Prof Barry Smyth standing beside Insight logo

Insight Wellbeing: Prof Barry Smyth on how to stick to your running resolution

Submitted on Wednesday, 24/01/2024

Professor Barry Smyth, Insight SFI Research Centre for Data Analytics, author of the Running with Data blog

Lots of people start running in January but don’t get past the first couple of outings. By the third week of January (and the dreaded Blue Monday), many have submitted to the couch. How do you turn running into a pleasurable habit?

If you are thinking of having a go this year, your chances of success will be greatly improved if you start with a few simple principles, tools and objectives. It’s also helpful to have a sense of the ‘gotchas’ – those early actions and attitudes that can land you back on the couch.

I am not a professional runner. Other than a bit of running in my school years I did not take it up seriously until a milestone birthday more than 10 years ago, but now I am enthusiast marathon runner and, over the years, this “hobby” has gradually impacted my professional life ( I am an academic data scientist) as my research has increasingly focused on the data of running. Here’s some of what what I’ve learned when it comes to starting on a running journey later in life.

The first step is to set a reasonable goal. If your goal is to run a marathon in 2024 from a standing start, then, which I would never say never, perhaps it might be more sensible to identify something that is more achievable. Marathons are very hard on a body that is still learning to run . For example, a very achievable goal for anyone is to commit to three half hour running sessions a week. I would recommend following something lie a Couch-to-5K programme, which is designed to help people to get started in way that will gradually build up their endurance and fitness. It’s easy to find a Couch-to-5K progranme online or even download an app to your phone.

Your early runs should be very easy indeed. For example, many starter programmes , sich as Couch-to-5K, might start you out with a mixture of running and walking — walk two minutes, run one, walk two, run one and so on – so that your early 30 minute sessions might involve no more than 10 minutes of running . You will be guided to gradually increasing the amount of running as body takes the time it needs get used to your new exercise levels and your brain learns to stop panicking about how tired you feel and learns that you can actually do this and survive.

I was surprised, even now many years later, at quite how much of my running is done at a very gentle pace. There really is no need to go fast. Most running should be at a “conversational pace”,  ie a speed that still allow you to have a chat with a fellow runner. If you can’t string a few words together then you are probably going too fast. Speed will come later when you have build up your fitness base.

It’s ok not to want to go out on that run. Not every run is enjoyable, even for seasoned runners. In my experience, what makes the difference is a willingness to just get up and go for that run, even when I really don’t feel like it. Over time you will feel more and more motivated and there is rarely any better feeling than finishing the run you didn’t want to do!

Now you are in the right headspace, what gear do you need? If you don’t have a decent and relatively new pair of runners I would recommend buying a pair from an specialised running shop. You should get properly fitted, if possible at a specialist running shop such as Amphibian King, RunZone or The Run Hub or any shop that will do a proper fitting and gait analysis. The right price point is around €100 to €150. Anything more expensive might shave seconds off your marathon but it won’t make a difference to your everyday run. The right running shoe, properly chosen for you rneeds, will help you avoid injury and discomfort.

Beyond that, no expenditure is needed, assuming you have a pair of shorts/leggings and a suitable lightweight t-shirt or exercise top. It’s cold outside but dress for 5 or 6 degrees above the current temperature. You’ll warm up quickly and will be uncomfortable if you have too many layers. A light t-shirt and running tights or shorts will usually do the trick and if it’s windy or very cold then a light exercise jacket is all you will need.

If you have a fitness tracker, it might be useful for getting a sense of the distance covered or the time elapsed. If you don’t, the health tracker on your phone should do a similar job. You might consider downloading one of the many running apps (Strava, Runkeeper etc) which will help you to track your progress as the weeks go by and may even help you to connect with likeminded runners nearby.

When you are starting out, don’t worry so much about fueling your runs. On a half hour run you shouldn’t really need to bring water, food or the dreaded running gels. Just hydrate before you leave and when you return. Try to warm up before your start and take a bit of a stretch is good idea to reduce discomfort after your run.

As you get into the swing of running, don’t be tempted to start increasing your speed and distance too soon. Stick to your programme and trust your training as you build up a tolerance for the new stresses on your body. Don’t increase your weekly distance by more than 10 per cent at a time. If you push too hard you run the risk of injury and that will likely put an end to your enthusiasm. Good sleep will be important for you body to adapt and get the most from your exercise.

At this stage consistency is more important. Try to avoid slotting in your running when you can. If it’s important to you then plan to run. Set time aside in your week. Otherwise your running won’t happen. If you can build your running into your commute,.

If you’ve hit a wall on running this week, this is the time to climb over it. If  you can stick at it into the spring, then you will reap the rewards in the summer. You will feel better, stronger, happier in yourself. Running can be great for mental health. When a run is good, as most of them are, it’s great fun and it feels great. When I take a week off, I miss it.

The hardest part of running is the mental part. At first your body will tell you to stop. Over time your brain learns that your body is capable of more. Your brain and body adapt together. That’s a great feeling.