Back to Basics

For exercise that’s fast, cheap, and effective, try running.

I started running in my mid-30s for the same reasons many of us do—to fend off advancing age, to shed accumulating pounds, and to set an active example for my kids. A report in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology says that even 10 minutes of running per day can add years to your life.

Forget the expense and scheduling headaches of CrossFit, Pilates, hot yoga, spinning, and other fashionable exercise regimes; exercise doesn’t have to be expensive, time-consuming, or intimidating. You can take babies and toddlers with you in a running stroller, so you don’t need a sitter while you exercise. Not only can older kids enter their own fun runs, but they can cycle alongside you on your training runs. Running is a family-friendly activity appropriate for all ages.

Fun Runs

While running can be a solo sport, it doesn’t have to be. With the proliferation of Turkey Trots, color runs, and other fun events, there are tons of social opportunities even for those of us who haven’t run since gym class. The Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10K touts itself as “Richmond’s biggest block party,” and USA Today named the event one of the best races in the country. Signing up for an event like that can provide motivation when exercising doesn’t sound like fun: Who doesn’t want in on a party? Plus, many events, including the Monument Avenue 10K, conduct shorter-distance kids’ races too, so the whole family can get in on the fun. 

“The Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10K presented by Kroger is a great celebration of active living in Richmond and has become one of the region’s favorite community events,” says Pete Woody, communications manager for Sports Backers, the promoter. “It’s an event that appeals to runners and walkers of all skill and experience levels, and that makes it particularly good for first-time participants. The flat course and awesome spectator support every step of the way are also very helpful—it really is a 6.2-mile block party.”

That’s the kind of pitch that enticed me to sign up for a local 8K race in Reston. Tightening the budgetary belt following the arrival of our third child, I quit the health club where I worked out a few days a week. Six months later I was crushing the scale with unprecedented mass. I owned sneakers, so I figured a run around the neighborhood would be a good start, even if my leather high-top basketball-style shoes were utterly unsuitable for running. By the time I had reached the stop sign at the end of my street on my first day of training, I had concluded that I had made a terrible mistake and should turn around and walk home. But then I’d be facing that stupid scale, so I pressed on.

For my first race a few weeks later, I charged out in the middle of the pack, running in those heavy basketball high-tops, and made it through the first four miles in a solid time. That’s when I learned the first lesson of overdoing it. There is a classic condition known as “runner’s knee” that arises when you’ve run too far, too soon. The ligaments supporting the knee get stretchy so the joint starts moving around and inflicting sharp pain. I had to walk the last mile of the race quickly, gritting my teeth for a face-saving sprint to the finish line. But, by that time I’d run enough to kind of enjoy it, so I rested, retooled my training schedule, and got back on the road. 

Gearing Up

I said that running doesn’t have to be expensive, but once you’ve become a regular runner, you will need some specialized gear. For example, you can run short distances in any shoes with rubber soles, so don’t let the lack of featherweight Olympic sprinter’s shoes deter you from starting. But eventually you’ll need a pair of properly designed running shoes. 

Just as critical, you’ll need to get shoes that are optimized for your feet and the way you land on them when you run. This is best done at a specialized running shoe store. This can seem daunting to a new runner, especially those whose imperfect physiques make it obvious that they are not expert runners, but running is an inclusive sport. At a running store you’ll find expert advice on selecting and fitting shoes, plus you may also discover local running clubs that offer moral support, regular group runs, or great nearby routes that will make your new hobby more enjoyable. 

You’ll also likely learn that your shoe size is incorrect. The size you need for regular shoes isn’t the same as the size you need for running shoes, because your feet are likely to spread over the miles, demanding a bit more space. The chafing of too-small shoes can cause blisters that interfere with training. Run a long distance like that and you can bruise your toes beneath the nails, resulting in black toenails that eventually fall off. 

Similarly, you can start running in whatever sports clothes you already own, but at some point you’ll need dedicated duds. Women will need supportive sports bras, and both sexes will discover—and want to avoid—the uncomfortable chafing caused by running in sweaty cotton clothes. The right lightweight running attire will solve these problems. You might also pick up some lube to rub on any friction spots. Vaseline provides 32,000 jars of its Vaseline Jelly for competitors in Arlington’s Marine Corps Marathon at medical tents along the route and at the finish line, which gives you an idea of its importance.

Photo courtesy of the Dismal Swamp Stomp Running Festival 

Safety First

In warm weather, you’ll want to get out early to beat the heat; getting up in the pre-dawn cool is preferable to wheezing through the heat of the day. This can mean running in the dark, near dark, or with the glare of the sun on the horizon, making visibility and safety key issues.

Stay on sidewalks, running trails, and bike paths wherever possible. In the street you risk being struck by an inattentive driver. Wearing reflectors and blinking lights will improve your visibility, even in daylight conditions when you expect to be seen but can disappear into deep shadows in the bright sunlight. Your running store sells head- and armbands with incredibly bright, attention-grabbing LEDs that could save your life.

Although the other advantage of running in the dawn light is that you avoid getting scorched by the sun, you’ll surely do some midday running too. When you do, slather on the sunscreen and wear a lightweight running hat to shade your face. We don’t work to preserve some youthful fitness just to end up looking like tanned leather, after all.

In cold weather, make another trip back to the running store for more gear. Get the right tights and long-sleeve running shirts, and you’ll find that you can run very comfortably once you get warmed up. There’s really nothing to be done about the frigid first mile on a winter day—bundle up enough that you aren’t cold for that first bit, and you’ll be sweating profusely for the rest of the run. Suffer for that first mile, and after that you can settle into a comfortable run, especially on a crisp, sunny winter day.

Illustration by Orlando Hoetzel

Crush Your First 5K
Tips for having a great time.

Now that you’ve signed up for a local 5K, you’ll want to get yourself ready for the event. A few great sources for training plans are Hal Higdon, Nike, and Couch to 5K (HalHigdon.com; Nike.com; C25K.com). These authorities provide a simple schedule for your training runs, based on your current fitness and your race goal. Once you reach the big day, here are some tips for having a great time.

Portajohn politics: There is always a crowd for the portable bathrooms. I’ve found that at some races the rush to use the first portajohns can leave those closer to the start line readily available.

On time: Longer races might include pace-setters. These expert runners use a watch (and their own experience) to run at a pre-determined pace while carrying a sign indicating either their planned finishing time or their planned minutes per mile. Running with one can help you achieve your target time.

Hydration helps: Longer races will provide water stations along the way. Take at least a swallow of water at each station. If it’s available, grab a sports drink every other time to maintain electrolytes. (At the stations where I get the sports drink, I dump a water cup over my head for cooling.)

Snack-wise: You won’t need a snack while running a 5K. For a 10K or longer race, carry a gel shot, perhaps one fortified with caffeine, to boost your energy. They don’t taste great, so try a few, and use them on your longer training runs to ensure that they agree with your stomach.

Just say no: Come race day, don’t do anything new. Nothing new, or you’ll discover unexpected new ways to encounter trouble. Wear clothes and shoes you’ve worn before, and consume drinks and food you’ve used before while running. Also, don’t wear the cool new event shirt that came in your entrant packet (the bag with your race number bib and timing chip). You’ve haven’t earned it until you finish the race, and you don’t want to find out while running that you’re allergic to the fabric or that it rubs uncomfortably. 

Say cheese: There may be professional photographers crouched along the race route who will offer to sell you overpriced evidence of your accomplishment afterward. Smile when you see them, or at least try to look like you aren’t being tortured. I’ve never accomplished this myself, so if you figure out how to do this one, I’m listening.


This article originally appeared in our April 2019 issue.

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