How far should you go on a first date?

Don’t worry, you haven’t strayed into an old copy of Cosmopolitan. I am, of course, talking about what sort of distances you should be aiming for when you start running.

Now then, when I set my heart on running the FLM seven years ago, it had been several years since I had last strapped a pair on and went out for a run. Worse, it had been several decades since a smattering of teenage cross-country victories had convinced me for all time that I was Born To Run.

Cue mistake number one then: squeezing into an ancient and entirely cushionless pair of Mizunos and setting off at 6 minute mile pace for a 6-miler that included a mile of sand dunes and two miles of fairly soft beach.

Predictably, I was feeling pretty bad from about half a mile out, seriously winded from the mile marker, and desperately in need of someone to talk me away from the tunnel with the pretty white light at the end of it by mile three.

I ended up slowing down to a geriatric shuffle, simply to get myself home without stopping, and arrived looking like an old nag that had been ridden hard and put away wet.

Typically (for me anyway), I had tried to do too much, too fast, too soon and had paid the penalty as a result. The outcome was that I could barely walk the next day, was virtually paralysed the day after that, and had no urge to run again for nearly a month.

When I finally plucked up the resolve to try again, I had a plan to be a little more systematic in my approach and a little less ambitious in my scope. So, I drove around the block in the car, having reset the trip milometer to zero, and realized that the distance was pretty well exactly one mile.

While that felt a little wimpy, it turned out to be exactly the right distance. I had a little warm up, did a few stretches, and set off at a gentle jog that got me back to the house in seven and a half minutes. Crucially, I was able to run all the way without stopping, felt pretty good when I finished and also felt pretty good the next day. Two days later I did it again and felt just as good.

Now then. You could be reading that and thinking: “A mile? A whole mile? It’s madness, madness I tell you!” Or you could be thinking: “A mile? Hell, I’ve got a marathon in mind. I can’t start off by just running a mile!”

Thing is, those are both valid points of view. If you’re the wrong side of 50, or perhaps carrying a few stone too many, it’s perfectly OK starting off at running 400 metres. And if you’re young and fit from other sports, by all means start off at 3 miles. Only you can assess your baseline fitness. But whichever point you start from, I think it’s essential to follow these simple rules for your initial training:

1. Start with a distance, and a pace, that lets you run all the way without stopping or taking walk breaks. And include a short walk before and after your run, to help avoid both stiffness and injuries.

2. Have an idea of how far you’ve run and time yourself, keeping a note of these details in a diary.

3. Make sure you’ve got the time and energy to run that distance at least 3 times a week.

4. After a week or two, or when your starting distance starts to feel easier, raise the distance a little. Run 20% further on just one of your 3 runs. Then add 20% to all of your runs when that starts feeling easier. Keep adding distance when you feel you’re too much in the ‘comfort zone.’

5. Learn to listen to your body. Back off if it isn’t happy. Do more when it feels too comfortable.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to starting out and building up your distances and fitness than that. But by following the simple rules above, I’m now at a point where going out to do 6-8 miles doesn’t trouble me at all and where anything up to and including a half marathon has ceased to be intimidating. And I might add that I’m about as far from being an uber-athlete as it’s possible to be.

In future parts of this blog, I’ll be discussing all of the other things that make running easier and more pleasurable, including the role of the right kit, the right route, speed work, nutrition, hydration, stretching, warm-ups and warm-downs, sports massage, and much, much more.

But just as a starter for 10, I doubt that you’ll go very far wrong following the 5 simple rules above.

This column first appeared on therunningbug.co.uk . Part 3 of ‘Mate down the pub’ will appear there 7 days before it appears here at TJBFS.

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