How to run without all the pesky agonizing pain

How to run without all the pesky agonizing pain

Jan 2021

I used to think the people I saw running were insane. They were confused about life. Whatever the benefits of running, nothing could justify that much suffering. Runners were cut from a different cloth. They had a strength of will I lacked. I would never be one of them.

Now I run regularly. Not because I developed stronger willpower, or because I feel an obligation to my health. I run because I like it. Somehow, I became one of them.

Here’s the secret to running: The pain you feel when you run? You don’t need to endure that.

Untrained runners typically have this experience: You resolve to start running. The first session, you take off at a fast pace. After a minute or two, your heart and lungs are struggling to keep up, and soon your entire body is in pain. This is terrible. You don’t have the willpower to run through that suffering day after day, so you quit after a few sessions.

For some reason, people don’t tell you an important fact: That horrible feeling almost completely disappears within a few weeks of training. Your cardiovascular system develops quickly. Instead, you run until your legs get tired — an infinitely more pleasurable experience. The secret of all those “crazy people” on the street is that they aren’t suffering (or at least, not much).

But even this is misleading. It suggests you need to “break through” to the second stage, and only then running becomes easy. It suggests you must summon ultimate willpower for a few weeks in order to level up.

No! You don’t need ultimate willpower, even at the beginning. That’s the second thing people don’t tell you: You don’t need to suffer to get through to the second stage. You just need consistency.

You should think as follows: You are starting a habit you will keep for decades. It doesn’t matter how hard you run today. What matters is (1) that you do run, and (2) that you enjoy it enough that you’ll run again tomorrow. That’s it. Are there people who run three times a week for 5 years and still suck at running, however little their willpower is in each session? No! Just go, take it easy, and let time do the work.

Behold, the official Dynomight™ running program:

  • Schedule three 20 minute sessions per week.
  • In each session, jog as long as you feel like it. When this gets hard, stop jogging and walk.
  • Over time, try to spend a higher fraction of your time jogging. Don’t measure the fraction. Don’t stress. Just keep going.

At the beginning, you might only get in a handful of 30 seconds jogs during your 20 minutes. That’s fine.

When I suggest this, people often say “that’s too easy” or “I need to get in shape faster”. They might start some aggressive training plan and follow it for a week or two. They hate it, of course, and soon they’ve quit. A year later, they are exactly where they started.

The famous couch to 5k program is of a similar spirit. It starts with walking and sslloowwlllyyy mixes in running over time. It takes two months to go from nothing to running 25 minutes nonstop. But you’re in this for the long haul, right? Does it matter if it takes you four months instead? Or six months? A year?

Lots — perhaps most — exercise advice is counterproductive for regular people. It’s oriented towards elite athlete. If that’s you, fine. But the other 99% of the population with modest ambitions can have essentially all of the health benefits with almost none of the suffering.

Let’s consider two possible failure modes of your running plan.

  • Failure mode A. Your plan is too aggressive. You dread going each time and eventually quit.
  • Failure mode B. Your plan is too easy. You have a good time but improve your health slightly more slowly than possible.

Now, some questions.

  1. Which failure mode is more likely?
  2. Which failure mode is more harmful if it happens?
  3. Then why, oh why, are you optimizing your exercise plan around the other failure mode?

In reality, suffering is bad for you. If you suffer, you’ll hate running. If you hate running, you’ll stop. So not suffering is your top priority.

Philosophically, should I have known running wasn’t interminable pain forever? In retrospect, it seems ridiculous to think I was “different” from runners, physically or mentally. Why didn’t I consider the possibility that my random guesses about what they were experiencing were wrong?

Maybe there’s a lesson here about how easy it is to make assumptions, or imagine deep personality differences when mundane explanations suffice. Maybe the fundamental attribution error does exist. Or maybe it’s just too hard to resist passively bragging by letting everyone think running must be difficult.

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