Potholes on the Road To Success: Tips For Beginning Runners

George Sheehan said more than once that “We are all an experiment of one”. A favorite quote, of which the original author is unknown, but one I've long followed is" Learn from everyone. Follow no one. Seek patterns." ( Scott McCloud, at a TED talk seems to have enunciated this well.)  Joseph Campbell’s favorite saying was “follow your bliss”.  Since running is what many of us enjoy doing we need to figure out where and how to get on, stay on or return to the road to success.  I suggest the advice  “read much, learn much, and find trusted guides when you need them”. Even Edmund Hillary used the help of knowledgeable locals (Tanzing Norgay, a Sherpa) when he made the first successful ascent of Mount Everest. And Sherpas, guides, and experts are still helpful and useful today.

There are few studies that meet sufficiently high standards to tell us what to do to avoid injury. Over the past one or two years there have even been studies that have tried to show that a slow and incremental build up of distance is no better than a more rapid build up. This is certainly counter intuitive and no respected trainer, coach, or sports medicine professional would find that conclusion likely to be valid.

Beginning runners and the majority of the rest of us should not use the model and advice of the 2:15 and below marathoner on how to train nor follow advice that says all pain is normal and can be ignored.  If you can run with their speed and their times, yes go ahead and study the elite runners carefully. Otherwise, their training, their experience of pain, the type of pain they feel and the cause of the pain is different than what the typical injured runner  will feel with a stress fracture, medial tibial stress syndrome, plantar fasciitis, patello-femoral pain syndrome or osteoarthritis. Those are not the pains that even they will wisely ignore, but they will seek treatment and advice for. The pain they are referring to is most often the pain that comes from near maximal exertion over a medium or long period of time. For distance runners this occurs during competition while approaching their maximum performance or during training approaching their Max VO2 and trying to improve it by speed work and other hard training methods. This pain is hard to describe, but it is real, is intense, and requires focus, discipline, training, and wisdom and experience to overcome. It is not usually an injury and is not bone, joint, or tendon pain that is being unwisely ignored.

... read much, learn much, and find trusted guides when you need them ...” Sports Podiatrist Stephen Pribut, DPM

The majority of beginning runners should also not use as a training model the ultramarathoner who can run a marathon a day for 2 months or 1 month or even 1 week. Tales of exceptional endurance are inspiring to read .  Some of us will be able run ultras and to even run many  ultras. But, in both the physical and intellectual realm there are those who have special capacities that the majority  are not capable of. Can you do more than you think you can? Most likely you are capable of much more. But even much more for all except a few will not lead to a new world record. It can though lead to new personal bests. And that’s what you should focus on. Improve yourself. Find new ways to improve. Try to steadily and safely improve

Everyone needs recovery time. For someone like Dean Karnazes, I believe is recovery time occurs between foot strikes. The rest of us don’t quite recover so quickly.  Since we are all individuals, we will find that some of us can have a running streak that can last years, while others can only run 3 to 4 days a week comfortably, safely and with minimal risk of injury.

When I read  “orthotics are probably not helpful to prevent injuries in beginning runners”, I tend to agree. But that shouldn’t be taken to mean that they are not helpful in treating certain injuries and in preventing certain injuries from recurring. But we’ll first think of shoes and training to try to prevent injury in a beginning or new runner.

“... For new personal bests: Improve yourself. Find new ways to improve. Try to steadily and safely improve...”

To minimize the risk of injury in beginning runners we have a few things to think about. The first is the risk of a serious event occurring from doing unaccustomed exercise while having major risk factors, from age, or even from family history of particular illnesses. For this reason an examination and clearance from a physician for exercise is often recommended. But, the risk of not exercising is so great that you probably need medical clearance to not exercise. Lack of exercise and fitness can contribute to many chronic diseases including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, colon cancer, breast cancer, and obesity.

...the risk of not exercising is so great that you probably need medical clearance to not exercise...

The next thing for a beginning runner to consider is their shoes. You’ll need a shoe that fits your feet properly. Simply put, it should fit the shape of your foot: straighter last for flat feet, curved last for high arch feet, semi-curved for a “neutral  or normal arched foot”. The shoe should also match the biomechanics of your feet. At the least, your foot is designed to bend at the toes, not the middle of the arch, and for the majority of us a shoe should be designed to match that.  The degree and type of cushioning and support or amount of stability required will vary from one person to the next.  The shoe’s shape, support, and cushioning should all be matched to your structural and functional biomechanics.
As far as the actual running goes. Training needs to start gently and slowly with a gradual increase in first distance and later intensity. Your tissues, your muscles,  tendons , ligaments and bones all need to adapt to the new stresses and strains you place on them. It is not merely a cardiovascular adaptation that is needed, but a musculoskeletal adaptation.

10 Rules For Beginning Runners:

  1. Get the right shoes for your foot and your individual biomechanics.
  2. Start off slowly and gently.
  3. Gradually increase first your distance and later the intensity.
  4. Pay attention to your body.
  5. If you are trying to loose weight: Don’t overeat, over hydrate or replace more calories than you have used. Losing weight depends upon caloric balance which means you must burn more calories than you consume.
  6. Read and learn about running.
  7. Find friends and companions who enjoy fitness activities. Join in and participate with them.  Find online areas that provide helpful advise and gentle encouragement.
  8. Reach a balance of exercise and fitness that includes strength training, healthy diet, and cardiovascular exercise for optimal performance and health.
  9. Find an expert, guide, coach, or doctor  when you need them. Find out what their advice is based on. Decide if it sits well with you. If so, do your best to follow it.
  10. Enjoy your running and exercise! 


Additional Resources:

Avoiding Injuries: How To Stay Our of the Doctors Office
Top Ten Ways to Avoid Running Injuries
Selecting Running Shoes