A Guide To Running For People Who Hate Pain

So I’m training for a 10K right now – I’ll be running in about a month to support the Aids Foundation of Chicago (and I’m taking donations, if you’d like to help me out!), and to prepare, I’m running four days a week, which is more days a week than I have ever run before in my life. It’s fun! I’ve been running as a hobby since high school, on and off, as a way to expend energy and calm anxiety. I’ve never run in a race or a competition before the one I’m training for now, and wouldn’t even know where to classify myself on any athlete’s scale of ability. I’d be happy enough with something like running enthusiast, or occasional trotter through parks, or she with an unhealthy attachment to breathing harshly in time to Fall Out Boy songs while moving faster than a walk.

The reactions I get when I mention running as a hobby fall along a few distinctive lines. Nobody’s mean about it, of course, but the reply is often a joke that implies I’m some kind of masochist; that I’ve willingly bought into a lie that exercise is fun; or that I am some kind of superhuman being capable of things that most mortals cannot possibly achieve. If they don’t do that, people try to apologize to me indirectly for the fact that they can’t really relate to me on this. They say they’ve tried running, and they hated it; they say that they’d like to get into running, but it’s kind of intimidating. They say that they are not the kind of person who runs.

I do not believe that everyone in the world would like running if they only stuck with it. I do not believe that everyone who has tried running and stopped doing it is in the wrong. I do not believe that society’s ills would be cured if everyone trotted out a few miles three times a week. I think jokes about runners being masochists are hilarious. But I also think that there are ideas surrounding people’s perceptions of running that are misleading. I think that running, in many ways, is being sold to people the wrong way. I think that more people could run, and maybe even would run, if a few untrue things got properly cleared up in the public consciousness.

So: Here are some running tips, from someone who has probably lip-synched twenty collected miles to every single song on Save Rock and Roll in the past year alone.

Running Tip #1: Divest yourself of the notion that exercise must, by definition, involve pain.

There’s this pervasive idea in our culture that exercise has to hurt to work. “PAIN IS WEAKNESS LEAVING THE BODY,” declares at least one muscle shirt in every gym I have ever been in; “No pain, no gain!” my high school coaches used to bark at us as we stumbled past them on the track, gasping. People on weight loss and fitness shows run and lift and move until they’re crying with every movement, and this is the sign we have that they are actually working hard – more pain, we think, must equal more benefit.

For some folks, that is an important part of exercise. For some people, experiencing and overcoming pain proves to them that their workout is producing results; for some, testing and finding and then exceeding their physical limits is extremely rewarding, something that they can feel personally proud of and even show off a little bit (or if they are involved in Cross-Fit and have a Facebook, all the time, without pause, because it is their only way to validate their own existence in the face of a cold and uncaring universe). That’s fine! People are free to exercise that way! But I, personally, get next to nothing out of pain, and I’m writing this assuming that most people are the same way I am.

So: When you run, stop when it hurts. If you get a side stitch, slow down and stretch it out. If your chest is tight and your legs are burning, slow down. You can always slow down. Find a pace you can do for ten minutes at a time, instead of one that hurts after two, even if you’re just picking your legs up a little too much to be walking. Find the place where your heart is going quick enough that you can talk but not sing, and your breath is coming deeper. Don’t give up because you don’t like the place where you can feel your heartbeat in your fingertips and there does not seem to be enough air in the world for you. If you don’t like it, don’t go to that place.

Over time, you learn what productive discomfort feels like. Once you know what good and exhilarating and awake feel like, you start to push against it, and find what’s good in going a little harder. But that’s something you come to yourself, and something you can (and should!) accomplish with minimal pain. Pain is not gain. Moving is gain. Running is gain.

And speaking of yourself….

Running Tip #2: Don’t compete with anybody but yourself.

I started running in gym class the summer before my freshman year of high school. It was our cardio requirement – twice a week, at 7:00 am, we had to run at least four miles in under an hour. At first, I hated it, because I was hot and and it was painful and the air was humid and four miles felt like longer than any human had ever run in the history of the world, and it sucked. My first attempt, I ended up with the coach running next to me as I stumbled the last mile, seconds from fainting. I was dead last in the class by twenty minutes. I felt like an idiot.

The next time, though, I decided for my own self-esteem not to compete with the class. Four miles in under an hour – all I had to do was a 15-minute mile. I could walk that. I didn’t have to do it fast, or all at once. I just had to beat my own shitty time.

I beat my own shitty time, with the help of things like Proper Hydration and frequent walking breaks and a day with temperatures under 95 degrees. And I didn’t think about the rest of the class again. The next time, I decided to see if maybe I could do two miles without stopping, regardless of speed. The day after that, I went for at least one ten-minute mile out of the four. After that, I tried for four miles in under fifty minutes. Sometimes I made my goals, sometimes I didn’t; but I could change them on the fly. If I went in with the conviction that I was going to manage twenty whole minutes without stopping to walk, no matter what speed, and found once I started that my ankle was tender from overwork, I didn’t have to stick to that – fuck twenty minutes, I could do ten, or five, or just this song, just one more song. It kept it from getting boring, too – same track, same heat, same distance, but I didn’t have to do the same damn thing. I was the one in control, even when I didn’t hit whatever arbitrary goal I’d set for myself.

Fuck everybody else. Who cares that they ran six miles today and you did one and a half? Who gives a shit that other people run marathons and can engage in serious conversations about their lactic acid burn? You’re competing with no one but yourself. There’s no distance anyone else can run that can have any effect on the good things you’re doing for yourself, once you find the pace that feels best.

This is a major part of the reason that running is the most consistent coping method for my anxiety, as a sidenote. Competition anxiety is crippling to me, and my need to measure up almost pathological in intensity. Running is my sport because I am the only person who has to decide how good I need to be at it, and I get to change that whenever I want.

Running Tip #3: Equip yoself!

Running doesn’t have to be crazy expensive. It can be, if you’re in an area that necessitates a gym membership to do it, or if you’re super into exercise gadgetry, or if you want really top-of-the-line stuff to do it with; but there aren’t a whole lot of basics.

That said, they are good basics to have! This goes along with Tip #1 in some ways – running is way less likely to hurt if you have even just one set of proper clothes to wear while doing it. A decent pair of running shoes – specifically running shoes for running – is necessary (and these can be found for good prices at discount shoe stores!). So is a nice supportive sports bra, if you are a person with boobs that ache for flight as you pound the sidewalk, and then literally ache when you are off the sidewalk. A pair of breathable pants and a t-shirt/tank top that won’t ride up make heat way less of a problem, and make it so you aren’t adjusting yourself every twenty seconds on the trail.

I am a person with flat feet and shitty knees and a weird gait. My first summer running, I got hella shin splints because I didn’t have the right shoes, and overheated because I wore a t-shirt that wasn’t remotely breathable. I figured I must not be built to run, until my mom bought me a pair of running shoes and a pair of moisture-wicking exercise pants, at which point I realized that the sun had little power over me and my legs were mighty pillars of nigh-unknowable strength. Or so it felt at the time.

Related to this: Do the basics right! Find a few good stretches to do before and after you run, and don’t skip a stretch, because failing to stretch makes it hurt more in the morning when you’re starting out, and it’s been established that pain is to be avoided here where possible. Work on your basic posture – don’t lean forward or back, keep your chest feeling open and capable of holding deep breaths, and check in with yourself every five minutes or so to make sure that your shoulders, neck, and jaw are relaxed as you run. My high school coaches, for some reason, let us plod around the track bent almost double and gasping for weeks before we were corrected – it’s amazing how much more fun running becomes when you realize that there’s a way to do it that is designed not to hurt.

Running Tip #4: Don’t do it if it’s not fun; find the thing that makes it fun.

I stopped running for a long time after high school gym class because shin splints fucking sucked, and I didn’t want to do it anymore – until I figured out how to prevent shin splints, and it was fun again. I stopped running for a while when I got to Oklahoma because it was 110 degrees in the shade all summer and the landscape was both monotonous and lacking in sidewalks – until I got a gym membership and found out that air conditioning and shitty TV made it fun again. I started running again here in Chicago because I have a giant flat city to explore and a lake along which to run, and it is still fun. I have given myself the goal of finishing that 10K in under an hour, and working my way slowly up to that, having a goal that’s longer-term than the ones I’ve set for myself every time I’ve worked out in the past, is fun.

Man, there’s so much shit that makes running fun that has fuck all to do with running. I’ve run in the past because it was something I got to do with my mom, and because after we were done we could get lunch or go sit in the hot tub at the pool, and that was worth putting up with an hour of exercise for. I’ve run because fiddling with the numbers on the treadmill and making shapes in the little bar graph of my progress was super engaging. I’ve run because Welcome To Night Vale got REALLY GOOD while I was listening and I didn’t want to stop until I’d caught up, and I just happened to have 70 minutes’ worth to catch up on. I’ve run because for whatever reason the burn in my thighs felt really good in a way it usually doesn’t, and I wanted to see how long I could keep it up. I’ve run because my house was crowded and I had tons of work to do and I wanted half an hour where I didn’t have to do anything for anyone except myself. I’ve run because the trail was super nice and I wanted to see what was around the next corner. I’ve run because I had a lot of feelings about Fall Out Boy.

Find something fun about running. Find the thing about it that you like, and change it up as often as you change your workout-specific goals. Get something out of it besides the guilty knowledge that you probably should do it; get something out of it that is important and happiness-inducing for you, even if that thing is not a marathon accomplished or a really good lactic acid burn or the inability to move your legs in the morning (all things my mom finds fun about running, for some damn reason), even if it physically has little to do with running at all. Have fun!! You’re not a masochist!! You don’t have to be a masochist to run!!

Running Tip #5: Listen to Fall Out Boy while running. Lip synch enthusiastically.


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