As my treadmill sat in the corner of my basement, collecting dust and cobwebs, it served as a sad reminder of just how out of shape I was getting. It had gotten to the point where I became winded while climbing a flight of stairs. Lifting my 2-year-old son felt like hauling wet cement.
Finally, I used the COVID-19 pandemic and a self-imposed quarantine as an excuse to get some return on investment from my NordicTrack.
I hadn’t jogged in nearly 3 years.I hadn’t even stepped on a treadmill in nearly as long. But I felt like I needed to prove to myself that I still had at least a little gas left in my tank. So, I tried jogging — and “running” a mile — for five days straight. Ultimately, I learned several lessons about cardio exercises, including a few valuable tips gleaned from a conversation with Sarah Hopkins, the head women’s cross country coach at the University of Minnesota.
“Put your ego on the shelf,” suggested Hopkins, who’s also an assistant track coach in Minneapolis. “Just start from zero. Start really small, so that you give yourself a chance to continue; run for a minute, then walk for a minute, and do that for 10, 20, or 30 minutes. Start with something you can manage. Early on, focus not so much on the distance than the minutes.”
Being the stubborn, bull-headed man that I am, I didn’t need much advice from the likes of Hopkins. I wanted to run a mile from Day 1 of my return to the treadmill. I felt the need to scale this longtime, persistent challenge. After all, even during my younger days spent playing football, basketball and baseball, I always hated running workouts.
On Day 1, it felt invigorating to make my treadmill whir back to life. That feeling was fleeting, however. After jogging for nearly a quarter-mile at a speed of 6 mph, I quickly felt like I needed to scale back my speed. I adjusted the treadmill to 5.8 mph, then to 5.6, before I felt like I was at a speed I could handle.
By the time I ran three-fourths of a mile, I was admittedly pretty gassed, huffing and puffing. Fortunately, with the finish line in sight, I was able to plod just long enough to complete my mile. My Day 1 mission accomplished, I felt extremely stiff, with a left calf that ached.
As my second running workout of the week approached, I felt a sense of dread. My calves and thighs were quite stiff and sore. But, reading up on the benefits of cardio workouts left me with just enough inspiration to push forward. Consider: according to livestrong.com, running for as little as 20 minutes a day can help burn body fat.
So, as I did much of the week, I walked briskly for 10 minutes, then grudgingly nudged the speed of my treadmill up to 5.6 mph. I plowed through my mile run, then walked another 6 minutes. I found this workout slightly easier than the day before. I was sore afterward, but stretched more extensively, running foam rollers up my calves after doing sitting toe touches.
By mid-week, I began to feel a little lighter on my feet, with greater peace of mind knowing that I was returning to an exercise regimen that would aid my physical endurance and heart health. My calves continued to ache, but I soldiered through my workout without incident.
Fast forward to the end of the week, and I finally woke up without any stiffness in my legs. I surged through my final run of the week and felt an immense sense of accomplishment. Five days earlier, I was genuinely skeptical that I could even run one mile without passing out, puking, or requiring a visit from medics armed with a defibrillator.
I hadn’t exactly scaled Mt. Everest, but I had scaled a long-standing hurdle.
Tips and takeaways
Before hitting the treadmill, consult with your family physician if you have any concerns about your heart health. Experts also suggest visiting a store that specializes in running shoes and getting properly fitted for a pair.
Additionally, stretch before and after workouts. Stay hydrated. Walk before and after running, to ease your heart rate back to typical resting levels (60-100 beats per minute, according to the Mayo Clinic). Finally, try to clear your mind while running, rather than focusing on how much more of your workout you need to trudge through.
More than anything, it’s important to ease into your return to running workouts. In retrospect, I should’ve ramped up my running over the course of at least a couple of weeks, rather than immediately start running a mile after a year-long layoff. But think of it this way: if I can survive running five miles in a week, even with my lack of cardio endurance, you likely can, too.
“If you can give it a month of running three to five days a week, I can almost guarantee it will feel better,” said Hopkins, the long-distance running coach. “The bottom line is, if you can be consistent with running, you’ll start to really feel the payoff.”