Why is running so hard? (And will it ever get easier?)


Almost every runner when they’re starting out wonders why it’s so dang hard. So if that’s where you’re at right now, and wondering if it’s ever going to get any easier, join the ranks of pretty much every runner who had to start somewhere. Running IS hard, and there’s a good reason for it.

Running can be hard for anyone but is especially hard for a new runner doing too much, too soon. Running at a pace that you have not adapted to will cause you to breathe harder and harder as you try to get the air you desperately need. The force on your body as well as the role your mind plays make running hard, too.

Read on to find out why running can be so challenging (even for the very well trained!) and what you can do differently to make it into something you look forward to instead of dreading.

Running is Hard When You’re New

The movement of running is innate. We’ve been doing it since we were toddlers which makes it completely different than pretty much any other sport that you have to learn how to do. So then why is it so challenging?

If you need to quickly run across the street or run to your toddler to take something unsafe away from them…well, that’s pretty easy. Your body knows exactly what to do. But even trying to run to your mailbox halfway down the street will probably leave you feeling out of breath if you’re not trained for running in any way.

It’s not the motion of running that’s hard (though it can be hard on the body which we’ll discuss later), instead it’s what’s happening on the inside of your body that makes it difficult.

Here’s what you’ll probably feel when you run when you’re not used to it:

1.) A quick increase in your heart rate. Like with any cardiovascular exercise (cycling, swimming, etc.), it doesn’t take long for your heart rate to increase. If you have a watch or heart rate monitor you’ll watch the numbers tick up, up, up as you keep moving. And of course, you’ll feel your heart beating faster as it works harder to supply oxygen to your body as you move.

2.) You start breathing hard. As your heart works to pump oxygen to your body, you have to breathe it in fast enough to supply it to your heart. At the same time, you need to breathe out the carbon dioxide that builds more quickly in your body than when you are walking or at rest.

3.) Feeling so out of breath that you have to stop. A trained runner’s heart rate and breathing rate will eventually even out as they get going. For me, I can maintain a pace with a heart rate in the 140s/150s for a really long time. An untrained runner, however, or even a trained runner who is running really hard, will get to a point where they can’t get rid of the carbon dioxide faster than they’re bringing oxygen in. This means you’ve hit an anaerobic state and you can’t stay there for very long. Either you slow down or stop.

So a quick burst of running is something most people can handle, but for the untrained runner, even running a mile can feel impossible.

Why is running a mile so hard?

In high school, we used to have to run something in P.E. class that everyone referred to as the “square.” It was essentially the sidewalk all around the grounds made up by the baseball fields, tennis courts, and the football field. It was close to a mile around.

And I hated it! Most of us did. Why? Because it was really, really hard. And they would time us, and of course, no one wanted to be last.

So why was running the mile so hard?

Many of us were athletes after all…I played sports year-round. But I wasn’t in endurance running shape.

It sounds like “just a mile” should be easy enough to do. But for someone untrained, it’s not. Now it wouldn’t take weeks and weeks of training to work up to running a mile, but with none, you may be able to run a mile but it probably won’t feel that good.

The other reason it’s hard to run even a mile for some people is that they’re just going out too fast. Honestly, that’s what I probably did in high school. Not wanting to be last I would give it all I had and then I would be close to walking by the end. I would finish completely out of breath feeling like I was going to puke. Sound familiar?

Even as a trained runner, running a mile can still be hard. If I’m going at my all outpace, then that will probably feel puke-worthy at the end (and pretty much every 5k race I run, as well!)

So what do you need to do if you want to be able to run a mile without stopping?

This is where training comes in. If you want to run a mile or be able to run one without sucking wind, here’s what you need to do.

1.) Slow down. Nobody said you had to run as hard as you can. And if you’re just starting out as a runner, you shouldn’t be. It can be hard to find that right pace, so you want to keep it conversational. And if you feel your heart rate starting to rise or that you have to catch your breath, that’s the sign that you need to bring it down a notch or two.

2.) Take walk breaks. Slowing down your running may not be enough, depending on your current level of fitness. Don’t be afraid to take a walk break to even out your breathing. Once you recover enough, you can start running again. However, don’t run hard and then walk and then run hard again. The goal here is to eventually run the whole mile – so slow your running down as much as you need to in order to run as long as possible without stopping.

3.) Stay consistent. Keep up with your running at least a few times per week. With this consistency it won’t be long until you’re able to run a mile without stopping. Then build to 2, and so on.

Anyone who is staring out running is going to have a hard time running a mile, so don’t think there is anything wrong with you! Your body and cardiovascular system just need time to adapt to the new demands you’re requiring of it.

Running more will strengthen your heart and improve your body’s ability to circulate oxygen. That means it will get easier and easier over time, and you’ll be able to run faster at a much lower effort level.

But what about all that pounding? That part is definitely hard, too.

Why is running hard on the body?

Ground reaction force (GRF) can be used to describe how much force the ground puts on your body every time you take a running step. It’s a much greater force than when you’re walking, up to two to three times your body weight, according to Kistler Instrument Corp.

GRF isn’t the same for everyone because everyone has a different gait as well as different foot strike. But what’s true for everyone is that running puts a lot of stress on your body – your muscles, bones, joints, ligaments, tendons…all of it! So when you try to run a distance that you’re not used to, all of that pounding is going to put a lot of load onto your body that it hasn’t had time to adapt to.

Running can be even tougher on the body if you’re overweight. In my article, “The Best Body to Run a Marathon Isn’t What You Think,” I cited the following research from the Arthritis-Health: “Experts estimate that for every 1 pound you weigh, your knees feel the force of 3 pounds of pressure when you take a step. So losing 10 pounds will result in 30 pounds less pressure per knee, per step.”

This should NOT deter you at all from running, in fact, it’s the opposite! It just means that you may need to take things easier in the beginning than someone who may not be overweight. With a mix of slow running and walking, your body will adapt. Your body will be able to sustain a longer period of running without discomfort, and running will make your cardiovascular system healthier, too.

So, how do you make running easier on your body?

Really, it’s similar to what we suggested for making running easier in a cardiovascular sense. Your body needs time to adapt. You need to:

  • slow down,
  • take walk breaks, and
  • stay consistent.

You also need to make sure you are building your mileage slowly, so your body is able to have time to reap the benefits of your running training without overdoing it.

A good rule of thumb is to not increase your mileage by more than 10% each week. Cutting back on mileage every few weeks gives your body even more time to adapt so that you stay free of injury.

Running expects a lot from your body, but what about the mental challenges it can bring?

Why is running hard mentally?

Do you get bored with running or find it hard to push through when it gets challenging? This is normal.

The mental aspect brings a whole other element to the difficulty of running. You could have all the physical factors you need in place and still have difficulty reaching your goals because your thoughts keep getting in the way of your potential. This could be a lack of confidence, lack of motivation, or boredom with your running.

Running is more than just one foot in front of the other. When it gets tough physically and your heart is pumping, it’s your brain that has to will yourself to keep going. And when your body is filling up with carbon dioxide, we’re lucky we have our brain to step in to scream at us to stop and catch some air. But it’s also our minds that make us give up on something too soon when it gets a bit challenging.

Running is also hard mentally because it can get boring. Through the miles your mind wanders and you think of the 10 million others things you could or should be doing.

So how do you overcome the mental hurdle that can come with running?

1.) Listen to music, podcasts, or books. This allows you to zone out while you run. It’s one of the best ways to focus on something else other than how much you want to stop running. And don’t forget to mix it up – that will help, too.

2.) Remember why you’re doing this. Whether you have a goal race that you’re training for, want to live a healthier lifestyle, lose weight…whatever it is, keep that as your focus.

3.) Run with other people. I run alone a lot. It’s what I prefer for the most part. But I recently joined a local running group that a mom put together via Facebook. She plans these great runs every weekend, and I look forward to them every Saturday. We run at an easy pace and talk the whole time. It may sound trite, but the miles really do fly by. I don’t even look at my watch because I’m too caught up in our conversations. Find a friend or several who you have something in common with (well you already have one thing in common before you even start) and I think you’ll be surprised how much you enjoy running.

4.) Get used to your thoughts. Unless you have some speedwork mixed in, running really isn’t all that exciting when you’re training. Being alone with our thoughts really isn’t something we’re that used to doing these days…we’d much rather scroll through Instagram. But the more you run and get used to that voice in your head, the easier it will become.

5.) “Run the mile you’re in.” This is one of my favorite runisms. You can even make it be “run the minute you’re in.” If you feel like you just can’t finish a run or maintain a particular pace you’re trying to hold, just focus on finishing that one mile (or minute) and not worrying about the rest of your run until it comes. Chances are you’ll finish that mile, and then be able to do another one. And then another one. If you’re always thinking something like, “How am I ever going to make it through this?!” the task seems more daunting and you’re much more likely to cut it early.

I’m also all about mantras when the going gets tough. Like in my marathons, I constantly repeat words to myself as a way to keep pushing forward even when my mind is telling me to stop. One of my favorites is: The body achieves what the mind believes.” Find the mantra that works for you and put that on repeat.

Why is the first several minutes of running so hard?

Are you someone who is able to run a long way already, but struggle as you start to run? If it takes you a mile or two to get into a groove and get past that “dead leg” feeling you’re not alone.

The first portion of a run can often feel like the hardest part…even when you’re just at an easy warm up pace! This is normal.

This of this time as your body acclimating to the stress you’re putting on it during a run. Your heart rate is making a big shift as you start to run, and your muscles and joints need time to get warmed up to. That little shock to the system can make the first mile or so feel pretty tough.

The solution to making the first part of your run easier?

Slow down. Walk if you need to. You can even consider doing some warm-up exercises before you even begin your run to wake your body up a bit. This is especially important for cold winter running or for those runs you do first thing right after your wake up.

Remember this is just your warm-up. You don’t need to prove anything here. Once you feel shaken out and ready to roll, the rest of the run will feel easier.

Will running ever get easier?

If you are new to running, it probably feels like running will always be hard. You may feel like you’ll never be able to get to a pace where you can just run comfortably and enjoy conversing with a friend as you move along.

With consistent training, you will absolutely get to a point where you can run at a pace that feels sustainable and even enjoyable. For some people, that may be 13 minute miles early on. The key in the beginning is to not focus on the time but to be proud of yourself for getting to a spot where you run mile over mile at what is YOUR easy pace.

So does that mean that running will never be hard after that?

Everyone has a threshold for where running turns from easy to uncomfortable to really hard to impossible. Even though I’ve been running for 20 years, running is still really hard when I’m doing any type of speed work or racing. And running a sub 6-minute mile is about near my maximum capability at this point…with a 5-minute mile being impossible. (I’m all about Eliud Kipchoge’s #no limits, people, but I just don’t think that’s ever in the cards for me. And that is totally ok!)

I always tell people that if you’re working toward your potential, then running will always have a hard aspect to it. But that doesn’t mean you need to make it hard if you don’t want to. You will, though, if you want to get faster.

Running can be enjoyable when you find your “happy pace!”

The bottom line is that yes, you can get to a point where running is always easy in terms of pace. And you’re welcome to hang out there! I definitely enjoy my easy run days. And you’ll even be able to eventually run a marathon or more if you keep at it. (Did you know 80% of your running should be at an easy pace, by the way?!)

RELATED: How Much Mileage Marathon Runners Run

But easy running all the time can lead to boredom. Never changing anything up with your running can get quite monotonous and you probably won’t want to continue.

In order to combat that, you’re probably going to want to mix in some hard days with your easy days…you know – those types of running workouts that set your lungs on fire! And that’s when you’ll realize that running, when you keep pushing yourself, will never be easy. But isn’t that the beauty in it, after all? And snagging those PRs? I sure think so.

This is where I tell you to keep going, don’t stop, and stay consistent. You got this!

Jane

Hi, I'm Jane! I'm an avid runner who races 5ks to marathons. After a 4:59 first marathon, I came back to the distance years later running a BQ time of 3:36. I did a lot wrong for a long time and finally started doing a lot right. Now I'm an RRCA certified running coach and love sharing what I've learned to help others run their best.

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