I was a runner once. In high school I was on the cross-country team. It wasn’t before Title IX, but it wasn’t too many years afterwards and nothing much had changed yet. Instead of wearing sleek uniforms, getting letter jackets and running in front of cheering crowds, we made our own uniforms, I don’t think we were even eligible for letter jackets and we had to shame the cheerleaders into coming over to rah-rah at our finish line, which they did once somewhat grudgingly for about five minutes. Remember how the argument against Title IX was that, by making funding and support for girl athletes equal to sports programs for boys, high school and college football, baseball and basketball powerhouses would collapse? Well, here’s how the sports programs lined up in my post-Title IX school: football was everything and got the lion’s share of school sports funding. Followed by other boys’ sports like basketball and wrestling. Even the school golf team got more attention than any girls’ sport other than cheerleading, which wasn’t so much heavily funded as that the squad could mooch off some of the travel and benefits accorded to the football team. At least they had uniforms. Did I mention that, on the girls’ cross country team, we sewed our own uniforms? With material that our parents’ bought. And that we walked uphill both ways in a snow storm to purchase the fabric. Needless to say, there was none of that fancy coaching stuff. A very sweet, but more than a little overweight typing teacher offered to be our coach. He used to ride his bicycle around the track where we trained shouting “Keep running! Go faster!” This is a long way to go about saying that, even though I used to be a runner, it’s not as if I knew anything about running other than to put one foot in front of the other and try to keep doing it faster. I also never developed any great love for it and subsequently never kept up with it.
So now these many years later, I’ve somehow got it in my head that I want to be a real runner. One who trains and knows words like “fartlek” and wins medals at Half Marathons. Full disclosure: I actually completed a Half Marathon once.
This time, I’ve signed up for the San Jose Rock’n’Roll Half Marathon. The course goes right by my house. So at Mile 11, Andy can run out and throw me energy bars. That is if I’m still ambulatory. Because I still don’t know much more about running than I learned from that long ago typing teacher turned coach: “Keep running! Go faster!” But not knowing a lot about a subject has never stopped me from pontificating. So let me outline what I’ve learned so far:
1. Hiking makes you a better runner.
I still haven’t done speedwork, fartlek and hill training, but my hiking group has taken me on some pretty intense treks. So far, a once or maybe twice a week hike is the only difference between all the other times I tried to take up running and this time when it seems to be taking. And one of the reasons I want to become a runner is that I wanted to get strength and stamina to do all sorts of things. CrossFit made me a better CrossFitter. Weight-lifting made me a better weight lifter. Neither seemed to make me better at anything else. So far, hiking seems to be the only activity that has immediate payoffs in other sports areas. I might add CrossFit and weight lifting back in at some point, but for now, I’m seeing more bang for my calorie with hiking.
2. Get the Couch to 10K App or its little brother, Couch to 5K.
Okay, it’s now called by the more prosaic name, Run 10K, but I’m sticking with the old moniker as it conjures a transformation from potato to gazelle. Anyway, this program is genius in so many ways. The basic premise is that it talks you through a series of walk/run splits. You start with 4-1/2 minutes of walking with 30 seconds of running (lather rinse repeat a few times). Then each week, the walking portions get 30 seconds shorter and the running portions get 30 seconds longer. Since, at least for the first 8 weeks, you are working in these five minute increments, your workouts stay the same length. So even on Week One/Day One, you have the accomplishment of a full hour’s workout. You don’t worry about speed, you don’t worry about distance. You just follow the lady’s instructions to “Run NOW!” and “Walk NOW!” It ramps up toward the last weeks, but in those crucial early days, you make it through because, hell, anyone can do anything for 30 seconds to 3 minutes. I’m at Week 7 now and I have yet to hit a workout I couldn’t finish.
3. Find a soft surface to train on — preferably off road — and keep using it.
In earlier failed attempts at sticking to a running program, I worried about the “boredom factor” and tried to change it up with different running paths. Big mistake! At this point, you aren’t good enough at running to be bored. All you want to concentrate on is making it through until Couch to 10K lady says “Walk NOW!” You don’t want to be waiting at stop lights or wondering if you took the wrong turn. What worked for me was running around San Jose’s Municipal Rose Garden which has a wide grassy verge outside its gates which is roughly half a mile around. By now, I could run it in my sleep, which is fine. What is also fine is that I haven’t had a knee pain or a shin splint in all these weeks. Also, tracks and places like this attract other runners who tend to encourage you with high-fives and thumbs up. Some days I’ve really needed that.
4. Except once in a while, don’t resort to the treadmill.
You have no idea how the treadmill assists you. And that is not a good thing. On a few of my forays into running, I worked out exclusively on the treadmill — getting myself up to a speed and stamina that I thought was pretty good. Then I took it outdoors and found I could barely get through the same mileage and my times were up to 45 seconds per mile slower! Needless to say, I quit shortly thereafter. If you really want to do this, you want to propel your body through space on your own steam and work your core with the slight unevenness of the ground in the great outdoors. While I haven’t lost significant weight yet (more on that later) I have developed defined obliques. And those are obliques that I can see under still significant belly fat. Okay, maybe it’s the hiking, but I’m doing more of the running, so I’m crediting that too.
5. Don’t expect to lose weight — at least not right away.
Drew Barrymore claims she lost 20 lbs doing six mile runs three times a week when she was training for Charlie’s Angels. I’m still waiting for that to happen. I have a feeling I’ll be waiting for a long time. Yes, I know diet is important, too, but my diet isn’t really bad enough that it needs a major overhaul. I do know that I can’t significantly cut calories or carbs at this point. When your body is building up, you need to fuel it. Maybe later, I’ll make some tweaks, but right now I’m just concentrating on building athletic performance. Yes, you can do a run for less than an hour on a few sips of latte. But there is no way you can do a 6 to 8 mile hike with more than a 1500 feet in elevation gain and NOT eat carbs — before and after the hike! You will either faint by the side of the trail or, on the off chance that you do make it home, you will have gnawed your own arm off. Believe me, there are no Atkins aficionados on serious hiking trails. But this is a whole ‘nother subject. I’m still polling runners and reading up on it.
6. Say goodbye to alcohol.
This is the one hard nutritional lesson I have learned. I can’t drink the night before a run or a hike. Not anything. Not even a sip. The few times I had a glass of wine the night before a run or a hike, my performance suffered horribly. The one time I had a Martini and few glasses of wine at a dinner out … well, I couldn’t run for three days afterward. It seems alcohol not only impairs athletic performance, athletic performance seems to affect your ability to tolerate alcohol. Jeez, I’m a wine maker. I’m practically contractually obligated to have wine with every meal — and I used to. Not any more. I’m still researching, but apparently your body on serious exercise is putting your liver into overdrive converting your food to fuel. That leaves little time for this poor organ to cleanse you of any alcohol you pour into it. Again, more on this in a later post.
That’s what I’ve learned so far. And yes, it’s not much more than the wisdom of that long ago typing teacher turned coach. So, if you are a runner, please skool me. Clearly, I have a lot to learn. I’m especially interested in moving to the next level. I mean once I can actually run a damn 10K. What should I eat? How should I cross train? How do I get faster? Because for now, all I basically know is:
“Keep running! Go faster!”