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New Runners: Here’s How to Pace Yourself

You’ll make more progress by simply slowing down.

If you’re a beginning runner, see if this sounds familiar:

You start a run eager to get fitter. Within a few minutes, you’re breathing hard. Soon, there’s a burning feeling in your chest and throat, your legs feel weak, your shoulders feel tight. The rest of the run is a struggle you want to be done with as soon as possible. And you’re still stuck at the same distance you could cover a month ago—it’s not getting easier. Where’s this runner’s high you’ve heard so much about?!

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to be this way. By learning running pace for beginners, you can increase your endurance and speed while also enjoying yourself—and we have the strategies to make that happen.

Avoid That Too-Fast Start

You’ll never see an experienced runner going faster in the first few minutes of her run than at any other point. Yet this start-fast-then-fade pattern is typical for new runners. Experts agree that it’s one of the biggest obstacles to getting fitter. “The sport is set up for new runners to be tempted to train too fast, too soon,” says Greg McMillan, who has coached everyone from beginning runners to Olympians.

Of course, some discomfort in the early days is inevitable. As McMillan puts it, “Your cardiovascular system isn’t well-trained, so you breathe heavily, and your legs aren’t coordinated or used to the mechanical stress, so they ache.

One trap, McMillan says, is that many runners assume those initial messages should be the norm. “The original pattern for each run is that the effort is hard, so the runner typically starts running faster and faster and faster to match this perceived effort set at the first few runs,” he says. “This usually leads to injury and an interruption in the running routine the runner worked hard to develop.”

Julia Lucas, a two-time Olympic Trials qualifier and coach, cites another reason for new runners starting too quickly. “They’re excited, so they leap into the run with full enthusiasm,” she says. “That’s not something I ever want to totally drill out of an athlete, but if that enthusiasm can be redirected toward the middle of a run, it’ll make for a better experience.

Bring a Focus to the Breath

What’s a better approach to your running pace? Lucas’s mention of the middle of a run provides the key.

“I tell new runners to start off much, much slower than they think they need to,” Lucas says. “This not only helps warm them up slowly, and so keeps them safe, it also teaches them to develop a more intuitive understanding of their own paces.”

In her elite running days, Lucas often finished runs a minute per kilometre or faster than she started them. She could have started those runs faster, but knew that her body would best respond to easing into things and gradually picking up the pace as she felt comfortable.

To get more in tune with how you’re feeling and to avoid overdoing it on speed, pay attention to your inhales and exhales. “At the outset, breathing is the best tool for new runners,” McMillan says. For the first month, he advises, “run until your breathing just starts to get fast, then walk until it recovers, and repeat.” Over time, you’ll find that you can run for longer periods at that breathing rate.

If you have someone to run with, it should be easy to speak in full sentences at this effort level. If you run by yourself and listen to music, and are okay with others possibly thinking you’re a little wacky, you should be able to sing along to your favorite song without your breathing getting out of control.

Know Gadgets Work For You, Not the Other Way Around

You may have noticed that none of the above advice has to do with a specific pace or heart rate or other quantifiable aspects of running. All runners should avoid leaning too heavily on the data from GPS watches and other gadgets. That’s especially the case for new runners, who have little to no context to help make sense of the numbers they’re seeing.

“The hubris of thinking one totally understands one’s own body via data is a common source of injury for new runners,” Lucas says. Straining to hit a pace you think you “should” be running ignores what the minutes and kilometres mean to your body.

McMillan cautions against letting arbitrary measures from a device dictate how fast and far you run, and how satisfied you are with the run. “Connect your breathing and effort with the external metrics, and if there is ever a disconnect/conflict between the metrics, always fall back to breathing as the more important metric,” he says.

For example, over the course of a week, you could get a sense of what pace and/or heart rate coincides with the easy-to-breathe effort that McMillan prescribes for new runners. But know and accept that there will be days when your pace will be slower and/or your heart rate higher than normal. That happens for several reasons, including weather, challenging courses, poor sleep, life stresses, and the mysterious quirks of the human body. When this happens, don’t freak out. You haven’t suddenly lost fitness. Simply run at the proper effort level, whatever the numbers say.

Build Speed By Building Endurance

New runners often think that the harder they run, the fitter they’ll get. But that’s not how proper training works.

Stress is only part of the equation. Recovery is also key, because it’s during that time that your body repairs itself to, ideally, create a slightly fitter you. And when every run is hard, the recover-and-regenerate part of the process is blunted. If you push too hard several times a week, you stagnate, or get slower, or hurt, or some combination of the three. Alternatively, if you go hard on most runs while leaving lots of time between for recovery, you’re probably not running often enough to build much fitness.

It might seem counterintuitive, but the solution for new runners is to keep working at a gentle effort. That’s enough stress to spur improvements, but not so much that you can’t repeat it most days and accumulate real gains.

When you go about it this way, “your body is constantly building more structures so that it has a greater capacity and efficiency in delivering oxygen,” McMillan says. “When you train and rest optimally, you replace the current you with a faster you.”

Also, McMillan points out, your bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles take longer than your heart and lungs to adapt to the specific stresses of running. Rushing things at this point in your running career greatly increases your chance of injury, and therefore greatly increases your chance of losing your hard-won gains.

Lucas says, “Cultivating a respect for the changes that happen as fitness is gained help new runners lose that ‘mind over matter’ bullying of the body, and ease into trust that the body will respond to smart, slow training.

In your first few months of running, your pace at that gentle effort level McMillan and Lucas recommend will improve. Put another way, without running any harder, you’ll be running faster, and you’ll be doing so for greater distances—and that’s the true sign of a leap in fitness.

That’s not to say new runners can’t ever run fast. Lucas and McMillan encourage new runners to incorporate brief accelerations into some runs. Doing so improves your running form and range of motion, and adds a fun but not draining challenge to your workouts.

You can add in these brief accelerations to your workouts by doing “striders” or “strides,” which help you accelerate to a fast but relaxed turnover. Don’t try to sprint at an all-out effort in these strides. Instead, aim for an effort you feel you could hold for one to two minutes. Hold that faster pace for 10 seconds, decelerate to your normal pace, and do another acceleration only when your breathing has returned to normal. Do six to eight of these strides in the final kilometre or two of a run, once you’re plenty warmed up. Start with one day of strides per week, then add another day, and then another, as you become more familiar with them.

Have Faith in the Process

The great Grete Waitz, who won a record nine New York City Marathon titles, had this advice for progressing as a runner: Hurry slowly.

That is, feel enough urgency about your running that you don’t frequently blow it off, because running rewards consistency. But also be patient, because building fitness takes time.

Waitz’s adage is a great reminder that, in addition to each individual run, learning proper pacing is important to your overall relationship with running. Every runner you know and see was once a beginner. They went from occasionally frustrated newbie to regular, dedicated runner. If you hurry slowly in your first few months, you’ll get there, too.

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