Miles are like crepes … the first one is always a disaster. For that reason, I tell my runners all the time to never trust the feeling of that first mile.
Many of the running-related questions I field on a regular basis are related to this Crappy-First-Mile Syndrome. It’s everywhere and it’s no joke. It’s a super frustrating phenomenon for newbie runners. When you first start out, it’s with a mile or so — and that first mile just plain sucks. At that point, it’s hard for new runners to imagine that every mile that comes after it won’t be just as crappy.
Cue the eye rolls as I tell them not every mile is as bad as the first.
And if you’re a newer runner, know this … it doesn’t really ever change. Even the most experienced runners deal with this. The difference is that over time you start to accept these crap miles, embracing the suck so to speak, and you get better at handling it, physically and mentally. You learn to just get through it and trust that there are good miles on the other side — because after a certain number of runs, you’ve got the experience to know that better miles are coming.
So it’s not something that ever really goes away. The good news is, there actually is physiological reason for why the first mile always sucks and understanding why is the key to overcoming it.
Why Does the First Mile Always Suck?
Physiologically, it takes about 10 minutes for your body to come online. Your lungs have to kick it up a notch to get more oxygen in, then your heart has to shift into high gear to pump out oxygen-rich blood to your blood vessels which have to dilate to let the blood flow to your muscles which are screaming for more oxygen in order to turn your on-board energy stores into fuel. It’s an amazing process but it doesn’t happen in five minutes or less.
Not coincidentally, all these systems undergo the most dramatic changes right at the start of your run. So when you first start running, a massive demand is placed on all these systems before they’re ready — so they do what anybody else would do and they complain … a lot. And boom, there’s your sucky feeling. This is why you struggle to breathe and can’t hold your normal pace in those first few miles — your heart, lungs, circulatory system, and essential metabolic pathways all have to turn on and switch into overdrive abruptly and simultaneously.
So how do you fix it? Well … you warm up. You give your body a chance to initiate all the systems and functions that will support you throughout your run.
Look, I get it, many of us runners figure who needs a warm-up when we can just warm up as we go but it’s exactly that mentality that keeps that first mile feeling pretty darn horrible. So here’s a couple of things you can do to make this first mile a little less miserable.
Ways to Make that First Mile Suck Less
1. Ease into it.
So there actually is a right way and a wrong way to use your first mile as a warm-up. The problem is that most of us suck at it. You can’t just head out there and expect to hit the pace you want to end with. I mean, you can try but here’s a sneak peek at what you can expect: a few minutes of doubt that you were ever able to run at that pace, then a few minutes of questioning all your life choices, followed by an internal argument about whether you should just stop or endure the suffering while gritting your teeth and waiting for it to be over.
The right way to do it is to actually treat that first mile as one thing and one thing only — getting your body geared up for the rest of your run.
I know, I know, it’ll bring down your run tracker stats, but seriously for the first mile, do not … I repeat, do not … worry about the numbers on your run tracker. Focus on finding a pace that feels comfortable until your whole body is on board. If nothing else, this gives you an excuse to practice your negative splits … a fancy way to say: start slow and gradually increase the pace as you run so that the second half of your run averages faster than the first.
So for those of you who just can’t bear the thought of letting the first mile be a throw-away mile, here’s my second suggestion …
2. Do a proper warm-up.
Remember that for those first few miles, your body is either (a) transitioning out of sleep (for those early risers among us) or (b) transitioning from a day of sitting hunched over our desks (for the after hours crew). Neither is conducive to awesome athletic achievement in that first mile.
A proper warm-up should get your heart rate a little elevated and prime your muscles for what’s coming. It’s like a gentle wake-up nudge vs. the screeching alarm clock and cold water bath wake-up call your body gets when you just head out and start running full speed ahead.
I like to do some simple activation drills to turn on the prime movers responsible for powering my run and a little something to bring my heart rate up gradually. Jumping rope (or faking it if you don’t have a rope) is an awesome way to warm up for a run — the cadence and general springiness you create when jumping rope mimics the timing and the way your running stride should feel while it brings your heart rate up.
Want a simple pre-run warm-up routine? Try this one on for size. And once you’ve checked out the video, here’s a graphic to jog your memory (or share with a friend) …
So the key is in recognizing that your first mile is not indicative of what the rest of your run will be like. Give your body time to warm up and prepare to support you, especially during the colder months. Be patient and understand that you’re not out-of-shape or broken, it’s just physiology baby!
And remember, no matter how tough it gets out there, this is the mental side of the training process — developing the fortitude to carry on when things get tough … as they do from time to time. Creating mental toughness will not only allow you enjoy running more, it will benefit you greatly in every area of your life.
For more ways to warm up your body before heading out, check out my online yoga videos for athletes here.
And if you’re looking for good bands, these are the ones I use (and love): Perform Better Mini Exercise Bands.
Do you warm up before your runs?