Stepping Into the Unknown

I started writing this post back in January. But the challenges of training a full marathon in the dead of winter in the Midwest took away most of my mental and physical energy. I had an internal fight with myself every day about how I would feel bad if I missed a run, but the freezing cold and lack of sunshine placed a challenge for my motivation. “I am strong, I am tough. I can do hard things”, I don’t remember how many times I said these cheesy phrases to myself to hype myself up for runs. Anyway, now that the days are longer, the sun is brighter, and the temp is warmer, I am finally back to pick up what I left off! 

Winter training is in full swing (well, it is almost spring now…). It’s always fun to meet the new faces on the team at the beginning of every training season (I run with Fleet Feet x New Balance Racing Team, and Chicago Endurance Sports. I will share how I got involved in these running groups, and why do I think having such running communities is useful in my next post!). I love getting to know how the runners got here, what’s their favorite pre/post-run food, and what keeps them motivated. Let’s be honest, most “sane” people don’t run outside in Midwest winters. Most people join the team because they are training for a specific race. And there is always someone whose goal race is a distance that they have never run or raced before. I can see the hesitation on their faces when others ask the question, “what’s your goal time?” since there is not always a benchmark for them to measure against. 

I still find myself in that situation sometimes. I am not a middle-distance runner. After I signed up for a 5k race last minute in the fall, I stared at a pace chart long and hard trying to figure out what’s a reasonable pace that I can hold over a 5k distance without busting. It felt more stressful than putting together a race day plan for a marathon. The unknown was scary. 

That’s what I am here to talk about today – the unknown

For a good 3 years, for some personal reasons, I didn’t know where I would be living in the following quarter. No, I didn’t grow to love the unknown. But I have lived in the unknown for so long that I figured out ways to eliminate the variables and always prepare myself for plan b, plan c, and plan d. It allowed me to make the best of the situation, and not be fully in the dark. The same kind of mindset can be applied to running. 

Here are a couple of situations in running where you may encounter unknown:

Unknown pace

As Robin Arzon (@robinnyc), the VP of programming for Peloton, said, it doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger. Running doesn’t get easier, you just get stronger and faster. For me, the potential of testing my physical limits is the beauty of racing. However, I have to admit that it is always intimidating whenever I attempt a new distance PR. Or worst, trying to come up with a pace for a distance that I never raced in. Honestly, since the marathon is the only distance that I regularly train for and race in, I do not have a good grasp of my capability in the other distances. 

Here are the steps I use to determine my goal pace:

  • Do a 1-mile time trial to figure out my fitness level, or if I ran a race within the past month, I would use that time as a benchmark 
  • Use a pace calculator to understand how this pace translates to other distances (with Jack Daniels’ calculator, you can put in your pace for a certain distance on top, and then click the “equivalent” to see what that pace means for other distances.)
  • Running goal pace during your training runs. No, not all of your runs should be at your goal pace (I absolutely did that before, and ended up with an angry Achilles tendon.) But you should have some goal race pace miles built-in for your speed training, tempo runs, or long runs. Personally, this was one of the most helpful things that my training plan had during my last marathon cycle. For example, we had an 18-mile run that consisted of warm-up miles, 3 sets of 3 miles at marathon pace with 1 mile of recovery between working sets, and cool-down miles after the programmed sets. Runs like this helped me to get an idea of what it feels like to hold my goal pace and to determine whether or not my goal pace was realistic. Since we had multiple runs that were similar to this one, I tried a couple of different paces before picking a pace that was challenging but not too aggressive. 

Unknown distance

It feels scary running or even racing a distance that you have never done before. For most people who are training for their first half-marathon, full marathon, or ultra, almost every long run would likely be the longest distance you have ever run. I totally understand the uneasy feeling of seeing a big number for the long run. What helped me during my first marathon training was counting up to halfway, then counting down for the rest of the run. For example, for an 18-miler, once I get to 9 miles I would start counting down. I would tell myself, I have done 9 miles before, I can do this. I have also broken down the long runs into 3-5 sections of 3-6 miles and tell myself I only have less than 5k or 10k to go! It’s the small mental tricks like this that helped me push away the iffy feeling when tackling long distances. 

What about a distance that you have run before, but never raced? This is when all the things mentioned before for dealing with unknown pace come into play. Figuring out the pace that you could potentially hold for that distance, and practicing running at that pace during your training runs to get used to what the pace feels like.

Unknown condition

Your obsession over the weather app a few weeks before the race can’t change the weather. I have to tell myself this every time before a big race. But luckily it doesn’t bother me as much as it may others. Part of it is because my team trains in ALL CONDITIONS (it was just hailing during one of our speed training sessions…it hurt, but it didn’t stop us!). I know whatever the condition is, I experienced it and I am prepared for it. 

Next time when it’s raining or snowing or super hot and humid, and you are hesitant to go for a run, just remind yourself that the race would happen rain or shine. It’s better to experience it now, figure out the best way to dress for it and fuel during it than experiencing it for the first time on race day. 

Unknown course

Compared to the rest, this is the most exciting unknown factor! 

New routes and new scenery can be fun, but they can also be stressful on a race day. The best thing that I have done to prepare for an unknown course was the “last 10k course visualization run” that I did with my team for Chicago Marathon last year. I mentioned how much it helped me when things got tough in my race recap post. However, I understand that not everyone has the privilege to run the last portion of the course before race day due to travel or time constraints. Here are some other ways to prepare for an unknown course:

  • Studying the course map/elevation map

It might seem trivial, but this is something that I had done for most of my races before and I have had success with. Knowing when to expect a turn and when a hill is coming allows me to mentally psych myself up for the miles ahead, and it also helps break down a long-distance course into smaller bite-size sections. 

  • Watch a video of the course

If you are running a big race, for example a major marathon, you can probably find video footage of the course on YouTube. Watch it, visualize it, and memorize it! Ok, maybe not exactly memorize it, but you get the idea. This could go a long way come race day! 

  • Drive the course

Not every race will have resources like a course video. And if you don’t have the time to run the last portion of the course before the race day, maybe you could drive through it, and pay close attention to the surroundings and bumps on the road. The idea is to “plant seeds of positivity” as my coach said during our course visualization run last year.

That’s all for today! 

For runners in Chicago, this weekend is the start of the race season. Whether you are tackling an unknown pace, unknown distance, unknown conditions (weather looks good for now!), or unknown course, know that you are not alone, and there are ways to fight the anxious voice in your head.

Good luck and have fun! Yeah running 🙂

Getting Into Running

Beginner Q&A answered

I started running when I was 12. Before that, I don’t think I had run anything over 50m, which was the PE test distance in our school. It was a coincidence that I found out I am a decent runner. When I was in 5th Grade, no one in my class signed up for the 400m and 800m races for our school’s annual Sports Day. Our teacher walked into the classroom one afternoon, looked around, pointed at me, and said, “you look like you can run.” The next thing I knew, I was standing at the starting line of my very first 400m race. I walked away with gold (800m) and silver (400m). I gave my dad all the credits for this. He used to take me to the mountains on weekends, and had me bike all the way to the top without stopping. “You can zigzag on steep areas, but you cannot get off the bike,” he said (in the most loving way…for an Asian dad. He is a cool dad who likes to challenge me). These biking adventures likely strengthened my cardiovascular system and built muscles on my legs, which gave me a leg up on the runs.

But for many reasons, running didn’t stick with me. I ran a couple more 400, 800 races in middle school and high school, but it wasn’t until after I graduated from college when I picked up jogging. And from there, I slowly started racing 10k, marathon, and half marathon (yep, I never raced a 5k, and I ran my first marathon without running a half… it was, let’s say, an interesting challenge). Without a coach or even a running club to start with, I went through a steep learning curve and made a lot of mistakes. Through a lot of time spent on Google, podcasts, books, and asking friends and eventually coaches, slowly but surely, I figured out what works for me and what doesn’t. 

In the past year or so, I started getting questions from friends and acquaintances about running. It made me feel very honored and happy that you guys came to me. I still have so much to learn, but I am here to share my insights on some of the “getting started” questions that I have received, in the hope that you can avoid the mistakes that I have made. I hope this could welcome more people into the running community and invite you all to experience the beauty of this sport.

Running is Whale-y FUN

Tips for beginners on how to get started?

  • Find the right pair of running shoes, lace up, and run. 

Running is a sport that has a relatively low barrier to entry and has the potential to be very inclusive. You don’t need fancy clothes, headphones, hats, or a watch. All you really need is a pair of shoes. But make sure that you are not running on old shoes or shoes that have been worn out. Shoes with beaten-up soles could hurt your joints and feet, and cause damage to your body. 

  • Start with something small. 

Maybe it’s 1 mile every other day, or maybe it’s 2 miles twice a week. Find a goal that’s approachable, and commit to it. If you don’t have a watch, you can use apps (I personally use Strava and really enjoy it). Try to stick to the goal, and don’t overdo it to burn your motivation or dial up your self-doubt. It will likely not be fun in the beginning. It always takes my body a little time to get back into running after a break as well. Just like how it takes more than 2 months to form a new habit, getting your body to learn to enjoy running could take some time. 

You could run without headphones to fully take in your surroundings or meditate, you could put together a hyped playlist and run to the beats, you could listen to podcasts to distract yourself from checking your pace, or you could run with friends to catch up on life. You can run on a treadmill, a track, a running path, a road, or a trail. Change it up. Figure out what your mind and body like! 

Tips for beginners on how to run for longer distances? 

  • Find your pace

Try to run at a pace at which you can have a conversation with someone. If you are alone, try to sing to yourself. If you can’t do that, slow down. This might feel silly in the beginning, but you will feel much better when you realize you can slowly add on more miles without gasping.

Try not to compare your pace with other people’s pace. I will get into gaining speed through speed training in another post. The point of running at a conversational pace is that you could develop muscles and your cardiovascular system without putting too much strain on your body. 

  • Track your distance

Knowing your distance will allow you to track your progress, and adjust your training goal/plan accordingly. You could get a fitness watch. But it’s not necessary. I actually trained and ran my first 10k, half, and full marathon without a watch. I used an app to track my run and turned on the feedback in the app so that it would tell me my average pace, and pace for the previous mile. However, most of the apps are not as accurate as the watches. I have tried MapMyRun, Nike+ Running, and Strava. Strava is by far the most accurate one. 

All of these apps also tell you your weekly mileage. Pay attention to that number and gradually increase it over time. Your joints and muscles need some time to get used to the volume. In order to avoid injury, build up slowly so that your body can be strong enough to conquer the miles. 

  • Find running buddies / Join a running club

Having someone to run with could distract you from checking the distance. You could talk about cool podcasts that you discovered, share good books that you just finished, get into an amazing dinner recipe that you made last night, and next thing you know, you already ran 5 miles! Running buddies also keep you accountable. I can’t remember how many times that I laced up after I was about to skip a run, and I got a text from friends saying “see you at training tonight”.

You might not have a friend who shares a similar schedule, or lives close enough for you to run together all the time. And I totally understand that it could be intimidating to join a running club. But it can really help! You can check out the local running clubs’ websites and social media profiles to see if they have any social runs, or simply show up at the beginning of the season when there are a lot of new faces in the group. 

What kind of running shoes should I get?

This is the question that I get A LOT. I know you guys are probably looking for recommendations for specific shoes. However, everyone’s feet are different, everyone moves differently, and everyone has different preferences. To add to the confusion, different brands, and even different lines within the same brand fit a little differently. I am talking about toe box room, midsole fit, heel lock…etc. 

That being said, Fleet Feet has a list of running shoe suggestions for beginners (I am technically sponsored by FF racing team, but I am not sponsored for this link). It’s a good place to start. I personally have run in 3 of the shoes on the list. And I can give you some suggestions on things to look for when you are trying on different running shoes: 

  • Do your feet feel secured? 

I have relatively narrow feet. I have tried on shoes that are so roomy that I felt like my feet can swing side to side. Some breathing room in shoes can be nice, but you don’t want your feet to move around too much while you are running. 

  • Do your toes have room to move around? 

Trust me this is V important. I lost 3 toenails before I learned my lesson. After you put on the shoes, move your toes, spread them out, do a little toe yoga! Your toes should have enough room to spread wide without feeling constricted. 

  • Do you like the way the shoes hug your feet? 

This is a personal preference. I love bootie feeling shoes (Nike Flyknit line, NB FuelCell Rebel line), but I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Try on 3-5 pairs of shoes with different fits to see which one feels best for you.

  • Does the sole feel supportive, or is it too firm/cushiony for you? 

If you don’t know what you want your running shoes to feel like, I would recommend going to a running store to try on different running shoes. When you put them on, do a 5 min run on the treadmill (many running stores have treadmills in the shop), or go for a lap around the block to get a sense of how the shoes feel on your feet. Fleet Feet has different locations in many different cities, and if you are in the Twin Cities, Mill City Running is a great running store as well. 

What do you listen to on your run?

This is a hard question to answer because it really depends. 

When I was training for my first marathon, I was doing all of my runs solo. I had an old pair of Beats, and I was only listening to electropop music on my runs. This is not a genre that I listen to outside of running. So every time I put on the playlist, it put me in the mindset of running. And since I didn’t know the lyrics to most of the songs, I was able to zone out and meditate during long runs. 

After moving to Chicago, I joined a couple of running clubs. For every group run, I would leave my headphones at home so I could chat with people. I gradually started doing some solo runs without headphones as well. It allowed me to pay attention to and enjoy all the little details of my surroundings. I went on doing a couple of half marathons and marathons without headphones. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, I started listening to audiobooks and podcasts on my runs. It’s not the best for pace, and I found myself zoning out and missing bits of information here and there. But that was what got me out of the door to run, and the voice of the audiobooks made me feel less lonely during that uncertain time.

Recently, I have been running my speed works with a mix of punk rock, hip hop, and electronic pop music. For my easy runs, I would either put on a podcast or simply run headphones-free.  

This is a pretty personal question. What I like may not work for you. As you can see, I tried a variety of things, and I listen to different things for different workouts. I recommend trying different things to see which one you would prefer. However, if you plan on bringing your headphones on your runs, always make sure that you are aware of your surroundings. Try running with one earbud or lowering the volume. I personally use a pair of bone structured AfterShokz (not sponsored. I just really enjoy their products!). The open-ear design allows me to be alert to everything around me, and the sound quality is good enough for calls.  

And if any of you become elite runners in the future (I am rooting for y’all!), just keep in mind that elite runners cannot wear headphones during races. 

That’s all for this week. I hope you find it helpful! Yeah running!