7 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Running

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 are much better than traffic anyway!

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  1. Great lessons learned here. I feel that if I ever stop learning while I’m running, then I’m going to pack up my bags and do something else.

    • Totally. I feel the same way, which is why I’m focusing on the marathon later this year. You learn a lot in a race that long. Then maybe an ultra… running provides so many opportunities for personal growth it’s amazing.

  2. It is easy to get impatient. I think it is interesting how things tend to “stick” more when it takes longer to obtain them. i.e. weight loss, good running habits, even money. People that slowly climb their way to the top seem to stay there longer. I’m glad that you made so many mistakes Fitz, and that you learned so much from them. That way you can help me do better!

  3. The minimalist is obviously the category which impacted me the most. It was scary to have chronic knee pain in my twenties. And of course, running form ties into that as well.

    • I hear you. I started using more minimalist shoes about 7 years ago and haven’t looked back. I’m not a 100% hardcore minimalist, but if you’re not wearing low-profile, light shoes for some of your running then you’re missing out on a host of benefits (and likely putting yourself at an increased injury risk).

  4. I like these short “lessons learned” articles. Very accessible and useful. I am one who hasn’t much time or care for barefoot running, but I recently (almost a year ago) switched to a much more minimalist shoe and now I can’t see wearing those “high heels” I used to run in.

    • Thanks Brian. I’m the same way – rarely run barefoot, but can never wear bulky trainers again. I wish I had the space/time for more barefoot strides though!

      • The only place I trust for barefoot strides is the beach – but I sure could stand living there!!! And if I did, I would totally embrace barefoot running.

  5. Love the lessons-learned format! Great post.

  6. Great post! I especially like the one about success in distance running taking time. I seem to forget that, often. Thanks for the reminder!

  7. It’s so easy to let the little things slide but they really do make a difference. And boy am I glad you don’t make me go to the well every week! 🙂

  8. Please do! I was eager to ask someone to give me exactly these tips, after learning some running lessons the hard way. So I highly appreciate what you wrote.

    One question though: how do you prevent lower back pain and why does it occur?

    • Thanks! Lower back pain can happen for a host of reasons, way too many to discuss here. I’d check your general posture / running form, make sure you’re at your ideal weight, and start working on some core / strength exercises to correct any imbalances. Good luck.

  9. PaceCalc says:

    As an aspiring runner and one who is in training for running, I find it so helpful reading the article above. It’s a great lesson to adhere to avoid possible injury especially for beginners like me.

  10. Thanks for this! I’m passing it on to my running group. And, yes, I’d like to hear more!

  11. Great lessons – as a relatively new runner, I think having patience is one of the hardest parts. I would definitely be interested in more lessons learned posts.

  12. Thanks for the tips! I’ll take all the tips I can get!!

  13. Love your tips Fitz.
    However, I was disappointed to find there was only 7, and not 8 as advertised…”Without further ado, below are the 8 things I wish I knew when I started running.” – hehe, apologies, being picky I know…!
    I’ve never heard the phrase ‘seeing God’ in a running context before. Very fitting and I agree it’s probably worth limiting the number of sessions where this is your aim.
    Keep the red-hot running tips coming!

  14. Late to the party, been on the road a bit, but just let me say wow Fitz, no wonder this post has been read and commented on so much. Terrific points (and list posts are always popular). I can’t find any disagreement. I think the first one is probably most important. And not only is being patient about building your base important, it is also a time when you can really enjoy running, just ticking off the miles without worrying too much about pace (but, as you suggest, focusing step-by-step on form). Great tips Fitz, so yes, please do share more such posts.

  15. I’ve just began running, these tips help alot and to keep in mind. I’ve had knee problems since i’ve started and recently impact bruises on my feet (still healing). I just bought new Adidas (Manas 5) running shoes to help posture and future injuries. They felt good and light I hope they work out well for me. Will definitely work on these tips when these bruises subside. Thanks for your post.

    • Hi Alicia! Glad I can help. I hope you stick around for more posts like this plus other running advice. Enjoy the Adidas Mana’s – I have a pair too!

  16. I just discovered your site and you are I cut from the same cloth in many ways! After hitting my peak in 2007 at Boston, I have been struggling with a piroformis injury. In the process, I discovered power yoga and finally allowed myself to ease up a bit on my “extreme” attitudes towards my running. Finally, I feel like I am able to pursue distance running again,but training with balance, smarts and more patience… . I will definitely try your “less shoe” recommendation. I am also a Gel Kayano loyalist…but it obviously didn’t work too great, so excited to see a new and potentially better option like you suggest. Any particular brand you recommend?

  17. I’ve wanted for so long to try barefoot running with the Vibrams. I just haven’t brought myself to doing it. It’s one thing to train myself one way, then a while other thing to train barefoot. I will, however, get myself some minimalist shoes next time I’m buying. I have brooks now that are kind of lightweight, but nothing like what I could be using.

  18. I loved this article. I couldn’t even begin to name all the things I’ve learned since high school. College running is a whole different playing field! I liked being reminded of the things I have learned. Its so hard not to increase your mileage quickly.

    • I feel the same way – the transition from HS running to college running was a big one. If you stop learning, you’ll stop improving!

  19. You write:
    “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.”

    A common refrain.

    I speak as a newbie to running — or actually to fast jogging. I am probably too old (58) to be doing much real running. But I do know a thing or two about nutrition and physiology. I wonder if anyone has tried supporting their running training with a high-powered diet focused on protein. Running, or comparably severe physical activity, is a severe catabolic stress. In my view, this calls for compensatory anabolic diet or supplementation; perhaps something on the order of 1.5 grams of protein per kilo bodyweight, or even more. I am doing this and I seem to be adjusting rapidly and comfortably to rather large and fast increases in volume and intensity of training. Does anyone else have experience with this?

    • Hey Alan, great observation! I completely agree. I think protein is one key macronutrient that’s not given enough attention to in regards with running. The process of training breaks down muscle and you only improve when that muscle is rebuilt – a little stronger and a little more efficient. That process needs protein, and complete protein. I take a whey protein shake after most runs and am a proud carnivore. I’ve shifted more of my daily caloric needs to protein than simple sugars/junk carbs and I feel a lot better. I think it’s one of the reasons why I get hurt a lot less now too!

  20. Hey Fitz – stumbled on this post and it is just what I needed to read.

    I’m training for the Philadelphia marathon in November, and it’s been pretty rigorous.

    I think you really highlighted the importance of cross training. It’s not strictly about running and the last couple weeks have been a juggling act trying to find the right mixture of running, strength and endurance, and pretty much any other aerobic exercise I find enjoyable.

    I’ve got this bookmarked and I’ll be sure to check back.

    Thanks for sharing these VERY worthwhile tips!

    • Thanks Chris! Glad you found it helpful. I’m training for the Philly Marathon too, good luck! Nothing can exactly replace running, especially during a marathon training phase, but it has its place to supplement your running.

  21. This list is great! The first tip resonates with me the most. I have read so many stories of people who had never run before in their lives and within a year began running and finished a marathon. As a new runner myself, it’s hard not to compare myself to those runners.

  22. John Rock says:

    I gotta say, I agree with some of your statements here, but there are a few of you 7 things that feel a little bit like you are trying to tell me how hard to push myself, and I rather don’t like that. It is not something that should be out in the universe. The reason I feel this way is that every body is different and a lot of people have different physical limits. There are some who can and should push themselves harder than others, and I think that is something you must feel in yourself by knowing your body and using common sense. I think there is not just one right way to run, and I don’t think it needs to be as technical as you are making it out to be. There are a lot of situations to adapt to and we are an adaptable race built to be runners.

  23. What a great post!! I’ve been running off and on for about 8 years now and I just did a post on running tips based off of my lessons learned… especially feel the one about doing too much too fast. I used to do that every time I started running in my 20’s and EVERY time I ended up injured and unable to run at all for a while. Thanks for all the great tips… loving the site 🙂

  24. This is a great article, Jason. Working on your form really will help you stay injury free. Also foam rollers are the best. I have a foam roller and at first I was skeptical but now I tell everyone how great they are. They really do help me recover after my long runs.

  25. Hi Fitz,

    Do you have any tips for recovering from Achilles tendonitis? I have also developed a small calcium deposit in this area and obviously want to avoid surgery? I have taken many courses of anti inflamatories and am still sitting with moderate pain after around 6 months without any training.



  26. Great advice. I would like to hear more tips for runners approaching age 60. I am 59, and I feel like all of a sudden I cannot run fast anymore. I ran a 3:45 marathon three years ago and now I can barely run a 9:00 mile for one mile.

  27. Great advice

  28. Great article. Although both times I have tried to go to a more minimal shoe I have ended up seriously injured.

    I needed that little reminder though to a) cross train b) strength train c) vary the intensity of my running and d) hit the woods and trails.

    I am ON IT!

  29. Kenyetta says:

    Hi Fitz!

    Thanks for the tips! I can see A LOT of mistakes i’ve made while training for my first couple half marathons. I’m wanting to become a real runner and am currently training for a race in August. I bought a pair of Mizuno’s Wave Inspire 9 because I overpronate. Would you still suggest I get a minimalist shoe even with overpronation issues?

    • It depends. Start with alternating the Inspire’s with a neutral shoe. Then see how you feel. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, so if you’re running healthy and well there’s no need to worry about minimalist shoes.

  30. Great advice to be found here. I will recommend your site to a friend of mine, who also started training for his first Triathlon.

  31. Nicola Forsyth says:

    Great tips and well done on your marathon times. I am doing my first marathon in May, the Edinburgh marathon, I was hoping to complete it in four hours or under but after doing twenty miles in training I think I will be happy to just be able to finish the marathon.

  32. The hip, ankle and knee joint have their own job they preform when running. The hip can move in all directions. This is why it’s important to maintain strength and ROM in this joint. Your knee joint is basically a hinge with very little give from side to side. The ankles are a dynamic joint and much like the hip it can move in all directions. Any time one of these joints aren’t working together and doing their own individual job then then injury we be soon to follow. May happen now or years down the road depending on how bad your mechanics are. If you have pain when running, go slow and work on improving your strength and running mechanics instead of masking your symptoms with braces that only compound the problem.


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