Twelve years ago, I was out of shape, unmotivated and facing a tough choice: spend a semester in detention or join a school sports team.
Thanks either to my poor attitude or my absence of athleticism, I was the first and only person ever to be cut from the JV volleyball team. Since the school mandated a sport, I went to cross country practice the following day wearing basketball shorts, Converse and an armor of protective aloofness.
When the whistle blew, my armor instantly shattered. While I gasped for air to ease my burning legs and lungs, my teammates effortlessly blew by me. Running was torturous, and a newfound sense of humility overtook me. But still, I showed up the next day, and the next until running was almost enjoyable.
There’s nothing more daunting than setting out for that first run after months or years of hiatus. The first strides feel clumsy, and rather than the promised runner’s high, fatigue and doubt greet you. Getting back into shape sucks, but there’s hope. With time and routine, running will begin to feel easier and, eventually, maybe even effortless.
Soon after I started as a high school student, I began to revel in my sore legs and wear the sweat on my forehead like a badge of honor. My grades improved and the teenage angst seemed to dissipate with the miles. Every day I laced up my running shoes, my body adapted. My physiology and behavior changed and my quality of life improved. Although I suffered each practice, a lifelong love affair with movement and exercise began.
I was in my teens and adaptations happened more rapidly than they would have if I started running later. But starting a regular running program results in physiological and behavioral adaptation at any age. Whether you’re 17 or 71, your neuromuscular system starts developing within hours of your first run.
According to Jack H. Wilmore and David L. Costill, authors of Physiology of Sport and Exercise, dormant muscle fibers responsible for movement become active, causing muscle soreness, which later stimulates muscle development and growth. Within the first three months, new runners can experience neuromuscular efficiency gains of up to 25 percent. At first, the accelerated gains new runners experience result in heightened muscle soreness and discomfort. But as muscle fibers begin to activate and muscles adapt to a new running program, soreness will be less present, recovery is easier and running becomes more enjoyable.
Developments in the cardiovascular system follow neuromuscular gains. Just as I was sucking wind in my first days of cross country practice, an untrained runner will feel their heart rate increase uncontrollably within the first steps out the door, trying to keep up with the rate at which their straining muscles require oxygen.
But with regular conditioning, the repeated stress put on the heart will cause an improved cardiovascular response, and oxygen will be delivered to muscles more efficiently. In their book, Exercise Physiology for Health, Fitness and Performance, Sharon Plowman and Denise Smith state that within the first six weeks of regular aerobic exercise, the heart becomes stronger, making the transfer of oxygen to muscles exceedingly more efficient, even at rest. A strong heart and a trained cardiovascular system make it possible to have a conversation and feel relaxed during exercise — not to mention walking up a flight of stairs without breaking a sweat.
After the 2005 cross country season was over, I kept running for the boost in mood and general well being. The emotional and psychological benefits of running extend beyond an endorphin rush to everyday life. In 2001, The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that aerobic exercise such as running was an effective method of managing fear, stress, anger, cases of depression. It also promotes self-worth and confidence.
When I lace up my shoes and head out the door before work, I’m motivated by the benefits running has on my psyche. If you’re thinking about running but are worried about the discomforts, know that your muscles will develop and your heart will strengthen.
You’ll be rewarded far beyond impressing your doctor or looking good in a bathing suit.