About three weeks after the birth of my daughter, one of my best friends suggested I run the Chicago Half Marathon with him. I laughed at the thought. I was sleeping four hours a night – at best – and was in the worst shape of my life. Sympathy weight is a real thing, gentlemen, but I’ll touch on that later.
Peer pressure and my competitive natures got the better of me and I signed up to run. With only 10 weeks to train, I pushed myself and finished the Chicago Half Marathon in 2:20. Definitely not fast by any stretch of the imagination, but under my 2 1/2 hour goal.
Throughout the process of training and running I learned a lot about health and wellness. I never thought of myself as a “runner.” Honestly, I still don’t. But I know that I am much better for having conquered this challenge. Here’s what I learned:
Find the Right Program.
I came into my half-marathon training with delusions of picking up and running 6 or 8 miles with ease. I found out that running a 5k, while in the worst shape of my life, was no easy task. The first thing I did was get new running shoes. The second thing I did was find a training program. The Nike+ Running App on my phone had a rather ambitious program, with daily reminders to “run 5 miles” or “rest” or suggestions on how to cross-train (I preferred swimming to build endurance). Here is a great program for beginners looking to run 13.1
Join a running group. Running is it’s own little cult of surprisingly nice and friendly people addicted to running. There are plenty of running groups that will push you to train harder and teach you to train properly.
The most important thing I learned in training is to stick to the program as best as I can. Definitely do not skip your long run on the weekends. Though you might dread the prospect of running 10 miles on a Sunday, these runs are the most worthwhile in the course of preparing.
Watch What You Eat a.k.a I Need to Eat Better
I found out very quickly that my diet sucked. As a busy young professional at a large law firm with a newborn child, I didn’t make time to think about what I ate, how it would fuel me and how it affected my heath. I just ate at my desk most days, grabbing something quick and easy and overly processed. Training doesn’t mean you can eat whatever you want. I ate like crap the first month of training. I quickly realized the effect it had on my body and made the switch.
There are hundreds of reasons why eating at your desk is terrible ( you gain weight, your brain power suffers, and your work/life balance sucks) and why you should be focusing on the food you eat but for me it was the mindlessness. I didn’t think about food as fuel. Load up on fruits and veggies, lean proteins and complex carbs, properly fuel your body for performance. Make sure you eat breakfast and always eat something before you run.
My first long run was 9 miles. I forgot to eat before I ran and I hit the wall around mile 7. Your body will run out of the necessary glycemic stores to fuel you unless you eat. So eat more and eat better. This also has had a tremendous effect on my mental acuity.
Get Those ZZZZs
Part of training for any event is getting the proper rest (see below), but what we often neglect is sleep. I’m a night owl. I write late at night, my brain is fired up and I seem to have my best ideas. I also get sucked into the late-nights watching baseball or football or Colbert. I’ve gotten by on 5-6 hours of sleep for years. You cannot get by on this little sleep when you’re pushing your body to perform better. Sleep is the best way to get smarter and faster.
The science of sleep correlates to better brain function, but more sleep will also make you faster. A study from researchers at Stanford University finds that extra hours of sleep at night can help improve football players’ performance on drills such as the 40-yard dash and the 20-yard shuttle. The same concept holds true with distance running. The more you sleep, the better your body and mind can heal from the fatigue and stress you’re putting on them.
Mind What You Have Learned & Rest Your Body Properly
Do not try to run every single day. Do not try to run more than your program calls for. Sometimes it’s okay to skip a (short) run if you’re feeling fatigued. It is possible to over-train. Listen to your body and rest when you’re supposed to.
I got down on myself the first few long runs when I would have to walk a minute here or there to catch my breath or walk off a cramp. On race day I was shocked to see seasoned runners doing the same thing at various points in the race. Resting properly, listening to your body and knowing the difference between pain and fatigue is vitally important.
On race day, I came out of the gate and ran the first 6 miles faster than I’d ever run 6 miles before. I ignored my training and pace. By mile 10 I was gassed but still going strong. Mile 11 was brutal. You play the way you practice. If you’re fatigued going into the race from over-training, your performance will suffer.
It’s (Mostly) Mental
The thought of running 10 miles was daunting to me, much less 13.1. I couldn’t imagine 26.2 or an Iron Man. I hit the 10 mile mark of my half-marathon and thought “only 3.1 to go….holy s%$! that’s another 5k.”
Running and finishing a half marathon is a mental game. You have to push past pain, fatigue and the little voice in your head that says “that’s too far, you can’t possibly do that.” Running a half marathon proved to me that my mind is tougher than my body. Mental toughness was an important tool I developed during training and during the race.
The Navy SEALs have a saying: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.” You can’t get stronger if you stay in your comfort zone at all times.
Running, like most exercise, feels good. It makes you feel mentally and physically strong. We’ve all heard of “runners high” that exhilarated feeling you have when you cross the finish line or finish your long run. I can attest, it’s real. Don’t believe me? Ask science.
Researchers in Germany, using advances in neuroscience, report in the journal Cerebral Cortex that the runner’s high is real: Running does elicit a flood of endorphins in the brain. The endorphins are associated with mood changes, and the more endorphins a runner’s body pumps out, the greater the effect.
If you, like many of us, live a high stress lifestyle, running can be a great way to wring out that stress. Make the time early in the mornings to run with the sunrise or over a lunch break (since you’re not eating at your desk) or in the evening with your family. Group running also ads to your social interaction and reduces stress.
Overall, running a half marathon isn’t for everyone. But I can attest it was the most difficult and most rewarding challenge I’ve posited upon myself to date. I grew in physical and mental strength, bettered my heath and diet, my overall well-being increased. If you’re looking for a healthy hobby, running is for you. I’ve already signed up for another race.