Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
Photo illustration by Becky Harlan/NPR
I kind of hate running. Peter Sagal, on the other hand, loves it. (You might recognize him as the host of NPR's Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!) He's an avid runner — he even wrote a book about it.
Most recently, he tried using his well-practiced spiel and his favorite running advice — the 3 G's — to convince me (and therefore you, by proxy) to give running a chance. How did he do? See for yourselves.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Shereen Marisol Meraji: Sell me on this torturous activity. I challenge you, because I absolutely abhor running.
Peter Sagal: A lot of people do. Many of us were brought up to believe that running was punishment. And we have learned, or at least internalized, that running is this terrible, boring thing that we're forced to do. None of those things should be true. It should be possible that we can just be in our bodies in that moment and just pursue that activity.
These days, we live in a way that is really strange, evolutionarily speaking. We spend most of our days with other people's thoughts in our brains. We look at screens. We listen to podcasts.
And if there's one thing I think we need, it's a chance to go outside, get out of our heads, into our bodies, move and just let our own thoughts have a say.
So if that spiel worked for the people out there who are listening (or reading!) and they're going to do this, are they going to have to spend a bunch of money on gear to get started?
No! This is another great thing about running. You don't need specialized equipment. You don't need a class. You don't even need to listen to me. You were born ready to do it.
All you need is clothes appropriate for where you are. You need good shoes, but they don't have to be specialized running shoes — they can be sneakers, they can be gym shoes, any shoe that is comfortable, flexible and tight on your feet so your feet don't slide around in them. (Loose shoes will give you blisters.) That's enough to get you started.
OK, so you've got your shoes on. Now what? Where do you start if you haven't run in a very, very long time?
This is very important. You have to start gradually, and you have to set goals for yourself. I have a thing that I write about in my book called "G, G, G," standing for "gradual, goals and group."
"Gradually" means that you have to give yourself enough of a challenge so that you can feel good about meeting it and that it will give you benefit (because we all know we need a little strain on our system — your heart or lungs or muscles — to improve it), but not so difficult that it's miserable and you fail.
There are a lot of plans online that go under the generic name "couch to 10K" or "couch to 5k." Take a look. What you'll find they'll say is, "OK, you're indolent; you haven't run in a long time; you're not in great shape. This is how you get started."
They will set out goals every day or every other day, and each goal will be a little bit harder, but each goal will give you something to shoot for. Like today, I'm going to walk/run for 20 minutes. The next day or the day after, you're going to do a similar thing, maybe a little bit harder.
The first couple of weeks are going to be difficult. But here's the promise: You will improve faster than you ever thought it was possible.
I always get stuck on that first run. I'm so incredibly sore after that initial run that I just lose the will to get back out there.
What is a typical first run for you?
I have a little trail over here by my house. It's not even 2 miles. Every six months, I'm like, "I'm going to start running." I'll take that 2 miles, and I will not be able to walk for, like, three days after. And then I never go back out.
Miserable. So do you try to run the entire 2 miles out?
Of course I do, Peter. Walking is failure — that's how I feel.
No. Wrong, wrong. If you want to define failure, define failure as giving up after one try.
Take it piece by piece. You don't have to run the whole 2 miles and back. Run out half a mile, run back. Run/walk half a mile. When you finish your first run and the subsequent runs, they should have felt difficult, but they should have been doable.
And that's, by the way, a segue into my second G, which is "goal." My usual advice is to set a goal of running a 5K. I'm going to get out every day. I'm gonna use this program. Because every day I'm going to think to myself, "I'm not just running to punish myself. I'm running to get better." And I'm going to run 5 kilometers — that's 3.1 miles — without stopping, which is something that I can't do right now. You're gonna go out, you're gonna achieve that goal and it's gonna make you feel great.
So we got gradual. We got goals. What's the last G in your lineup?
We have "group." In normal circumstances, this is a wonderful thing to do either with friends — you say, "Let's run a 5K together" — or, even better, you call up your local running store or Google the name of your town, region, county's running group. They'll be very welcoming. Nobody will judge you. You'll find that people there will be people at your level. Even better, people just above your level. So they inspire you to keep up with them.
Is there a way to do that virtually since we're social distancing right now and not living in normal times?
I know a lot of running groups are meeting virtually and talking about their runs. They're setting goals together.
Or if you decide you want to do this and you have a friend who's similar, you can say, "OK, we're going to run together separately on Tuesday. You and I are both going to go out and run 2 miles, and we'll check in at 10 a.m. and compare notes." And maybe that's a way of getting some of that benefit.
In the times we're living in now, these COVID-19 days, what do people need to know when they go out there? How should they protect themselves and others?
In general, it seems to be that nationwide the following things are true: that exercise is accepted as an essential activity, you're allowed to go outside, walk in some cases, ride your bike and certainly run.
However, there are certain rules. The CDC is recommending that people wear face masks whenever they go out in public spaces. Make sure to check your county or state rules about whether it's required or recommended to wear a face covering in public — recommendations are changing quickly.
Try to treat every other person as if their immune system is suppressed and that you're a carrier. And so just make sure you give every other person as much space as you can so that that person does not have a thing to worry about.
What do people gain from running, besides physical strength?
One of the things that I have found is that running, swimming, biking, they're called endurance sports for a reason — you learn to endure. You learn things like, if you don't worry about all the miles you have to run and you just think about the mile you're in and what you need to get through that mile, and you do that again and again, eventually you'll have run all the miles that you had to run.
If you learn that discomfort is not a reason to stop, but a reason to focus and think and try to either go through it or relieve it through changing your ways, then all of a sudden, discomfort and difficulty aren't as frightening.
And basically, you learn a lot about yourself — that you can accomplish things that you have been taught and trained and allowed yourself to believe are beyond the capability of someone like yourself.
That was really inspiring.
That's why I'm here.
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The audio portion of this story was produced by Clare Schneider.