I remember lining up for my first race ever, feeling totally intimidated by all the runners around me. Real runners. Real runners who wore actual running gear, not the earmuffs, woolen scarf and track jacket I thought was a good idea for a winter race. I was clueless when it came to racing and actually, since the majority of my running back then was on a treadmill, pretty clueless when it came to running outside, period. There are certain mistakes beginner runners make and when I got seriously into running in my twenties I made them all. Okay, I’ll admit it, some of these mistakes I still make.
What I didn’t have was anyone to ask for advice. My love for running grew from actually doing it, not from friends or relatives who were runners. I wasn’t in a running group and it didn’t even occur to me to look online or check out running blogs. I learned along the way, most often through making mistakes. Avoiding these beginner runner’s mistakes can help keep you injury free, strong, challenged and help you stay in love with the sport of running.
Mistakes Beginner Runners Make While Training
Training at the same speed or distance. It’s easy to get stuck in a habit with your weekly runs. You have a route you’re comfortable with and a pace that feels moderate – and that’s the goal, right? Isn’t moderate exercise meant to be what we all need more of? Well, when it comes to running, changing up your workouts is essential for improvement. You body quickly adapts to whatever stressors you give it, so if you’re going out doing the same 4 mile loop at the same pace three times a week, pretty soon your body will be efficiently using less effort (therefore less calories) to complete it. Not to mention, if you do try something different, like a race, you definitely won’t be prepared.
Fix: Focus on a base of three different workouts a week: a long, easy run; a faster run (like intervals or a tempo run); and a moderate pace run.
Not cross training or strength training. When you fall in love with running, all you want to do is run. But when you do that, you’re setting yourself up for injury. You may have noticed I’m constantly encouraging runners to strength train…actually, encouraging everyone to strength train. That’s because there’s no better preventative measure for avoiding injury than strength training and to make it even more enticing, you will become a faster, stronger runner as a result. Cross training is also important for giving your body a break. A different form of cardio can be a good switch up for your aerobic system, as well as taking pressure off your joints, especially when you get into high mielage training.
Fix: Switch out one easy run a week for swimming, cycling, walking, yoga, or a cardio machine. Make sure you’re still incorporating strength training into your workouts – as your mileage increases, it’s okay to cut back on the total time you spend on strength – just make sure you’re making the most of your time in the gym and focusing on the exercises that are going to be most beneficial.
Following the same direction on a loop, or always running the same route. This is how I ended up with (incredibly painful) ITB syndrome. I ran in Prospect Park for nearly all my training and I always ran in the same direction around the loop. The problem with this is that the edge of a road is where it’s slightly sloped – if you consistently run in the same direction, you’re striking the lower ground with the same leg over and over again. It’s begging for a repetitive stress injury. Not to mention, running the same route or the same direction all the time gets boring. Boring is not how you want to describe your running!
Fix: Depending on the length of your loop and your intended run, you could either switch direction at the end of every loop, or you could run in a different direction for alternating runs. I ended up running my long run switching direction and just kept track of which way I ran each easy/shorter run, making sure to reverse it the next time I went out. And if you’re bored of your route, the easiest solution is to try somewhere new to run!
Wearing inappropriate gear. I’m not making a judgement on the length of your shorts here! I have a friend who was always making fun of cyclists and their elaborate look-like-they’re-in-the-Tour-de-France cycling gear. Then, she got a bike. Just a couple of months later, I ran into her after a ride, in full cycling gear. I teased her, given her previous comments, and she replied, “The thing is…it’s just so perfect for riding. As soon as I tried it, I realized I could never go back to regular workout clothes on the bike.” Come to the dark side of running gear, beginner runners! Or rather, the incredibly bright, neon side. A few major things you want to steer clear of when you’re starting to run: anything cotton (holy chafe!); wearing too much, or too heavy clothing (rule of thumb is to dress as if it’s 20 degrees warmer out); wearing dark colors at night or before sunrise (bright, reflective clothing helps keep you seen and safe); or wearing shoes in your regular shoe size (go up half a size for running shoes, since your feet will swell during your run).
Fix: Head to a running store for some expert advice, or check out the many, many running gear guides online. Here’s my Pinterest board full of articles and posts on workout clothes and gear:
Not challenging yourself. Whether it’s always doing your training runs at the same pace, or thinking you “can’t” tackle a certain distance, or never attempting speedwork, this is a common mistake beginners make. I know you’re just starting out, but you have to push yourself to see what you’re capable of in running.
Fix: Get out of your comfort zone the next time you go out. Add a little more time or distance to your long run. Try speedwork if you haven’t yet. Do a tempo run and see what race pace feels like when you’re alone on a training run. Join a running club, so you have prescribed workouts to run with the group. Sign up for that “I could never…” race.
Not keeping a training journal. How will you know if you’re in a comfortable only zone if you’re not writing down your runs? You can make this as simple or as complex as you like – you would write down just your total time and mileage and work out your pace from that, or if you have a fancy watch, you can go to town writing out your splits, heart-rate, elevation – whatever you want to include. There are a ton of online sites and programs for tracking your runs, but there’s something about going old school with pen and paper. You’ll be surprised at the patterns you start noticing.
Fix: Easy! Buy a journal! There are a bunch which are specifically for runners, with lots of room for all your stats and notes, but even a blank notebook will do.
Not testing fueling if you’re planning on racing. It’s something you may not even think about until just before your race if you’re a beginner, but anything about a half marathon or longer, your body will most likely require energy during the race. Every person is different – I know people who run half marathons without fueling and a few others who can run up to three hours without added energy – but you don’t want to test that out on yourself during your first race experience. Even if you’re planning on racing a shorter distance, it’s important to plan for what you’re going to eat before and after a race for your best performance and recovery.
Fix: Try out any and every fuel possible on your long runs. Go buy the Gu, the chews, the gummi candy, the dried fruit, the baby food pouches (yes, really!) then on every long run, test one out. Some will not agree with you stomach. Some will just make you want to retch. Those are the ones to stay away from. 😉 The right race fueling is trial and error and you’ll know it when you find it.
Speaking of racing…
Mistakes Beginner Runners Make While Racing:
Racing without a plan. Even if your goal is to simply finish the race (which is a fantastic goal for your first attempt at any distance!), planning is still important. Try to go a little slower than your predicted pace to start, so you can see how you feel as you’re going – you can always speed up, but it’s very difficult to maintain a pace that’s too fast to begin with – most of the time, you’ll end up running a slower overall time than if you’d stuck to a more conservative approach.
Fix: You know what your usual pace is from training runs (you’re keeping a training journal now, right?), so you can make a pretty good guess at what your projected finish might be. You can use this pace calculator, or try this finish time predictor. Also check out my post on how to develop a race strategy.
Going out too fast. Oh, hi! I’m just going to raise my hand right here. I made this mistake a lot early on. I still occasionally get a little too confident and excited in a race and go out faster than I planned. Especially in longer distance races, don’t be fooled by how great and energetic you feel when you start out. Thanks to tapering, you’re running on fresh legs, with all the excitement and adrenaline of race day coursing through your bloodstream.
Fix: Take a deep breath, then back off a little as soon as you realize you’re running faster than you can maintain. It’s a great idea to practice your goal pace during training – when you do, try to really focus on how it feels. What is your breathing like? How does your stride feel? How hard does it feel like you’re working? That way, when you’re in the race, you can tune in to those same cues to ensure you know how hard you’re running before you hear the mile split on your watch ding.
Thinking you can’t walk. This was me, too! I distinctly remember the first time I took a walking break in a race and thought I had failed. I truly thought being a runner and racing meant you never walked. Of course you can take walking breaks. There’s even a whole method of training and racing that revolves around walking breaks! It sounds counterintuitive, but you may even find you start running faster race times as a result of incorporating walking into your race strategy.
Fix: Check out my running tips post on using walk breaks to run faster – try it out during training first and see if it works for you.
Never a mistake: Post-race shower beer.
Not believing in yourself. If you tell yourself you can’t do something, chances are you won’t be able to achieve it. If you have a big time goal, or you’re attempting a new distance you’re worried about, you need to believe in your own abilities before it will become a reality. You can read a great guest post Nellie wrote for me on believing in yourself here. It makes a difference to have a positive mindset going into your race – even if you’re faking it a little, it will help you power through way more than telling yourself all the reasons why you can’t.
Fix: Set a goal that’s achievable. This doesn’t mean you can’t strive for a big goal, but you better make sure you have the time and commitment to train your butt off to get there. Once you have the training under your belt, on race day you should be lining up with a nervous feeling in your belly (there’s so much that could go wrong!) but a calm at the center of your mind that says, “I know I can do this.”
Realizing too late that you could have pushed harder. This happens so often with beginner runners, but it can still happen when you’ve been running and racing for years. Sometimes you get to the last stretch of your race, kick it into high gear for the finish and realize you have so much energy left in you. If you’re crossing the finishing line feeling like you just ran a kind-of difficult training run and that’s it, then you definitely could have pushed a little harder in the race.
Fix: This mistake is something that’s mainly fixed by experience. When you’re just starting out racing, it’s hard to know what to expect for each distance, or what you should be aiming for. If you have this happen, go back to your training journal to see if there are clues that you could have aimed higher with your expectations and your goal. If it keeps happening, it might be time to work with a running coach to see how you can improve.
You can learn from your mistakes – maybe it’s a trite saying, but it’s true. Keep track of what’s working for you and what’s not and you’ll learn how to correct your errors as you go along. Sometimes the best way to fix an issue is to go ahead and make the mistake, so you know what to avoid the next time.
What’s the biggest mistake you made as a beginner runner?
Is there a mistake you keep making now?