Running for Beginners

Last month, I bookmarked an article on Lifehacker discussing how running isn’t cheap and the costs that come with taking it up as an workout routine. Thing is, unlike the Lifehacker of old, this article was just a complain piece to recommend and insert affiliate links to mentioned products, many of which aren’t necessary for beginner runners. $50 sports bras? $18 pairs of socks? A $40 hydration belt? Climate differences between my place of residence in comparison to the author’s, gear at those price points are for seasoned runners that are looking to keep pushing themselves further. While premium socks and a hydration belt would be nice to have on any run, my regular 5 mile route was mastered using regular ankle cut big-box store athletic socks and a $10 refillable plastic sports water bottle. Lifehacker of Gina Trapani’s days of yore would have posted an article with strategies and low-cost alternatives/DIY solutions. So rather than silently turn my nose up at it to myself, I decided it would be better put to use as motivation to write something myself — the piece that article should have been. Coming off a 2 month break from my old running routine, I’m finding the challenge of getting back in the habit to be not unlike how it felt when I first started running years ago at a starting weight of little over 250 lbs.

Gear Up

The Clothes

Running is just putting on clothes, shoes, and heading out the door, but those choices can make a big difference, and the cost of proper running gear can be very prohibitive. When I started running, I didn’t want to spend money on high-end running shoes and clothes because I wasn’t sure I was even going to stick with it. So, I ran in old cotton shorts and tees and whatever sneakers I had in my closet (90% of my shoe choices then were boots). It was sufficient, but unpleasant. Proper microfiber running shorts with built-in underwear and shirts ended up being a worthwhile upgrade. Rather than staying soaked and weighed down (and putting additional heavy wear on my day-to-day underwear).

Brand name apparel can be ridiculously expensive: $50+ for a pair of shorts $40+ for a shirt, $120+ for shoes. I’ve picked up some of that stuff at reasonable prices through online deals, outlets, and retail tent sales, and I’ve been thoroughly unimpressed with the return on that investment. I’ve done shoes by Adidas, Nike, FILA, and Asics, clothes by Asics and Saucony.

To date, the best return on the dollar for comfort & wear has been Hanes’s Champion brand of athletic wear. Running shirts & shorts can be found at local Target stores for $20 bucks each, $13–15 if they’re on sale (and a little more if you happen to find them on clearance). Lately, I’ve found some results on Amazon, eBay, and Wish that look promising, but haven’t lured me away from just sticking with Champion stuff.

Target Champion Shorts

For the shoes, Payless Shoe Source is a handy retailer to use. I actually joined their mailing list to get additional %-off coupons when their Champion running shoes go on sale/clearance. This brings shoes down anywhere from $12–20 a pair depending on promotions at the time.

Champion Gusto Runner Shopping ListingChampion Gusto Runner Shopping Listing

Champion Gusto & Gusto Cut-Out Runners, My Go-To Shoes

So even without discounts, you’re looking at approximately $20 per item, and one pair of shorts and a shirt will not cut it if you’re running multiple times a week. Shoes should also be alternated, so you’ll want at least two pairs. I don’t wash my clothes after every run, as I don’t require them to be freshly clean before I go getting them drenched with sweat again. I let them air dry between runs, and wash them every 3 runs. This prolongs their lifespan (wash/dry cycles are hard on these things), and if you’re in CA, nets you bonus points for being drought-conscious. One thing I’ve been meaning to do myself is get a small washboard so that I can gently handwash and air dry my running clothes on my shower curtain rod. They’re not made of absorbent materials, and dryer cycles seem to put the most wear on them.

Finally, there’s socks. You can invest in luxury athletic socks if you want, but I maintain that those are only really for 10k/Marathon runners. I buy various athletic socks online if I see a deal, but by default I’ll pick up a 6-pair pack of Champion socks at my local Target.

The Accessories

Armband

If you’re going to be taking your phone with you, you’re not going to want to have to hold it the entire time you’re out running. Out of the few that I’ve tried, I’ve been most pleased with the TuneBand products available on Amazon. Not only is it a quick and low-fuss option, it also has replacement elastic bands available for purchase. Over use, those stretch and warp, and it’s nice to not have to buy a whole case altogether.

Tune Band

Headphones

I’ve tried various $20–30 bluetooth headphones off of Amazon, and they’re all been consistently underwhelming. Their maximum volume isn’t high enough, audio playback occassionally stutters, their weight makes it hard for them to stay in place (even using Comply foam tips). If you’re going to go the bluetooth route, go with a pair of Jaybirds or some other big name in that space. I can’t vouch for those, but I can say the 5 star reviews the afforadble options get on Amazon are certainly generous.

I recommend sticking with wired headphones for the time being. Even then, you’re still going to have a hard time finding the option that works best for you. Here I’ve used quite a few different sports headphones — YurBuds, Sennheiser, Skullcandy, Sol Republic, and JLab, to name a few. My input here is to be wary of headphones marketed as sweat-proof; most of the time, it ends up not being the case. Headphones with good sound quality and an inline remote/mic make it easy to change tracks/volume without having to distract yourself with your phone’s screen, something that can be really hard to do when it’s strapped to your bicep at an inconvenient angle and your fingers are moist with perspiration, but they’re also the ones most prone to failure. I’m not a profuse sweater, but even so I’ve ended up returning far too many pairs of headphones due to sweat causing them to trigger pause/play and volume controls at random without any actual button presses taking place. If you can find a pair that holds up, great. I prefer to avoid the potential for failure, and stick to headphones with no mic/remote these days.

The other big issue I’ve had with headphones are fit. It’s distracting and annoying to have to constantly fiddle with earbuds and put them back into place. I’ve noticed sport headphones these days now come with stabilizing ear tips, but mileage can vary with those. The best consistent solution for me has been to buy a pair of Comply foam tips. Those expand in your ear canal after you pinch and insert them, so you get a great seal that results in firm placement and great sound quality.

Comply Foam Tips Webpage Screencap

Going with the absolute low cost option, a solid $10–15 pair of headphones and $10 for a pack of foam tips will have you covered.

JLab Jbuds 2 Shopping Listing

JLabs JBuds 2 are my current running headphones and have gone down over 50% in price since I bought mine. The supplied stabilizers don’t provide as solid a seal as some Comply foam tips would, but they’re  good enough to where I haven’t had the need to buy some.

The Maintenance Supplies

Another “hidden” cost of running is the stuff you’ll need for personal care; as a result from the conveniences and comforts of modern life, running puts certain strains on your body as it adjusts to the habit of doing what nature designed it to do, and you’re going to need a few thigs to help along the way.

Sunscreen

If you’re running at any time of the day that isn’t dusk/night, you’ll want to make sure to apply this. It’s common sense. My skin tone and genetics don’t leave me pre-disposed to sunburns, but I still pass on the unnecessary UV damage nonetheless.

Lubricant

Whether it’s just petroleum jelly or a water/oil-based personal lubricant, you’re going to want something to minimize the friction on your skin. At the beginning, I had a bit of an issue with chafing due to all the fat on my thighs. After burning a lot of it off and taking up longer distances are higher frequencies, I still found it necessary to avoid a burning agitation of my nipples.

The Oatmeal Comic

(©2016 Matthew Inman)

Dracula kisses do not feel like kisses. They feel like bee stings. Be kind to your nipples. Lube ’em up if you’re going for more than a couple miles.

Salicylic Acid or Callus/Corn Shaver

Running puts a lot of pressure and friction on your feet. Despite whatever preventative measures you take, they’re going to rough up a little bit the more you do it. In order to keep your feet from looking ragged, you’re going to have to get that dead skin off. I started with salicylic acid (about $5 a vial), but as the rough patches got bigger and harder with time, I ended up needing to do multiple coats to get them off. Eventually, spent the $10 on a safety razor to just trim it off. It’s very safe and practically impossible to cut yourself with one, and takes far less time than applying salycylic acid and waiting for it to dry.

Corn Shaver

Tips

Let Your Imagination Run With You

When you’re running for an extended period of time, you run the risk of getting bored. You’re not speeding by at 60 MPH like you in a car, so the things that are off in the distance take a while to actually get to, especially when you’re starting off and haven’t developed your pace.

My workaround to this was to employ that good ol’ childhood imagination. I’d let myself pretend I was a character in one of those high-action worlds of powerful protagonists — in my case, that fell to my favorite video game franchises.

Part of my route involves crossing a long bridge that passes over a wide highway. I would recreate the Clash on the Big Bridge scene from Final Fantasy V in my head as a Hollywood calibre production, and project myself into the midst of it.

only like:

 photo Squall_Vs__Sephiroth_DISSIDIA_by_th.gif

If you decide to give that whole “power of imagination” thing above a try, then having a fitting soundtrack will really help with immersion. For the video game crowd, studios will usually publish soundtracks and remix/rearrangement albums for games. In addition, the indepedent music scene at Overclocked Remix has a treasure trove of additional tracks to make use of. I highly recommend their various Mega Man remix tracks. So explore with different things, and run yourself through your favorite movie, book, or game.

(OR Let Your Mind Work On Real Stuff Instead)

If the imagination option sounds like it’s outside your wheelhouse and not something you’d enjoy doing, real life can be just as effective an escape as fantasy; many a run of mine have doubled as a workout and a self-therapy or productivity planning session. Rather than focus on how hard it is, how tired you are, or how much longer you still have to go, plan ahead what it is you’re going to do after your run.

Get the RIght Rhythm to the Burn

Following on the theme from the talking point above, variety is important in order to keep you from losing interest in going on a run — going running shouldn’t necessarily mean putting your mind to work. Sometimes, you do just need a good music playlist to zone out to and focus on your run. Put music to your workout — hardly anything new and groundbreaking here, most everyone does this by default. Thing is, your choices can impact your performance negatively as well as positively.

By all means, listen to whatever you motivates you to get out the door. But as you start pushing your endurance and pace, give yourself that extra boost by picking something upbeat that drives you. Some people like curating playlists for themselves, and a collection of fast-tempo tracks would take a very small amount of time to make. For anyone looking for a no-fuss option, I highly reccommend Spotify’s running originals. They have adjustable BPMs, and auto-set themselves at the start by using your phone’s sensors to match your pace. Just pick a theme and go — I myself am partial to Burn, Chase, and Escape mixes.

Spotify Running Webpage

Use Apps

Another good tactic to motivate yourself would be to make a game out of your workouts. I used to use ZombiesRun as a good way to add atmosphere to my night runs and drive me to tie the laces and get out of the door, but these days I prefer to just run to music and log using an activity tracker — meeting a certain number of miles each month is game enough for me.

Searching the app stores for phones will bear no shortage of running apps. I’ve tried pretty much all of them, and would recommend anyone new to them to just skip ahead to RunKeeper. It’s the most well designed, easy to use, and integrated with other health tracking apps/services. With the more recent updates, they’ve really done a good job of integrating Spotify, so you can fire up RunKeeper, pick a Spotify running mix, and start your run without having to manually switch between apps.

Run Keeper

Bring a Buddy

I’m not really much of a social exerciser. I usually prefer to be able to move at my own pace and not have to worry about keeping up/not leaving behind others. However, the times that I have gone running with other people, it’s proved to be a delightful change of pace. The only reservation I would have about this approach is becoming too reliant on the social aspect of it and not wanting to go out for a run alone.

If you happen to know other people who run and use the same tracking app as you do (or at least cross-post to another social network you follow each other on), you can still have a social component to your running even if you’re going out alone. I’ve had a few friends pop up as recommended Runkeeper buddies, but no one seems to actively use it as much as I do.

Breathe Smart

One of the biggest hurdles I had to overcome when I started running regularly was the issue of breath. I was an obese smoker, and running a mile under 15 minutes was a big deal for me. As second-nature as breathing is to us, doing it optimally for physical activity is not an automatic response. Some people will run and try to breathe entirely through their noses, others with just their mouths. Some huff and puff rapidly, while others will take slow and deep long breaths between strides. While everyone’s body responds differently, what I’ve found to be best, after experimenting with the various breathing tips you can find online, is making sure that you are concurrently breathing through your nostrils and mouth with each inhalation & exhalation. It takes some getting used to doing it naturally, but it doesn’t take long.

Another problem I frequently had when I started running was the dreaded side stitch, which nobody knows to be its definitive cause. One article I read suggested slowing your pace and exhaling in step with the foot opposite the side you feel the pain on in your abdomen. I had limited and varying degrees of success with that. One thing I did find that my body responded well to was employing the Ujjayi breath of yoga at a slower pace. If you’re not familiar with it, see if a local yoga studio offers free trials. Here in San Diego, there are plenty of Core Power Yoga franchise locations that you can do a week for free at. It’s good to take up yoga not just for the breathing exercise, but as a supplemental workout you can do at home to improve your strength and endurance for running. If group activity isn’t your thing, Gaiam’s Yoga Studio app is a great way to practice from the comfort of your own home. That app worked well enough that when I went into my first heated yoga class at Core Power, most of the movements were already familiar and managable enough to perform and hold in unison with everyone else in the room.

Make it Minty

Another tactic that I found to be helpful for me was to hit myself with mint before and during my run. When I first started running, I would have a mug of hot green mint tea, and take a cold bottle of water with a few millileters of mint extract mixed in. I also would pop in a couple of sticks of mint gum (those who don’t trust their lingual kinesthetic awareness enough to not end up biting off their toungue chewing while running would be better off substituting hard mints to suck on or those dissolving breath strips). You know how deep breaths taste sweet and cool when you have mint? It makes running breathing that much more pleasant as well.

Advisories

You Will Suck

If you start out as I once did, largely sedentary and extremely overweight, you are not going to perform like an athlete. You already know it, but you’ll still feel lousy for it. I would always think of middle school PE class, how target times for running a mile — 3 laps around the adjoining community park — were 6–8 minutes. The really athletic kids could do it in under six. The non-athletic under 10, and the overweight & obese like myself at 12–15 minutes. I picked up running right when activity apps started hitting the nascent App Store, and would be highly disppointed with my times still matching up with those from back when I was 50lbs heavier in grade school. It felt like no matter what I did, no matter how hard I trained, I would be the exception to the rule. I wouldn’t improve over time, I’d always be stuck in the bottom tier as an abysmal runner.

But stick with it, it gets better. I say it to people all the time: if I, overweight as I was and (still) with a smoking habit could do it, anyone else can too.

You Will Ache

Beginning running was hard not only because of the high fat-to-minimal-muscle ratio, but also because of the other stresses it puts on the body. It was not uncommon for me to feel my leg muscles ready to go for another run, but unable to do it on account of all the blisters and pains on my feet. During the intial phases, it’s a good idea to double down and wear two pairs of tighly pulled on socks. For additional protection, Johnson & Johnson makes a friction block stick that you can apply to your feet much like deodorant.

As your legs and core become used to the motions of running, you’ll build up a small degree of muscle mass. This, along with learning to moderate your breathing, will allow you to overcome (and eventually, eliminate) cramping up with a side-stitch.

You Will Quit

The ratio of phases you’ll have where you’re wanting to run versus those where you don’t are stacked in favor of the latter. You’ll think of things you have planned that you don’t want to be tired and sore for. You’ll negotiate with yourself and think you’ll eat light and make up for it later. You’ll be demotivated by how slowly you’re improving, and unwilling to deal with the muscle soreness and the blisters. And after a while, all those mental acrobatics will become just as unpalatable as the thought of exercise, and you’ll settle for just not doing it and getting back to it “later”.

This is one thing that may get easier to manage over time, but doesn’t ever really go away. And in order for it to get easier, you have to overcome it a few times and fight yourself for the victory, you have to exercise willpower and commit. I didn’t really start to get better at my running until I started planning my day around it, what else can I do in a day if I have work for 8 hours and 1.5 hours set aside afterwards for exercise? Sounds simple, but it’s not.

Myself as an adult without any pets, children, or significant other, assuming 8 hours of sleep, 8 hours at work, and 1 hour commuting to and from those points per day cycle theoretically leaves only 7 hours of the day to use for personal time — eating, using the bathroom, cleaning, bathing, getting dressed, exercise, phone/internet time, etc. Since those are spread throughout the day and not in a continous block of productive personal time and there’s real world time limitations to consider, it’s really easy to lose track of that time and not use it as productively as possible. You leave work at 5 PM and get home at 6PM. You want to running, but you also need to grab groceries and will need to cook dinner and eat it; going on a run first means you won’t be done until 7:30–8PM, and driving to the store, shopping, and driving home won’t put you in the kitchen starting on food until 9PM at the earliest. By the time you’re done, you’re eating dinner past 10 PM, left with less than two hours before a late midnight bedtime, and still have a sink full of dirty dishes to deal with. So it’s easier to tell yourself working out is something you can’t afford, go buy groceries, eat & watch TV, and go to bed.

It falls to you to take whatever measures you can to make your exercise happen for the day. In the scenario above, order groceries online during your lunch break. Get your shopping planned and done for the week during the weekend. For every problem that can get in the way of your workouts, there is a solution to be found — you just have to make the effort to find it.

In Closing

Skimming over what I’ve written, I can’t think of anything that I’ve forgotten to mention. Above are the most affordable & reliable options for running gear I’ve found, and the pitfalls and strategies I’ve come across along my journey as a runner. This is the pamphlet I would give to new runners. I never imagined I’d be able to run as long and far as I have. Adopting running as a regular part of your life isn’t as easy and simple as it sounds, but it doesn’t have to be a cost-prohibitive necessary torture session. With enough persistence and the right frame of mind, it can become something you enjoy and grow to love.

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