Saturday, July 30, 2011

Start SLOW - be it running, weight loss or changing habits

An important thought I got reminded yesterday during my run. Starting slow can be the deal breaker of your success story. As said, be it running regularly, training for a specific distance, weight loss or becoming better person through simplifying your life and being more conscious about your choices. How many times did you jump into a great new things just too fast and became overwhelmed sooner or later? Leading in a frustration that you are not able to keep up your insanely intense start of the new practice and finally quitting. If this never happened to you, lucky you! You can stop reading right now. For the rest of us, starting slow in order to stick with your new habit is especially valid for running.

But who am I to give advice? I am in kind of weird place right now. I still do not perceive myself as an experienced runner. I have been running (seriously) since May 2009, finished five half-marathons and some shorter races and the longest break from running was a month and that happened just once (great romance and than very fast and bad bad bad break-up). There are many of you out there who are professionals in comparison to me (like the Silly Girl Running, Amanda at Runninghood, Amanda at RuntoTheFinish or Czech Chick and DC Rainmaker who "just" happen to have running as one of their triatlon expertise). On the other hand, most of the non-running or casually running crowd have recently switch the attitude and take me as crazily insane running person who runs too much and is way too excited about it :) Yey, that's me, the crazy hot pink runner!

So there is huge amount of people who know way more than I do and another huge amount of people to whom I hope I might help by stating out loud again what you might have heard before. My friends and people I know who do not run regularly say it is extremely difficult to run. That they cannot breathe and cannot last for longer than few minutes. I totally agree about this, I had the same problem, I actually really did not like running at all. And yet here I am, training for my first marathon, five half-marathons done. As far as I had the opportunity to see people around me starting with running, I think that there are two major sources of misunderstanding followed by frustration. The answer is very short according to the KISS rule (Keep It Simple Stupid): START SLOW. But let's have a closer look.

First, many people I see start running way too fast. We all remember the short fast tracks we had to do at the physical education classes at school and many of us tend to go out there fast again. It is OK and actually necessary to start with slower pace. The pace when you are in your aerobic zone (your body is able to get enough oxygen to your muscles) is about the pace when you still are able to hold conversation. I don't want you to talk to yourself when you go out for a run on your own, just try to have this in mind, it is way slower than you thought. BUT, this peace is ideal especially for those who are looking for weight loss as the main benefit or their running effort. And don't worry, this pace will actually get faster over the time as you progress with your running.

Second, it is absolutely OK to switch from running to walking and back. When you are at the absolute beginning and running more than few minutes feels impossible, don't worry. Set yourself a time target (not too demanding - remember to start SLOW), for example 10, 15 or 20 minutes. When you get out for your workout, just have in mind that you will go for the given amount of minutes, you start running and you can switch to walk whenever you need and try running again for a bit after you take your breath. When you keep your runs/walks regular, you will see how soon you will be able to run the whole time interval and you will naturally start increasing it bit by bit.

Hitting the pavements/trails regularly. What does it mean? For a beginner runner I would say three times a week. Based on my personal experience, when I run at least three times a week, I consider myself running. Anything more would be probably too much for the slow start. Don't try to fix yourself a huge goal of running at least 5K everyday. Overwhelming goals can make you frustrated very fast, you miss one day, you feel bad about it and you might quit as fast as you started. Take it step by step and make those steps tiny. The easier the steps are the more steps you will go. Of course, keep that 5K, 10K, half-marathon race in mind. But on the immediate level, go for smaller goals that are achievable within few days or weeks. Motivation boost will kick in every time you succeed yet another of these small goals.

This rule is valid not only for aspiring runners, but for any habit change in your life. Check Tess Marshall's post on creating new habits (guest post at Zen Habits), or Leo Babauta's post about taking it slow in order to make lasting changes. Especially Leo has been a great source of inspiration for me for long time. His last post about breaking bad habits fits in here very well and I recommend checking out his blog closely if by any chance you missed it until now :)

Running rules of thumb:
  • When increasing the weekly mileage / number of kilometers, add maximum 10 % of what you just accomplished in the week. E.g. if I ran 15 miles last week, I will run max. 16.5 miles the next and so on.
  • Do not increase distance and speed simultaneously, you risk overwhelming your body and injuring yourself.
  • When increasing mileage every week, do the build up for three weeks and take the fourth week off. Not in the sense that you would stop running, but do not increase your mileage the fourth week, have it same as the third or even as the second. Your body needs to recover from getting under greater and greater pressure. And trust me, you will feel the difference after the "slower" fourth week. Your body will be stronger to jump in the higher numbers again.
  • If you feel tired and exhausted, take a day off to get back stronger the next day. Be careful, I am talking about your body being tired not your mind. Your mind will feel tired way more often. Learn to distinguish these two feelings. When your mind is tired, it is maybe even more difficult to get out, but you will get your reward immediately when you get out of the door. The feeling that you were able to add yet another training, the endorphines kick in and you will come back home stronger than you left.
  • Special rule for those who want to run in order to get rid of these unnecessary ? pounds. You need to fuel your body well in order to exercise. If you dramatically decrease your energy intake and increase the amount of used energy (= calories burnt = exercise), your body won't be able to handle it and will become stressed, your metabolism will probably slow down dramatically and you can be spinning on the yo-yo effect spiral in a blink of your eye. Get lot of real foods in your diet and try to eliminate the processed as much as you can. By simply eating more nutritious food, you will have more energy and you will stop craving for the fatty and sugary processed goodies. Even here, the take it SLOW rule applies. Don't try to change your diet drastically overnight. Take it one step at the time in order to achieve lasting change.
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