That First Mile Though: Why the first mile of your run sucks

There’s a saying among runners “never trust the first mile” or in my case two. It’s not usually a neutral mile either it usually just sucks and sucks hard. Here’s a secret runners aren’t telling you unlike most things in life this doesn’t get better but so far it hasn’t gotten worse either. It’s funny but when I started running longer distances I realized I liked running. That first mile feeling is what keeps a lot of people from getting into running or dropping away from it over time. Just like anything else if we know about it and acknowledge it we can take away some of its power over us. So with that in mind let’s do a deep dive into why and how that first mile sucks so much.

My first miles

I’m not saying my experience is going to be just like yours but it still might be. Feeling crappy about the first part of your run is pretty universal. I ran for well over a decade before I ever knew feeling this was was actually really common. I thought it was just me!

Fun story I picked the neighborhood of my old condo for only practical reasons things like resale value and commute times. The only personal side benefit was the wide boulevarded streets and extensive trail network for running. My usual route was 3 or 4 k before work. Even though I did it I DID NOT love running. In fact I used to say the only good thing about running was stopping. Not even mostly because of the first mile feeling I took a 4 year break in grad school and my health and fitness plummeted sharply.

When I moved out to where I am in the country now I didn’t want people to see me running at first. Or taking a walk break. So I started heading down a quiet back road which put the loop at about 5.5k automatically. Unlike my old neighborhood with streets and trails sectioning off everywhere I literally had no choice on where to turn next for the first 3 kilometers. Wouldn’t you know it after a short time at that point I was opting to make my runs longer and not heading directly home!

Is this really specific to running

I really don’t think other exercises suffer from the same fate with the start up sucking so much. The first moments I get on my bike I feel the most free and a swim feels energizing and refreshing right from the start. Getting yourself motivated to start most fitness endeavors is still hard don’t misunderstand but usually they feel pretty good. With running the start isn’t just neutral or unpleasant it straight up sucks.

Why does it suck

There’s no real definite reason that we can point to and say this is why your first mile or so running sucks. However there are some theories that make pretty good sense:

You’re not ‘ready to run’ yet

Guess who never warms up or starts off walking, runners that’s who, even though we should. So if you’ve neglected that great advice realize you kinda sorta did this to yourself. You’re muscles aren’t warmed up, you’re not acclimatized to the weather and your lungs and heart aren’t quite keeping up yet. Even if you did a warm up of some sort you’re still not totally ready yet so give yourself a break. Plus there’s a mental warm up phase too where the couch and chips is still looking pretty good. 

No feel good hormones have been released yet

While there is no definitive answer from science whether it’s adrenaline, dopamine, growth hormone or serotonin the mood boosting effects of running are proven. Though there is a similar feeling from lots of other activities none seem to be quite as good for your mood as running is. Remember that’s a big part of why we keep doing it. All that neurotranmitting does take a minute to kick in though. So just ride it out for a bit and wait for that elusive runner’s high to kick in!

There might be metabolic issues at play

Your body first uses sugar available in your blood before moving onto stored glycogen in your muscles first and then your liver pretty quickly. There isn’t any hard evidence that there are any performance effects from this transition but some runners think its a thing. It’s something you do all the time like when you take the stairs or walk all the way across the parking lot. This is definitely not the same thing as hitting the wall when you start to use mainly stored fats but it still might be a little bit of a thing.

Your disrupting the homeostasis and it takes a minute to get it back

Homeostasis is a fancy biology word for balance, while a bit more than that but… basically your body will do everything in it’s power to maintain it’s levels no matter the conditions. So if you get hot you’ll sweat or cold you’ll shiver. Your heart and blood pressure will increase or decrease to keep oxygen levels consistent and that might affect your breathing too. Your metabolism changes to keep sugar levels consistent too and that’s just the big stuff. When you first start running your are in a different weather situation, you’re going from sitting to running all out and so it takes a bit for every thing in your body to get on board. That in between time is uncomfortable as you adjust.

Tips

  • Warm up before you head out. Lol right?
  • Consider running longer slowly increasing your milage by 10% per week or less. If more of the run is fun then its not so sucky overall.
  • Front load your playlist with your favorite or slower songs and plan for a boost or to chill at the start.
  • Track and know exactly how long it lasts for you, always run past that point, even if it’s just a little.
  • Try to plan your route so you don’t have an ‘out’ before that point.
  • Watch your pace carefully so that your first mile anger doesn’t push you too hard.
  • Let yourself be slower than target for the start as you really are going through something.
  • Flats and downhills at the start if you can.
  • Either put the good views and songs at the front or save them until the end. You’ll know the right order for you by the way you eat your food.
  • When you set out ask a friend or loved one to send you an encouraging text in a certain amount of time. Or set a reminder for yourself to ding, or both you’re that awesome!
  • Treat your first mile like a warm up, give yourself permission to suck at the start.

I’m sorry to tell you that this is probably not going away completely or might not even get much better. Like I said for me it’s 3 km when I’m in peak shape ready for a race maybe 2 km, so not that different. But know that it happens to everyone and we’re all going through it. Maybe that’s why another runner doesn’t wave back, they just started! Do you find the start of all your runs suck a little bit? What’s your trick to make it over the hump? Leave it in the comments below!

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