Born-again runner.

There are born runners – those of long stride and low bone density, gliding easily along for miles like smug hovercrafts – and there are born-again runners. Those who, against all biological odds, have convinced themselves that ritualistically hauling their body weight over unnatural distances at elevated speeds is a desirable way of keeping fit. Crazy people.

In my defense, this was more of a frolic than a run.

Growing up, I hated physical fitness testing like…a fat kid hates physical fitness testing. No event was more ominous than the dreaded One Mile Run. I think I clocked in at 13:41 one year, which can’t have demanded more than a brisk walk of even of my stubby little legs. The promised return of my Baby-Sitters Club book was the only thing that got me to the finish.

Even when exercise became less of an affront, running remained a last-ditch option. Since I’d never made it a cardio mainstay, I lacked the endurance to get what I deemed a sufficient workout, and my disordered mind balked at the idea of sacrificing temporary calorie burn to train for longer distances. Why suffer the indignity of a 15-minute run when I could pedal away at an elliptical machine for 45? Surely the latter was the better option.

Then I got caught the bug.

If running is not and will never be your thing, by all means, opt out. There are a million ways to be active, many of which don’t also carry risks of charley horse and perpetual starvation. Save yourself! But if you want to be one of those crazy people who loves running, maybe you’ve just been doing it wrong. A change in approach helped me put a lifelong aversion – and about 15 miles a week – behind me. No Baby-Sitters Club book necessary.

The Born-Again Runner’s Gospel
Or, how to work out without hating your life.

Enlist technology. Traditionalists love to talk shit about the “dreadmill.” I find indoor runs to be far more enjoyable than their open-air counterparts, mainly because they incite me to push myself. From a mental perspective, it’s easier to do a challenging workout than a lame one.

You can find any number of treadmill workouts online, but here’s my basic formula: Set an easy warm-up pace (I like 6mph), and run at that speed for the duration of one song. At each subsequent verse/chorus transition, increase your speed by .5mph until you feel like you might die (for me, this kicks in around 9.5mph). Revert to half-speed (in this case, 7.5mph, which is now going to feel so easy) and “reset” for the length of one song. Repeat until desired mileage is reached. If you get bored, mess with the incline.

Running this way keeps my mind and muscles engaged in a way that bopping along down a riverside trail does not. I find that the miles fly by, and I enjoy feeling like a beastly sprinting badass at the end of every cycle. I’m also a huge baby who hates being at the mercy of the elements. Raw lungs? Stinging eyes? The unpleasant, paradoxical sensation of sweating under four layers of fleece? Why? Eliminate unnecessary discomforts, and you’ll find that you relish unavoidable aches and pains as a sign that you’re working hard.

Curate your plate. When it comes to food, many people use running as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Unless you’re clocking crazy mileage that requires you to gorge like an Olympic athlete, this usually doesn’t work out. Even if you manage to outrun your appetite, the pattern can breed an unhealthy “crime and punishment” mentality in which food must be justified by exercise (actually, food is necessary for human life, which is why people in comas require feeding tubes. But you knew that, right?).

I love jambalaya fritters and lamb burgers with duck bacon and toasted marshmallow milkshakes (sorry, it’s been great food week), and it’s true that running keeps my metabolism going at a rate that allows me to indulge and still put on my pants. But you know what I don’t love? Running with heartburn. Or, more abstractly, feeling like I must run to atone for the fact that I am a human being who sometimes wants things that aren’t salads. Running provides a concrete demonstration of how healthy food works as an energy source rather than a weight control method. Eat well, move easier. It makes me want to take care of myself, not get away with as much as I can.

You’re gonna get really hungry, though. Which is why you need to…

Fuel yo’self. I talk about my “move more, eat more” philosophy in my exercise history. Running is one of the most demanding forms of physical activity, so you can totally add an extra snack or be more lax about your portions. Just add good stuff that will help you rather than hold you back.

What and when you eat before a run is especially crucial. The only thing worse than running while bloated is running while starving. I cannot get a good run on an empty stomach, and honestly, a piece of fruit is usually not enough.

I like to think in terms of pre-run fuel and post-run repair. Since I don’t run long distances, I don’t need to be taking in tons of extra food, but I do compose my meals around my workouts—carbs before and protein after, with a bit of healthy fat on both sides. I currently have the luxury of exercising between breakfast and lunch, but when I was working standard hours, I was a big fan of the double breakfast (peanut butter toast or two of my favorite anytime cookies before; fruit with Greek yogurt or hard-boiled eggs after) or, if I was gym-bound after work, a hefty snack at my desk around 4pm.

This may seem excessive, but remember, it’s not entirely literal. You mind needs to believe that you have the energy to complete your workout just as much as your body needs those calories to function. Once you get used to eating around your activity, you won’t have to think so much. You’ll realize that you’re creating an ongoing flow of energy intake and expenditure, and that no one meal or workout can make or break you. Rather than crime and punishment, the result is a zenlike give and take (a “lifestyle,” I believe they call it).

Run with a purpose. This one comes from my lil’ sis, a varsity athlete and prospective Ivy League lacrosse recruit (NBD). She’s exactly like me except cooler, faster and funnier. Thank goodness I was born first, because I’d never have developed a healthy self-esteem with her around.

For those seeking a reason to get off the couch, Maddie suggests lacing up with a destination in mind. “Run to drop something at the post office. Run to grab something at CVS. Meet a friend for coffee. It’s a workout, but it’s also a way to get from place to place. Later, when you’re not feeling motivated, you’ve already developed the habit, and your body is used to doing the work.”

Isn’t she wise? She is so wise. Sister, you are so wise. Now get out of here so I can get back to being the smart one. Anyway, this isn’t entirely compatible with my sick treadmill fetish, but I think it’s a solid way to build up endurance and get your body used to high-impact movement. A+.

Eschew popular wisdom. Switch up your music! Invest in nice workout clothes! Get it over with first thing in the morning! I’ll admit that I cringe at the thought of running without a freshly loaded iPod – okay, and Lululemon Wunder Unders – but WTF to that morning crap. I’m a morning person, and I still prefer to get my sweat on after I’ve had a few hours to eat and caffeinate. Maddie’s with me on this one: “Don’t be confined to stereotypes. If you typically have more energy in the afternoon, do it then. Night owl, work out late. Watch the sunrise when you can sit and enjoy the freaking sunrise.” Sing it, girl. Run when you have the most to put into your workout, and you’ll get the most out of it.

As for the other stuff, it’s helpful, but it’s not enough. You can listen to music at home and wear yoga pants to the grocery store, so your motivation has to come from somewhere else. Same goes for the buddy system. Personally, I abhor group fitness – I like to get in the zone and pretend no one else exists – but I think even more social gym-goers can benefit from doing solo runs. It goes back to the challenge aspect of my first point—you’re more likely to crave a run when you can see the gains you’re making, and you’re more likely to make gains when you can focus on working hard. If you choose to be an active participant instead of running out the clock, your workout will become more interesting.

Take all of this with a bead of sweat. I’m no fitness expert – just your average active Jane – but I’m also not a born runner or even a lifelong exerciser, so I feel confident that just about anyone can get to where I am. In the three years since my 75-pound shed, I’ve found no better way of maintaining my size while keeping my mind calm and my belly fed. These days, I crave a hard run more than any other workout. Just don’t ask me to climb that stupid rope.

Do you like to run? Any tips to make it more enjoyable?

One response to “Born-again runner.

  1. Pingback: The C-word. | BITE

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