Running changed my life.
And to be honest, there was a point in time when I’d never have imagined myself saying that. Mainly because I initially had such an archenemy relationship with running (and exercise in general).
I did a lot of sports throughout childhood and adolescence. T-ball, soccer, swim team, basketball, gymnastics, cheerleading… The one thing that each of those experiences had in common was me, a wheezy little butterball, fumbling over my own feet. I was always the last kid to finish a lap or keep up the rest of the pack in practice, games and drills.
And it didn’t improve with age. Like, at all.
Each new (usually unintentional) encounter with running felt more like a near-death experience than exercise. Trendy clothes and fitness gear didn’t help. No matter what shoes or sporty equipment I strapped on in hopes of a miraculous athletic transformation… it was still me underneath. A slightly more grown, still wheezing butterball.
I knew that running was supposed to have a lot of perks.
It’s a great form of exercise and could do things like help lower blood pressure, LDL cholesterol and risks for cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and osteoarthritis.
Obviously, it seemed like an effective calorie burner and weight loss stimulant. And I’d heard it could even help put you in a better mood by releasing endorphins, relieving stress, combating depression and anxiety.
I contemplated it. Admired the benefits. Even went so far as to test it out a couple of times of my own volition. But each time, reality brought me back into the same conclusion: Nope. I just really suck at this.
Then one day I woke up, pulled on my ever-expanding elastic sweat pants, stepped on a dusty weight scale and took a long-dreaded look into the mirror.
I was at the heaviest weight I had ever been.
My clothes didn’t fit anymore. My self-esteem was lost somewhere in the empty bag of Cheetos I’d eaten the night before and most of the time I didn’t even want to leave the house. I felt tired and lethargic all day long.
Everywhere I went, it felt like I was lugging my most shameful secret around with me on my bones.
Now, I’m not saying that I was any less valuable as a person because of my clothing size. Or that at my heaviest weight I was the heaviest person on the planet. But I can remember going shopping later that week. Not because I wanted to, but because none of my pants fit anymore and I had nothing left to wear but sweat pants and baggy t-shirts.
And I remember looking at myself in that dressing room mirror and feeling like I had hit bottom.
Yet with that moment also came no-more-nonsense realization: I needed a change. Badly. Because I was not okay with the idea of spending the rest of my life uncomfortable in clothes and own skin.
There was just one problem: I didn’t know anything about exercise. I didn’t know how to be a “runner”. But I figured I had nothing left to lose by trying.
So I decided to give it a legitimate try this time. On my own terms. And then this crazy thing happened.
I did it.
It wasn’t pretty at first. It actually sucked. Like, a lot. But I had determined not to give up this time. Even if I felt like a jiggling idiot, I was going to keep putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward.
Strangely enough, after a while, I figured out some kind of rhythm that began to feel a little less like death on a hamster wheel. As time crept by, I discovered I could go a little longer, farther or faster each time.
Until one day, I looked around at the passing trees and whizzing pavement and utterly startled myself: I had become a runner.
Then another crazy realization struck me: I didn’t hate it anymore. Crazier still, I had somehow actually started enjoying it.
Now, lest you be fooled, I’ve never been an impressive runner. I’ve never run a marathon or come in first place at a 5k. No one is ever going to hand me a medal or slap my picture onto a t-shirt for being the world’s best runner.
And I’m okay with that. Because in my running journey, I encountered something far more exciting than trophies or ribbons.
Not only did it contribute to my ultimately shedding 30lbs of body fat, but running also began to awaken something in me I hadn’t felt before. Confidence and a new sense of self-esteem.
It was one of the first personal achievements I made where I exceeded my own negative expectations of myself. It began changing the way I viewed the person in the mirror.
And the best part is that the same can be true for you. You don’t have to win a marathon and you don’t have anything to lose by trying. All you have left is an opportunity to be gained by getting started.
Find Your Pace
This is as unique to each runner as a fingerprint.
As a beginner, I was extremely self-conscious and uncertain of my physical capabilities. I knew I wasn’t capable of maintaining a grueling pace or covering much distance. And to be honest, I was embarrassed by the thought my jiggly areas jiggling down the street for the world to see.
But I knew that I could walk. And that I could do it for at least 20 minutes every other day. So that’s where I started.
It took time to develop strength, speed and stamina. But it only took me a week to find my initial exercise pace. Over time, my pace changed and evolved with my body, just like your pace will grow as you do.
Find a pace that works for you and go from there.
Ditch the Self-Criticism
Believe it or not, running is a judgment-free zone.
It’s your body and your workout. You get to call the shots. And you should do it without comparing yourself to other runners.
When I started, I was so embarrassed about my own perceptions of being out of shape. I was too self-conscious to go to a gym, so I decided walking outside on my own was a better place to begin.
And even then, I still worried at the thought of passersby secretly thinking mean, judgemental things about my unconditioned body. I actually started out by taking our family dog with me on my walks so that I wouldn’t be alone or look like someone “trying to get in shape”.
I was so, extremely, needlessly unkind to myself. It makes me sad to remember.
Here’s the deal: You will never come across a harsher, more unfair critic of yourself than yourself.
My fears and insecurities around getting started exercising were 100% in my head. No one was sitting on their front lawn or passing by in cars on the street waiting for an opportunity to heckle me or pelt with me with rotten tomatoes for being a beginner exerciser.
The only person judging me was me.
Your running journey is between you and the road. Between the two of you, you’re the only one who can be rude to or critical of yourself.
Cut yourself some slack.
Stop worrying about other people. Stop worrying about what is or isn’t jiggling when you hit the road. If you are getting out there and putting one foot in front of the other, you’re doing great.
Learn to Challenge Yourself
Now, remember: It’s going to suck at first. Maybe a lot. But don’t let that stop you.
Our bodies can’t achieve new levels of physical improvement without being pushed beyond their current capabilities. You’re going to wheeze. Your muscles will tire. You’ll probably get some of those annoying stitches in your sides.
Because do you know what else you’re going to do? You’re going to get better. Faster. Stronger. And you’re going to begin empowering yourself with a sense of respect and accomplishment for what this awesome body of yours is capable of doing (maybe after years of discrediting and underestimating yourself).
By challenging yourself to push through the burn and push through the suck, you’re going to breathe easier, feel better and begin to experience change.
Set Goals and Track Your Progress
I gave myself both long-term and short term goals. My ultimate long-term goal was to one day be able to actually hold a running pace. My short-term goals starting out were time-oriented.
Short-term, I wanted to be able to walk for 30 minutes instead of 20 minutes. So I timed each of my walks and logged them in a journal. Every two weeks I added five minutes.
When I was up to 30 minutes, my next goal was to add some more speed and distance into my walk time. I picked up my walking pace until I was going farther each day and powerwalking the whole time like a boss.
After that, I started adding jogging intervals into my walks for 15-30 seconds, building up to a couple minutes of jogging with a couple minutes of walking. Pretty soon I was jogging for half of my exercise time and then eventually jogging the whole time with spurts of sprinting.
Each time I reached one of my short-term goals, I set a new one. Writing down and tracking my goals in journals and running apps also began sparking a new sense of intrinsic motivation that I’d never experienced before with exercise.
In the past, I had always exercised out of guilt and dissatisfaction. Usually, because I felt embarrassed by my appearance or perceptions of my body’s shortcomings. But for the first time, I felt a sense of accomplishment in my body. That it was possible to take pride in its strength rather than constantly feel shame in its weaknesses.
Every time I reached one of my short-term goals, it fueled me to meet another.
And those short-term goals paved the way over days, weeks and months to meet my long-term goals. I kept setting new goals for myself until I was running for an hour, covering a certain number of miles, improving my run time and signing up for 5 and 10ks.
Give yourself something to strive towards in your running.
You could set a long-term goal to set a particular running pace, like I did. Or set an event-oriented goal, like completing a 5k race 3-4 months down the road. Then align short-term goals of walking time, distance and speed to train for it.
Start where you are and grow as you go. Track your progress in a journal, website or free running app on your phone and be sure to keep setting new goals.
Wear the Right Gear
I want to be clear here: You don’t need a ton of expensive or elaborate gear to become a good runner.
There are a lot of gadgets, gizmos and supplements out there geared towards running. Some of them are pretty neat but most of them are unnecessary for beginner runners.
Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed by thinking you need a lot of material things before you can get started. Because you don’t.
That being said, while having a bunch of fancy equipment doesn’t make you a runner, it is still important to make sure you have the basic necessities covered.
You don’t need to spend a bundle of money, but do invest in a solid pair of walking or running shoes, wear comfortable clothing and for the ladies, a supportive sports bra.
Find Your Motivation for the Next Mile
During a run, some people can march on to nothing more than the beat of their own feet on the pavement.
Personally, I could never run without headphones and some tunes. Listening to some of my favorite upbeat music helped take my mind off the suckiness of exercising when I was first starting out. Otherwise, I’d be so bored and hyper-focused on pushing through the suck that I could hardly stand it.
You won’t stick to something you can’t stand.
Some people like to listen to music, podcasts or books on tape. Some enjoy the peace and solitude of connecting with nature on various running trails and outdoor scenery. Others find motivation through the companionship of running partner or local running club.
Experiment a little and find what works to help fuel your motivation for covering the next mile.
Celebrate Your Success
This is the fun part.
Be sure to take pride in yourself when you reach a break-through or long-term goal.
Announce it on social media. Share your success with a friend. Maybe even treat yourself to something special now and then as a reward for all that hard work and dedication.
Just make sure to set non-food oriented rewards.
Some of the best rewards I’ve given myself have been ones that enhanced my running experience. A new pair of shoes, a running belt, sports headphones or a gadget to help track my runs.
Get excited and acknowledge the awesome achievements you’re making in your life and in your health.
My journey as a runner marked one of the first real paths to creating positive, lifelong change in my health and self-confidence.
It was the opening lesson on how to appreciate my body for its strengths and physical capabilities rather than just its appearance and clothing size. And it sparked an interest and enjoyment towards exercise that ultimately led me to become a fitness instructor and personal trainer.
And it all started with a willingness to simply take that first shaky, uncertain step forward.
What are you waiting on to take yours?
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Originally published 07-27-15. Updated 05-21-19.
All writing copyright © 2019 Rachel Elise Weems Woods
Images copyright © Bigstockphoto.com and Rachel-Elise Weems Woods