By Shelby Deering
My mother tells me that as soon as I could walk, I could run. One of my earliest memories is running through blades of bright green grass, hearing the swishing sound as my little feet moved and the wind blew through my hair.
Now that I’m in my thirties, that feeling really hasn’t changed, and I’m still running to this day. I began running recreationally in high school, logging miles on the Geneva Lake Shore Path, which continues to be my absolute favorite place to run. During my freshman year of college, I joined the track team, only to become injured at my first meet and ending my short-lived track career (you can blame overzealous training for that one). But I continued running in my spare time, racking up a half marathon here, several 5K races there and coaching young girls through a program called Girls on the Run.
A lot of things have sidelined me over the years, including a cracked femur that resulted in two months on crutches, but I still return to running again and again. I love the physical benefits of running, but more than anything, it’s a regular practice that clears my head. Simply put, running makes me feel free.
Maybe you’re someone who wants to experience that sensation of freedom, too, and improve your health in the process. If the thought of starting a running program sounds daunting, never fear—I talked to three area running experts who have broken everything down into easy-to-digest tips and tricks so you, too, can discover a love for running.
THE BENEFITS OF RUNNING
Jeffrey Miller is the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater Head Men’s and Women’s Cross Country Coach and Assistant Track and Field Coach (coaching mid-distance/distance runners). As a runner, competitor and coach for the past 37 years, he can personally attest to the physical benefits of running.
He says, “The obvious benefit is a strong cardiovascular system for endurance. Running develops stronger muscles, particularly in the legs and core region, as well as a stronger skeletal system from weight-bearing.”
Emily Fischer, fitness director at the Geneva Lakes Family YMCA, serves as co-leader of a program called Couchbusters that helps members prepare for the annual Sprint For Spring 5K at the Y. She sings the praises of the mental health benefits of running, saying, “The 30 minutes or more of clearing your head and focusing inward on yourself is sometimes all a runner needs to reset, recharge and get back to their day.”
Alicia Valleskey, ACSM-CPT and PN1 coach, works as a personal trainer and group instructor at the Geneva Lakes Family YMCA and also leads the Couchbusters program. She believes in the therapeutic benefits of running, and says, “Running requires a certain mindset — the outward activity is highly repetitive and simplistic. You are really just putting one foot in front of the other. However, the transformative power lies within the mind and mentality of the person. In this way, it can be similar to meditation and works as stress relief.”
HOW TO GET STARTED
The bottom line is that we all have our reasons for starting a running routine. Once you find your “why,” it’s time to get started. Instead of starting with the physical aspects of running, begin by working on your mentality.
Fischer reminds beginners to only take “one step at a time” and “don’t try to accomplish a marathon all at once.” Once you accept that you won’t be a world champion runner your first day out, you can put your energy into just trying your best and taking things slow, and that means beginning with short distances and intervals.
“Intervals are your best friend,” Valleskey says, which is a combination of walking and running.
Miller says, “Start with shorter runs with short walking breaks between. For example, you can run for three minutes, then walk for one to two minutes, and so on. This will make it a bit easy to go for a longer total time and distance.”
Miller adds that when you first start running, aim for getting out there every other day or three times a week, and then try to increase it to five to seven days a week depending on your schedule. He stresses doing some simple stretching as a warm-up and cool- down for your workouts, being consistent with your workout time so it becomes part of your regular routine and running on soft surfaces like grass and dirt trails so you can be kind to your body and joints.
SHOES AND HYDRATION
I can personally vouch for a good pair of running shoes. In the past, when I’ve purchased a pair of shoes because they were on sale or skipped the research, I’ve regretted it, and I’ve had the blisters to prove it. When I’ve taken my time with researching and choosing my shoes based on my foot type, the miles definitely feel more effortless.
Miller says that starting with “good shoes” is key, and Fischer agrees. She believes that it’s best to go to a dedicated store to get properly fitted. She says, “Seek the professionals. Go to a local running store or shoe store. Many of these locations will analyze your gait and give you suggestions on shoes.”
If you already have a pair of athletic shoes on hand, Miller recommends bringing in your old athletic shoes when you go to the store “so they can see the type of wear pattern you have and can recommend the shoes you should be looking at and those you should avoid.”
Hydrating properly is just as important as your shoes — it’s the fuel that allows your body to run efficiently and safely. Valleskey advises boosting your overall hydration instead of chugging water an hour before your run, and to carry a water bottle with you everywhere as a constant reminder. “Consider drinking one to two glasses of water with each meal and snack,” she says.
When you first start running, try not to focus on speed. Valleskey says that she typically doesn’t focus on pace until an individual can comfortably run one mile. Miller explains that once a person has established a base level of fitness, he or she can begin to run faster for shorter distances or vary the pace during a run. I know from experience that pacing comes from listening to your body, and Fischer echoes this idea.
She says, “Once you have been running and you find it to be easy or boring, try to pick up speed. How much to pick up speed? That depends on how your body is feeling. If your legs are ‘screaming at you’ or you can’t catch your breath, try to find a pace that’s a bit slower.”
Even on days when I know I’m not running fast, a slow and steady pace still does wonders for my mind, body and soul. My advice is this—focus on the smell of the air, the wind moving through your hair and the feeling of your feet moving, one in front of the other. The rest will take care of itself.