Seven tips for becoming a better distance runner

I arrive home juddery, panting and dejected. I’ve been out running again. And I’m supposed to be enjoying myself. It’s a bloody slog. The Great North Run 2014 is my target but at this rate I may as well forget it. There’s no determination to crack three, never mind 13, miles.

I need help. And there’s plenty out there. How do I turn from tortoise to hare … how do I beat the boredom and will I ever actually enjoy it?

‘It’s supposed to hurt’

I’ve never been great at things I don’t find easy. Dancing, the saxophone, Angry Birds – all abandoned because of my frustration or ineptitude. And distance running hurts, that’s its very purpose: to push you out of your comfort zone again and again, until that zone gets bigger.

When my breaths felt irregular and gaspy and the stitch started winding around my left side, I told myself, this is running. Those first two kilometres, they were the warm up. This is the bit that’s doing me good, and if it doesn’t get any worse than this, I can handle it.

And it didn’t. The stitch faded a bit and my breaths evened out, and although I didn’t feel like I’d “pushed through a wall”, I managed to keep running, forehead pressed to the “wall”, for another 15 minutes.

Distance: a knackering yet pride-inducing, non-stop 4K.

‘Get a decent pair of trainers’

My knackered old running shoes weren’t going to cut it. Bought 11 years ago because they matched my gym kit – shameful, but I was young – close inspection revealed the soles had practically perished, meaning I was slamming my heels, and therefore knees, into unforgiving slabs of hard rubber. Off I trotted to Runners Need and was whisked on to a treadmill in my pinafore and tights. It was revealed on a computer screen that not only were my trainers far too old, they also offered no structural support to my weak left side and were half a size too small.

Forty minutes of sterling advice from store manager Ryan (who finished first in this year’s London Color Run, so he could have told me I needed to buy robot legs and I’d have whipped out my plastic) and I was kitted out with a pair of shiny new Nikes. They felt roomy, secure and gave me 25%t more confidence (mixed with a heavy dose of middle-class guilt).

I no longer wasted precious energy just trying to stay upright. My strides felt manful and solid, my ankles more sure and I ran … no, I bounced … taller, head up, easily reaching an extra half kilometre.

Distance: a tiring but steady 4k

‘Try podcasts’

The Running Blog’s community offered some real gems of advice, but the one I was most sceptical about was to try podcasts. I thought I needed the whomp whomp of Tinie Tempah to power me through the miles.

But after two very difficult sessions, where music became irritating noise, I vowed to try the calming nature of chat. I cued up Jeff Garlin’s By The Way and let the repartee entertain me. It made a nice change. Where music had become a pest, or white noise that didn’t drown out negative thoughts, I was so tuned in to the conversation that there wasn’t much space for a mental wrangle. And catching up on Woman’s Hour is now an extra reason to run when the motivation’s lacking.

Distance: 5K (with a little walk in the middle … perhaps I was too relaxed.)

‘Read a running book’

Alexandra Heminsley’s Running Like a Girl was recommended by blog commentators and tweeters and for good reason – it’s packed with excellent tips for novices. But the message I took away was that anyone can run distance. It’s not an excuse that you have boobs, didn’t like PE or that you are scared of sports shops. In Alex’s words: “If you have legs and lungs you can run.” Hearing how her struggle to see herself as runner mirrored my own made me realise that you just have to want to run.

I tried hard to focus on that desire when my brain started putting me down, when your mind says, four miles in, that you aren’t capable, that you are an idiot to try running and you should probably just go and have a nice glass of red in front of Homeland. It worked.

Distance: a hopeful and confident 5.5k

‘Run with a buddy’

If I was really going to add miles rather than metres, I was going to have to call in the big guns. So I tweeted Professor Greg Whyte, the handsome chap seen jogging alongside Eddie Izzard on a million marathons for Sport Relief. His advice seemed obvious, seeing as he’d spent days running at someone else’s shoulder – train with a friend.

I picked Bethan, my spritely best mate whose superior fitness would be balanced, I hoped, by her much shorter legs. The first mile was hard. I’d underestimated her speed and was left breathless much earlier than usual, but as we started nattering and settled into a comfortable pace, we reached the half-way point of our plotted route in what felt like no time.

Training with company, I was lifted right out of my own head, unable to obsess about the minutes, kilometres or twinge in my left knee, caught up in the happenings of her love life and the brilliance of Gogglebox.

Distance: an easy personal best – 6K.

‘Run a loop’

When advisers said that plotting a good, scenic route could help, and a big circuit would mean if I gave up half way I’d have to walk home, I started changing up my runs. Based in Hackney, east London, I ran a loop to Finsbury park and back, through tree-lined streets and parks, along roads I’d always wanted to explore.

It meant I could put a visual marker on my distance – the park is halfway, or the church means you’re a mile from home – rather than relying on the gently mocking voice of my running app. And I stopped having to plead the miles to pass. I felt more in control of my distance, not relying on GPS to tell me what I’d achieved. And when particularly filthy weather hit one evening I galloped all the way home eager to quickly escape the rain.

Distance: a determined 6.5K.

‘Don’t be too hard on yourself’

After a week in Greece, feasting on bread, deep-fried cheese and Cornettos, I dreaded the first run back. It was cold, dark and drizzly and I put it off four days on the trot, before promising I’d just ‘see what I could manage.’

It was bonfire night, and as I set off on a new route, I ran past families lighting catherine wheels on the green. Sulphur hung in the air, reminding me of a mittened childhood, and the chilly night kept my skin cool. I filled my lungs and bounded up an unfamiliar road when that voice popped in my ears – one mile. I’d done my first ever un-noticed mile, and it was also my fastest.

I carried on, told myself I’d try for three more and mentally plotted a nice big loop. But without the pressure of achievement, with the joy of fireworks bursting overhead, my legs just kept going. They felt like pistons, I felt joyous and capable, and I reached three miles easily, with plenty left in the tank.

I threw in an extra loop around the park and felt like high-fiving every lycra-clad comrade I passed. Reaching a corner I knew was a mile from home, breathing getting a bit heavier, I was told I had covered my first four miles.

And I just kept going. And I ran a bit faster. And as I arrived on my street, to the sweet sound of the five-mile announcement, I realised that I’d finally done it. I hadn’t had to break through a wall after all, one day the wall just wasn’t there.

Distance: finally, 8k

I now know I prefer evening, cold-weather running. I’ve learned that training isn’t about having a nice walk or proving you’ve broken a sweat so you can have a Curly Wurly. True training is about bettering your fitness, achieving a goal and pushing your body into performing better. I’m sure there will be days when the boredom and apathy return, but I’m confident I know how to combat them.

So thanks to everyone who offered advice, because now I can say that I don’t just go for a run; I am a runner.


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