s run your “long run, but don’t increase mileage more than 10 percent or you’ll get hurt and frustrated.
Join a running group. Running groups are everywhere; find them via Google or Meetup. “Friendships form and runners keep each other motivated and accountable,” says Richardson. “I always encourage other runners.”
Sign up for races. “This is important for your running psyche,” Aragon explains. “It gives you a goal. Plus you get crowd support. Tell people you’re running the race. When they’re yelling your name, you won’t want to let your fans down.”
Push the distance. Does running a few miles feel like plenty? You can do more—a lot more. “The first mile, first four miles, are always tough. But once you get past that initial stiffness, you can settle in and run distance,” Peabody says. “Then you’re like a robot, an automaton—just putting one foot down after the other.”
Wear a heart rate monitor. It’s great for monitoring effort and pace. Consider using “effort” as your goal, instead of pace. That way you’ll avoid problems from pushing too hard, says Peabody. Your coach can help with settings. Talk to your doctor about goals.
Run when you’re traveling. Link with running groups in major cities, advises Rudd. “The cool thing about running is it’s very portable. Whether you’re on vacation or business, just bring an outfit and sneakers and you’re ready for a run on your own. You can even Google running groups and stores in the area. It’s fun, you meet people and you see the cities.”
Cross-train. Strengthening your core helps your running. Practice yoga or swim laps. You’ll also build your upper body, legs and cardiovascular system. Keep your gym membership for night treadmill runs, adds Richardson.
Get used to bad weather. Hot, cold, wet weather—it all trains your body to be resilient. “You might be surprised by how your body can manage extreme weather,” Aragon explains. “You’re not only training your body, you’re building your acceptance to be uncomfortable for long periods of time. The more you expose your body to the elements, you’ll learn that your body can handle it.” Dress in layers you can easily remove—like arm warmers rather than sleeves for cold weather.
Pay attention to pain. “There’s good hurt and bad hurt, and it’s essential you know the difference,” Peabody says. “If an injury alters your gait, you need to change the way you run. If pain continues, get medical help. You can save yourself thousands of dollars just by addressing the problem right away even if it just means getting new running shoes.”
Consider a coach. A coach can help you get past certain performance plateaus, our expert marathoners say. You can also learn from veteran runners you meet in running groups.
Every race you run fosters camaraderie, which feels plain good. “It’s a physical challenge, obviously, but there’s a strong vibe of people trying to achieve all kinds of goals,” Aragon says. There’s a great connection with the crowd and “crossing the finish line never gets old.”