Editor’s Note: We’re starting a weekly Outdoors corner! Once a month, we’ll bring you a feature called “How to …” that’ll help you navigate how to start a new outdoors-focused hobby or activity. Twice a month, we’ll bring you itineraries for interesting walks and hikes to do in and around the Greater Seattle area. We’ll also have a monthly outdoors advice column. Where can you use a Discover Pass versus a Northwest Forest Pass? Useful tips on how to practice “Leave No Trace” principles? What’s the best thing to do if you break an ankle while out in the backcountry? Shoot us your questions either in the form below or via outdoors@seattletimes.com and we’ll find the best experts to answer them and print their responses.

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Love it or hate it, running is one of the few fitness activities that’s possible to keep up under the constraints of social-distancing measures. It’s delightfully mind-soothing, and it’s also physically and mentally taxing. So what’s a running-curious person to do? Start slowly, and get ready to discover your inner reserves of endurance and stamina. Here’s how. (Oh, and fellow runners? Follow the 6-foot rule when you pass pedestrians. We aren’t kings.)

It’ll be hard at first; it gets easier at mile 3

Running is a beautiful, invigorating, pleasingly minimalist sport. But if you’ve never done it before, your first run might feel hard on your body and brain. This is normal, and it will get better, says Beth Baker, a Seattle running coach who specializes in working with people who’ve never run before. “There is such a hard transition from zero to the 3-mile mark,” she says.

You may find you have a fight-or-flight reaction to running. “You feel like you’re in danger, that something is after you or you’re going after something, and especially if you’re running by yourself, you feel vulnerable,” she says. First-time runners have told her they’ve wanted to cry during early runs, or felt like they might die. “It’s like this primal switch that goes off in people’s heads.”

Anyone can learn how to run, says Seattle running coach Beth Baker. You just have to start slowly and get through the first three miles.  (Courtesy of Beth Baker )
Anyone can learn how to run, says Seattle running coach Beth Baker. You just have to start slowly and get through the first three miles. (Courtesy of Beth Baker )

You won’t die and you won’t always hate running, but Baker knows how you feel. She hated it, too, at first. “I think when you go through that tunnel, that pain tunnel, and that emotional tunnel, and come out the other side, you’re like, ‘Wow, I can do anything.’ “

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To get through this adjustment period, she recommends leaning on music or podcasts (safely!). Remember to breathe. If you can go on a run with someone else (increasingly rare post-COVID), talk to them.

And take it slow. Baker recommends new runners gradually build up to running continuously. You can do this on a track (run the straightaways and walk the curves) or just in your neighborhood (run a block, walk a block). You can also seek out a location like Green Lake, which has evenly spaced trash cans Baker uses as landmarks for her clients. “I tell people to run a trash can, walk a trash can for a week, and then the next week, do two trash cans, and then three trash cans, and then you’re running.”

Invest in the right gear

For running, this means shoes. That’s it. Breathable shorts and a quality sports bra are also a good idea, but if you have workout clothes lying around, they’ll work fine. Some athletic routines come with a built-in look (see: barre and $90 leggings), but the sport of Prefontaine isn’t a particularly stylish one (although things have gotten better since the ’70s).

While COVID-19 has certainly increased my own foolish online shopping, you really should try to get fitted for running shoes. Some shops, like Fleet Feet, will even do shoe fittings online. Others, like Super Jock ‘n Jill (where I’ve gone since I tried on my first pair of Adidas Supernovas in 1998), have social- distancing practices in place. Typically, these places can set you up with a pair of shoes that fits your running gait and style, and correct potential issues like overpronation (when your feet move inward while you run) to make running a safer, more pleasant, less injury-courting experience.

Also: Consider a pair a half-size bigger than your normal shoe size; this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but it’s important to make sure your toes have enough room to move slightly forward, since your feet, like overhead-bin suitcases, will shift during flight.

Track your mileage

There are numerous run-tracking apps available to record your speed and mileage, and you can use them, but you don’t have to! I’ve been running for 20 years, and I never run with any kind of mileage-tracking app on my phone (or with earbuds, but that’s another story). I usually time myself using a regular old digital watch (Timex’s Ironman series are a good, cheap go-to) and — post-COVID — stick to close-to-home routes I know well. You can also gauge your mileage by estimating your mile time, then timing your run and breaking it down that way, or just setting a simple goal: turning around after running, say, 10-15 minutes.

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Fuel properly

If you’re just starting your running journey, you must solemnly swear on the memory of Bill Bowerman (you’ll find out about him eventually) that you will eat enough food and drink enough water before and after (and though the no-added-weight purists might balk, bringing a water bottle and snacks along your route isn’t a bad idea). Stay hydrated (plain water is fine), and plan to have a carb-y snack after your workout. I subscribe to the chocolate milk, Haribo gummies and banana school of thought, but everyone is different!

Anyone who runs is a runner

Confession: I don’t run to stay in shape. If running had no physical benefits, I would still do it for the mental clarity alone. It might sound woo-woo, but running is a soothing, brain-calming activity. Like meditating or taking a nice nap, a good run can make even the worst day feel manageable. There’s something ineffable and good that happens at the 3-mile mark: It’s not like my problems or worries disappear, but I find that there’s more room for them. They don’t shrink; I just feel bigger.

Having an outlet like that is especially important right now, and it’s something Baker hopes to share with others as she sees them through their transition to running. It’s no substitute for therapy (which complements running well!), but getting to that calm place is something anyone willing to put in the hours can do.

“I know people have a different idea of what a runner is and what a runner looks like, and they look like all kinds of different ways,” says Baker. Her definition? “Someone who runs.”

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