This year marks my 15th year of running, give or take a few periods when I was recovering from a broken bone or had lost my running mojo due to extended illness or bad weather or some other reason. When I tell people I run three to four miles, three to four times a week, I'm sure they take one look at me and think, wow, she is a pathological liar.
It's true that running has never helped me to shed the pounds I gained during two pregnancies, but it has allowed me to keep eating pizza and chocolate while not keeling over from a heart attack (so far). [Here's an article on fitness and fatness.] It's kept me in good heart health and in good mental health (I get my best ideas while running), and it got me a job once. The woman who hired me, Karen, who is also now a good friend (and a marathon runner), insists she hired me for my skills, but talking about running led to talking about other things that helped us both to realize we were a good fit.
Over the past three years, my running has become inconsistent at best. A relationship break-up, a new job, the loss of a beloved pet, my brother's battle with leukemia, and an empty nest demoralized me. I tried walking and swimming, but walking bores me, and chlorinated water irritates my eyes. My complete failure at exercise over the past year means the pounds were piling on, since I didn't match my lack of exercise with a commensurate reduction in calories. In January, however, we started a "Biggest Loser" contest at work, and I'm one of the organizers of the contest, so I couldn't very well sit in my office with my feet up, eating Ding-Dongs and yelling "carry on - you're doing great," now could I?
So after two months of slowly transitioning back into exercise, I am finally back to running about 10-12 miles a week (and I am down 11 pounds - yay!). On dark, cold days, I use the treadmill at the gym, but on weekends, or if it's sunny enough after work, I head to the park, which brings me to the point of this post: Other runners are STILL making the same dumb mistakes they were making 15 years ago. I am routinely amazed at some of the things I see other runners do. It makes me want to pull my hair out (or stop them on the track and lecture them like their high school gym coaches SHOULD have done). Instead, I've vented by writing down my suggestions here. So, for anyone who would like to still be running into their 50s and 60s, instead of recovering from knee or hip replacement surgery, read on.
1) Stop running on the balls of your feet. That is called sprinting, and it works brilliantly if you are running a 50-yard dash. For anything longer, and if you don't want to destroy your feet, knees, or back, your whole foot needs to hit the pavement, starting with the heel, and rolling forwards as you come up again.
2) Stop stretching before you run. You should never stretch cold muscles unless you really want to hurt yourself. If you really must, if it makes you feel better, or if you think you look pretty cool doing it, do some jumping jacks first to warm up your muscles before you stretch. Or run for five minutes, stop to stretch, and then take off again. (It is extremely important, btw, to stretch AFTER you run.)
3) Don't bring your dog with you to run. They have these HUGE olfactory cavities, and they like to stop and sniff and do other bodily things, so if you don't want to stop too, come alone.
4) Buy some running shoes. Every day, I see at least one runner, sometimes more, running in boots or flat Keds or Converse basketball shoes. It pains me to see this. Running shoes are designed for running and will prevent serious injury to your knees and back. It's a simple thing. Really.
5) Dress for the weather, not for your fan club. Everybody starts pulling off clothes after they've warmed up, so it's a good idea to dress in layers (some scouting wisdom never gets old), but don't START OUT running in your Speedo unless it's 101 in the shade (and even then, really?). There are tons of companies out there making money off of your foolish athletic-clothing choices, but here's what you really need: Clothes to fit the weather, so sweats and two tee-shirts plus a warm, hooded running jacket will do fine in the winter, while shorts and a running bra (or topless for men) is fine in the heat of the summer. Other options include a baseball cap to keep the sun out of your eyes and to catch your sweat (wear the jacket hood over the cap in winter); sunglasses as appropriate; good shoes and socks; a bandana if you sweat a lot; gloves and a neck warmer if it's freezing outside. For women: After running shoes, there is no better investment for female runners than a good running bra. If you're heavy up top, you may want to wear two.
6) Drink water. I see so many runners at the park who don't carry water with them and never stop to take a drink. They must be heartier than me. I could probably run three to four miles without passing out, but I'm an open-mouth runner so my mouth gets pretty dry. I don't know how anyone can run for an hour and not have a drink of water.
7) Smile. If you've chosen to run in a park, then you must have figured you'd run into real people. I don't need you to stop and discuss the World Series or the presidential election with me, but would it kill you to smile? Just sayin'.
That's pretty much it. It's not brain surgery. People tell me all the time that they "could never run." This includes my fitness-obsessed friends who work out for 15 to 20 hours a week and do workouts I would never survive. And yet, while a 50-minute spinning class would KILL me, I find running to be as easy and natural as eating pizza and chocolate. My sense is that everybody has a sport or fitness routine that works for them, and you just have to find yours. And if it's running, well, I hope you'll leave the dog at home.