How to run for people who hate running

So many people say they hate running. They say it’s boring, or it’s torture, or it’s just uncomfortable. My hypothesis is that they’re not training gradually enough, and at this point I’m confident it’s true.

In summer 2007, I was working in an optical engineering lab and had a fair amount of free time. Every few years, I would try running, but within 30 seconds of starting I’d always get a cramp or feel like I was going to die. This time would be different. I researched why cramps happen. The literature didn’t agree, but boiled it down to three possible sources:
1. tugging on the mesentery (the membrane that holds your internal organs in place)
2. food in the stomach and intestines sloshing around, and
3. insufficiently developed cardiovascular system

I decided to try process of elimination to figure out which explanation was the source of my own cramps. First, looked at food. Was I not allowing enough time between eating and running? But I was pretty sure I had left hours the last time. If it really was leftovers in my intestines, I’d have to go nuclear, either fasting or… My mom had been complaining about her upcoming colonoscopy prep, so I offered to do it with her. After taking Fleet and thoroughly evacuating my innards, I hoped I’d be able to run my heart out. I put on my sneakers and shorts the next day… only to cramp up immediately.

At that point I was pretty sure it was some combination of mesentery tugging and cardio health. I searched online for the most conservative training method I could find for people who had similar cramp issues, and eventually found one in a random running forum. It recommended lots of walking before, during, and after running, and the running itself extremely slow. All the walking would avoid a cardiovascular load spike, which was the true cause of the cramping. The logic was that as long as you can do a tiny bit at a time, you can start improving.

I “ran” using this method five days a week that summer. The first week, I only allowed 5 minutes of running time and 25 minutes of walking. I signed up for a 7.1 mile race to keep me motivated. Two months of training later, I ran the race in 1:09. In the years since, I’ve run 1 mile in less than 6 minutes and an 18 mile race under 3 hours.

Some friends have told me they like the idea of running, but they hate actually doing it. I’ve trained three of them successfully. Two have run half marathons and one a 10k. More importantly, I’ve never failed to help someone willing to try.

Recently you may have heard of the Couch to 5K method. It’s the same, so feel free to skip over and just use an associated app to help you track your progress.

Goal

Run for an uninterrupted 30 minutes and feel good afterwards. Get there in 3 months or less.

Method

For the first six weeks, per the table below, there will be a 10 minute walk before and after the run to warm up and cool down. In between, you’ll alternate walking and running to minimize cardiovascular load and chances of cramping. Over time, the relative time spent running in the middle 10 minutes will increase until you can run 10 minutes without feeling bad. From there, we start decreasing the warm up and cool down time until you can run for the full 30.

When you run, run at nearly a walking pace. The idea is to get your body used to the motion, not to feel like you’re running at full speed. A friend should be able to walk next to you.

If at any point you start getting cramps or feeling shitty, go back to the previous week’s level.

Try to run at least three days a week. If you can’t manage that frequency, don’t proceed to the next level yet. Your body won’t be getting sufficient signaling to improve.

Quantity over quality

You will want to run faster and farther. Resist the urge. If you get a cramp, it’ll set you back and more importantly it’ll make you continue to hate running. The key is running slowly and often. Eventually, your body will get used to it and you’ll be able to increase your pace.

Where to run

Prefer back and side streets, low traffic, bike paths, parks, etc, but the closer to home or work the better. Maximize convenience or you won’t get out there. Check out the Strava Global Heatmap for inspiration.

Gear

When you’re going really slowly, shoes and clothes won’t matter much. When you can do at least 10 minutes at a time, get some new running shoes. It doesn’t really matter if they’re fancy, but they should fit well. For women, finding the right sports bra is extremely important. Experiment, ask around, and find one that works for you.

Bacteria and fungi love running shorts with synthetic liners. I usually run in cotton briefs and unlined shorts unless it’s a race. Had to suffer through jock itch a few times before I figured that out. Wear clean clothes!

Schedule a race

Races are really fun. If you schedule a 5K for 3 months out, it will motivate you to run more. It’s a great reward. You’ll be with all these other people who aren’t running in order to beat everyone else, but because they love it.

What next?

Get a heart rate monitor

The hardest thing in running is pacing. As someone just starting out, make sure to keep your heart rate below 150 bpm as much as possible. As your cardiovascular fitness improves, you’ll be able to sustain higher heart rates for longer periods without feeling like you’re dying. As you continue to run the same pace for multiple weeks, your heart rate will decrease.

I once ran a race at 170 bpm for two hours. Definitely felt shitty, but was able to sustain it. Olympic triathletes sustain 155 for hours comfortably.

Foam roller

As you run more, your tendons and muscles will stiffen. If you don’t stretch, you’ll quickly develop joint pain and muscle cramps. Foam rollers are the most effective remedy. It hurts when you first start using it, but soon it’ll feel like your own personal exercise masseuse.

Strava

A great way to feel like you’re part of a community and track your progress over time. The personal record (PR) system really motivates me to push harder! Though sometimes I like running for the hell of it with no pace or distance goals at all.

Interval training

The fastest way to improve time/distance. It’s very similar to the original method above, but instead of alternating walking and running, you alternate running slow and running fast. It punches through plateaus like a knife through wet toilet paper, but when I introduced it to some friends during a run, they said they never wanted to run with me again. So be careful. Prefer running fast and slow rather than sprinting, which puts extra load on your tendons and joints.

Software engineer, tinkerer, aspiring mad scientist