For many, the appeal of running lies in its simplicity; it is a sport that can be practiced anywhere and requires no equipment whatsoever. Yes, you can and probably should spend some money on decent running shoes (see # 4 below), but, in theory, as long as you have access to terra firma, you can be as naked as the day you were born and still go for a 10-miler. (You just might get arrested.)
However, be warned: running may not require fancy gear or specific topography, but its simplicity cannot mask the fact that it is a high impact sport. And as with any sport–high impact or not–there are things a novice needs to watch out for. Presenting five of the most common pitfalls for the newbie runner:
1. Doing Too Much, Too Soon
Far and away the most common mistake for runners just starting out is to go from doing nothing to relatively high-volume training in a short period of time. Even if you have perfect form and $180 shoes, running will always be a high impact activity. If you don’t give your body ample time to adjust to your morning six miler, you’re begging for a stress fracture.
Professor Barb Hoogenboom, who works in the physical therapy department at Grand Valley University and is a Senior Associate Editor at the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, says that this “too much, too soon” syndrome goes hand in hand with another common error: too fast.
“Too much, too soon, too fast. They all go together,” Hoogenboom says. “And also, going along the same lines, not getting enough rest. When you’re a beginner, you need to take some time for good rest–not just sleep, but rest for your bones and your joints as well. A lot of times, people will say that when you start running, you should run half as many days as you don’t. If you are going to run every day, it’s got to be a very incremental build up.”
2. Doing the Same Run, Every Time
Going from not running, to running with some regularity requires a considerable amount of discipline. Those who successfully make the transition, however, are prone to falling into the trap of finding a particular route and pace that works for them and then sticking with it. While better than doing nothing at all, doing the same thing every day will not help you build fitness over time.
“What can happen is that your body will become pace driven,” says Hoogenboom, “and you’ll be stuck at that 9-minute-mile pace. So altering your path, as well as your pace is probably a very good idea for varying your training.”
More advanced runners incorporate short, fast interval workouts into their training schedule because this enables them to build anaerobic capacity and increase their fitness level. Variety, so goes the cliché, is the spice of life. Apply this to your running.
3. Running Easy Runs Too Fast
Related to the last point is a tendency, common in beginners, to go too fast on long runs, but also not fast enough to be getting the benefits of a hard workout. As a result, everything falls into a kind of fitness no man’s land. Steve Magness, head cross-country coach at the University of Houston, told us that this stands in stark contrast with the best practices of more advanced runners, for whom every workout serves a specific, targeted purpose.
“A lot of beginners, they run their easy, or normal distance runs too fast,” says Magness. “If you look at really good athletes, or elites, their recovery runs are really recovery and they’re going pretty easy. Then, their hard runs are pretty hard. They don’t fall into this grey zone that a lot of beginners do. With experienced runners, you see this ebb and flow of stress and recovery. With beginners it’s all just ‘moderately hard.’”
4. Choosing Kicks By Looks
No, it isn’t all marketing hype. The right running shoe does make a huge difference, and you want to take the time to figure out what works for you. When we asked Professor Hoogenboom about common mistakes of beginner runners, choosing the wrong footwear was the first thing on her list.
“When we see people in our clinic, nine times out of ten, if they haven’t consulted with a good running store, or a good provider of footwear, they’re choosing a shoe by color,” says Hoogenboom.
Being too superficial about footwear selection can really cost you in running, especially now that minimalist and maximalist trends have led people to purchase shoes that, in terms of fit, skew more towards extreme ends of the spectrum. Hoogenboom claims that most beginner runners don’t do well on minimalist shoes, but that the maximalist craze merely shifted the injury trend away from bone-related injuries and more towards soft tissue, muscle-based ailments.
Thus, Hoogenboom recommends going to a running shoe specialist and being scrupulous when sampling the wares.
“Try out three or four different shoe manufacturers to see if they fit the width of your foot, the height, and the length of your toes and all those sorts of things, because those are all things that you cannot tell by just looking at a shoe.”
(Bonus: Hoogenboom warns that a lot of shoe stores will try to sell you an additional insert for extra arch support or cushioning when you’re buying a brand new shoe, but “not every running shoe needs an insert to replace what’s in there natively,” she says. Try the shoe out for a few weeks before thinking about an insert.)
5. Ignoring Your Body
The Internet is awash with training plans for every race distance, while personal trainers and running coaches get paid good money to put together individualized programs for you to eviscerate the competition at next year’s Turkey Trot.
While such regimented running programs are a great way to keep you disciplined, you should never prioritize a pre-set schedule over how you feel on a specific day. It is a common mistake among dedicated novices (and, to be fair, runners of all levels) that they will be too dogmatic about sticking to the script. There will be days when you’re dinged-up and where running the hard workout dictated by your 10K plan will do more harm than good.
That said, there is a difference between making a conscious decision to avoid a tough workout because you are genuinely at risk of getting hurt, and doing so because, like Bartleby, you’d just prefer not to.
Unfortunately, there's no surefire way to know when you should back off and when you should go ahead with your scheduled workout–that comes with experience–but a general rule of thumb is: slight fatigue/soreness is okay, pain/tightness is not. So don’t be afraid, if you’re really not feeling it, to rearrange your schedule to accommodate what your body is telling you: go easy that day, postpone the tough 12 X 400s until later in the week.