I am not the picture of a stereotypical runner. I run, but I’m not one of those girls you see effortlessly adjusting her ponytail as she speeds along mile 4 of her morning jog. I’m the girl with the tomato-red face who doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with her limbs, trudging along at a pace that feels kind of comical for someone with such long strides.
As a kid, I found running (and most sports, for that matter) torturous.
I did anything I could to get excused from gym class. My diagnosis of Marfan syndrome, a connective tissue disorder, meant high-intensity and contact sports were off the table for me—which felt like more of a relief than a deprival at the time. I was able to be active otherwise, but I was an exercise-averse bookworm and chose to take full advantage of any excuse to avoid it at all costs.
About a year ago, I decided to actually give running a solid try.
I’d dabbled a couple times before, trying to figure out if that elusive runner's high I heard about for so many years was real. I willed myself to head down to the local park to run laps around the track, only to lose steam a week later—if I could even make it that long. There was also a time when I lived near the beach and thought running by the water could be a good way to get some exercise in, and then proceeded to do that exactly twice before giving up.
This time, though, was different. A conversation with a close friend turned into discussing exercise and the benefits of forming healthy habits early in life—and the potential consequences of my largely sedentary life started to feel more real. That conversation led me to dust off my running shoes and give it another go.
For people like me, advice from running experts can be kind of exasperating.
I have no interest in running a six-minute mile or competing in a triathlon, so while I’m sure their advice is sound, none of it seems to actually be applicable to me. I’d much rather hear from someone who feels the same about the sport as I do: resigned to the fact that they may never be the best at it, but sticking with it nonetheless to reap the health benefits of physical activity.
Rather than trying to make running great, I’m just focusing on making it less bad. So far, this new approach has been working.
While I’m certainly not breaking any speed records and, more often than not, I struggle to get myself off the couch and into my workout clothes, my relationship to running has changed lately. No longer is it abject torture; rather, I’ve come to view it more as a kind of responsibility—a commitment to my future self, you could say. I’ve realized that thinking of running as this amazing, endorphin-fueled panacea was setting me up to fail.
By striving for optimization, rather than perfection, I’m able to be less hard on myself about the whole process and see that running might be for me after all. And, in implementing just a few tweaks, I have been able to make running significantly less bad.
If you’re anything like me, they might help you, too.
1. I determined my why.
On far too many occasions, I’ve found myself running through a crowded transit hub in an effort to catch some form of transportation and thinking to myself, I should get in better shape. (Also, I should have gotten here earlier.) I dread the occasions on which I have to summit the five flights of stairs for dinner at my friend’s place, and the thought of attending an indoor cycling class makes my palms sweat. Cardio for cardio’s sake doesn’t really do it for me.
Thinking about how it makes me healthier, stronger, and more likely to catch that flight next time? That’s much more motivating. As obvious as it might sound, articulating the ways that running could have positive effects in my life has made it a lot easier to actually keep at it.
Also, I must admit that I’ve always been secretly envious of people who wear those 5K participant T-shirts. I often remind myself that if I keep up this habit, I could eventually be one of them.
2. I found myself an accountability buddy.
After talking about my new running habit with a few close friends, I now feel more compelled to actually follow through. One friend and I even exchange sweaty selfies after our respective workouts, and some days, wanting to match his photo with a red-faced picture of my own can be the push I need to get my jog started.
It’s also great because my friends know me and how much of a challenge this whole running thing can be for me. In this way, I feel like other people are noticing my efforts. As nice as it is to feel proud of myself, it helps to know a couple of other people are proud of me, too.
3. I learned to not take running too seriously.
Lately, I’ve been trying to find at least one thing during each run to make me laugh or smile. I’ve found that it really helps to lift my mood and alleviates some of the tension that builds up. I’m also convinced that finding points during my run to crack a smile has a compounding effect over time—the more times I feel happy on a run, the more running as a whole takes on a positive association in my mind. After all, if I’m smiling, it can’t be that bad, right?
Just the other day, I was about half a mile away from finishing my run and could think of little else except how ready I was to be done, and then I saw the spunkiest sausage dog galloping through the park with its owner. It was so funny and cute that it immediately took me out of my head, just long enough to interrupt the loop of “when will this be over” playing in my mind.
If my route for the day seems to be lacking in humorous stimuli, simply recalling a funny story or meme I’d heard or seen recently can do the trick. While I sometimes get self-conscious about how I must look, running and smiling like some weirdo, even that can be an occasion to laugh (even if it is just at myself). I used to think that running had to be this serious, intense sport, but since trying to take a more lighthearted approach, it’s been a lot easier to stay committed.
4. I make a playlist I love and then let it guide me through my route.
I’m definitely not the first to suggest that a good running playlist makes the whole ordeal a bit easier, but I’ve found that listening to the same playlist every time gives me good benchmarks against which to track my progress. If I know that I’m usually passing the supermarket when the second song comes on and I find myself hitting that point as the first song comes to an end, it feels really good—I know I’m beating my PR. As I get closer to the end of the playlist, I know that my run will be coming to an end soon.
There’s also nothing worse than having to skip through song after song in search of one I actually feel like listening to, and crafting a killer playlist eliminates the need to fidget with my phone, allowing me to stay focused on the task at hand.
I also love to save a really energizing song for my cool-down. As I’m taking deep breaths and rejoicing that I can finally slow down and walk, that last song is like watching the movie credits roll to an upbeat tune. Fade to black, another run in the books.
5. I plan out my route ahead of time.
One of the biggest mistakes I made in my previous attempts to get into running was not mapping out a route beforehand and sticking to it consistently. I ended up slowing myself down by introducing obstacles like stoplights and increasing my risk of getting lost, and found that I was just giving myself too much to worry about.
Now, I have two routes that I stick to, depending on how many miles I want to run. I never have to worry where I’m going, I know exactly how long my run will be (and where the endpoint is), and I’ll be close to home by the time I’m ready to cool down, rather than exhausted and ready for a shower in a neighborhood I don’t recognize.
The routes I’ve chosen also take me through parts of the city that I love. As I cross the river and glance over at one of my favorite viewpoints, I’m reminded that there are way worse places to be than out in the fresh air, taking in the sights of a beautiful city.
6. I use gear that helps minimizes distractions and maximize motivation.
Some people can run in anything, sticking their phone in their sports bra and tucking their house key into their shoe. I, on the other hand, need to dress the part, transitioning to my “sporty” alter ego before I can get out there and go at it.
The Apple Watch I received last Christmas that I didn’t initially know what to do with has turned into my best friend on runs—I’m easily able to check how far I’ve gone, note my pace, and compare my stats over time. There’s something so satisfying about seeing all my workouts lined up in the app, and it motivates me to keep my streak going.
Earbuds that fit snugly in my ears, comfortable sneakers, and a running belt to keep my iPhone and house keys safely are also on my list of running essentials to help keep discomfort to a minimum.
7. I celebrate my progress.
Some days are definitely harder than others. And some days, I skip my planned run because I just don’t feel like it. But other times I notice that I’m making better time than I usually do. Or maybe that last half mile feels a little bit easier than it did last week. Maybe my face looks just a little less red in the sweaty picture I take to share with my bestie. Whatever the benchmark may be, I let myself notice it and feel proud.
By no means do I love running now, and I certainly have a long way to go until I can say I do. But every time I think about how I’m actually doing the work and doing my best to become my fittest, healthiest self, I can’t help but be surprised. Who would have ever thought that I would be sharing running tips with anyone? I genuinely surprise and impress myself with what I’m capable of, and that keeps me coming back for more.
Maybe that runner’s high everyone’s always talking about is actually real. I can’t say for sure yet, but I’ll keep running until I find out.