How To Become A Runner Even If You Hate Running

Photographed by Winnie Au.
For most of my adult life, I thought running was useful only for catching a departing subway train. And even then, another F train was bound to come sometime, right? So when my boyfriend, Maurice, signed me up for a “surprise 5K race!” (yup, that happened), you’d think I would’ve left him standing there in his running gear. No worries, there are other fish in the sea, I would’ve told myself on my leisurely walk back to the train.

And yet there I was, excitedly pinning on my racing number to run a terrifying (to me) 3.1 miles in NYC's Riverside Park. How is it that in a few months, I went from abhorring running, finding it about as scary as one of those dreams where you forgot to study for your final exam, to being one of those people who thinks a surprise 5K is an exciting idea for date night?

The thing is, I’ve always enjoyed exercise — just not running. Never running. As a workout-class junkie, I’m not ashamed to admit that I have an underwear drawer full of grippy barre studio socks. Yet open as I was to trying different fitness trends — whether it involved trampolines or aerial downward-facing dogs — running, one of the most basic exercises you can do, scared the crap out of me.

I was always one of the slowest kids in my elementary school’s biannual mile run, huffing and puffing across the finish line, flushed from head to toe. And then there was that episode of Friends where Rachel is embarrassed to be seen running with Phoebe because of her, ahem, “form.” In my adolescent mind, I was Phoebe, always Phoebe, and that anxiety lasted into adulthood. I avoided treadmills (no Barry’s Bootcamp for me!) and laughed and rolled to the other side of the bed whenever Maurice invited me on morning jogs — rationalizing it was boring and painful, but really just worried that I’d be really bad at it and embarrass myself.

I don’t know what made me start questioning my reticence. Maybe it was the smiling joggers who came out of hibernation to race alongside the Hudson River as the weather thawed after a brutal winter; maybe it was the promise (after promise after promise) from Maurice that he wouldn’t laugh at me for my low speed or flailing form — but one day I was feeling antsy, and I wanted to see if I could maybe, sort of survive a light jog.

And I did survive it. It’s not like I was marathon-ready after that first jog or anything (I’m not even sure I could say I liked it at that point), but I did get a tiny glimpse into what it could be like to enjoy running. Here’s how I got from absolutely not to running my first 5K.

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Just Get Started
I first tried conquering my irrational fear on an early spring day, when I couldn’t find an appealing workout class. For better or worse, the only way to start running is to literally start running — and so that’s what I did, putting one foot quickly in front of the other. I wanted to prove to myself not only that I could run, but that I could run fast. This is almost too easy, I thought as I sprinted the first quarter-mile. And it was. That is…until it wasn’t.

I ended up doing a lot more walking than I had planned on my first real venture out — but according to coach and creator of Mile High Run Club Debora Warner, starting slow is the way to do it.

“I wouldn’t recommend someone to just go out and run a full mile without stopping,” Warner tells Refinery29. “That is the No. 1 reason why new runners get discouraged: because they will try running one or two miles and will get tired [ed. note: or injured]. Start with light interval training. Two minutes on, two minutes off. Structure doesn’t really matter in the beginning; it [is about] the fitness level of the individual.”

And so I did just that: alternating between running and walking — trying to run a little more than I walked every time.
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Buy The Right Shoes
Once I started running more regularly, I decided to reward myself by upgrading my ratty sneakers from college to a flashy new pair of shoes. At first, I didn’t realize that I needed new shoes for more than aesthetic reasons.

I went into Paragon Sports only caring about what color sneaker I was going to get. But I quickly learned that there were more important factors to consider than blue or purple accents, like: How high is my arch? Am I a heel striker or a forefoot striker? Do I pronate??? It was head-spinning, and it definitely made me feel like I had no idea what I was doing. But thankfully the salesperson didn’t laugh me out of the store, and instead helped to identify my personal foot needs after a quick gait test. (This means he analyzed my run on a treadmill. A.k.a. he watched me run, and — what do you know? — he didn’t laugh either.)

It turned out that the foot cramps I was experiencing weren’t just a normal result of running — they were a side effect of bad shoes. And according to Warner, I may have gotten off lucky. The wrong pair of kicks can result in shin splints or other injuries that take awhile to heal. “If you’re scuba diving, gear is important,” said Warner. “Why would running be any different?”
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Run Like No One's Watching
I still think of Phoebe Buffay as my running idol, because now I just don’t care if I look crazy. It was helpful to realize that in real life, there is no Rachel Green, and absolutely no one cared how I looked when I ran. No one scoffed at my klutzy form or rolled their eyes when I slowed to a snail’s pace. In fact, when I stopped freaking out about making eye contact with other runners, I realized that my fellow joggers were actually smiling and nodding as we passed one another. Suddenly I was part of a club filled with everyone from old ladies power-walking in matching shirts to hot power brokers sprinting without any shirts. People who run understand that it’s hard. And they’re nothing but supportive of anyone who’s trying.

It seems silly now, perhaps, that I didn’t get this, but it’s freeing to learn that insecurities are best let go of so you can just enjoy yourself. (Which, it turns out, was the moral of the Friends episode to begin with. Somehow my awkward, pre-teen self missed that part, probably because at the time I was already convinced people were analyzing my every move. They weren’t.)

All this is not to say that learning about good form is a bad idea, though. If interested, you can learn the basics from an Olympian here.
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Run With A Buddy
Once I realized I was a part of this not-so-secret running club and no one thought I was a freak (because, really, what kind of monster would?), I decided it was time to finally accept Maurice’s invitation to join him on a morning jog. Although I was a little afraid of running in front of someone I knew, it didn’t take long to find out that I loved having a running buddy. Not only does it turn a jog into a social event, but it helps keep me accountable. I’m way less likely to bail on a run if I’m letting down another person, rather than just myself.

“Another reason to have a running buddy is to find someone who’s better at it who can challenge you to do it a little faster,” Warner said, noting that this tactic depends on the person. “Some people are highly motivated; some people like to run alone because it’s me-time and a time to escape.” If you truly enjoy it as your special time, skip this step.
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Make A Killer Playlist
For the times when I’m on my own and don’t have a running buddy to motivate me, I find it enormously helpful to run to a beat.

There are running purists who don’t believe in obstructing the experience by listening to music (and some races won’t even allow headphones!). To each their own, but if you ask me, running with music is a must. In fact, it’s part of the fun.

“I’ve always been dependent on music,” adds Warner, who has incorporated carefully curated playlists and sometimes live DJ sets into her classes at Mile High Run Club. “Music makes me push myself harder, because if I get excited about the song I’ll run faster. Anything that supports the activity and makes it more enjoyable, everyone should embrace.”

When I don’t need a heavy bass line to keep up my pace, I might switch over to a podcast — catching up on This American Life on Mondays, Here to Make Friends on Tuesdays, and Serial on Thursdays. This, I’ve found, can really break up some of the monotony, and it gives me an extra reason to look forward to my run.
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Set Realistic Goals
When I first started running, I made the mistake of trying to tackle distances I simply wasn’t ready for right off the bat because, hey, a mile doesn’t sound like a lot, right? Wrong. At least for my body in the beginning.

Trying to do too much too fast can actually backfire and curb future enthusiasm. So while there’s nothing wrong with having a goal — whether it’s achieving a certain mile time or signing up for a race — start small and then work your way up. The only reason why I survived and, dare I say it, enjoyed my 5K was because I was ready by then.

For a lot of runners, racing is most of the fun. “I’ve never forgotten a single race,” says Warner. “I remember three years ago, Kanye West’s “Monster” was playing [when I ran] in Times Square for the New York City Half.” But you don’t have to make running a race your ultimate goal. (I was signed up kind of under duress, after all.) Your goal can be whatever you want it to be.
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Just Keep Going
The longer I run, the more reasons I find to do it. For example, I just finished writing a book, but when I got stuck on a chapter (which happened a lot), I found that taking a break for a jog could prevent a blank-Word-document-induced panic attack. Not only did running release my nervous energy, but focusing on putting one foot in front of the other made it impossible to freak out over what plot point should come next. I was able to return from a jog with a clearer head and a brighter attitude. Thanks, endorphins.

It’s also incredibly gratifying to see your hard work pay off. Every new distance milestone is a rush, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit how excited I was the first time I was able to maintain a coherent conversation while jogging. (I didn’t even think such a thing was possible!)

It’s not always rainbows and butterflies. There are still days when I don’t feel like going, or when I don’t have as much energy or stamina as I did on my last run, and it can feel a little bit like I’m the caterpillar in one those math problems: pulling myself two difficult inches up, then sliding three sad inches back down. But I’ve found that almost always, a bad run can lead to the next day’s best. Run. Ever. All you have to do to get there is put one foot in front of the other. And do it again. And again.
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