I was recently asked to contribute a piece geared towards new runners joining a vegan running group in the Boston area. I kept it pretty simple and since it applies to all new runners I thought I’d share it here as well. Some of this (most of it?) has been written about on the blog in the past, but hey, it was nice to get out of my head and just focus on running instead of all this other stuff going on at the moment. Enjoy.
Here’s the thing with running. It’s really easy.
And here’s the other thing with running. It’s really hard.
It’s easy because it involves a very simple act, putting one foot in front of the other and then repeating this motion again and again until you decide to stop. That’s it. Considerations about hydration, form, shoe selection, matching apparel, complex equipment, interval training, weather, terrain, and so on…well, that’s all secondary, and often unnecessary. The most important thing to always keep in mind is that running is simply doing just that, running. There is something very comforting about this simplicity, about marking off a mental checklist as you head out the door, “Shorts? check. Shoes? check. Ok, then…let’s go run!” In that, running is easy.
But let’s not mince words. Running is also hard. It’s hard because it involves continuously pushing your body’s physical limits to a threshold, whether that is through speed or distance, and that is not easy. It is a stressor placed upon the body’s systems, but this stressing is also a necessity in order to push those limits further out of reach and therefore making you a better runner. To know that you are going to willingly push your own body into that zone of discomfort is NOT an easy thing to do, but as it is said, “Nothing worth doing is easy.”
With that in mind, I can offer some advice that has worked for me in the past, when I first started running again, and even now, after putting an absurd number of miles into many demolished pairs of shoes, that will help tip the ratio of easy/hard to the former.
Runners and vegans/vegetarians alike often have an obsession with eating, whether that is an interest in new foods or for athletic performance…I’m no exception. As a long-time vegan, I certainly enjoy visiting vegan restaurants in new towns, trying out the latest junk food concoction or experimenting with my own banana bread recipe, but as a runner I also pay strict attention to fueling needs, nutritional concerns and portion sizes (usually making sure I’m getting ENOUGH!). The good news is that because vegans/vegetarians often pay attention to the foods we eat, we’re already comfortable making changes where necessary or have a leg up (pun intended) on others when it comes to eating nutrient-dense, energy-rich foods for running. I could go on about this forever, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll highlight one aspect of eating that has benefited my health and my running.
Eat simply and diversely. This means eat foods that are quick and easy to prepare (that don’t involve trips to South America to discover secret grains eaten by tribes that have yet to have contact with modern civilization) and that contain a variety of ingredients. I like to refer to this as “the kitchen sink method”, which means eat everything including the kitchen sink. The obvious benefit to eating this way is that you are constantly getting a diversity of nutrients into your body, so that you reduce the risk of becoming deficient in any one thing, which can lead to compromised running performance. A lack of iron creates anemia and significant fatigue and recovery reduction. A lack of calcium can lead to stress fractures in your bones. A lack of protein can lead..well…no one ever ends up with a lack of protein.
How I like to prepare foods in this way is to have a “base” and then add as much extra as possible. So if I’m making stir-fry, I’ll start with a bag of frozen veggies and then add any number of ingredients including almond slivers, sesame seeds, flax meal, raisins, spices, spinach, kale, tofu/tempeh/rice/or cous cous, more veggies (red pepper, avocado, etc.), bragg’s amino acids, nutritional yeast, etc. etc. etc. Now, you don’t have to add EVERYTHING, every time, but the more ingredients means more nutrients, and if you mix it up each time you won’t get bored with with what you create and you make up for things you might have missed last time. I do the same with oatmeal, creating my “base” of oats and bananas and then adding everything plus the kitchen sink, like peanut butter, raisins, spices, almonds, cherries, flax meal, protein powder (usually for flavor), etc. etc. etc.
Both of these meals, I hope you notice, take VERY LITTLE preparation time and involve whole foods that usually just need cut and heated up before eating. I stick primarily to meals such as this and have yet to develop any nutritional deficiency or experience performance sapping fatigue even during my most intense periods of marathon training, which would max out around 110 miles a week. Although it can’t hurt, you absolutely don’t need to use obscure ingredients, spend hours preparing a simple veggie patty, or supplement your meals with protein powders or specially concocted energy bars and expensive nutritional products. Just simple EAT FOOD and eat a variety of it. That’s all. Keep it simple to keep running easy.
To succinctly offer training advise is difficult as each runner is performing with individual limitations and goals. Some of you may only be able to run 3 days a week, some 5, some every day, and each training plan will be adjusted to your ultimate goals and abilities, so no one plan will work for everybody. With that said, I can offer you what sort of plan I worked from during the height of my training and you can determine what you might consider cherry picking to suit your needs.
To start, a plan that involves running every day of the week consists of three different types of runs. A recovery run, a speed workout and a long run. The speed workout and the long run, which total three days of the week, are the most crucial for stressing the body’s various systems and pushing your abilities as a runner, and the recovery run is just that, to recover from those stresses and allow you to do it again and again as your training progresses. So for me, a typical week was as follows:
Sunday – Recovery run (10 – 12 miles)
Monday – Recovery run (10 – 12 miles)
Tuesday – Speed workout (10 – 15 miles)
Wednesday – Recovery run (10 – 12 miles)
Thursday – Speed workout (10 – 15 miles)
Friday – Recovery run (10 – 12 miles)
Saturday – Long run (20 – 22 miles)
The speed workouts, as the foundation of quick, competitive running, were highly varied and where one day consisted of measured intervals of high intensity, other days would be long runs at a slightly lower intensity, or hill running with varied intensities. The long run, being the basis of your endurance, most often consisted of simply an even paced long run, but at other times during training involved higher intensity intervals of 3 – 5 miles during the run. The recovery runs were just that, very slow running that maintained fitness, but allowed the body to rest and relax from the stresses of the speed workouts and long runs, setting you up for more of those at a higher and higher intensity.
For your individual purposes though, it will be up to you to decide if you simply want to run a distance to finish, to compete against others, to run a PR, etc., and then adjust your training plans accordingly. The problem is that could involve any number of variations on your runs, and without a training group or coach to guide you through that, you’re left to scouring the internet…which can be very helpful if you look in the right places. Personally, I would advise reading running magazines as they are always filled with either general advice or specific training plans and workouts. That is exactly what I did when I was first fumbling through my attempts to get better at running and it served me quite well. I would only advise that you don’t take everything as gospel and simply pick and choose what sort of training plan or workouts sounds appealing to you. That will allow you to shape your training as you go and not stress you out if you can’t keep to the suggested intensities or goals. Again, keep running easy by keeping it fun and fluid, varying your runs as what feels best for you each day.
Avoiding mistakes is easy advice….don’t. I made mistakes all through the beginning of my training and that’s how I learned to get better, whether that involved the right clothing, more honed training methods, race strategy, etc. etc. etc. All that learning has kept running interesting even years down the line and ultimately made me a better runner, able to gauge when I’m screwing up and adjust accordingly. I can highlight this point with two examples.
The VERY FIRST time I went out for a run as an adult I was wearing worn out shoes a full size too small for my feet, swimming trunks with a mesh lining, and a cotton t-shirt. I decided to run into the town I was living and back, but by the time I arrived home everything in my body hurt…EVERYTHING. It felt like my lungs were going to burst, I was drenched in sweat and it felt like someone had shot me in my shoulder. I had run 5 miles unwittingly and probably too fast at that. It was as awful as it was exciting. But you know what, that experience allowed me to appreciate all the changes I started to make from there on out, from more manageable mileage, to a tempered pace, to appropriate shoes, to shorts that didn’t chafe, to tech-T’s, etc. etc. etc. The “mistakes” I made didn’t kill me and won’t kill you either. And down the line, I continued to make mistakes and learn from them, feeling shin splints and getting advice on fixing them, and so on. It has made me a more knowledagble and effective runner.
Secondly, even after honing my body to run further and faster, I had an issue with running. When the gun went off..so did I. My second half-marathon I ran involved a first mile at 5:05 pace…which did NOT translate into my best race. My tendency to start off very quickly was noticed by my teammates and coach and after some simple suggestions, I learned to pace myself better, which ended up in many PR’s and podium finishes. The thing is, since making those mistakes and now knowing what that quickened pace FEELS like, I can now temper myself if I start off too quickly or better understand when I’m running past my limits. Those speedy mistakes and subsequent corrections, again, made me a better runner down the line.
Of course, there are things you certainly want to avoid in terms of not injuring yourself, but to be honest, the factors that can affect your running are many and I wouldn’t want to overlook anything specific. I can really only advise you to build slowly, listen to the messages your body is giving you and adjust accordingly. Making those small mistakes is one thing, but learning from them is the most important thing you can do to avoid making the bigger mistakes down the line. If a pain is not going away…back off until it does. If the pain gets worse, seek professional help to diagnose the issue and make the corrections so that running which has suddenly becomes hard, becomes easy again.
Remember, running is easy and you can keep it that way. But also remember that running is hard, and that’s what makes it so rewarding.