If we get better at running, does running get easier?
The good news is yes. Running becomes easier as your body develops and adapts to the demands you place upon it. If you run regularly, your legs get stronger, your heart gets stronger and is more able to pump the blood and energy-carrying oxygen to the muscles in your legs. It might take a few weeks, but some marvellous things can happen to you and your body if you persevere.
Undoubtedly, running is harder than sitting on the couch and this will be very obvious when you start. How much harder depends on you and your own circumstances.
If you are new to running and generally not very fit, then running will be hard to start with. There will be much stopping and starting, walk breaks, red faces and puffing and panting. For most people, after a few weeks, they reach that significant threshold of being able to sustain continuous running.
What is continuous running?
Being able to run in a sustained way, without stopping is a landmark. It’s the point at which your cardiovascular system is able to provide the necessary energy to the working muscles to keep you running, i.e, you are able to supply oxygen to the muscles at a rate that is greater than their needs.
In recent years, with the introduction of Couch-to-5k and ParkRun, that threshold is emphasised around the 5k or 3-mile point. Once you can run for that distance, you’ll probably call yourself a runner and you have much greater access to easy running. An easy jog can be just that; there’s no need to stop to catch your breath. After reaching that level of fitness, additional factors make running hard such as: increasing speed, increasing distance, running uphill, running into the wind and running on heavy ground, such as mud or soft sand.
Did running get easier for me?
I can remember the first time I ran. I don’t mean as a kid, or when older, running for a bus or away from the police. I mean the first time I ran after deciding that I was going to start running as an exercise.
I was about 30 years old. I had been running in the gym, on a treadmill, as part of my lunch-break routine. I ran for about 5 minutes as a warm-up, on the flat with no incline set. But that’s not real running, is it. On a treadmill there’s no sensation of travel or movement through space (because there’s no travel involved). The only sensation of speed is the rate at which the belt passes under your feet and of course the read-out from the screen. Or, occasionally, how far across the room you end up when things get out of shape. If you can stay on your feet, treadmill running is a very disconnected sensory experience compared to running across open ground. No passing scenery, no wind in your hair, the same ugly face in the mirror.
My exercise routine began after I changed from a physical job to a largely desk-based job. My weight — already the wrong side of healthy — was increasing and I was aware that unless I changed something about my lifestyle, I’d continue to get bigger and bigger. So I joined a gym and worked-out in my lunch-break.
The gym instructor suggested I might like to do the local Fun Run. Me? The person that jogs 5 minutes on a treadmill as a warm-up and then does most of his work-out sitting down on exercise machines? Could I even run for 10k? That’s little more than 6 miles, I thought: EASY.
The first run
My first outside run was from my home, a short jog for less than half a mile, then down the hill, turn around, back up. All in all, about 1.5 miles. It was easy, to begin with. That easy first half mile was similar to what I was familiar with on the treadmill, I was hardly out of breath, but it was pretty much all downhill.
Then, the turnaround.
Less than 50 metres into the hill, I was finished. Not finished as in back home and feeling smug. No, finished as in I could not run another step. I walked up the hill and just about managed a jog home when the road levelled off. I was spent, exhausted. A 30-year-old, seemingly healthy, wrecked by trying to run further than I had done since childhood.
Worse was to come. I couldn’t run the next day, my legs hurt too much, nor the next, and probably not the next either. I had discovered two things: running was far from easy and I had no natural talent for it at all.
More running, getting easier?
I can’t remember when I’d recovered enough to run again. But sometime between then and now (some 28 years later), I ran an 80-mile race and finished ahead of 90% of the other competitors. Hills? There were a few, more than 10,000 feet of climb.
So, seemingly, running did get easier for me.
I’ve also run a few marathons, twenty-something, including in the Swiss Alps and also the Snowdon Mountain Race a few times, which is probably the maddest 10 miles of running I’ve ever raced. And a 17-mile fell-race that was more depleting than probably all the marathons. Not one of those was easy. Neither the 1-mile track races nor the 400-metre repetition training.
So it’s not such a simple answer. Over the years, I’ve managed to make the most of my limited ability. Usually finishing in the top 10% in races (before I got old). I even won a local 10-mile race; it was very low-key, I chose wisely. Running at those events was far from easy and I certainly suffered more than I did on that first attempt of 1.5 miles. Likewise, the training. I did have periods when I trained quite hard for a 3rd-rate runner. One of my diary entries reads 10x800m in 2:50, windy and wet — that wasn’t easy. My fastest marathon was managed on the back of training weeks of 60-70 miles, with plenty of speed-work mixed in. Nevertheless, I’d reached a stage when it seemed more natural for me to run than to walk. Running for 10 miles was absolutely easy.
Easier for You?
Your experience will probably be rather different to mine. There will be similarities, because the more you run, the more able to run you become. When I coach at the track and newcomers ask how hard will it be, my answer is always the same: it’s as hard as you make it. They could jog around the track at a very easy pace or even walk. But, because they are there for a reason (to get fitter), they tend to push themselves, often well out of their comfort zones. So it’s not the run that’s hard, it’s the effort applied that makes it so.
How fit are you now?
A 3-mile run might be beyond you right now and perhaps, the very act of running for more than half a minute is a challenge. But after just 3 or 4 weeks of running, it could be a breeze. We are all different, we have different responses to training, different physical make-up and significantly, different levels of motivation.
How age affects your rate of improvement
As we get older, our bodies take more time to recover. If we don’t train, we’ll get weaker and less flexible as the years pass. So, in that respect, running does get harder as we age. But, we also become more psychologically mature and perhaps our motivation to run changes. When once we were motivated by improvement and new PBs, now we can be motivated simply by the fact that we are able to get out there and run.
Those who start running in later life can actually keep improving for a significant time. That is to say that the positive effects of the training outweigh the negative effects of ageing. But, even those who have been running for many years, can improve in later life. Maybe the body cannot take the workload it used to, but we can offset the ageing factor by training smarter. If we keep to the same routine, of course running will begin to get harder beyond a certain age. Conversely, if we adapt our training, and maybe include more quality training and importantly, more recovery, we might find running gets easier.
One great way to keep motivated and maintain our hunger for running is to use age-grading. Age grading enables you to monitor and compare your running ability as you get older. So, yes, we might be 3 minutes slower over 10k than we used to be, but age-grading might tell us that we are actually running better than we did back then.
The weather factor
The weather does play its part in making running hard or easy. First of all, the weather can actually stop you even opening the front door. If it’s inclement, cold, wet, it can just feel easier to stay indoors. But, as many seasoned runners will confirm, the hardest part of those runs is the first few minutes. Once you are wet, you can’t get any wetter. The running body generates a huge amount of heat compared to the resting body, but the furnace takes a few minutes to fire-up. One thing that will make running in inclement weather much, much easier is some protective weather kit. It doesn’t need to be expensive, just something to keep you warmer and drier for the first few minutes. Once you are going, running in bad weather can be surprisingly pleasurable and rewarding. Battling the elements, whilst other people shelter in their homes, creates a warm glow all of its own.
So if the weather makes running hard for you, get some protective kit and just go for it— it’s fun.
Of course at the other extreme is the heat. Some people suffer more than others running when the mercury rises. Personally, I love running in the heat. Sure I expect to be running slower than normal and will remain cautious about running a long way, especially without hydration. But the great news is that we adapt quite quickly to running in higher temperatures, and running in the heat will get much easier and less stressful on the body after a week or so of training.
Running too fast or too far
If you only ever run for 3 miles or 5k then running a marathon is going to be very hard indeed. Likewise, if you only ever run at 12-minute miles, then trying to rip up the running track is going to be tough and possibly demoralising especially if you are with others who are used to it. Allow yourself to develop gradually.
Some people can get away with running a marathon on very little training, but they are few and far between. Most of us will need a solid few months to build up to running 26 miles. And that marathon, it could be very hard or relatively easy, depending on a number of factors. Cruising around a big city marathon, running well within your capabilities could feel easy, whereas trying to run your fastest time is going to be tough.
Pushing the limits on distance or speed can change our whole experience of running. But we need not shy away from pushing ourselves; that’s the way we improve. Just don’t expect it to be easy; it’s called a comfort zone for good reason.
How running changes the body
When you go from non-runner to runner, your body changes. Muscles strengthen, including the heart, which becomes better able to circulate the blood and oxygen to the working muscles. The muscles change in structure, for example, the mitochondria within the muscles that convert fuel and oxygen into the chemical energy that feed the muscles proliferate and increase efficiency. As we train and recover, our mitochondria become better at creating the energy the muscles need to function. Exercise develops our blood vessels to deliver more oxygen to the muscles. The heart, itself a muscle, grows stronger and can circulate more blood around the body.
This increased efficiency of the heart and circulatory system to both deliver oxygenated blood to the muscles (and clear carbon dioxide away) has a dramatic effect on how we feel when we run. Although running has marginal effects on lung capacity and function in the healthy adult body, it certainly feels like the lungs get more efficient because we feel less out-of-breath when we run. So it’s not that we get better at breathing, rather our circulatory system can do more with each breath and so the demands placed on the lungs are less.
Running of course affects the body in other ways too: increasing bone density, burning calories and hence having to carry less weight around (as long as you don’t over-compensate and eat too much!). Also importantly, running has psychological benefits too: lifting the mood, improving sleep, and concentration. All of these things over time will help to make running easier.
It’s all part of the body’s adaptation to running. In simple terms, when we run, we get fitter, stronger and happier.
How much running should you do to improve
If you don’t do any running now, then just starting will develop your ability to run and make it feel easier after a week or two. But if you only run once a week, you’ll soon reach the limits of improvement, or plateau. Whether you’ll reach a point of running feeling easy is dependent on the other forms of exercise you do, and your own personal circumstances. Current exercise guidelines according to the UK NHS state ‘do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week’. Certainly, if you gradually move to that level of running from a largely sedentary position, then you will improve. Conversely, if an elite marathon runner was to train at that level, then their fitness will deteriorate. So improvement is relative.
Improvement means moving from one point to another point higher up on the ability scale. Where you start on that scale and where you want to be will determine what improvement means to you. For the purposes of this article — one that assumes that running is not that easy for you right now — then a sound running plan would be to run three times a week and aim to run or walk/run for 30 minutes each time. You can see more detailed guidance on our beginner’s 8-week 5k training plan which is free to download.
What are your aims?
There are many varied reasons why people start running: improving fitness, losing weight, meeting new friends, relaxation, raising money, and plenty more besides. Your initial aims and how you move towards them will affect how easy your running becomes.
For me, I wanted to lose weight and that quite quickly happened. But I didn’t stop running once I’d become happier in my own skin. Indeed, I ran more. And more and more and more. I discovered road-races of 10k and half marathon and became driven by competition and that great feeling that running provides. So, although my initial goal was soon accomplished, running became intrinsically rewarding. The things that continue to fuel my motivation for running are very different to what got me started, and they have changed over the years (although being able to eat what I like is a constant). Nowadays, competition is not so important, just being able to get out and blow away the cobwebs and stress of the day is enough.
What if running is always hard?
The hard part is those first few weeks and you’ll need to be motivated to persevere through those. So it helps to stay in touch with why you started.
If it’s mentally hard, then perhaps you’ll benefit from support. Join a group or club with those of a similar standard to you, the camaraderie can help a lot. Hopefully, you’ll know why you started, but delve deeper into the reasons. Want to raise money? How much? Who will benefit? How will it make a difference? If you start running to lose weight. Again, ask why, what will it mean to you?
Set goals, not just the big obvious one, but intermediate goals. Things to achieve on a weekly or daily basis. Running a marathon can seem like a huge mountain to climb, but stepping out of the door to run for 30 minutes, 3 times a week is much easier to tick off.
If it remains hard then perhaps you are trying too hard. It’s easy to compare ourselves to others and expect similar results or progress. But, we are all different and adapt to running in different ways. If we expect too much, then we get disappointed and running becomes not just hard, but unpleasurable and even pointless.
For many people, it’s not the actual running that provides the rewards and satisfaction, it is what running brings to their lives that make it worthwhile. And it’s not just the obvious ones like health, freedom, relaxation and confidence. There are other rewards too, for example: being able to extensively explore a city before breakfast while nearly everyone else sleeps, running over hills and mountains in the pouring rain while walkers shelter in their cars, travelling to foreign countries to run a marathon, and of course, being able to keep up with the kids.
As mentioned, it will be hard in the early days and weeks, so be realistic. It’s ok to jog and walk or even just walk to begin with. It’s very hard to judge pace and understand what your body can and can’t do in the early days. Many runners, even those with lots of experience, run too fast most of the time. They are in a constant state of fatigue. To develop basic running fitness requires very little speed. If your muscles use energy faster than your circulatory system can provide, it’s going to be tough going and likely demoralising too. It’s ok to slow down.
Maybe you are expecting too much. If so, when you leave the door, go with the intention of becoming part of the environment and enjoying your surroundings. If you are the sociable type, then run with others, but don’t allow them to pull you along too fast and don’t place yourself in the position of feeling that you are holding up anyone.
And ultimately, not everyone likes running
If this is you, and you’ve given things a few weeks to develop, its appeal is not universal. Just because someone else raves about something does not mean it’s going to float your boat. You might get more from cycling or hiking or dancing; whatever works for you to keep you fit and active is probably worth doing. But give it a go, don’t be deterred by it being hard in the first few weeks; many years of joy from running could be just around the corner.
It’s always nice to learn about how others experience their running and how they broke through any difficulties, either at the beginning or at those times when running seemed harder than it should have been.
Let us know in the comments below.