Help a newbie learn to run!
October 20, 2010 9:39 AM   Subscribe

Calling all running experts: Help a newbie learn to run!

I've recently started "distance" running for the first time in my life (in quotes, because I'm not really running that far).

I'm finding that, while I don't become out of breathe, my legs wear our after about a mile. Specifically, my lower calf muscles begin to burn like they are on fire (though the rest of my legs certainly don't feel great). If I switch to walking for 5 minutes or so, my legs slowly recover, but then they wear out again pretty quickly as soon as I start running.

It's quite frustrating, because I'm not able to run very far at all. As it is right now, my brain cannot begin to comprehend how someone could run a 5k (which I know, isn't very far) without walking at all. If I tried, I think my legs would fall off.


- I'm not running very fast (I'm doing about a 10 minute mile).
- I've gone to a runner's store and had the "running expert" pick out special running shoes and socks for me (based on my running style).
- I'm 28, 5/9, 159 lbs.
- I ran track as teenager, and was a very fast short distance runner (100M; I would usually finish between first and third out 50 plus kids), but literally never ran long distances, ever. In my life, I don't think I've run a mile more than five times before this year.
- I've been trying long distance running for about 2.5 months now, and nothing seems to be improving.
- I'm in decent overall shape. Not great, not bad. Decent.
- I'm not really following any specific diet that is supposed to help my running.

Does anyone have any ideas on how to fix the problem? And if the answer is just "this is normal, just keep running, you're legs will eventually get in shape" then that's fine, but I want to hear that. Someone suggested weight lifting (calf-extensions or squats).
posted by JPowers to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
There's a reason the Couch to 5K program gets a lot of support. It's really hard to just dive in, running long distances. Try following the program and see how it goes for you.
posted by brainmouse at 9:43 AM on October 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Seconding Couch to 5k. And a 10 minute mile is plenty fast, especially if you're just starting. For the first six months of my running life I was lucky to break 12 minutes.
posted by something something at 9:44 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Two words: interval training.
posted by emyd at 9:46 AM on October 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Like you, I'm naturally a sprinter so learning to do distances was pretty hard, but I managed to run 5 miles every other day and then a 10 mile run on the weekends. That said, whoever suggested weight lifting is right. Your legs will get stronger with the weights but you should also start doing some core strengthening exercises. It's amazing how much of your core running uses!!

Also, how often are you running?? It helps to alternate between doing strength training and running.
posted by astapasta24 at 9:51 AM on October 20, 2010

Couch to 5k, and Runner's World Beginner's Forum took me from couch to 2 Half Marathons in seven months.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:52 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your history as a sprinter and problem with your calves gives me a clue. The more I run the more I feel like the single most important factor is form. My guess from over here is that you're taking long strides and pushing off with your toes, like a sprinter. You shouldn't be pushing off in any way you'd use "pushing off" to describe. You should be touching down with the middle of your foot, not the heel and taking more, smaller steps. To do this your knees will be bent more than feels natural (at first). I think of it as running like the way an old man shuffles if he runs, though hopefully faster.

I always suggest minimal running shoes and since you've been a runner and are already in okay shape your feet are probably not too weak. Regardless of whether you choose to run barefoot, in Vibrams, or in combat boots, the kind of advice about form that is given in association with minimalist running stands, and there's a lot of information about it out there.
posted by cmoj at 10:00 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's quite frustrating, because I'm not able to run very far at all. As it is right now, my brain cannot begin to comprehend how someone could run a 5k (which I know, isn't very far) without walking at all. If I tried, I think my legs would fall off.

It will come with time. About a 10% mileage increase per week is typical, so it takes a while to get to 5K from nothing (about 1-2 months for most people).

You didn't sprint the 100m at your personal best the first day on the track did you? It takes training, but it will happen.

For comparison, I recently ran my first 10K after years of running only 5Ks and the very occasional 4M. When I started training for it I thought it would be impossible to run for a solid hour. It took several weeks, but the mileage did come. I can now see realistically how someone can build to a marathon, whereas previously it seemed impossible.
posted by jedicus at 10:05 AM on October 20, 2010

Yeah, slow down to start. I ran the Chicago Marathon last year at about a 9:30 pace (which is quite a bit slower than what my 5k pace would have been at that time) but now I'm getting back into running regularly and I'm most comfortable in the 11-12 minute mile area. But after a month or so it'll get back down to 10, and eventually 9, etc. So even though I "am" a distance runner (or, I was last year, and the year before, and the year before that), if I tried to run 5k at a 10 minute pace right now, I might collapse. :)
posted by iguanapolitico at 10:08 AM on October 20, 2010

It takes time. Build up to distance by alternating running and walking. Beware of running stores that want to give you over-supportive, over-expensive running shoes. While I do think the craze of "barefoot" or Vibram running is not for everyone, I do agree that it's not the best idea to trust some dude at the running store who wants to sell you the Behemoth-Arch-Grabber-X15 for 150$.

I run Asics 2150s and am at 350 miles on my current pair. They're pretty simple but just padded enough for me.

cmoj's advice about foot striking is good, from my experience--heel striking bad, mid-foot striking good.
posted by Kafkaesque at 10:12 AM on October 20, 2010

The recently linked "A Running Start" by the New York Road Runners is a great place to start.
posted by letitrain at 10:17 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

This comment from Lexica helped me understand why I had a tougher time than I thought I should have when I started running earlier this year.

Weight lifting will help - be sure to work your whole body though, not just your legs.
posted by punchtothehead at 10:27 AM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

What are the reasons you are looking to run long distances?
All my friends that are long distance runners are constantly battling crappy knee\band issues\etc. Unless you are looking to do a lot of long distance racing I would say be careful what you are getting into because running long distances just makes you better at running long distances.

Maybe look at lifting and sprinting for great general health and strength. You don't necessarily need to run long distances to be able to run 3-5 miles. I never run and lift 4 times a week. A friend has been asking me to do Warrior Dash, so without training, I signed up for a 5K race with an obstacle course throughout and ran it easily in 26:05 a few weeks ago.

If you want to be a long distance runner the advice above is great though. You'll want to take small steps to protect your ligaments. Your cardio and muscles have a very good chance of progressing much faster than your ligaments.
posted by zephyr_words at 10:32 AM on October 20, 2010

I'd try to slow down if I were you. I know running a 10 minute mile puts you with big slow guys like me, but we worked our way up here from much slower than that, and you should too.
posted by advicepig at 10:34 AM on October 20, 2010

As others have said, slow down and be patient. Just dropped by to suggest you also consider moving toward barefoot running. (I run now in vibram five toes and wish I had done this from the start.) A good transition shoe to take you in that direction is the Nike Free. For a lot more on this, check out the rather fun book, Born to Run.
posted by bearwife at 10:36 AM on October 20, 2010

To me it sounds like something is wrong with your form-a mile isn't very far to run to have such bad calf pain, and you should see improvement over the course of a few months, certainly. Have a knowledgeable person watch you run and give you some feedback.
posted by Kwine at 11:26 AM on October 20, 2010

Also, running the whole way is not required. Especially when you are building stamina and muscle. I highly recommend Jeff Galloway's site and suggestions.
posted by bearwife at 12:13 PM on October 20, 2010

I've been racing at a competitive level since 8th grade - captain of a D1 team in college, the whole 9 yards. I started with sprints and jumps in high school, raced 800m and 5K cross-country in college, and am now doing more 5Ks and 10Ks for an elite development track club. The transition from sprinter to distance runner isn't an easy one! Here are some tips I've picked up along the way.

In short: Run slower. Run more frequently. Make a plan. Take "how will I stay motivated?" seriously and go after it: find a running pal + set a goal + use whatever tech works for you. It will get easier. More details below.

-Like others have suggested - slow down. No, really. Don't worry about pace--instead, use the "talk test" - most running should be at a pace where you can comfortably chat with a buddy. Run for time. If Oprah, P-Diddy, and 95-year-olds can run a marathon, you can for sure run a 5K. Probably tomorrow, if you just took your time and ran slowly. I could only run for about 10 minutes when I started and now I can go for hours. You've got wheels naturally, now you need a base.
-Yes, barefoot training stuff like Nike Free and others can be great for encouraging proper form, strengthening your muscles and reducing risk of injury. If your calves are killing you now, though, these will just work your calves more, so I'd wait for a bit. Think of these tools like weightlifting for your feet - ease in gradually and build up. I'd venture this, too - don't worry about your form and footstrike. The more you run, the better your form will become, naturally. The aches and pains will ease off, too. Listen to your body - your calves are fatigued, and that's normal. If anything makes you limp, changes your form AT ALL or gets worse the more you run instead of loosening up, that's a sign you need to ease back, take time off, or get it checked out.
-Follow a plan so you're running consistently, resting when you need to, and building up slowly to prevent injuries. Keep a log with minutes run each day and how you feel. Aim to increase weekly minutes by 5-10% each week. The more frequently you run, the better you'll become.
-Set a goal! Pick a 5K one month from now and train for it. Get a running buddy to keep you on track and chat with you so you're sure to keep most of your training at the appropriate speed.
-If you want something to help motivate you, keep track of how you're doing, and suggest a training plan, you might like Nike+. You can get an iPhone app for $2, or SportBand/SportKit depending on if you run with music or not. Full disclosure - I work for Nike Running, but that doesn't mean it isn't good stuff!
-If you really want to geek out on a training plan with true science behind it, my absolute fave is (Jack) Daniels' _Running Formula_. You'll get the scoop on long runs, threshold runs, interval training, the works. Little charts to help you run the proper pace for everything. Will help keep you entertained and use your wheels a little, too - so you're not just doing the same exact type of run each day.

Good luck!
posted by red_rabbit at 12:41 PM on October 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

while I don't become out of breathe, my legs wear our after about a mile

I'm guessing that your cardiovascular fitness has improved faster than your strength. According to John Bingham,
…while your aerobic system can achieve one cycle of measurable improvement in 3 to 6 weeks, your muscular system achieves one cycle of measurable improvement in 6 to 12 weeks.… your aerobic system is changing every 3 to 4 weeks, and your muscles are changing every 6 to 12 weeks, but your joints and tendons won't — and can't — change except every 6 to 12 months.…

That is why people so often begin to experience joint pain after just a few months of running.… Their hearts and lungs are feeling better than ever and their muscles are starting to feel great, so they push themselves to go farther and faster before their joints and tendons are ready. [Running for Mortals, pp. 58-59]
As has been suggested above, Jeff Galloway's run-walk technique is very useful if you're trying to get into running. There's no way I'd have made it past the second run if I were trying to run the whole way, I think.

Also, your alignment and biomechanics are probably out of whack. Whatever you may think of barefoot running, getting feedback on your alignment from somebody knowledgeable could be very useful. (I've had wonderful results from the Egoscue Method, but it's the alignment that matters, not the name on the door.)
posted by Lexica at 12:48 PM on October 20, 2010

I have a great couch to 5K that I was given by a physio and has got me back on the road twice after injury - and is sooo much simpler than the one linked to above, which kept me to it, because I always knew what I had to do without consulting a chart. It is:

Run every other day, or three times a week, whichever you prefer. Go out for 30 minutes each time, maybe with 5 mins brisk walking warm up/cool down.

Week one - run for 30 seconds, walk for 4mins30secs. Repeat six times.
Week two - run for 1 minute, walk for 4 minutes. Repeat six times
Week three - run for 1min30secs, walk for 3mins30 secs. Repeat six times.

And so on. Each week you add 30 seconds of running and subtract 30 seconds of walking, until you're running for half an hour (which is approximately 5K).

Apart from that, as others have said, the best lesson I've learned is how to vary my pace. It's easy to just run out the door at whatever pace feels natural and surprisingly hard to change that. But it's a great help in your training if, rather than stopping or walking every time it gets tough, you're able to slow it w-a-a-a-ay down but keep jogging.
posted by penguin pie at 12:48 AM on October 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I started running, the one thing that helped me the most was choosing different things in the neighborhood to run to. That way, I wasn't concentrating on "running" per-se, but an actual goal, a destination. And back, of course. From there, I just kept extending the destination out at increments that felt comfortable...

It might sound strange, but running long distances quickly requires patience. But, at the same time, you should push yourself in ways that seem appropriate - throw in a new challenge, go explore some street you've never seen. When you're a runner, you're kind of given a free pass to go where you like.

Also, remember that any physical exercise you do is going to help you get into better shape... so biking, rock climbing, swimming, tennis, whatever... it's only going to be good for you. Go enjoy it!
posted by ph00dz at 6:53 AM on October 23, 2010

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