How to Run For Your Life...and Enjoy It
Setting a pace you can maintain and embrace
By now we've all accepted that once we're past this whole pandemic situation, it may take a while to get things back up and running. But what if I told you that in the meantime, you could be up and running right now? Would you groan audibly? Would you map my likeness onto a soccer ball and kick it around your backyard while simultaneously cursing my name? Perhaps that could be your spark, given that futbol players log an average of seven miles per match.
Growing up, ultramarathoner Vanessa Niemeyer was always a soccer player first, runner second. However, when it came time to try out for a starting spot on her high school team, her coach told her she'd have to condition herself through track and field in the spring to have a shot — much to her dismay.
"I remember going to my first track and field practice and absolutely dreading it," she recalls. "Little did I know, we would be running 1.1 miles just a few minutes later … I remember grabbing my side and feeling like I wanted to stop. I did not stop. I continued and finished 11 (ish) minutes later. While I was feeling exhausted, I also had this overwhelming sensation of accomplishment. I started thinking, maybe I can run further, maybe I can run faster."
Spoiler alert: she did, and it became much easier over time, eventually culminating in entering into the Bali Hope Ultramarathon in Indonesia with her sister Nikki. "Eventually the runner's high isn't associated with as much exhaustion. The runner's high for me is full of feelings of accomplishment, relief, strength, courage, happiness, and adrenaline all at once. I also feel 'complete' with every breath while running. My lungs fill with clean, fresh oxygen. My body feels like it is supposed to feel — healthy and alive."
There is a certain purity to running, primal and authentic — the legs, arms, lungs, and heart pumping in unison under an open sky, ground beneath our feet and life all around us. But as beautiful as that sounds, many of us envision wheezing, dry heaving, cramping, and quite possibly dying. If that's your experience, maybe you just haven't warmed up properly.
The first thing you want to do before you start any new fitness routine is to equip yourself properly. For runners, your number one priority is a good pair of running shoes, which are much more durable than the average sneakers. Niemeyer prefers the Mizuno brand, "but everyone has their preferences."
"A running shoe is built with technology to support your body and to correct imbalances or pronation. It generally also has more cushion and will not break down as fast," explains Courtney Sargent of Erie's Achilles Running Shop. "Make sure you get a proper fitting; this will help you find a shoe that supports your body's biomechanics."
The next thing Niemeyer recommends is comfortable running clothes. As a general rule, runners should dress as if it's 15 to 20 degrees warmer than it actually is and choose technical fabrics — synthetic blends designed to wick away moisture and regulate temperature. Look for additional features such as compression (purported to aid recovery), pockets (not always a given), thumbholes in sleeves (for cold weather), and sun protection.
Once you start getting more serious and into distance, you'll want to carry some form of hydration and calories to keep you physically going, and perhaps a means of music playback to keep you mentally engaged. Sports or running watches, such as the Garmin Forerunner 35 that Niemeyer utilizes "religiously," are also a good investment, especially for her fellow number people. Most modern models keep track of pace, distance traveled, and total time, while also harboring on-board GPS (so you don't get lost out there).
While it's okay to montage your expectations (i.e., picture yourself as an utter specimen conquering exotic or challenging terrain), it's better to manage them.
"Oftentimes people will get so excited about starting a new hobby that they will go overboard," explains Niemeyer, who works as a physical therapist. "Going overboard early on can lead to excessive soreness." In other words try (for) a little tenderness, but don't tenderize yourself.
The best way to build commitment at any level, Niemeyer says, is to set realistic daily and weekly mileage goals and follow a plan (readily available online from running coaches and personal trainers) adapted to your schedule.
She is also a firm believer in cross-training, as it will give both your mind and body a break. "Add in strengthening, swimming, biking, hiking, or any other form of physical activity. Be sure to stretch! I can't emphasize this enough. Keep your body healthy. It is better to be undertrained and healthy than overtrained and unhealthy. If you notice something abnormal, don't wait, get help."
As masochistic as they might seem to outsiders, runners genuinely do enjoy themselves. How, you ask? By choosing to make their experience more enjoyable, whether it be finding a favorite place to run (Niemeyer is currently smitten with trail running) or a favorite person to run with (Niemeyer happened to run that first 1.1 mile in high school with her best friend). Although your choice of runningmate is still somewhat limited by COVID-19, there is no shortage of scenic backdrops in Erie County — Asbury Woods, Erie Bluffs State Park, along the Bayfront, around Edinboro Lake, and so many more.
When running clubs and races are allowed to reconvene, you'll be sure to collect plenty of both friends and benefits. "I have met some amazing individuals in the running community," says Niemeyer. "The sport encourages you to be healthy, active and to travel. It is also a great excuse to meet up with friends on a regular basis. If you are thinking about running, I strongly recommend it. I can't imagine my life without the sport of running and without the people that it has brought into my life."
Matt Swanseger didn't learn he could run until only recently. He is still catching his breath at email@example.com