Experienced runners and newbies alike know the struggle. Your breathing is labored, your stride is constricted and herky-jerky, and you feel like you’ve aged 20 years since your last run. What is it about the first mile that makes it so hard?
The first mile of a run is harder because of both the physical exertion required and the mental effort needed to push through the initial discomfort. Your legs burn, your muscles ache, and you may even feel fatigued or nauseated. You begin to breathe deeper and more quickly, and your heart begins to push oxygenated blood to your muscles.
Read on to find out more about the physiological and psychological changes in the initial mile of a run.
Why is the beginning of a run the hardest?
Not all runners report feeling discomfort during the first mile, and even those who do may not experience it on every run.
There are multiple variable factors that might make the first mile of your run the most difficult:
- Depleted glycogen supply
- Inadequate recovery
- Muscle tightness and soreness
- Too fast a pace
- Failure to embrace the suck
Some of these are fundamental to human physiology; others are related to your behavior and emotional state. Let’s look at each of them in detail.
Most of the fuel muscles use is produced from glycogen which your body creates from carbohydrates. Glycogen is stored and, when needed, converted into the fuel ATP (adenosine triphosphate).
When you start a run, the muscles have only a very small amount of ATP which will be exhausted in the first minute or two.
Hopefully, that’s enough time for a process called anaerobic (without oxygen) glycolysis to start producing more ATP. Although that process is very quick to start when needed, making ATP without oxygen isn’t particularly efficient, so it can only keep up with the demands of running for a few minutes.
Also, the byproduct of this process, lactic acid, can build up in the muscles leading to a burning sensation in your muscles and potential cramping.
While your muscles are consuming the tiny amount of ATP they had stored, and then the additional ATP that is supplied by anaerobic glycolysis, your heart and lungs are working hard to raise your blood oxygen level for another ATP-producing process: aerobic (with oxygen) glycolysis.
Once the more highly oxygenated blood is available in the muscles, the job of producing ATP shifts mostly but not entirely to aerobic glycolysis.
This process is more efficient and better suited to fueling your muscles for prolonged activity. Aerobic glycolysis can typically be sustained for the duration of the run, or at least until the glycogen supply is depleted, which may be up to two hours.
These transitions among fuel sources and ramping up of processes are stressful on the body. They are a big reason – although not the one reason – for the ubiquitous first-mile struggle.
Depleted glycogen supply
With an understanding of processes that fuel your muscles, it should be apparent that keeping adequate levels of glycogen is important.
Stored glycogen provides a quick boost of energy when you need it. If your glycogen supply has been depleted, you will not have anything to tap into before the burst of energy comes later in your run.
Even on days when you don’t run or work out, you are burning glycogen every waking and even sleeping moment. In fact, glycogen levels are typically at their lowest in the morning. When glycogen levels fall you begin to feel tired and sluggish.
Dehydration is a common problem among runners.
Through sweating and evaporation, runners lose more fluid than someone who is not sweating. When running, it is important to make an extra effort to remember to rehydrate often. Lack of proper hydration can also contribute to that stiffness and make it more difficult to get moving.
Also, dehydration is not readily apparent. You may not realize you are not properly hydrated, but one of the signs of dehydration is fatigue.
Tightness and soreness
Muscle tightness and soreness at the outset of your run are normal, especially if you ran or did a hard workout on the prior day.
Starting up again is like trying to stretch a cold rubber band, your muscles and tendons will resist extending fully until they warm up. You may also have some swelling, often that is not apparent, but it contributes to the feeling of tightness.
Tightness inhibits your leg extension and shortens your stride length. You probably feel like you’re working too hard for your running pace because an inefficient stride requires you to work harder.
Starting pace is too fast
All the difficulties described above are exacerbated when you try to start with a pace that is too fast.
Running fast right from the start puts added stress on your body. You will not only feel bad but also risk injury by going out too fast.
Maybe your morning routine is a triple espresso and a donut so you’re riding a caffeine and sugar high when you go for your run. It might be that your evening run has a boost of adrenaline from all the stresses at work. You are possibly so highly motivated that you need to always run fast. Whatever your reason, it’s best to restrain yourself and start slowly.
Failure to embrace the suck
And if all the physiological factors were not enough, there is a psychological/emotional element as well.
Your mind can sabotage your running plans. Your inner child does not comprehend deferred gratification, it just wants you to stop doing things that don’t feel good. You may question or doubt what you are doing.
The idea of finishing five miles can seem impossible or too painful when you already feel like crap and you’re only in the first mile. That little voice gets louder the more uncomfortable you feel.
All the negative thoughts make an already challenging first mile worse.
Tips for making the first mile easier
All of these factors make the problem seem overwhelming. The great news is that you can mitigate or eliminate all of them, which only requires a little planning and effort. You might even begin looking forward to the first mile.
To overcome the first-mile blues:
- Warm up correctly
- Fuel up
- Think positive
- Control your pace
Warm up correctly
The best way to counteract the physical stress of the first mile is to warm up correctly.
A good warm-up doesn’t have to be long or difficult. The objective is to gradually raise your heart rate and prepare your muscles to run.
Here’s a five-minute warm-up that moves through four activities from easy to moderate, loosening up those tight legs and elevating your heart rate before you start to run:
- Start with leg swings. Use a wall or fence for support. Put your right hand on the support, then swing your left leg 10 forward 10 times, then back ten times. Switch to your left hand for support and repeat with your right leg. [Video]
- Next, add walking lunges. Do twenty seconds of walking forward lunges, alternating legs, then ten seconds of recovery. Repeat this three times. [Video]
- Do twenty seconds of skipping. Bring your knees higher than your waist and keep your toes up (foot dorsiflexed). Do this three times with a ten-second recovery after each. [Video]
- Finish with ten squat hops. With your feet slightly wider than your hips, squat and bring your hands together in front of you with your arms bent. Come up quickly, swinging your arms down to your sides and hopping just a few inches off the ground. [Video]
Since running out of stored energy can make it more difficult to conquer the beginning of your run, it’s important to properly fuel up beforehand, especially since your body needs three to five hours to digest those carbohydrates and produce glycogen.
If it is a morning run, that doesn’t mean eating a big breakfast. It’s more important to have eaten a good dinner the prior day, but eating a good breakfast is still important. Choose a moderate breakfast of about 400 calories and 12 to 16 ounces of water or juice. Give yourself a half-hour or more before you start your run to avoid stomach discomfort.
If you are running later in the day, make sure you haven’t skipped lunch and have had some healthy snacks to keep your energy level up.
Regardless of when you will run, you need to start restocking glycogen early and throughout the day.
Some of the fatigue you feel at the outset of your run could be caused by dehydration. Fortunately, this is easy to fix.
For people between 19 and 30 years old, men should consume at least 130 ounces per day or 95 ounces per day for women. That may seem like a lot – especially when you consider that you’ll need more fluids if you’re running – but you can develop strategies for helping you to remember to drink.
Keep a liter (or larger) water bottle at hand throughout the day and note how many times you refill it. Add some flavoring if that helps motivate you to drink. Keep a squeeze bottle on your nightstand so you can easily take a drink or two without getting out of bed.
While the first-mile blues are not entirely mental, keeping a positive mindset when running is necessary.
Remind yourself that your good health is worth the effort. Know that you will find your groove and finish the run once you get through the initial struggle.
If possible, run with a friend or find a running group, and chat your way through the first mile. A friendly conversation will keep those negative thoughts from sabotaging your run.
Don’t forget to celebrate your victory by giving yourself a little treat after. There is nothing better than your favorite smoothie after a run, especially to help restock your fuel for the rest of the day. And knowing that your reward is coming is added motivation to get out there and get it done.
Control your pace
It has been said a few times, and it is worth repeating, keep that first mile slow.
While you may be tempted to ramp up immediately, control your pace for the first mile. Wear a running watch and check your pace frequently. If you don’t have a running watch, try inserting ten walking steps for every fifty running steps. If you wear headphones, front load your playlist with a few slower songs, under 130 BPM (beats per minute.)
There is a very helpful site called Find Songs by BPM that will give you lists of songs by genre and BPM.
If you can run with a friend or find a running group, you can help each other keep the pace in check, and chatting while running might also help slow you down.
- About the Author
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Frank Duchossois is a distance runner, endurance athlete, and USA Track and Field Certified Coach.
He has run hundreds of races, with distances ranging from 400 meters to 100 miles. He has run 40 marathons and ultra-marathons, including 12 Boston Marathons and the Grand Canyon Double Crossing. He is a five-time recipient of the USATF Phidippides Award for outstanding performance and endurance in long distance running, and has run multiple sub 3-hour marathons after age 50.
Frank lives in Cleveland with his wife, and when he is not running, he works as a Business Systems Analyst.