Running is hard. The difficult is a big part of the reason that people have a hard time developing a consistent running practice, and it’s why running a 10k, half-marathon, or full marathon is such an accomplishment. A lot of beginner runners assume that after a few weeks of training, running will get easier. And it might. But even after a decade of running, there is one part of training that rarely seems to get easier. No matter how long I have trained and how fit I have gotten, the first mile is the hardest. But I have decided that the first mile is a liar mile, and it doesn’t mean anything. Here’s why:
The First Mile Is a Liar Mile
The First Mile Sucks, Even For Coaches
I’ve explained that I am not a natural runner, and that I had to train to run one mile consistently. Once I got past that first coveted mile, I assumed that running would just get easier. And to some degree it has. But 9 times of 10, the first mile of my run usually feels like I have the energy of a narcoleptic with a new born baby at home.
I share this, because I have had so many clients come to me, frustrated and confused about how after weeks of training they still struggle with that first mile. And I’ve had so many clients who, like me, train to run one mile without stopping, and it just never feels good. What’s the point in continuing to run if the running never feels like anything but slow death?
The point is that the first mile almost always feels like crap, and very few runs will start to feel “good” until after you cross that soul crushing threshold. There’s something magical on the other side of the first mile. But to get to the magic, you have to trudge through that first abusive 1600 meters.
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If you can just get to a place where you can survive the first four laps, you may start to dip a toe into the beloved runners high. If that first mile makes you feel like a wimp, don’t stress. And remember, even running coaches feel like crap for most of those first few steps of every run.
Which is why I want to give all the beginner runners out there some hope, and some ways to keep pushing through. Because it’s completely possible to keep running, even if you also feel like a narcoleptic with a new born baby at home.
The First Mile Means Nothing
When you step out the door, full of hope that maybe today will be the day that the run doesn’t require every ounce of determination you have available, having a crappy first mile can be defeating. To say the least. It can also set off a fun stream of mental gymnastics. I call them panic thoughts. Thoughts like, “Omg, how can I feel so lethargic after that full pot of coffee,” or “How am I supposed to run when my legs have clearly been replaced with cinder blocks?” or my personal favorite “What in the actual F is wrong with me?!?!?!?”
These panic thoughts will do you no good. They will not make the mile any easier, and they will not allow you to push past it if you give in to them. What they can do is create so much fear that you convince yourself that if you run one step beyond that “1.00” mark on your watch, you just might die. But I can promise you, you won’t. Probably.
The first mile doesn’t mean you are out of shape. The first mile doesn’t mean you need new shoes. The first mile doesn’t mean you weren’t “built” to run. And it doesn’t mean you should stop or ditch the run. It just means that the first mile sucks. Because that’s what it does.
The First Mile Is A Separate Run
It’s hard to keep going for mile two or three after the first mile feels so hard. It’s easy to think that you’re having a bad day, or are a bad runner. It’s also somewhat logical to decide that if the first mile feels like crap, the rest of the run will probably also feel like crap. And if you’ve got a ways to go, that can feel pretty terrifying.
When I find myself worrying about the rest of the run, and whether it will be as painful, I remind myself that the first mile is a completely separate run. It is 100% unrelated to the rest of the run. Some of my most successful long runs started off as a terrible one mile run followed by 15 amazing miles.
Feeling like crap during the first mile absolutely does not mean that you will feel like crap for the rest of your run. If you can remember this, and try to just focus on the mile you are in, you give yourself a fighting chance to make it over that first mile hurdle.
The First Mile Is Adaptation
I’ve had so many clients ask me why they struggle so much getting through that first mile, even once they’ve gotten to a point in training where a six mile run is nothing astonishing. Logic would tell you that the first few miles of a run should feel easy, with effort progressively increasing throughout the run. This would make the hardest miles the last miles.
But running isn’t logical. Or at least recreational running isn’t. We aren’t running from predators. We aren’t chasing dinner, or a mate. We’re just running for no reason, and our bodies aren’t generally fans of that. There’s a natural, physiological response to running that engages our fight or flight reflex. And once our body is able to realize there isn’t a real threat, it wants our body to put on the breaks. Immediately.
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WHY ARE YOU RUNNING? THERE’S NO REASON FOR THIS MADNESS. It’s wasting a whole lot of energy, and bodies have spent decades finding new and innovative ways to conserve energy. Remember the popularity of the clap light? That was the finest demonstration of man’s evolutionary focus to expend as little energy as possible.
So, during that first mile, your brain is assessing and trying to figure out what it is that the body is running from. When the brain realizes there’s no threat, it tries to force you to stop already. It takes a while for the brain and body to adapt to what you are asking it to do, and as your body adapts, you begin to feel less like you are pulling a parachute behind you as you run.
The First Mile Is a True Warm Up
Once you can recognize that the first mile has no bearing on any subsequent mile, you can treat it for what it is. The first mile of any run, even an easy run, is a warm up. It’s preparation for your body to begin running in an efficient way.
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You’d never go to the gym and expect to just load up a barbell with 300lbs and start squatting it. No, you’d spend some time getting your blood flowing and your muscles firing. In this time period, if you were to try to achieve some big lift, you’d probably feel terrible doing it. So, instead you do some stretching and load your bar up with some light weights to get started.
Unfortunately for running, there is no lighter version of the movement. You’re either running or you’re not running. Which is why the first mile feels so hard; you haven’t warmed up for the warm up mile. And while you can’t make any significant changes to running, you can be mindful of the pace.
If you start a run trying to push with all of your energy in that first mile, you’re not going to have anything left to give for the rest of your run. The rest of the run will feel just as bad as that first mile. And who in the world wants that?
So what should you do? You should treat the first mile as a true warm up. Allow your body to run a pace that is much slower than even your easy paces. Focus on getting the blood flowing instead of hitting a specific pace. And don’t panic if your watch beeps one mile in to tell you you’ve run incredibly slow, but still somehow felt like you were throwing down 6 minute miles based on effort level.
If you can start out slow, and get your body moving conservatively, the rest of your run will likely feel much better. There’s a reason the fastest runners in the world try to run “negative splits.” A negative split simply means the ending of a run is at a faster than the beginning. The motivation for chasing negative splits is that you can run much faster with less effort after the warm up portion of your run.
So slow down, don’t panic, and just focus on moving and getting warmed up.
Ignore The First Mile – It Is A Liar
Aside from running slower and using the first mile as a warm up, the only other way to respond to that first hard mile is to just ignore it. It wants to make you question your strength. It wants to make you stop. It wants to make you give up on today’s run and the whole running thing in general.
But you are stronger than the first mile and the panic and the self-doubt. So when your first mile sucks, and your mind starts to plant seeds of doubt, what should you do? You should say, “Get behind me Satan, shut the hell up, because I’m strong and I have work to do.” And then go do it.
The first mile sucks sometimes, but I can guarantee you, it’s just a liar.