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Beginning Runner's Guide

This is an excerpt from Hal Higdon's Half Marathon Training by Hal Higdon.

In 1997, Amby Burfoot, an editor of Runner's World, asked me to write a Beginning Runner's Guide for the magazine's first venture onto the Internet. Much of the information contained in that guide (later published as a booklet) remains valid today. In the introduction, I wrote the following:

Running is simple and inexpensive. It's a good way to lose weight. It makes you feel good. Running is good for your health. You'll look better and have more energy if you learn how to run (Higdon 1997, p. 1).

But how do you begin? That's a frequent theme for questions asked of me on the Internet. New runners want to know how to start. They want a training program. They want information about shoes and equipment. They worry about sore muscles.

Every runner experiences what might be described as start-up problems. Many have restart problems. Former runners (who stopped for one reason or another) want to get back to their old running routines. They too need help.

In that guide, I advised runners how to start - and how to restart. I'll save you the trouble of hunting for a copy online or in a bookstore. Here is a summary and update of what I wrote in that handy booklet long ago.

Physical Examination

Before you begin, it is a good idea to talk to your personal physician. Paul D. Thompson, MD, a cardiologist at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut, explains, "This is important if you have a family history of heart disease, if you are a current or former smoker, or if you are overweight." If you do not have a physician, get one now and ask for a general checkup. Many doctors will recommend an exercise stress test (usually done on a treadmill) to ensure that you have no cardiovascular problems, but this is not absolutely necessary if you are willing to start slowly and talk to your doctor if symptoms surface during training. "Stress tests detect established heart disease," says Dr. Thompson. "The rare heart problems that occur in runners often develop suddenly and are not detectable by those tests."

Despite the occasional death of people in road races, most often from a heart attack, but sometimes from miscellaneous medical reasons not always easy to detect, you probably are safer running 13.1 miles on a road with runners all around you and police holding back car traffic than driving on that same road with trucks and high-speed cars buzzing by.

Running is a benign form of exercise. Despite the stress we place on our bodies (perhaps because of that stress), runners have fewer heart attacks than sedentary people. We are redeemed by our healthy lifestyles.

Shoe Selection

"Don't waste your money on a new set of speakers," sang Billy Joel. "You get more mileage from a $79.95 pair of shoes advertised in Runner's World." Billy didn't sing the song exactly that way, so some updating seems necessary for today's market.

The single most important piece of equipment you must purchase as a runner is a pair of shoes. When I first published the Beginning Running Guide, I cavalierly suggested that a "cheap pair of sneakers" would suffice the first week or two. I wrote, "Just get out the door first, worry about equipment later." I'm not sure I still agree with myself.

That's because in the several decades since I wrote those words, there has been tremendous growth in the number of specialty running stores. These stores are owned and staffed by runners, who know the sport. They love serving beginners and know that if they help a new runner select the best possible pair of shoes (not necessarily the most expensive pair of shoes), that person will become a regular customer. As for brand, model, and price, any comments I might offer in this book would be immediately obsolete by the time you read them. Even Runner's World has a difficult time staying current with its shoe reviews. Shoe companies change what they are selling too frequently.

At First Place Sports, a store with a half-dozen branches in and around Jacksonville, Florida, sales staff use both treadmills and runs on the sidewalk outside the store to perform gait analysis on customers. "We normally begin by putting customers in a neutral shoe," says manager Simon O'Brien. "If that doesn't fit, we try different categories." First Place Sports stocks 60 to 70 styles each for women and men. "What we are looking for is the shoe that fits best for each individual customer," says O'Brien.

I recently contacted Bob Wischnia, a friend who currently works as a consultant for Mizuno in Austin, Texas. Previously, Wish supervised shoe reviews for Runner's World and certainly knows more about shoe selection than anyone I know. I asked Wish what runners (not merely new runners, but runners) should know before walking into a shoe store such as First Place Sports. His response was, "Just ask price range and what types of shoes (styles and models) are on sale. Then try on three or four of the suggested models and go for a short jog around the store or on a treadmill. Fit is the most important factor. Even a good shoe, if it fails to fit your feet, is worthless."

Clear your mind when it comes to shoe size, particularly if you are female. Sorry for being sexist, but women who stuff their feet into spiked shoes because it will make them look great at a cocktail party may need to go up a half size or more for running shoes. "Feet, particularly those of beginners, tend to swell the further you run," says Megan Leahy, DPM, a Chicago podiatrist. Hands swell as well because your cardiovascular system may not yet be up to the task of moving fluids from the extremities back toward the heart. Wish adds "There's no real secret to the shoe-selection process for a beginner, other than going to a reputable running store and placing your confidence in that store's shoe people."

Running Attire

When I first started running - in high school and continuing into college - the word attire did not exist. Well, maybe you could find the word attire in your dictionary, which was on a shelf rather than in your computer, but nobody would have connected the word attire with what we wore at practice and in races at Carleton College. Arriving at the locker room each afternoon at 4:00, I would change into my running clothes, which consisted of a jock strap, a pair of white shorts, and a white cotton T-shirt emblazoned on the chest with "Property of Carleton College," which guaranteed that all of us on the team would make that T-shirt our property because of the status it offered us walking from class to class.

For cold days we wore gray sweat suits: baggy bottoms and loose-fitting tops. I don't recall the school providing us with much more in the way of attire, so we survived the Minnesota winters by layering more clothing, including parkas made of a material normally used for U.S. Army tents. A pair of undershorts over the jock strap or even a wool sock stuffed in the right place also protected our manhood. Nobody on our team froze, as far as I can remember, but we usually finished outdoor runs in the winter soaked with sweat and covered by frost. If continuing to run outdoors between cross country and track seasons was uncomfortable, why do I have such pleasant memories of those winter workouts?

That was in the 1950s, and even in the 1960s as I continued my running career postcollegiate, athletic clothing had not improved much. There were too few road runners to attract the attention of attire manufacturers. My best marathon came at Boston in 1964 on a wet and cold day where, in order to stay warm, I wore under my racing singlet a cotton turtleneck that certainly weighed an extra pound or more before I turned toward the finish line, then on Exeter Street. Did the weight of the soggy clothing add minutes to my time? Possibly, but every other runner in the race faced the same handicap. This is certainly one reason why our finishing times back then look so feeble compared to times today. Or that's my rationale.

Then in the 1970s and through the 1980s and the 1990s and now into the new millennium, road running emerged as a mainstream sport, attracting not merely more runners (female as well as male), but more merchants who discovered that servicing those runners could work to their financial benefit. No criticism implied: I love not being forced to wear cumbersome clothing, either in training or in races. You, too, can take advantage of all the attire available to us.

While you are in the specialty running store purchasing your first pair of running shoes, check out the clothing, the attire: shorts, singlets, sports bras, all made out of wicking materials in bright colors and trendy fashions. You don't need to make a purchase immediately. Shoe box under your arm, you can walk away without further damaging your bank account, because for your first steps as a walker, jogger, or runner, you can grab almost anything out of your clothing drawers. After a few weeks or months running, you probably will want to look good as well as feel good. Treat yourself. Buy the color-coordinated gear that makes you feel like a supermodel on the cover of Vanity Fair.

Jane Alred, owner of First Place Sports, suggests, "As far as apparel goes, a well-fitting bra is very important for women. Socks also are key to a runner's comfort, and moisture-wicking apparel is a must. Technology has improved greatly in recent years. Much of the apparel now on the market has thermo-regulating and odor-preventing properties. Tights and capris are popular now, and this serves to support muscles well. Compression is another category."

The best way to learn about clothing is to go to a road race, the equivalent of going to the Detroit Auto Show if you want to learn about fast cars. You do not even need to run the race; simply attend a 5K or 10K to observe. Or a half marathon or marathon - the more runners entered, the better - where you will see the widest and wildest collection of fashionable and unfashionable clothes.

The first thing you will notice is that nobody cares what anybody else looks like. You can look svelte or you can look sloppy. It is almost impossible to make a fashion faux pas. Almost impossible, but not totally impossible. A few picky veterans feel that you should not wear the race T-shirt in the race itself. Supposedly, this brands you as a rookie. It would be more an error if that shirt were cotton rather than a more comfortable wicking material. Cotton is okay for short, midweek runs, but for a 13.1-mile race (and for long workouts), cotton gets soggy and heavy and causes chafing.

It's important to choose the clothes most comfortable for you. No matter what you're wearing, you'll still feel like a superhero when you finish your half marathon.
It's important to choose the clothes most comfortable for you. No matter what you're wearing, you'll still feel like a superhero when you finish your half marathon.

In an Internet survey I took of runners who followed me online, runners favored comfort far ahead of fashion when it came to picking clothes. Far ahead! Use workouts, particularly long workouts, to experiment with your own personal clothing choices.

When it comes to those choices, the most important word is "layering." Begin with the almost bare basics - a pair of shorts or tights. Popular among women lately are shorts that look like skirts. Many male runners enjoy running bare-chested during the hottest of summer days; as for women, the word "minimalist" works for clothing items other than minimalist shoes. But in choosing what to wear and what not to wear, consider that the sun overhead often can be more of a problem than the heat. A loose T-shirt can protect against sunburn as can suntan lotion, particularly a product with a high SPF number. Also, if you do a lot of running beneath a burning sun, wear a loose cap to protect your face and sunglasses to protect your eyes. Will this make you look dorky? Joan Benoit Samuelson won the 1984 Olympic Marathon wearing a cap that very much was dorky, so do you really care how you look?

When temperatures drop, the layering begins. Now you do need that T-shirt - and maybe a long-sleeve shirt over that. Every clothing item should be made of a wicking fabric that will pass moisture (your sweat) up and out. What will keep you warm in winter is not only the fabric, but also the air trapped between fabric. Continue layering for comfort, understanding at the same time that the more clothes you wear, the slower you will become. Do not try to compare your split times on a cool day in October with those on a cold day in January or, for that matter, on a hot day in May.

In cold weather, substitute a wool cap for the dorky cap, perhaps with a balaclava mask that will minimize bare skin exposure in cold winds. The wool cap will help retain warm air from rising and departing the body. Also important is keeping the extremities warm. Layer your hands, too, keeping in mind the fact that mittens will keep those hands warmer than finger gloves. For the coldest winter workouts, I wore woolen mittens as my first layer with leather mittens as the top layer. I never had a problem keeping my feet warm. A single pair of socks usually worked for me, but that may not be enough for you. As with all items of clothing, experiment to see what works for you. Of course, if you plan to spend the months of winter running only on an indoor treadmill, all of the above may be lost on you. Fair enough, but as an expatriate Minnesotan, I remember those days running in subzero weather as being exhilarating. Some of the fastest American marathoners have come from Minnesota and other cold-weather states. That includes Buddy Edelen, who set a world record for the marathon in 1963, and Janis Klecker, winner of the 1992 Olympic Trials marathon.

As for other equipment, sometimes I feel that my simple little sport of running has become overwhelmed with equipment. Is there a single gadget that every runner should own? First Place Sports' Simon O'Brien identifies GPS watches as their most popular electronic device. GPS watches allow runners to measure time, distance, pace, and much more. Personally, I love my app on my iPhone, which allows me to view a map of the route just run after I return home. It confirms the fact that, yes, I ran that course. Depending on how many bells and whistles you want on your watch, you can spend between $100 and $500. Another best-selling item, says O'Brien, is foam rollers. Nothing electronic about them, but you can rub the rollers along a sore or injured muscle and recover more rapidly.

More Excerpts From Hal Higdon's Half Marathon Training