A couple of people might have been inspired to run or dream of running after reading some of my experiences (probably not the bloody underwear or whole toe blister ones). I hope so. I strongly believe that exercise is a basic human need that must be fulfilled for us to be healthy and happy but modern life doesn't provide us with many natural opportunities to exercise. Instead, it requires a decision and commitment on our part. I encourage you to make a decision to endulge yourself with moderate exercise every day.
I'd like to share some of what I've learned from reading and personal experience. Please note that this is written from the perspective of someone who started running regularly about 4 years ago at age 38 because he was 65 pounds overweight, suffering from moderate high blood pressure and high stress, and feeling bad about the way he looked. I'm still 20+ pounds overweight and a below average runner, but I have learned a few things that might be helpful.
- Do it regularly. A little bit every day is better than a lot on a few days. Like diet, consistency counts. You should approach it, like diet, as a fundamental lifestyle change, a change that you've chosen and can live with for the rest of your life. Initially I committed to walk/run every day even if it was only for 15 minutes. If I felt bad or tired I just walked. Sometimes that would make me feel better and I'd continue to do more. Other times I just had a nice, brief, relaxing walk.
- Ease into it. The temptation is to get inspired and go out and do a lot more than you've done in years. The inevitable result is that you wake up the next morning sore and tired which either makes more exercise impossible or discourages you before you really get started. It's a lot easier to make small changes than large ones. Don't do significantly more than you normally do. If you are seriously overweight or in really bad shape then walking for 5 minutes might be a lot for you. Start from wherever you are at right now and go up slowly from there. A good rule of thumb is to limit increases to 10% per week. Another is to take an easy week once a month to let your body recover.
- Take it easy. Overall, exercise should raise your energy levels, not wear you out. If you get tired or stressed while running then walk. Don't be ashamed if you walk a lot more than run. The health benefit comes from moving. I'm competitive and have a tendency to overdo it so I found that getting a heart rate monitor helped me limit my intensity level. The tendency when you are out of shape is to overdo it. In the long run you'll do much better if you do too little than too much.
- Get the right shoes. This doesn't necessarily mean expensive shoes, but it probably means not cheap ones either. Go to a running specialty store and not a chain or discount store. Their salespeople should be experienced runners who can get you into the right shoe. You may be surprised that the specialty stores often have very competitive prices.
- Track your mileage. Try the free web based log at www.nikerunning.com.
- Replace your shoes regularly. Nike's log lets you also keep track of how many miles you run on your shoes. If you're a heavy load like me then their recommendation to replace every 300 miles is a good one. I've dissected a shoe after 300 miles and confirmed that the internal cushioning was broken down even though it looked good on the outside. I recently did the same to my father's old shoe and they looked good, but he is lighter and didn't know how many miles he had run but runs less than I do.
- Stretch regularly. Running will tighten your muscles up, especially in the legs and hips. If you don't stretch regularly then those tight muscles can lead to all kinds of unnecessary aches and pains. I HATE stretching, but I've learned to do it anyway because sooner or later I know I'll pay for it if I don't.
- Get a massage. You can find all kinds of good things out about massage, but the bottom line is that it will relax you and help you recover from all the exercise you are doing. Once you get past having a stranger rub your sheet draped, naked body then it's very nice.
- Get running specific clothing. Other than shoes, the next most important article is your socks. The running community often refers to it as technical clothing. The technical part is the fabrics that the clothes are made of which are designed to wick moisture from your skin and let it evaporate quickly keeping you drier and cooler. Some of them have antimicrobial treatments to reduce odor. Others have treatments to keep you warm in the winter. You want clothing that fits closely but that allows freedom of movement. I wear spandex shorts and shirts a lot because they prevent chafing. I know from running magazines that there are a large assortment of running specific bras which would be critical for many women, although thankfully not for me.
- Prevent injury. A lot of the advice above like starting slowly, taking it easy, stretching, and getting massages is aimed at preventing you from ever getting an injury. Injuries suck plus they interfere with your exercise and goals.
- Treat injuries promptly. Exercise is going to cause aches and pains and your task is to learn which are normal and which need medical treatment. I think that most won't require a doctor, but all of them are trying to tell you something. Sore muscles mean you over did it. Stiffness might indicate that you need more stretching or that you need an extended warmup before your run. Shooting pains in the hips, legs and feet might be irritation of your sciatic nerve which goes from your lower back to your foot; stretch your hips, hamstrings, and lower back and sit on a foam cylinder and roll it under your hips and leg. Heel pain may be plantar fasciitis and probably requires a trip to the podiatrist; it can be very serious if not diagnosed and treated. The web is a great resource for figuring out what ails you and what you need to do. I have yet to need medical attention for an injury, but my wife and I ignored her heel pains for a long time and she wound up needing foot surgery. If in doubt, see your doctor.
- Cross train. Injuries don't have to stop your exercise. During the past two marathon seasons I've had injuries serious enough to prevent or severely restrict my ability to run. But I was able to maintain and even increase my fitness using exercise bikes and elliptical trainers. Even if you aren't injured this is a good way to reduce the pounding that running does to your legs. Last summer I started swimming laps as a non-weight bearing exercise that also allowed me to escape the oppressive Texas summer heat and play with my kids.
- Enter a race: A goal, such as a race, can give additional meaning and urgency to your daily runs. If your motivation flags then that goal helps get you out the door. I'm fortunate to live in Austin where there is a race almost every weekend. The distances range from 1 mile all the way up to ultra marathons. Probably the most common race distance is the 5k (3.1 miles) which is something that anyone can reasonably aspire to even if they just walk the whole way. Besides being a motivational goal, going to a race links you with the larger running community.
- Find a training partner: Running can be a very social experience. If you are running or walking at the proper pace then it is easy to carry on a conversation and a daily run can be a great way to spend time with friends and family. My most faithful training partners have been my dogs. Dogs love to run and a good dog can teach you how to live in the moment and enjoy the journey.
- Mix it up: Make sure to add variety to your exercise. Exercise loses some of its benefit if you do the same thing all of the time. After several weeks your body adapts to the routine and doesn't respond the same as it did originally. So, change routes, change distances, change pace, change the time of day, or change the type of exercise. Variety not only produces better results, it also prevents boredom.
- Explore: Don't just run in your neighborhood. Go running in the woods or go running in parks. Use running as an opportunity to explore your city or town and you'll discover a world you never knew existed. For example, I've lived in Austin for several years and had heard about the Town Lake hike and bike trail, but I'd never been on it until last year. It is one of the crown jewels of the city and now I know why and I've run through Austin in the sun and in the rain and under the blazing sun and at night. It's a completely different way to experience the world around you which you usually only see through your car windows.