The first race I ran was five years ago. It was my little hippie town’s annual “peace trot” 5K, which sounded like a step down in seriousness from even a “fun run” 5K, so I thought it would be a good choice for a running noob.
At the starting line, an extremely fit, intimidating, professional-looking marathoner came up to me and chided me over the little iPod shuffle in my hand. Even though the course was through a park and the race didn’t ban headphones, she ordered me to leave my iPod and earbuds under a nearby bush. “Races are for being with the community. Go talk to people,” she said. I waited for her to walk away, put my earbuds back in my ears, and had a grand old time jamming to The Notorious B.I.G. as I pushed myself to the finish line.
Fast forward five years and about a bajillion miles underfoot- I’m a few weeks away from running the Colfax Marathon, and even within the past few days I’ve had multiple people insist that I leave my music at home (despite this race also not banning headphones.) Spoiler alert: I’m not gonna, and I’m not sorry.
We in the running community can get pretty sanctimonious sometimes, and sometimes we end up taking ourselves way too seriously. Of course, there are some conclusive do’s and don’ts: If you run in the dark, you should take safety precautions and make sure you can be seen. If you start to feel an injury coming on, you should rest and TLC that ish rather than powering through it. You should make sure to eat enough calories, wear shoes that fit, and make sure no one’s downwind of you if you blow a snot rocket. But in many other ways, we forget that running can look different for different people, and that’s ok. Here are some truths I’ve discovered:
1. It’s OK to Set Your Own Goals
If you really love running, take it really seriously and want to progress from 5K to 10K to Half Marathon to Full Marathon to Boston Qualifier/Ultramarathon, cool! If you want to get really good but stick to speed and short distances, great! If you want to just go for occasional weekend jogs and focus on another form of fitness that you like better, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to follow any particular progression of goals or worry about whether or not you count as a “Legitimate Runner.” Running can mean whatever it means to you and play whatever role in your life that you want it to.
2. It’s OK to Run With Music
A large component of the running world has always argued that running with music is bad. Some say it’s bad because it influences your pacing (though it’s very possible to be tuned into your body and breath while your music is on), some say it’s bad because it disconnects you from your surroundings (though you can still choose to be attentive and aware even with one or both earbuds in), some say it’s bad because it keeps you in your own world rather than allowing you to be social (though some runners really like that – more on this below), some say it’s bad because it offers external motivation (God forbid).
Here’s the thing though: music is a vivid, integral part of being human. Even if you already love running, combining it with music can make it a profoundly fulfilling experience. Running and music are both really effective ways to process all kinds of emotions, delve into your thoughts, and feel exhilarated. Combining the two can be indescribably powerful and cathartic. And believe it or not, you can fully appreciate being in nature while simultaneously be serenaded by Beyoncé.
Running with music can also be a really effective tool for motivation and pacing. If you’re listening to your body but strategically using the tempos of your songs to structure your run and work with your pace, it can be a fun alternative to other types of speed-work.
We forget sometimes that fulfillment and enjoyment are important; people ultimately don’t stick to fitness routines that they don’t enjoy (life is too damn short for that anyway). You can look at music as a crutch and a distraction, or you can look at it as a tool and a way to feel even more alive through your best runs and your worst runs. Sometimes I enjoy just listening to the world around me as I run. But usually, having that special time with my music is something I wouldn’t trade for any amount of respectability or runner street cred.
3. It’s OK to Run in Shoes That Aren’t Trendy
A few years ago, the minimalist movement was all the rage, and now the pendulum has swung in the other direction and made maximalist shoes the big current trend. You’d think from hearing all the buzz about these big, super-technological, highly-padded, highly-structured shoes that everyone should be wearing them. And maybe they are the right choice for you! But here’s my confession: I’m still a barefoot runner.
When you walk into a running store and ask if they carry any barefoot shoes, you’ll usually get an eyeroll, a shake of the head, or a candid answer about how barefoot running is not really a thing anymore. But personally, I’ve been running in zero-drop, more-minimal-than-minimalist barefoot shoes for years and they work perfectly for me, keeping me injury-free even during long distances. I’m not at all trying to argue that barefoot running is best for everyone or that it’s better than any other type of running. All I can say is that it’s what works best for me.
What qualifies as a “good” running shoe depends entirely on your individual foot, body, habits and form. The only way to find what works best for you is to go to a running store, get a proper fitting from a professional and then give the shoe a try. Trends will always come and go, but your body will be able to see through all that.
4. It’s OK to Run on a Treadmill
Running out in nature definitely has a myriad of benefits, but some people actually prefer treadmill running or need to rely on it due to any number of circumstances. If you’re preparing for a race, you’ll probably want to get used to running on terrain that’s similar to the race course. Other than that, the only thing that matters is that you’re still running. You’re not less of a runner if you do your miles on a treadmill.
5. It’s OK to Run Slowly
“Slow” and “fast” are definitely subjective, but your ideal pace range is going to depend on your body. It’s great to try to gradually, healthily move up to a faster pace while listening to your body, but pushing yourself to go too fast too soon/too often can result in serious injury. If you’re getting out there and running, you should be proud. Period. Your pace doesn’t determine how good you deserve to feel about yourself.
6. It’s OK to Run Alone
Many people love going on group runs, pairing with a running buddy, or having someone bike alongside them on long runs. All of this can be incredibly helpful and motivating, as well as having extra safety benefits. But here’s the thing: not everyone is a social runner. Some people (myself included) invariably find group/buddy runs miserable, either because they don’t like to have to worry about how their pace matches up with the person(s) around them or because they just prefer to be in their own world and have their running time be sacred “me time.”
There are pros and cons to both running with others and running alone. Solo running can allow you time and space to process thoughts and emotions, which can feel therapeutic and even meditative or spiritual. It can be really potent physical, mental, emotional and spiritual self-care. Running alone can challenge you to rely on your own motivation and strengthen your own mental game, which is crucial. So if you’re a social runner – that’s great! Running groups are more popular now than ever, and social media makes it easier than ever to find a running buddy who’s a good match for you. But don’t feel bad about opting out of your local running club if that’s not your thing.
7. It’s OK to Find Your Own Ideal Cross-Training Balance
If bikes and ellipticals don’t appeal to you, you have other options when it comes to your non-running workouts. It’s good to keep building your cardio base in ways that are easy on your joints, but it’s also crucially valuable to balance out your cardio with strength-based workouts (whether that’s lifting at the gym, taking a good ballet class, doing home-based strength workouts like this one, etc.).
The most important thing about your fitness choices is that you enjoy them, because otherwise you’re not going to stick to them in the long-term. Different types of workouts are going to complement running in different ways, but you ultimately get to tailor your fitness routine to what works best for you.
8. It’s OK to Walk
If you’re new to running, alternating run-walk intervals (like in the Couch to 5K app) is a really good idea because it builds your strength and stamina in a healthy, steady, gradual way without pushing your body to the point of injury. But even if you’re a seasoned runner, sometimes your body tells you in no uncertain terms that you need to walk, and listening to that is the best thing you can do.
As with any form of fitness, it’s crucial to learn how to push your body to – but not past – its healthy limits. Sometimes you’re having a crappy running day and you may not know why, but if your body is clearly telling you to stop or slow down, there’s a good reason for it. You don’t have to feel ashamed about not running the whole way.
9. It’s OK to Be a Low-Budget Runner
Running can be one of the most financially accessible forms of fitness, but it can also get extremely pricey. Between race entry fees, foam rollers, clothing and gear, fitness trackers/watches, gels and special nutrition, physical therapy, coaching, shoes, etc., it’s no surprise that the world of running can feel pretty classist and elitist sometimes. If you can afford all of the above, that’s awesome, but those of us of limited means have to figure out what’s necessary versus what we can go without. A good pair of running shoes is essential for avoiding injury, but you can be a runner without a Garmin. You can be a runner without fancy compression socks.
10. It’s OK to Find Your Own Ideal Nutrition
Your body burns both carbs and fat for fuel no matter what, but in different proportions and with different levels of efficiency based on your nutrition and training. If you’re running casually and doing shorter distances, you probably don’t need to do anything special besides eating healthily and getting enough calories. If you’re training intensively for speed and/or distance, you’re going to want to adjust your nutrition to help you accomplish those goals, but there’s no one-size-fits-all food plan or macro-nutrient equation that’s going to work for every runner’s body.
Nutrition is another arena that is heavily infiltrated by fads. For example, the dairy industry has been aggressively trying to push chocolate milk as a fitness drink in order to boost sales, so there’s a lot of buzz about drinking chocolate milk post-run (PSA: don’t do it). Reading through nutrition articles in running magazines, it’s natural for a lot of questions to come up: Should I be eating a lot of processed wheat like bagels and pasta for carb-loading? Should I be eating meat, dairy and eggs? Should I be jumping on the paleo/keto bandwagon since that’s trendy lately?
Personally, being vegan has been the biggest game-changer for me as an athlete because it keeps me in optimal health, gives me endless energy, and has enabled me to build infinitely more strength and endurance than I ever could before. Being vegan also gives me the flexibility (believe it or not) to shift my intake of protein, carbs and healthy fats to be exactly where I need them depending on how my body feels and what my training looks like at any given time. Strategically building my intake of healthy carbs like fruit, rice and sweet potatoes has been incredibly helpful for me in distance training. Focusing on unprocessed, whole plant ingredients has been crucial for both my athletic life and my overall health. Being able to enjoy my food and not obsess about it has been a beautiful, beautiful thing.
If you have the ability to go through any sort of trial and error process to see what sort of eating habits work best for you, that’s the best way to find out exactly what balance of carbs/protein/fats you need and what sort of foods you should get those nutrients from. No matter what, eating more plants and fewer processed foods will always yield positive results both for your body and for the world around you. But should you take supplements? Should you use gels or energy chews? I don’t know – that’s for your body to determine.
Any time you’re making choices about your eating habits, it’s crucial to listen to your body and your conscience and make sure that your choices are sustainable and holistic. Just know that despite what any articles may tell you, you don’t have to eat bagels before your runs or chug chemical-laden Gatorade afterward if that’s not what jives with your body.
It’s funny how up in arms we can get over every little detail of a sport that, at its core, is just putting one foot in front of the other. Just remember that when fellow runners get sanctimonious and preachy with you, you can always run in the other direction. As long as your snot rockets aren’t hitting anybody, you’re good.