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Become a Runner to Think and Feel Better

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A couple months ago, I made the decision on a complete whim to become a runner.  After years of self-identifying as an “athlete”, “martial artist” or a “lifter”, I dove into running with everything I had and studied it like I studied plant biology back in high school.  I’ve learned a ton and feel like I may have found a new escape for myself.

If you’ve never run a mile, or if it’s been years since you laced up running shoes, keep reading.  And if you’re an old pro, you might learn something new here, but I kind of doubt it 🙂

The obvious caveat is that all of this advice is coming from someone who’s probably a lot like you and not some ultra-marathoner or Tarahumaran.  I’m not a “real” runner… yet.  I haven’t finished a 5k (my first race is July 31st) or written a book about running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days.  But ultimately that shouldn’t matter much, because unlike learning how to hit a 90mph fastball or drive a car, running is about overcoming the resistance to move more than anything.  And that’s mostly a mental game… it shouldn’t take years of experience practicing impeccable form until you can run well enough to impart wisdom, it requires the will to get yourself up off your ass and onto the street.

That isn’t to dismiss the fact that running, like most physical activities, is something you can dissect down to the most minute detail.  Ankle inversion, foot pronation, stride length, heel vs. toe running, etc.  But I’m not at that level yet – probably never will be – and my guess is that you aren’t either.  We’re just two wanna-be runners right now… so let’s start with the basics together.  I’ll give you some links to follow when we’re done to learn more if you care.

First, a little background: I’ve always hated running.  Loathed it with a real passion reserved only for instant chocolate pudding.  There have been times in my life (college, mostly) where I ran pretty regularly but it’s been something I’ve dreaded the whole way through.

Yet running is the world’s oldest and simplest activity.  Most everyone is born a runner… it doesn’t require a gym membership or any special overpriced equipment (like, say, biking does).  Ear buds, running shoes, headbands, and special socks aren’t required in order to run.  You just need two healthy feet and a bit of willpower and determination.  I mean: you don’t even need to have a destination in mind, you could run in circles around your block and feel better.

And boy will it humble you.  Running will teach you more about yourself than most other sport or activity.  Mostly because it’s you against yourself and you’re in your own head most of the time… but also because it’s just plain hard.  Exercise is meant to give you progressive resistance in order for you to improve, and running does that in spades.  There’s always a new goal to be had no matter how accomplished a runner you are.

That’s why it’s a real focuser (or a refocuser as it were).  Teaching yourself to push through pain and fear is something that transcends sport or activity – it’s something you need in life.  I’ve found that the hardest part about running is “pushing through”.  Knowing that it hurts… but that it won’t hurt forever, and that there’s more to gain through “pushing through” than there could be by quitting.  And the better you get at it, the more fun it becomes (just like most anything!)

As the character of Bob Bowerman said in the great Prefontaine movie, Without Limits:

Running, one might say, is basically an absurd past-time upon which to be exhausting ourselves. But if you can find meaning, in the kind of running you have to do to stay on this team, chances are you will be able to find meaning in another absurd past-time… Life.

Running will make you a better you. There are twenty-six things I’ve identified that you can learn from intense physical activity such as living in the present, performing well under pressure, and fostering healthy competition.  Check out that list because becoming a runner means you’ll benefit from each and every one. 

Will Smith put it best when he talked about running as a key to life (along with reading).  Check it out:

Will Smith on Running & Reading

You’ll also see your cognition and concentration improve with running, which is a big unexpected win for most people.  We moved a lot as early humans, chasing down our next meal everyday, and as such the brain has evolved to thrive when fed with aerobic exercise like running.  There have been many studies that have shown the importance of exercise for the brain, demonstrating that with an increase in oxygen flow due to exercise, the brain works better and faster as well.  You can see mental acuity rise in direct correlation with exercise, and fall when it’s taken away.  So if nothing else, running will help how you think better as well.

OK, enough of that, let’s get to it.  Want to be a runner?

Ditch the limiting beliefs

First things first, everyone can be a runner.  For years I believed that I wasn’t a runner because I was told somewhere along the line that my body type is better suited for building muscle mass.  And muscle mass and running don’t mix.  Of course, that’s ridiculous. 

In just 8 runs over two weeks, I was able to go from sucking wind on day one after just two minutes of running, to running for thirty minutes straight.  Naturally your experience won’t match mine exactly.  But if you believe you aren’t a runner, you won’t be.  If you want to be one, just run!  But…

Don’t start running!

The biggest mistake you could make is to think you can run a marathon on day one of training.  No matter what kind of a runner you’ve been in the past, accept that you aren’t one now – and give yourself some time to build up to one.  Over the course of 30 days you could go from primarily walking to primarily running provided you take a slow progression. 

Start with walking… then run for a bit… then walk again.  This way you’ll ease your muscles and your psyche into the process of running regularly.  Go at your own pace and if that means you only run for 30 seconds at a time, that’s fine!  Just make sure that the next time out you run for 35 seconds 😉

Start with measuring time rather than distance

In fact, don’t even think about distance for the first 6 weeks.  Just keep yourself moving for a period of time (say, 20 minutes) regardless of your speed or distance.  Distance is something you can worry about later once you’ve established your running habit.  Getting hung up on distance too early is a sure path to injury or burnout, and we’re in this for the long haul.

For what it’s worth, I made this mistake myself.  After a 4 mile run a few weeks into starting, I had so much pain on the ball of my foot that I couldn’t run at all for a few weeks.  It was fun to explore cycling and rowing during the downtime, but I could have avoided this injury altogether if I just took it slower.

Track and share your progress

One of the best things you can do is to let success breed success.  Running is a fun activity and doesn’t need any sort of hard measurement, but if you’re like me, you might benefit from knowing how well you’re doing.  There’s nothing better than seeing consistent improvement and having friends cheer you on. 

There are a variety of tools available for tracking your runs:

Get past the awkward stage (that first 3 mile run)

For many new runners, it takes a while for your muscles to adapt and the right mindset to take over.  Typically you’ll see a lot of people “get it” after they pass their first three mile run.  Three miles is just long enough to be hard, but not such a long run as to be completely debilitating.  And it just so happens to be almost exactly the length of a 5k, which is probably one reason 5k races are so popular these days.

Take it slow and know that once you pass that first three miler, you’re doing it.  You’re past the “hard part” and can now really focus on the intrinsic joy.

Learn as much as you can

Running as a lifelong pursuit requires a certain level of knowledge about it.  There are a bunch of resources out there for inspiration and straight-up learning.

  • Read Runner’s World and other magazines about running.  Just remember that lots of the information presented in these magazines are about equipment you don’t need or goals you may not have.  I’ve found that a lot of them cover ultramarathons (anything longer than a marathon) and I doubt I’ll be running a 50 mile race… ever.  So remember to “just be you” and not get too caught up in being the person the magazine thinks you should be.
  • Check out the Couch to 5k plan and the Runner’s World 8-week beginning training program.  Both are great resources for getting started and I recommend starting with one of them.  Couch to 5k also has a great Facebook page where updates will come to your news feed automatically.
  • Read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall.  Hands down the best book I’ve read on sports in a long time; hugely inspirational and informative.  This ‘creative non-fiction’ piece will have you wishing you were running while flipping the pages ;)  If you like this one, you may also like Ultramarathon Man or Chi Running too.
  • Read The Complete Beginner’s Guide to Barefoot Running on Zen Habits.  This is the guide I wish I would have written, but I’m a couple months behind Leo in my barefoot running exploration.  It’s quite detailed and after everything I’ve learned, a great general resource.
  • Check out the No Meat Athlete blog for good tips on running and gear.
  • And if you’re having trouble keeping up with exercise as a habit, check out 7 Tips to Make Exercise a Habit And Keep It That Way4 Steps to Learn Any Physical Activity can also help you “drill” until you find your running zone.

Most importantly, have fun!

By the way, it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that you should talk to your doctor before you start any exercise program.

Written by Mike Torres

June 23rd, 2010 at 2:15 pm

  • Hi,

    It’s really nice article, and it is so true that if you want to be a good Runner, so we should Think and Feel Better.


  • Running is very good for our health and one of the best exercises that a person can do.  I’ve been running for almost a year and I’m now trying running barefoot.  If you are interested visit, for details on how to make your own running sandals.