Wednesday, December 7, 2011

How to Start Running (from an Asthmatic Non-Runner)

As you may or may not know, I decided this summer to begin a journey to a healthy lifestyle. I realize there are many methods to follow, but the one I chose was fairly simple: diet and exercise.

As far as the diet goes, I stopped eating meat in August. I had gone vegetarian a few years ago, but it only lasted 6 months, because I didn't really know what I was doing and was really only curious about it, instead of actually having a reason to give up meat. This time around, I am absolutely loving it! I have really enjoyed exploring so many easy, delicious recipes that are nutritious and healthy, and that end up making me feel full and satisfied (as opposed to bloated and lethargic, as my eating meat had made me feel). I am, however, in no way trying to sell vegetarianism as a lifestyle change for everyone. Everyone's body is different, and that's fine and beautiful. I just know this has worked for me. :)

However, that's not really the reason I wanted to write this post. The other aspect of my health that I wanted to explore was exercise, and especially that of the aerobic, cardiovascular variety. Getting your heart rate up is one of the best ways to not only burn calories, but clean up your blood vessels and improve digestion. The issue for me was that I have been plagued with what is known as "exercise-induced asthma" since 7th grade or so. I couldn't run, bike, or jump on the trampoline, to say the least, without feeling like my lungs were exploding in my chest. Every breath hurt. Horribly.

That being said, I was determined (and still am) to overcome my asthma, because I've felt for a long time that most physical ailments can be "cured" with a little motivation and understanding of the human body, as opposed to a reliance on medicine. I did a lot of research about exercising with asthma, as well as applying my knowledge of yoga, which led me to such a simple solution: breath. Basically, if you know how to breathe efficiently, you can do just about anything, especially if you never thought you would be able to.

That long introduction was my way of building up a list I've compiled of how to start running when you've never considered yourself capable of doing so, whether it be because of your weight, your asthma, your legs, or any other physical setbacks. When I started out this summer, all I could do was walk 1.5 miles in 45 minutes, and I would feel winded and fatigued. Now, I can run 3 miles in 35 minutes and not feel sore the next day -- and this is just the beginning! Trust me...

If I can do it, you can. Seriously.

How to Start Running (from an Asthmatic Non-Runner)
Disclaimer: I am, by no means, a professional runner or a doctor of any sort. The following list is simply a collection of my own experiences and advice. Talk to your doctor if you're anxious, for any reason, about starting a running routine.

1. Let's talk gear. If you've ever googled "running gear," you've undoubtedly come across lengthy descriptions of expensive equipment, ranging anywhere from pricey pedometers to full-body reflective jumpsuits and self-oxygenating springboard shoes. You know what? I am here to tell you that you do not need those. What you should have instead: a good pair of tennis shoes (I recommend New Balance) with an arch support and breathable material; a water bottle; socks that fit well; and a t-shirt and shorts/pants that are loose but not baggy. There you go. You don't need to drop hundreds of dollars on gear. As long as you're comfortable, you should be fine. Also, keep in mind that you'll need to add an extra, light layer if you run in the cold and/or rain. Don't overdress, though, because you will overheat. A great way to avoid overdressing is to wear what you would normally put on if the weather were 10 degrees hotter.

2. Start small. When I first started trying to run, I was mostly just walking, with a few spurts of jogging mixed in. And when I did jog, it was usually for about 1/8 of a mile, if that. It's easy to get frustrated and overambitious, wanting to take off on a 5-mile run immediately, but if you do that without building up to it first, you will not make it very far and you will probably feel too discouraged to try again. I know, because I tried doing that. When I could only run about a block before my whole body just gave up, I waited about a week before I even attempted to go out again. If you make small goals, you are much more likely to meet them, which in turn makes you much more likely to do it again the next day.

3. Focus on smaller goals. Going along with the previous point, it's important not to dwell on a big goal like wanting to lose 50 pounds, for example. If you're preoccupied with the 50 pounds you "have" to lose, then accomplishing something small like losing one pound in a week will feel like failure. The best way to motivate yourself is push yourself just a tiny bit farther each week. If, by the end of the first week, you make it half a mile in half an hour, then your next goal could be making it 3/4 of a mile in the same time. This is so much more effective, because as soon as you reach that seemingly small goal, it's so much easier and more encouraging to make it to your next goal. It's also a lot easier to see progress in yourself.

4. Push yourself. I have found that, if I'm out on a walk/run, as soon as I stop running, it's really hard for me to start up again. What I mean is: if I plan on going on a 2-mile run, for example, and I start running after a quarter of a mile, if I stop and start walking, it's so much harder to start running again. Keeping that in mind, this is what works for me to push myself just hard enough:
- Keep in mind that, after about 3-5 minutes of running, your body will start to protest. This is good pain. It means you're working your muscles instead of running on adrenaline. If you can push yourself just a couple minutes longer, your body will relax and the running becomes easier. You'll actually reach a point, eventually, where you'll feel like you can't stop running!
- Find small goals to run to in order to motivate yourself. Instead of focusing on the end of the street, which is a daunting half a mile away, find a tree a couple feet in front of you to focus on. Tell yourself, "If I can make it to that tree, then I can start walking." More often than not, you'll reach the tree and find that you can still keep going, at which point, look ahead and find the next tree to run to, and then the next, and the next, and so on. Telephone poles, fence posts, houses, and parked cars work really well for this too.
- Keep your eyes on the ground a couple strides in front of you. If you look straight ahead, chances are you'll feel like you have a really long way to go. Keeping your focus just a little way ahead of you keeps you from tripping, first of all, but also tricks your mind into thinking you only have a little farther to go. This goes along the same lines as finding small goals to run to.

5. Know the difference between good pain and bad pain. It will inevitably take you a few times before you're really able to read the signals your body is sending you. Once you realize what kind of pain you should push through and when you should stop, you will become much more productive and more easily motivated. My general rule is: if it makes me change the way I'm breathing, it means I need to stop. Here are a few helpful examples of good vs bad pain:
- Shin splints: These suckers are awful. Basically, shin splints are referred to as any pain in your shins while running. I have noticed that I only get shin splints if I don't stretch enough before I run and if I haven't been drinking enough water. I would not classify this is "bad pain," per se, because it won't damage your legs if you keep running, but generally speaking, as soon as you notice the pain, you don't usually want to keep running. In this case, it's okay to just walk.
- Leg aches: 9 times out of 10, if your quads, hamstrings, or calves start to ache and burn a bit, it's good pain. Run through it. It simply means you're making teeny tiny tears in your muscles (which is what happens when you work them), in order to make them grow and get stronger. If the pain becomes too bad, slow your pace and shorten your stride, or start walking instead.
- Side stitches: As soon as you feel a sharp, stabbing cramp in your side or abdomen, STOP running. This is bad pain. If you try to ignore a side stitch and keep running, it will get worse and it will last a long time. The reason you get side stitches is because you're not drinking enough water. I can't tell you enough how important it is to stay hydrated. Most aches and pains (including headaches!) can be fixed by drinking water.
- Lung pain: There are two different types of lung pain, in my opinion. The first, good kind is when your lungs just start to ache a little bit because you've been working hard. If you can still breathe normally, you're good. The other kind of lung pain is not so good -- if you're having to take shorter, more shallow breaths, and especially if you notice a lot of mucus build-up in your throat, you need to slow down to a walk. This usually happens to me right before an asthma attack, so I've gotten pretty good at recognizing this kind of pain. If you don't stop, your lungs will become fatigued and it will be much harder for you to catch your breath.
- Foot pain: Any kind of foot pain is bad, I've come to find. If your toes go numb, your shoes are too tight. If your arches hurt, you don't have enough arch support in your shoes (this can be remedied by getting inserts that keep your arches supported). If your heels hurt, your balance is too far back -- you should be stepping closer to the balls of your feet. If you get cramps in your feet, you didn't stretch enough and/or you need to drink more water.
- Back pain: This is a pretty rare pain, I've noticed, but it does happen on occasion. If you do start to experience any back pain, it's typically because your running form is not right. If it's upper back pain, your shoulders are too tense. If it's lower back pain, you're either leaning too far forwards or too far backwards. I'd say this is "medium pain," because you can still keep going, but if you don't change your posture, it will start to hurt a lot worse.

6. Drink water. Have I said this enough yet? Drink more water! Drink water before you go, bring a bottle with you and drink water while you walk/run, and drink water when you get back. I've noticed that, if I start to get tired and achy halfway through my run, just taking a few sips of water makes me feel instantly better. Staying hydrated is probably the most important point on this list. It should probably be number one...

7. Stretch before you go. One of the biggest mistakes you can make, especially when you're just starting out, is to overestimate yourself and start running without stretching your muscles first. This is the quickest way to pain. To make sure your muscles are warmed up, I've found a simple way to test my body before I leave: start by standing up, then slowly bend forward at the waist. Grasp your ankles with your hands, or if you're flexible, wrap your arms around your legs and hug them to your chest. If this hurts or you can't make it all the way to your ankles, you're not done stretching.

8. Go slowly and correctly. You don't have to be a speed racer to get your heart rate up. As long as you keep a consistent pace, even if you're barely jogging, you're burning calories and working your muscles. It's also important not to overdo your stride, as well. If your legs are too far apart whenever you step, you'll be working too hard to last very long. Keep it simple. You should also be aware of your form, because if you're running with bad posture, you're being counterproductive to your muscles. Here is a great link all about running with good form.

9. Just do it. There are plenty of mornings when I will wake up and not want to run. Whether it's because I'm a little sore from the day before, or because it's raining outside and I feel like being lazy, I can't even count how many times I haven't felt like exercising. However, if I make myself do it anyway, I always feel 100 times better afterwards. This is especially pertinent now that it's starting to cool off outside and the weather can act as a legitimate excuse to stay indoors. Don't let it discourage you. You can still easily run in rain, snow, and wind. Just make sure you dress appropriately. If it's raining, wear a brimmed hat to keep the water off your face, shorten your stride so you don't slip and fall, and avoid running through puddles, since it's a lot easier (and more comfortable) to run with dry socks and shoes. If it's snowing, follow the same guidelines for rain, but make sure you dress warm enough -- your face, ears, and hands are areas that will need protection, in particular. If it's windy outside, make sure you use chapstick to avoid drying your skin out, and consider wearing a hat to help shield your face. One weather exception, however, that you should be wary of is ice. If you see any ice ahead of you, or you know there's a black ice warning in your area, avoid running there! Consider exercising indoors for that day or focus on strength training instead. Better safe than sorry.

10. Breathe. As I mentioned previously, your breath is one of the most important factors when you start exercising. You will undoubtedly read many opposing tips on this subject, ranging from quick, shallow breaths, to only breathing through your nose, and so on. However, I'd like to share what works for me. In yoga, slow, deep breathing fills up your lungs and improves circulation, as well as providing plenty of oxygen to your working muscles. This is the same method I use when I run. By breathing into my belly, through both my nose and mouth, I am able to keep my body from getting tense, while providing oxygen to the muscles that are working so hard. If I notice that I have to start taking shallow breaths, or my breath rate increases considerably, I know I'm doing something wrong. My breathing is my grounding force and my gauge. This is how I avoid asthma attacks, muscle cramps, fatigue, and tension. Just breathe.

If you made it this far in the post, good job! I hope my thoughts and experiences have helped motivate you to start your own journey. It's never too late and it's never too hard. If I can do it, you can!

What exercise methods or tips do you have for beginners?

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