This story is part of an ongoing series aimed at new runners.
A bag of marshmallows and a bunch of 4-year-olds can teach new runners a valuable lesson.
Psychologist Walter Mischel conducted an experiment in the 1960s. He gave a group of children two choices: one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows if they’re willing to wait 15 minutes.
Predictably, some kids gobbled up the one. Others tried to wait but couldn’t, and still others were able to hold off for two. Mischel then followed those kids into adulthood and found that those who had discipline often had more successful lives.
So what does the famous marshmallow experiment have to do with running? Quite a bit.
“New runners are very impatient,” said Jason Fitzgerald, founder of StrengthRunning.com and a coach based in Washington, D.C. “Running is a long-term kind of sport. The people running the fastest have been doing it for over a decade.
“There’s a quick-results kind of mentality that a lot of people have, especially today. I tell runners, you need 2-3 years of consistent training to even see what you’re going to be capable of.”
That craving for instant results gets in the way, and often leads to common rookie-runner mistakes. The good news is most of them are easy to correct, which will help you avoid the two most devastating pitfalls new runners face: injuries and burnout.
Here are a few that running coaches see over and over again:
1. Unreasonable Goals
The “bucket list” has made its way into our lexicon, and even those who don’t run much will look to conquer lofty goals. The biggest one, of course, is the marathon.
“It’s a lot to ask a body that’s not used to running to go out and run 20-plus miles,” said Karl Stutelberg, a California-based coach and founder of Cutting Edge Running. “Couch to marathon is not a smart way to do it.”
This mistake is correctable, of course—temper your enthusiasm. If you’re new to running, start with a 5K, and work your way up the distances, one at a time. Don’t skip rungs just because the shorter races aren’t your ultimate goal. Photo: www.shutterstock.com
2. Too Much, Too Soon
It’s a common motivational tactic in team sports training: “If it burns, it must be working.” There’s something to that, but it can be damaging to someone new to running.
“A lot of runners go out, and most of their runs are almost a tempo effort,” Fitzgerald says. “They just hammer.”
Going too hard too soon is asking for injury—that is, if you don’t burn out first.
While pushing the pace has its place—say, once a week—easier runs are equally beneficial. Fitzgerald recommends remembering the three Cs when doing an easy run: comfortable, controlled and conversational. Photo: www.shutterstock.com
3. Not Enough, All The Time
Of course, there’s another subset of new runners who look at the mileage as the goal … the only goal. A 3-mile run today. A 3-mile run tomorrow. A 4-mile run on Saturday. What’s missing is any sort of deviation from a comfortable pace. And that will only take you so far.
“I’m a big believer in pace variety,” Fitzgerald said. “If you’re doing a 3-mile run, do a couple of 30-second or 1-minute pick-ups during that second mile. Get out there and practice running fast.” Photo: www.shutterstock.com
4. Race-Day Hype
The starting gun goes off for your first race, and your adrenaline is pumping. You feel good, so why not go faster than planned, at least at the start? It’s the classic rookie mistake, one that almost everyone makes.
“You’re looking at a crash and burn the second half of the race,” Stutelberg said. “Almost all the time.”
This can be corrected through simple awareness on how common it is—and a mental reminder that going out hard at the start and hoping to hang on at the end rarely works. Discipline, once again, is key. Photo: www.shutterstock.com
5. Strength Training
Those who catch the running bug often don’t want to cross-train. Hey, it just doesn’t provide the same endorphin rush. But with a little strength work, your body is less likely to break down.
“If a new runner came to me and said ‘Give me one piece of advice to stay healthy,’” Fitzgerald said, “I would say after every single run, do 10-20 minutes of body weight exercises.”
Focus on the running-specific muscle groups, mainly the glutes and the hips. For the glutes, squats and lunges are great. For the hips, do exercises like leg raises, where you lie down on the floor and raise each leg to a 45-degree angle. Photo: www.shutterstock.com