Running: How I went from hating it to loving it

I didn’t just hate running. The only explanation I had for people who “loved running” is that they were clinically insane. I avoided any and all movement that might accidentally cause my heart-rate to go up. That was 2 years ago.  Fast forward to today, and I now run 4 to 6 miles a day, every day, without excuse. I run at least 13 to 15 miles every weekend. And here’s my dirty secret: Most days, I really look forward to my runs!

So how does morbidly obese middle-aged guy go from a panic attack at the mere mention of “cardio” to actually actually being excited about going outside for some hard-core heart-pumping 7 days a week?

My journey with running started in March of 2015.

Stage 1 of my journey:  Dropping the first 60lbs.

I’m a big proponent of the idea that people should drop the “obese” weight before getting into any kind of serious exercise. My own running journey didn’t start until I had gone from about 270lbs to 205lbs, and I was dealing with a long-term plateau that I just couldn’t seem to break.

One day, in March of 2015, Melanie finally convinced me to join her for an indoor spin class. At the time, I couldn’t think of a more miserable way to spend my time.  But I guess my desire to find some way to get the scale to move exceeded my own sense of self preservation, because I did it. And I spent 60 very miserable minutes pretending to ride a bike while 20 other women in the room made my fat self look utterly ridiculous in comparison.  I left that class exhausted, sore, and humiliated and I swore I’d never go back.

And then the next morning, the scale showed I’d dropped a pound.  My 4-month plateau was broken.

Now I had a tough decision to make, because it was pretty clear that, without adding in physical movement to my routine, the weight I was currently at was likely where I would stay for the rest of my life.  If I wanted to be more fit, I was going to have to start acting like a fit person.  I was at a crossroads in my weight loss journey. A crossroads that everyone who loses a significant amount of weight will ultimately arrive at.

I decided I had worked too hard and come too far to stop where I was. I wanted to reach my goals. I was ready for..

Stage 2: Cardio hell

This is where the rubber met the road for me.  It was absolutely awful, and required more discipline, drive, and self-reflection than anything I’ve ever done in my entire life.

I needed something other than a “spin class” that I could use to get my heart-rate up several times a week. I settled on running for a variety of reasons, which mostly boiled down to:  It’s cheap, I don’t need any equipment, and I can do it anytime, anywhere.

I was fortunate enough to own a heart-rate monitor (built into my Apple Watch) which I decided to use as a way to keep myself honest about my workout.  If my heart-rate wasn’t at least 150bpm, then I knew I was kidding myself about how hard I was working.   On the other hand, if I exceeded 180bpm, I knew I was probably going to kill myself.

My first day I went to a park that had a sidewalk that circled around a small pond. (Maybe one-sixth of a mile all the way around the pond. I started off running. I got about 100 yards, and had to stop because my heart-rate was exceeding 180, and I felt like I was going to throw up. (I now recognize that “I’m gonna throw up” feeling as something that means I’m pushing too hard, and need to back off).

I stopped and walked until my heart-rate dropped into the 150s, and then I started running again.  Run, walk, run, walk, run walk… I never allowed myself to “rest”, because the goal was to ALWAYS keep my heart-rate over 150.  I stopped when I had gone exactly a mile, and I just wanted to collapse. But I had done it.

And the next morning, the scale moved again.

I did this 3 times a week, and I hated it more than I’ve ever hated doing anything in my life. Can I say that again?  I HATED IT!

But each time I did it, I could go a little further without walking. My heart got stronger EVERY time, even if it was just a few extra feet I could go before I had to stop and walk, or take a drink from the water I was carrying. It was a very gradual process, but about 3 weeks into this — it happened…. For the first time in my entire life, in April of 2015, I ran an entire mile without stopping to walk.  And I felt like I was the king of the world!! I had done a very, very hard thing. And I was already 7lbs lighter than I was when I started running. I didn’t just break my plateau – I shattered it!

And did I mention how much I hated it?  How HARD it was to walk out the door in the evenings to go and subject myself to 20 minutes of torture?

Stage 3: The endorphin rush – and nutrition changes

I continued to extend my “how far can I go without stopping to walk” distance each time I was out.  And I extended my cardio time to a minimum of 30 minutes each time I went out.  (So, I’d spend the first half of my time seeing how far I could get without stopping to walk, and the second half of my time run/walking as best I could).   I was still very careful to not allow my heart-rate to drop below 150 during my workouts. Ever. Even while I was walking. (If it started to drop below, that was my signal to start running again).

Two things happened during this phase that kept me going:

First, even though the workouts themselves were still absolute hell — I started to experience that famous “endorphin rush” at the end. When the time was up and I was headed home, the euphoria was awesome! But remember – it took about a month before I got to this phase, and it only happened AFTER the workout was over. (Never during).   But it gave me something to look forward to, and unlike the first phase, I always went home in a great mood, with a big smile on my face.

Second, the rest of my day I didn’t feel so great.  Up until this point, I’d be doing a CarbX / Keto approach to dieting (ultra low carb), and I noticed a severe drop off in the amount of energy that I had. This lasted for a few weeks before some research showed that virtually nobody who does any kind of serious fitness-related activities several times a week is able to do so without eating carbs.

Put another way – I was on the wrong nutrition plan for what I was trying to do.  I switched to a more traditional style of eating (balancing healthy carbs with the fat – which I now call MacroFit), and like magic, my energy levels spiked dramatically. Almost overnight. And the weight loss accelerated!  I was still 100% on-point with my dieting, but I changed up my ratios of carbs/fat/protein to match my physical activity.

By the end of this phase, I still dreaded the idea of getting out to exercise. Hated it, actually. But the endorphin-rush at the end continued to be a consolation prize for the misery I was enduring.

By the beginning of May, I was able to run 2 miles without stopping. And the scale continued to move, despite how much I hated it.

Stage 4: Accomplishing the impossible

I started to think of myself as a “runner”. I increased my volume from 3-days a week (30 minutes each day) to 4 days a week, because I was capable of doing so. (Definitely not because I loved it). But the increased volume meant the weight continued to come off at a steady rate.

I still hated running. Every second of it.  It was excruciating. It was hell. But it worked, so when it was time to run, I put on my grown-up pants and went out and did it anyway.  I reminded myself that I was earning the right for the scale to move.

But now I had my sights set on a goal.  If I could run 2 miles in a row, without stopping, could I run a 5k (3.1 miles) ?  Could I actually enter a REAL race and ACTUALLY run the ENTIRE thing without stopping to walk even once?? Yes, it would be painful. Yes, it would be hard. But COULD I do it?

The answer, as it turned out, was yes.  A few weeks into this phase (towards the end of May), I signed up for and ran my first 5k. I did it without stopping, and I did it with a 9:12 pace.  My heart-rate never dropped below 160 during the race, but considering it had only been about 3 months since I started, I was pretty amazed by what I had accomplished. In just under 3 months, I went from being too fat to jog 100 yards without collapsing, to running an entire 5k without stopping.

I still hated it. I was still miserable 100% of the time I was running. But, much to my own amazement, I could do it!

I started to wonder, “What else I could accomplish?”

Stage 5: It’s only hard in the beginning

I ran my first 10k (6.2 miles) with Melanie on July 24th (5 months after I started). Melanie (a runner herself) had started running with me on occasion, and we had worked up to 4 miles, then 5 miles on weekends.

But it wasn’t until I could consistently run a 5k, any time, any day of the week, that I started to enjoy it. Well, sort of..

I discovered, again to my own amazement, that if I was on-point with my nutrition and eating, the inner voice screaming at me to stop would often go away after the first mile – and that the second, third, and fourth miles became a time when I could relax and listen to music, or listen to a “book on tape”.  If I could figure out a way to get the misery of the first mile behind me, my body settled in. My heart-rate settled in. And I felt like I could just go!

By October of 2015 (8 months after I started), I had finally reached a point in my workouts where I could say, “I actually really LIKE this!”.  (Assuming I could safely ignore the misery of the first mile, of course).

Stage 6: My time

As winter set in, the first thing I learned is that I despise the treadmill. I tried it many times and found, quite frankly, that I’d rather bundle up and run in the freezing cold than subject myself to the boring hell that is a stationary exercise machine.  Being outside made such a huge difference in how I felt, and my level of enjoyment.

So 4 times a week, all throughout the winter, I would wake up, bundle up, and head out in the dark to be an adult. The running part was no longer my obstacle – getting out of my warm bed in the freezing winter temperatures and running before the sun had even come up was my new hell.

But as always, about a mile into my runs, I was wide awake, the cold air didn’t bother me, and I was free.  If I could just get over the hurdles of getting out there, everything else took care of itself!

Running became my “me time”.

Stage 7: Discipline. Routine. Discipline. Routine.

I ran like that throughout the winter, steadily improving my times, steadily improving my distances, and learning to love competing with myself. “Could I do better this time than last time? Could I set a new personal record on this particular street?”

I incorporated HIIT into my runs to get better, faster, stronger. It worked. And each week I focused on going further.

By April (one year after I started), I was running 4 to 5 days a week for at least 40 minutes each day.  And on weekends, I would push my limits as far as I could.  On April 3rd, 2016, I ran my first half-marathon distance of 13.1 miles. (There were no official races, so I just went out and did the distance on my own). It took 1h 44m, which is a 7:56 pace. I was on top of the world.

Running isn’t a question or a decision for me anymore. I build it into my routine. It’s part of my schedule. It’s what I do. I wake up each day and know that I’m going to run, regardless of the weather, regardless of my schedule, regardless of anything else I have going on.  If I’m particularly busy one day, then I wake up earlier. Period.

This year (2016) I’ve run more than 1,100 miles  (That’s an average of more than 3 miles per day, every single day).

The only time I still struggle with running being “miserable” is when my nutrition isn’t on point the day before.  If I eat junk, my runs suffer.  If I don’t stick to my ratios, my runs go back to feeling more like they did in the beginning, with more suffering. I can tell in the first quarter-mile what I ate the day before.  Also, I’ve learned that running doesn’t give me an excuse to eat whatever I want. You can’t out-run a bad diet.

Running is mutually incompatible with eating junk food. You can’t do both. Even though I’ve reached my goal weight, I constantly have to decide what I want each day. And for me, I’ve learned that I love running (maybe almost) more than I love garbage food. So the ongoing battle is easier, because if I eat junk, the consequences are immediate.  Running is part of my routine, and the nutrition is pure discipline.

Worth noting: I’m now more than 40lbs lighter than I was when I first started running!

A few tips to help get you started:

  1. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else:  No two runners are on the same skill-level. You’re going to start out where I did (unable to run even a very short distance without wanting to pass out). Your ONLY goal is to get out the door and do it, and THAT will make you better than 99% of the population. THAT is what makes you an athlete.
  2. Use technology to motivate (fitness trackers, apple watches, see how your friends are doing, try to beat their times, try to beat your own times, etc.). Most people find this very motivating. Any smart-phone can run Strava or RunKeeper, or the Nike+ Running app. Give them a try!
  3. Get some running shoes: Your basic tennis shoes will be fine unil you start running more than a mile or two at a time. By the time you’re running a 5k, you shoud have REAL shoes dedicated to running.  They aren’t cheap, but they will help you avoid injury.
  4. Use a heart-rate monitor: This will keep you honest during your workouts, both in terms of making sure you’re doing the minimum work (and not kidding yourself into thinking you’re working hard when you’re not), as well as preventing you from pushing yourself TOO hard.
  5. Schedule it: It should have a spot on your calendar, just like any other major commitment you make. If you run 3x a week, then you should have 3 slots on your calendar that are non-negotiable.
  6. Have a goal for each run: How far will you go? How long will you go? Don’t stop until you accomplish what you set out to do.
  7. Follow a program: Pick a longer term goal and follow a program that will get you there. Do you want to run a 5k? A half-marathon?  A marathon?  Pick something and get an app or a program online that will guide you through what to do each day.
  8. Avoid indoor cardio wherever possible: Most people who focus on indoor cardio equipment tend to give up sooner. And for good reason — it’s boring and it’s tedious.  Even if it’s cold outside, go outside. (You’re going to be hot and sweaty in no time.. so the temperature doesn’t matter, right?).  Getting the fresh air and outdoor scenery will help the time pass much faster.