How to Start Running If You Have Never Run Before and Are Not Even Sure You Can Run: A Guide for Academics and Others

I have always envied runners.

Despite the fact that running is a grueling, miserable, punishing, largely bullshit sport that makes runners wonder why they were ever born (so I am told by runners), running is also the best thing that could ever possibly happen to a human being short of being assigned to captain the USS Enterprise (so I am also told by runners).  When I drive past people who are running, I deliriously want to be them; it looks powerful and tenacious and…dare I say…fun?

But for most of my life, I’ve faced considerable barriers to running.  I have juvenile primary fibromyalgia syndrome, which is a fancy way of saying “I was born with fibro and was seriously in my twenties before I learned that most people don’t walk around in a constant haze of pain and fatigue that has made any high-impact sport impossible.”  I’m an academic and used to be a lawyer, so my job has long called for considerable stretches of butt-in-seat.  And several times in the past, when I tried to run, I did it at the worst possible time: when I was already crushed under the weight of some major project that was sapping every bit of my mental and physical reserves.

All of which is to say: I get it!  Taking up running is not easy!

But I’ve recently started trying to run yet again.  And now that I’m finally succeeding at doing so, here is a six-step guide to starting running even if you have never run before and aren’t even sure you’re physically capable of running.

0.  “But wait!  Why do I, an academic (or not), even care if I can run?”


  • Instant +10 mental concentration and stamina.  I can get more research and writing done in one hour after a half-hour run than I can in two hours of just staying in the chair.  This is because….
  • RUNNING FEEDS YOUR BRAIN.  Your brain needs extraordinary quantities of oxygen and free glucose, delivered by the most efficient circulatory system you can muster.  Running tunes up said circulatory system and packs it with oxygen and free glucose (remember to eat, yo!).  This is why…
  • All the smart kids run.  I first got envious of runners in law school, because there is a distinct and obvious direct correlation between The People Who Are The Best At This Law Stuff and The People Who Are Always Out Running.  I personally know attorneys who don’t even interrupt their running habit on days they argue in front of the Supreme Court; in fact, they say this is the most important day to get their early-morning run, so they’re properly focused during oral arguments (which, if you’ve never had the pleasure, are like playing intellectual dodgeball with Deep Blue).  I find that fewer academics run than lawyers, and I don’t know why, since I also find that academics do more brain-heavy-lifting overall than lawyers.
  • Live long enough to enjoy your tenure/retirement.  If you even have tenure/retirement.  If not, live long enough to actually get that book published.
  • Half an hour a day (or more) of absolutely nobody bothering or interrupting you about anything – and you don’t even have to sleep to get it.  (Also, sleep better.)  YOU KNOW YOU WANT THIS.

Now that you’re sold, where to start?

1.  Get the medical stuff out of the way.

Some medical conditions actually do prevent you from running, or will enact terrible vengeance upon you if you try to run.  These include, but are by no means limited to, degenerative joint-cartilage conditions, heart conditions, and breathing problems.  Some of these can be addressed with the right equipment or medications; others can’t.  Your doctor should know which is which.

If you have one of these or think you might, see your doctor before you take up running.  If you have Mysterious Unexplained Symptoms You Haven’t Bothered to Get Checked Because You Only Just Got You Some Obamacare and You Were Really Hoping To Get This Dissertation Chapter Finished First, see your doctor before you take up running.  (Actually, think twice about taking up running; see “2. Work Up To It,” below.)  If you have no unexplained symptoms but just haven’t seen a doctor in forever, see your doctor before you take up running.

Probably you should see your doctor, is what I’m saying.

2.  Work up to it.

As alluring as “Couch to 5k” sounds, the fact is that a lot of people can’t get off the couch and run a 5k.  This is especially true if you have one of those medical conditions that will let you run, but only if you pay it its dues first.

If you’ve tried some running and it is Just Not Happening, consider “running-lite” for a while.  This might mean walking or taking on some running-similar, lower-impact activity like the elliptical.

Patience helps.  I actually “ran” on the elliptical for eight months before I began trying to actually-run on actual land.  The low impact helped mitigate the effects of the fibromyalgia, and the practice let me build up some stamina and reap the benefits of brain-feeding before I hit the pavement.  If you have access to a gym, start here.

Also, weight training can be a huge help for developing stamina.  HUGE.  I lifted for six months before I started trying to run-on-land, and I highly recommend it for a major deep-relaxation boost and hella core strength.  I can lift household objects over my head now that I couldn’t pick up at all a year ago.  HELLS YEAH.

If you are currently in the middle of a major stressbomb: Consider not taking up running until it’s finished.  The potential stress relief of running may not be enough to compensate for the pummelling your adrenal glands are already taking.  Trust me on this one: I once tried to start running during my last semester of law school and once while trying to finish the Largest Defamation Case That Ever Lived, and both ended badly.  Show your body and brain love by giving them only one hurdle at a time: finish your thesis, defend your dissertation, get tenure, or close on the house, then take up running.

(A note for fellow fibromites: My secret for determining whether exercise is going to be fine or cause a flare-up?  I check my pulse one minute in.  If I’m proceeding nicely toward the heart rate training zone, I’m fine.  If it’s 160 or above, I’m headed for a flare-up and must stop.  This metric has been both accurate for me and independent of how my body actually feels – I’ll have Dead of Pain and Fatigue days where running actually restores me, and Feelin’ Fine days where running knocks me on my butt.  The pulse always tells which is which.)

3.  Choose your route.

The good news is that college towns are often prime real estate for running, especially in places with unterrible weather.  The bad news is that college towns vary greatly on where and how their prime-running-real-estate works.  Here are a few places I’ve lived and their layouts:

  • The Liberal Enclave.  The best running is right on and/or through campus.  Campus itself may be integrated with and indistinguishable from town (the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor), or it may contain large preserves of prime running territory (UM; also Michigan State, Lansing).
  • In Town But Not Of It.  Campus is either laid out terribly or the neighborhoods immediately surrounding it seem not exactly safe for running (Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo), but prime running territory can be found within walking distance of campus or within a short drive or bike ride (Westnedge Hill and Oakwood, the Kalamazoo Valley River Trail).
  • Anywhere Is Everywhere.  Town is so small that you’ll run every street twice just to get 10k out of it, but nothing is actually dangerous so that’s cool (Ferris State University, Big Rapids).

Your route:

  • Should be a manageable distance.  My current route is 2.11 miles, because that’s what I can walk in half an hour.
  • Should probably only be one route to start.  It’s easier to track your actual running progress if you stick to one route for the first month or so.  If you get too bored, do it backwards.
  • Should be reasonably safe.  Stick to places with lighting, sidewalks, and enough people that you can probably find someone if you need help.
  • Should be “on file” with a friend or family member so people know where to look for you in case of emergency.

4.  Camouflage.

Ever wanted to start running, but hesitated because surely all those toned, Spandex-clad gazelles out there do not want to see your sweating, floppy, lumbering behind?  There are clothes for that!

When you start running, you want to split the difference between two schools of thought: the “I’d rather not be on display, thanks” school and the “I’d rather not be smeared by a car, thanks” school.  This means being bright enough to be seen but not seen.

If you’re like most students or just-got-done-being-students, you probably have a nontrivial portion of wardrobe consisting of:

  • Yoga and/or slouchy pants and shorts that you can’t really wear to teach in and you don’t really wear while grading papers or reading, because who wears pants when they grade that’s seriously just like compounding the pain, and
  • T-shirts from defunct student organizations you joined or advised, events you attended once, etc., that you couldn’t turn down because free clothes but you really don’t ever wear except when it is too cold to grade papers naked.

Congratulations!  You have running camouflage!

If you are going to be running in dark or dark-ish conditions, slap some reflective tape on those fugly shirts and pants.  Otherwise, seriously just run in them.  Don’t waste your money on the svelte Spandex getups until you’re pretty sure you’ll be sticking with this running thing and you’ve worn through your last Defunct Student Org shirt.  Save those pennies for a pair of running shoes with good arch support.

And if you’re still unsure about this whole “clothing” thing, here’s a confession:

I scope out runners.  Men, women, both, neither, other, indeterminate: LOVELIES, I AM SCOPING YOU.  And I can guarantee you this: EVERYONE WHO IS RUNNING IS BEAUTIFUL.

Yes.  Every single person.  You are running?  YOU LOOK AAAAHHHMAZING.  And I envy you. So put on your fugly shorts and let’s go.

To run, you really only need clothing and shoes.  I do, however, recommend a pedometer.  Newer iPods have them built in (I love mine), and there are free phone apps everywhere.  They’re a super-easy way to track the time and distance you’re covering, and stumbling back into your apartment sweating and breathless to learn you just completed a whopping 4,665 steps is a nice little ego boost.

(If you are one of those beautiful people who loves how you look in Spandex and doesn’t care who knows it, then ignore this entire section except the parts about making yourself sufficiently visible to oncoming motorists, and rock on with your beautiful, beautiful self.)

5.  Never say you’re sorry.

Here’s the Moment of Truth: time to go on your first “run.”

You know what?  It will probably be a walk.  In fact, it probably should be mostly a walk, especially if you are just getting off the couch.

When I started the most recent incarnation of Me Running, I seriously ran the length of four blocks in the entire 2.11-mile route.  That’s not four blocks at once, either.  I walked six blocks, ran the length of one block, huffed my way walking through four blocks, ran the length of another block, puffed my way walking through four more, ran two, and then walked the entire way back home (about 12 blocks) because holy crap what did I just do to my poor lungs that last two blocks was the worst idea ever OMG EVERRRR.

The next time, it was two blocks running, two blocks walking, for a total of ten blocks of running.  The third time, it was the same as the second time, because my body was all “nooo, this is what we do today.”  The time after that, it was about 40 percent running and 60 percent walking.

There are, basically, two big secrets here:

  • Listen to your body, and
  • Exercise both “chickening out” and “sucking it up” in moderation.

Think that if you walk up this small incline, you’ll be able to run down the straight, level part of the sidewalk twice as far as the length of this incline?  Go for it.  Next time, run up the damn incline and walk the street.  Challenge yourself to go just five sidewalk squares more, but not if you’re going to fall on your face the moment you hit the crosswalk.  You want to establish a nice, challenging run/walk mix, but not a self-killing one.

This is okay, and anyone outside your head or in it who tries to tell you otherwise is full of it.  Imagine squashing those thoughts under the heels of your walking-today-running-more-tomorrow shoes.

Remember: You are doing this because it makes your brain and body feel awesome.  If it does not make your brain and body feel awesome, you’re doing it wrong.  This is the only way you can possibly do it wrong.

6.  Shower.

You’ll probably want to as soon as you’re done sweating up a storm with your walk/run.  But in case you were picturing yourself running two miles to campus and immediately walking in to teach Intro to Yourfield: don’t.  There is currently no “wavy stink-lines” icon on (as far as I know), and you do not need one invented in your honor.