7 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Running

by Jason Fitzgerald

Hindsight is 20/20. As I look back on nearly 13 years of competitive racing, I want to change a lot of my past training. I made a lot of mistakes – small decisions that resulted in an injury, a poor race, or missing half a year of running.

7 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Running

Many of my injuries can be attributed to impatience and a feeling of invincibility. I refused to reduce a training run by a few miles and I skipped the strength exercises. My carelessness showed with my constant battle with injuries. Achilles tendonitis, lower back pain, ITBS, shin splints, quadriceps strains – I had it all (with the exception of a knee injury, knock on wood!).

No longer. These days, I’m fanatical about the little things and it’s paying off: I haven’t had a major injury since 2009! As I’m writing this, it’s been over two months since my last day off. I’m on track to run over 3,700 miles in 2011. That’s over 20% more than 2010.

I want you to learn from my mistakes so you can be the best runner possible. “Do as I say, not as I do” seems appropriate for this post. Without further ado, below are the 7 things I wish I knew when I started running.

Success in Distance Running Takes Time

A lot of time. Greg McMillan tells his elite runners that it takes 2-3 years to start seeing their potential. This amount of time is on top of their high school and college running years – so it’s really about 10 years. Distance running success is about consistency and a gradual, yet progressive, pattern of training.

One of my previous problems is that I jumped from 40 miles per week to 70 in three months. I got hurt. After six months at 60 miles per week, I tried to jump to 90 miles per week. I got hurt. I disregarded the basics of gradual training. Be patient and recognize that modest increases in mileage done over a long period of time will have you running fast over the long-term. There are no shortcuts.

Runners Don’t Just Run

I used to think I only needed running to be fast. I thought I just needed a strong heart and powerful lungs. I never did core exercises, rarely did drills, and avoided the weight room entirely. That was a huge mistake.

Being athletically well-rounded and coordinated helps you prevent injuries and run more efficiently, which corresponds to long-term consistent training. I’ve talked a lot about this recently, so I won’t beat a dead horse. Check back on some recent posts if you missed them:

Do the Little Things

All those little things help keep you healthy – icing when you need it, taking a nap after a hard workout, eating a healthy diet, and taking care of those small aches and pains before they become a real injury. Running gets you in good shape, but what you do before and after you run enables you to keep running.

If you need to be nudged in the right direction, then here we go: buy a foam roller, consider a personalized training plan, or bet a friend that you’ll stick to your program.

Run in Less Shoe

I used to wear bulky ASICS Kayano running shoes (I wonder why my achilles always hurt?) and never wore flats during workouts. Things have changed and the evidence is piling up that wearing a little bit less shoe and being strategic with barefoot running can really help your overall training.

Just one session of barefoot strides per week and a good pair of minimalist running shoes can dramatically help you reduce your injury risk. You’ll strengthen your lower legs and feet and become a more efficient runner. It’s easier to run with better form in less shoe – and much easier barefoot.

Ease into your new minimalist shoes. They can help you a lot – but only if you’re smart and gradually introduce them to your training program.

How Often Should You See God?

Not that often. I’m talking less of an actual religious experience and more about the intensity of your workouts. “Going to the well” or “seeing God” are phrases often used to described those workouts that are harder than races. I did a lot of these types of workouts in high school and college. Many of my teammates puked after them. I’d usually lose my appetite for the rest of the night and need an extra hour of sleep just to feel normal the next day.

There’s a time and a place for these types of workouts, but I don’t do many of them these days. They increase your risk of injury and make you peak quickly. Do too many and you’ll feel stale or flat. You should avoid them for most of your training cycle and only do a handful in the last 4-8 weeks before your goal race. It’s the icing on the cake.

Form Matters. Work on it.

We never worked on our running form in high school and rarely did running drills. That’s a crying shame, since every other sport relies heavily on form training. Swimmers focus on the correct way to swim before anything else. Basketball coaches are always preaching, “Bring that elbow in!” and “Square your hips!”

Running is a skill, like any other athletic movement, and needs to be done efficiently if you want to prevent injuries and run fast. Learn the correct running form early in your running career when it’s not as hard to change.

Get Off the Roads

I’m being dramatic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with running on the road, but I truly believe every runner can benefit from trail running. With a softer surface, it can help you recover more quickly from hard workouts. The varied terrain helps you build more coordination and work more stabilizing muscles.

As a junior in high school, we had a cross country captain who mapped a handful of trail runs on conservation land in our town over the summer. During the next season, we did almost all of our runs on these trails and had a helluva lot more fun than our old training runs. Getting lost in the woods (physically and mentally) is therapeutic.

The Kenyans always say that “Roads kill fresh legs.” They do almost all of their training on rolling, dirt roads. There’s something to be said for the rolling terrain that helps them train consistently – it’s easier on the body and builds more strength. Move a few of your runs every week to the trails instead of the roads.

The sounds of birds and leaves is much better than traffic!

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