Beginning Runners: Getting them Started

January is just around the corner and many recreational runners across B.C. will begin pounding the pavement in SportMedBC's annual InTraining clinics. The goal being April's 10 kilometre Vancouver Sun Run, now the largest community run in Canada .

The enduring popularity of the 25+ year old Sun Run as well as a raft of other recreational running events attract a wide range of people, presenting inevitable challenges to InTraining clinic leaders. Rainy Kent, Lifestyle Program Coordinator for the City of Burnaby is SportMedBC's area coordinator for seven running clinics with about 450 participants. She says,

" for a lot of people who come through the door, their minds have written a cheque that their body is not prepared to cash." Within a few weeks of the program they realize "that this is quite a lot of work," and many drop out."

Laura Farres, Ph.D., a mental trainer with Mind in Motion Consulting, and co-author with SportMedBC of "The Beginning Runner's Journal" (Greystone Books, 2003), adds that the time involved is another major reason that people drop out. Group instructors need to help their participants schedule their runs: "they make appointments for everything else, so it becomes a matter of looking at a commitment," she says.

Kent and her running group leaders try to head off the potential drop-off by talking about expectations for the clinics on the first day. People expect to be able to run 10 kilometres after 13 weeks, but they may not be prepared to work out three times a week, she explains. "It's easy to be motivated with that group on a Sunday, but the other sessions are hard." For that reason, her coordinators have introduced mid-week group training runs, which have become a popular way for people to stay on track with the program.

Farres agrees that talking about expectations at the group's first session is "critical," because people come to the clinics with various levels of confidence and commitment. Therefore, a supportive group environment, ideally with 10 participants to one leader, is "incredibly important," she says;

"You are dealing with adults who have busy lives. People at these clinics are looking for practical tools that will help them develop their own personal motivation plan."

Group leaders need to find out their participants' goals from the outset, says Farres, in order to create an effective group dynamic: "I think that's what the book (The Beginning Runner's Journal) highlights: people have different reasons for why they start doing the program. Some do it for health and fitness, some are more competitive than others; for others it may just be the social side. I think if you have a better understanding of why people are there – what their initial motivation is – then you can try and structure the group a little bit to cater to some of those needs. If people are enjoying the experience, they are more likely to continue."

Kent and Farres both say the threshold for succeeding in completing the 13 – week program is at about the half way mark. Most people who quit do so in the first four weeks, says Kent. In 2001, 74% of the participants in her clinics completed the program and the Sun Run. She hopes to improve on that figure each year.

So what are practical tools that beginning runners can use to accomplish their goals? A big one is dealing with "negative self-talk," says Farres. "There may be a dialogue going on in people’s heads which, a lot of the time, is preventing them from doing the training." She helps people, through journal writing and discussion, to instead focus on positive "in the moment elements." For instance, rather than thinking "when is this run going to be over," think "I'm going to focus on my breathing now."

Using "energy words" or distractions can help push runners through the physically challenging parts of a run. "That's the great thing about being in a group. For example, you can count if you are running up a hill or talk to other people," she says.

Pairing up with a partner for the runs between clinic sessions can be another effective way to help people stick with the program.

Imagery is another motivating strategy to remind runners of what they want from the program, especially when the going gets tough, says Farres.

"For a lot of people starting this program, they are trying to re-conceptualize their vision of themselves as a fit and healthy person. If they really made the lifestyle changes that they would like to make, what would that person look like? Having that kind of image can be pretty powerful I think."

People who are at the stage "where they are prepared to try something new" are more likely than others to be receptive to these strategies, says Farres. As in other areas of life, "if you want something, you have to be able to see it with clarity and almost feel that it can be possible," she says.

In "The Beginning Runners' Journal,"Farres describes six stages of change, which most people work through in making the transition from being physically inactive to integrating regular exercise into their lives, albeit while experiencing setbacks. "Research suggests that in order to make a lifestyle change, someone would have to have behaviour habits for a six month period," to take them to the fifth, maintenance stage, she explains. Knowing about the stages can help new runners by "giving them a level of comfort – knowing that "I'm not the only one that thinks those things." And there's a realization that there are things I can do in each of those stages to help me progress. It breaks it down into a framework that's more manageable: OK, this is where I am now and this is what I can do," says Farres. However, if people don't complete the program "they don't need to feel like failures." Rather, leaders should emphasize what they have accomplished and tell them about other 10 kilometre runs that they could try to complete at a future point, she says.

Kent says the people she sees entering the running clinics mostly represent the third and fourth levels: preparing for the commitment and then actually doing the program. "We won't see people in the pre-contemplative (Stage 1) stage," when people are not yet convinced of the value of the walk/run clinic.

Kent says that the Stage 6 level runners who do finish the program present an opportunity for recreational centres. These people are asking, "where do we go from here? We need to provide a progression on the program," she says, to keep this group on the go. " Some of these people have never walked into a recreational centre before."

Kent makes lifestyle change the focus of her clinics which "takes the pressure off" the less advanced participants. She tells them "you may not run the Sun Run, you may not run 10 kilometres." Over the seven years she has worked with clinic groups, Kent says she has learned a lot from the walk/run groups: "the walkers have taught me so much; its all about getting out and being active," she says.

How can running clinic leaders become better at motivating their runners? It's all about basic communication skills, says Kent. Learning participant's names, using eye contact and listening are important, she says. In recruiting leaders, "I want people who are motivating," she says, and not necessarily highly experienced runners because they may not be patient enough for a walk/run group. Bringing in someone "just like them" who has succeeded in completing the program can help motivate people by showing them "a tangible outcome" says Farres.

Farres says that leaders need to be open minded. "I think an effective leader has to be quite reflective," and attempt to understand the ways in which participants may be viewing the clinic, "that don't reflect my experience." It's a matter of asking "how would you like me to motivate you? And creating a positive, optimistic climate, allowing people to realize that there are different ways of coping."

The greatest transformation that she sees in her clients is the realization that they have integrated the commitment to their goals into their lives, says Farres. "They realize that there are choices that they make all the time, and that if they make the right choices, they can have the outcomes that they want."

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