A Lifetime of Running: How to Get Started

Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot guide to running.

Posted Apr 19, 2018

Photo by Jeff Johnson
Source: Photo by Jeff Johnson

Amby Burfoot won the 1968 Boston Marathon and just ran it again 50 years later. He’s been running his whole life and can’t imagine a life without running. He recently published a new book titled Run Forever: Your Complete Guide to Healthy Lifetime Running. I had the opportunity to ask Amby about some advice on how to get started running, what some of the physical and psychological benefits are of running, and resources for someone wanting to learn more.

I want to get started running. But I haven’t exercised in some time. What do I do?

Amby Burfoot: Just about all exercise programs should begin with walking. It takes no skill, just motivation and determination. Walk for 20 minutes around the block or up the street and back. Do this every other day. After a week or two, if you don't have any leg soreness or other issues, try to walk your 20 minutes a little faster. The benefits of going faster are modest, but real. Next, start adding time—maybe 5 minutes per week—to your walks. You can do one walk longer and slower, the next for just 20 minutes but at your faster pace.

If things go well, you can transition to walk-running at some point. This means, for example, that you walk for 4 minutes, run for 1 minute, and repeat the pattern for 20, 30, or 40 minutes. When this becomes comfortable, change your pattern to 3 minutes walking, 2 minutes running, and repeat a number of times. All your running should be slow running. All running qualifies as "vigorous exercise" in science-medical terms, because, well, running is hard work. The biggest mistake beginning runners make is to think that they should run fast when running. No, they should run very slow.

By very gradually transitioning to less walking and more running, anyone can take their new exercise routine as far as they want. Or you can settle for the amount advocated as a minimum by world health and fitness authorities: 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise (walking), or 75 minutes a week of vigorous exercise (running).

What benefits are there to running besides the physical?

Every day we learn more about the emotional and brain benefits of running. This is a relatively new field in health and exercise physiology—only about 20 years old. When I started running 50 years ago, we talked almost exclusively about heart rates and cardiac benefits. Now that's old hat. The exciting new work is largely in the fields of neuroscience, cognition, Alzheimer's, and the like. I feel like "Doh, why didn't we realize this earlier. Anything that pushes more blood and oxygen to the brain has to be good, right?”

On an individual level, we all recognize the fact that it's impossible not to feel good after a steady workout. We don't always feel good during the workout—everyone has great runs, and not-so-great runs—but we always feel good afterwards. This is one of the things that keeps us coming back, not too different from any other animal seeking rewards.

Why do you love running? What have you learned from it?

I've been running so long that I can't imagine a life without running, or some sort of simple, rhythmic exercise. As a 71-year-old, I know I'm getting close to the point where even a brisk walk will count as a vigorous workout, and that's fine with me. I love walking.

Like everyone else, I've learned from running that we can all do more than we imagine when we set out down the path. As long as we keep moving forward, one step at a time, we can cover great distances. This applies not just to marathons, but also to book-writing, business endeavors, personal relationships, and all forms of human endeavor.

What resources would you recommend to someone interested in running?

Wow, so many resources. If we were to go with other new running books, brand new, Deena Kastor's Let Your Mind Run and Scott Douglas's Running Is My Therapy would be excellent. Both are very close friends.

Deena's book is basically "positivity," if that is a word, through the lens of the runner who won a bronze medal in the Athens Olympic Marathon and is the American record holder in the marathon, the only American woman to ever break 2:20:00.

Scott's is a dealing-with-depression book. It has a nice mix of first person, anecdotes from others, and quite a bit of solid science writing and interviews with docs and academics from the exercise and low-mood world.

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