Beat the First-Mile Fatigue
Feel fresher on the trails by dealing with soreness before, during and after runs
The first few minutes of a run almost always suck. Warm up smartly before kicking things up to scenery-blurring speeds. Photo by David Roche
Here’s a secret no one tells you when you start running: it is almost always somewhat terrible for the first few minutes. There is a dull ache in the calf muscles, a distinct rattle in the lungs, maybe an overall feeling of sluggishness. When I start, I often feel unnatural and a bit out of place, like a human embodiment of Donald Trump’s hair.
Those ailments almost always fly away after a mile, like a toupee in a tornado. Even though the beginning-of-run soreness is usually temporary, it can still derail workouts, destroy motivation and cause anxiety. If you start out too fast, your body may never recover. If you dread running through that first-mile fatigue, you may never get out the door in the first place.
This article brings the dark secret into the light. Yes, every runner is sore when they wake up and start a run. And yes, that's OK. Still, there are a few simple strategies you can use to make each run more enjoyable from start to finish.
1. Before: Lunges and Leg Swings
Starting a run without a warm-up is like trying to cook pasta in ice-cold water. Both take longer than necessary and are painful to watch. Fortunately, you can get your body boiling with a three-minute warm-up and avoid the agony of soggy leg noodles.
After a good warm-up, you'll have the energy to explore—and find out whether trail signs tell the truth. Photo by David Roche
For one minute, walk briskly, as if you are trying to get first dibs on the bathroom after watching a movie in a crowded theater. For the next, do 10 forward lunges and 10 side lunges, focusing on opening up your hips and moving quickly with good form. For the final minute, do 10 side-to-side leg swings, followed by 10 front-to-back leg swings.
At the end of these three minutes, your leg noodles should be approaching al dente.
2. Starting Out: First Mile Slowest
After your warm-up, your legs may be al dente, but you still need to ease them into the specific movement of running by starting slowly.
My rule is five minutes of jogging. Run completely relaxed (but with good form) for five minutes before you think about speeding up. A good guideline is 5K race pace plus two to four minutes. So if you run a 5K in 25 minutes (about eight-minute miles), jog the first five minutes of each run at 10-to-12-minute pace. Many elite Kenyan training groups go even slower (relatively speaking) at the beginning of their workouts.
Don't be like a puppy. Start your runs slow. Photo by David Roche
The relaxed start serves two purposes. First, it lowers the mental energy required to get out the door. Since every run counts, any mechanism that promotes consistency will also promote long-term development of speed.
Second, it allows you to work through daily soreness while also jump-starting your aerobic system for the rest of the run. Occasionally, it may help you diagnose a potential injury before it becomes something serious. After five minutes (or however long you find works best for you), your legs and body will be ready for the rest of the run.
3. Finishing: Cool down, Rehydrate, Roll out
Just like the warm-up, the cool-down is neglected too often. It can be just as simple, such as five minutes of bouncing around at a relaxed pace to let your body get back to equilibrium. This is a great time to do some barefoot running as well, to work on form and foot strengthening.
After you finish the run, light stretching is optional. (There is debate about its efficacy; I support stretching the calves and hamstrings.) Hydration, however, is not optional. Always have a big glass of water, and add some electrolytes and calories to jump-start the recovery process. After training runs, coconut water, a sports drink or even chocolate milk are great. And at races, Coke is delightful (followed by beer, of course).
Finally, set aside two minutes to use a foam roller on your entire leg; 30 seconds each on the quads, butt/back, calves and shins can work wonders. Pay special attention to calf/shin massage, which you can also do without a foam roller. Some of the athletes I coach have found that a couple more minutes of self-massage in the evening can diminish soreness when they wake up the next day. Just make sure that everyone else in the house understands that what you are doing is self-massage and a totally normal form of running foreplay.
On second thought, you might want to omit that last phrase from your explanation.
David Roche is a two-time USATF trail national champion, the 2014 U.S. Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year and a member of Nike Trail Elite and Team Clif Bar. When not frolicking on single-track or working as a public-interest attorney for the Environmental Law Institute, he enjoys spending time with his wife and puppy, both of whom are substantially better at running than he is. He works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. Follow David's daily training on Strava here, and follow him on Twitter here.