I once faked passing out in gym class in order to skip the dreaded physical fitness test mile run. I cheered on Anne Perkins in Parks and Rec when she said, “Sure, jogging is good for you. But at what cost?” And I scoffed at the jocks heading to cross country practice throughout middle school, high school, and college.
And then... I became one of them. This came at a great personal cost: The more I ran, the less I wanted to indulge in things like all-night parties, and the less cool my occasional smoking seemed. The hard-core shows that used to be my weekend activity of choice became a chore because my long runs got longer and I wanted to go to bed earlier and earlier. I once jogged up the stairs of the punk house I lived in, only to be asked by a snide, well-coiffed girl in my living room, “Can I help you?"
I gained an identity, and lost myself in the process.
Eventually, that changed too, and balance started returning to my life. I exchanged my Nikes and generic neons for VivoBarefoot shoes in minimalist-chic color schemes and black-on-black-on-black workout wear that looked legitimately cool with a leather jacket tossed on top. And I started going out at night again—less frequently, but with the exuberance of someone with strong enough lungs to keep dancing like a lunatic at an underground dance party in Brussels until three in the morning.
Moral of the story? You can be healthy, and you (yes, you!) can be a runner without giving up your personality, whatever it may be. That said, becoming a fabulous runner who can go out and crush three miles like it’s a warm-up doesn’t happen overnight. But there are ways to make running suck less. When I started, it was a mile-a-day slugfest that left me sweaty, miserable, and downright grumpy. Since then, I’ve become the runner I wanted to be, but more importantly, I’ve been able to introduce a few other less-than-athletic friends to the practice, and in a much less jarring, more sustainable way thanks to some rules for running designed for people who, well, hate it. Let’s dive in.
Do you prefer soul-searching time in nature or a short workout that keeps you in shape without costing you a big chunk of your day? If you’re more into the former, you’ll likely prefer a slower, long distance style of running. The kind where you turn on your playlist and cruise at a comfortable pace for a long time—which can mean 45 minutes for some, or hours for more seasoned runners. It’s contemplative, meditative time. The second option, on the other hand, can be a balls-to-the-wall hard run that doesn’t last long—think 15 to 60 minutes—and, frankly, is going to hurt a little bit, but will feel ahh-mazing when you’re done. Both will get you sweaty and in shape, but you’re going to want to choose the type of running that’s right for you. Our will to exercise has been linked to our genetics, so knowing what’s going to make you feel the most like you is a big deal.
Make a plan
Even in the “I can’t run a mile” early stages, you can still set a goal. That might be to run that mile (awesome) or it might be to enter a 5K in the next year. Obstacle course racing might seem like a sweet new challenge, or the lure of a trail marathon might grab you. Find something that seems exciting, and make that your first endpoint. Having that goal on the calendar helps keep you motivated, or at least, presents you with a challenge versus a more generic “I want to get fit!” goal—and you’re not adding something like weight loss or appearance to the process.
Walk, don’t run
Okay, let’s back it up. If you’re not already walking for at least 30 minutes every day (not necessarily all at once), start with that. Most people who try to start running ultimately fail because they go out too hard—you know, the usual “I’m going to start a new habit of running five miles every day” that gets dumped a half mile in when you realize, for the 100th time, that running is freaking hard. So rather than heading out the door to sprint down the block, start by walking for the time you’d like to devote to running. If you’re already a decent walker, you can add in little spurts of slow running—about the length of a city block—but slow it back down. This slow-and-steady build into run preparedness can save you a lot of pain, and help build your system up, so you’re ready to kick ass.
If you’re struggling for a reason to run and your goal doesn’t feel authentic, consider this: running in nature has been shown—in study after study—to increase productivity and creativity. That’s why so many writers—Joyce Carol Oates and Haruki Murakami among others—get outside and run regularly. It helps keep their creative juices flowing. So, if you need more motivation, consider the uptick in creativity you’ll get in the work you’re doing on your novel, or your painting, or whatever gets you going.
Start slow. Really slow.
You’ve been walking for a few weeks now and you know you have the time carved out for running, plus you’re starting to pick up your walking pace, maybe adding a bit more time or getting a little farther as you get faster. Now, it’s time to add in running, but slowly. Start with an on/off approach. Walk for 10 minutes to get warmed up, then walk two minutes, run one minute. And when you do run, don’t sprint. Instead, try to maintain a pace that feels like you could carry out a conversation—not full, lengthy Hemingway-style sentences, but if you can get out a few words relatively comfortably, that’s the right pace. Keep alternating between walking and running. After a few more weeks of this—at whatever length you want, but for total newbies to running, no more than an hour—change it to one-minute walking, one minute running. After a few more weeks like that, drop it to one minute of walking and two minutes of running. And once you’re comfortable there, keep walking as an option, but start running for as long as you can without breaks.
Indulge in bad music
This is your chance to Shake It Off. On your run, when it’s just you and your headphones, no one is going to know that you’re rocking out to One Direction or singing along internally to the soundtrack from Clueless. I won’t tell anyone.
Start small. Really small.
If you’re aiming to speed up that workout but stay in that 30-to-45-minute range that keeps you fit without the time commitment, add speedwork. Once you’re comfortable running the full 30 to 45 minutes without a walk break, add in spurts of sprinting—these are called fartleks in running language, but I still can’t say that without giggling. Basic premise: Run at the steady pace you’re used to, and every few minutes, pick a target about a block or so away (like a signpost or streetlight) and sprint for it as hard as you can. It’s easier than specific interval workouts, and a lot more fun. If speed isn’t your thing but you still want that hard-work-not-long-hours effect, find a hill nearby and add a few reps of running up to your workout. The hill forces you to work harder but avoids the flat-out sprinting feeling. Plus, it gives you a great butt.
Focus on your brain
If you’re not into a pop girl playlist, use your walk/run as personal development time and listen to podcasts, new music, audiobooks, or just turn all the sound off and consider it meditation… Do all the things you wouldn’t normally take time for in daily life. Between that and the mood-lifting benefits of exercise, even if you’re not convinced that burning calories or getting fit is a top priority, consider it time spent on self-development, not six-pack development.
Mix it up
If you’re more of an adventurous type and the idea of just running seems, well, sort of lame, you can add in some change-ups to make yourself into a badass all-around athlete (and potential obstacle course racer). Add in some circuit work during your walks/runs like planks, push-ups, crunches, squats, lunges, and any other body weight exercise that you can do for 15 to 60 seconds every few minutes. Sure, you’ll look like a crazy person, but who cares? You’re getting into baller shape. If you’re crunched for time, consider adding errands to your workouts as well. Carry bags of groceries home at a brisk pace, and boom: workout accomplished.
Take care of you
Stretching and foam rolling aren’t just for pro runners. Hit a weekly yoga class or spend, at least, a few minutes each day after your run stretching out on the floor. (To start with, just use the generic stretches you learned in gym class. It doesn’t need to be fancy.) If your muscles are sore, consider buying a foam roller to help self-massage those knots out of your quads and calves. And make sure you’re taking at least one day off each week to recover, especially at first.
Treat yo’ self
I’ll be honest. One of the best parts of running is the gear, and a good habit should be rewarded, so once you’ve been at this for a while, it’s time to reap the benefits—not just the health ones, the sartorial ones too. Running is great for cheapskates because all you really need are sneakers to get started, and those sneakers can be cheap, beat-up old ones you have hidden under the bed from that time you joined a gym three years ago and never went. But once you’ve started a consistent running habit—go, you!—you can treat yo’ self to some sweet new kicks or tricked-out leggings and tops. Don’t feel like you need to look like an athletic store threw up on you, though: There are tons of brands doing subtle, seriously fashionable versions of traditional athletic gear.