Miles are like crepes … the first one is always a disaster.
For that reason, I tell my runners all the time to never trust the feeling of that first mile.
Many of the running-related questions I answer on a regular basis are related to this phenomenon — why does the first mile of every run suck? It’s a super frustrating phenomenon — especially for newbie runners who think the problem is them.
Because, when you first start running, you start gunning for getting that first mile or so — and that first mile feels awful. At that point, it’s hard for new runners to imagine that every mile that comes after won’t be just as miserable.
Cue the eye rolls as I tell them not every mile is as bad as the first.
But it doesn’t really ever change. Even the most experienced runners deal with this. You just get used to the fact that the first mile isn’t great and you learn to tolerate it and endure, physically and mentally. You get enough first miles under your beast to know that you just need to get through it and trust that there are good miles on the other side.
So it’s not something that ever really goes away. The good news is, there actually is a physiological reason why the first mile always sucks and understanding why is the key to not taking it personally as a comment on your fitness level and helping you get over the hump so you can get into those better miles.
Why Does the First Mile Always Suck?
Physiologically, it takes about 10 minutes for your body to come online and ramp itself up.
Your lungs have to kick it up a notch to get more oxygen in, then your heart has to shift into high gear to pump out oxygen-rich blood to your blood vessels, which have to dilate to let the blood flow to your muscles, which are screaming for more oxygen in order to turn your on-board energy stores into fuel.
The connections between your nerves and running muscles also need to be activated and primed in order to create efficient movement. This is that feeling at the start of the run where you’re not sure your body even remembers how to run, because every step is like a baby deer trying to figure out walking for the first time. Your brain is trying to make the right connections to your muscles in the first mile.
It’s an amazing process but it doesn’t happen in five minutes or less.
Not coincidentally, all these systems undergo the most dramatic changes right at the start of your run. So, when you first start running, a massive demand is placed on all these systems before they’re ready — so they do what anybody else would do and they complain … a lot. And boom, there’s your sucky feeling.
This is why you struggle to breathe and can’t hold your normal pace in those first few miles — your heart, lungs, circulatory system, and essential metabolic pathways all have to turn on and switch into overdrive abruptly and simultaneously.
So how do you fix it?
Well … you warm up. You give your body a chance to initiate all the systems and functions that will support you throughout your run.
Now look, I’m not going to tell you that you need to do a special set of warm-up exercises as your pre-run warm up. While there’s evidence to support the fact that a specific running warm up can improve performance outcomes, for most of us non-professional runners who are just going for a run, specific pre-run warm up exercises are not necessary.
Don’t go read that previous paragraph to mean that “warming up is bad” — I’m not saying that at all.
If you like to do specific warm-up exercises before your runs, go for it!
All I’m saying is that you probably don’t HAVE to do them. You could just start running at a warm-up pace or effort.
Here’s why …
A good warm up:
- Increases your body temperature (and muscle temperature) and wakes up the systems of your body
- Gets blood flowing into your muscles by opening up blood vessels and capillaries
- Boosts oxygen, water, and electrolytes to help with muscle contractions
- Moves your joints through the required full range of motion needed for activity to stimulate lubrication so they loosen up
- Primes and activates solid connections between your brain and your muscles so your movement is smooth and efficient
Yes, you can definitely do special warm-up exercises to do that … or you could just start running and your body temperature will rise, your blood flow will increase, your muscles will contract, your joints will move and loosen up, and your neuromuscular connections will fire and get coordinated.
Special exercises can help with all of that. But they aren’t the only way to make it happen.
Sometimes the most efficient way to warm up for something (like running) is to stop making it so complicated and just start doing the thing (like running) nice and easy while your body gets things going for you.
That said, if you hate the miserable feeling of using the first mile or so as a warm up, then I’d suggest you do some warm-up exercises first. Doing so can cut down on frustration over that first mile.
Also, if you really care about the outcome of a particular run — like a race or key speed workout — you’ll likely improve your running performance by doing a dynamic warming up first instead of warming up on the run.
How to Make that First Mile Suck Less
Do a specific running warm up before running.
Remember that for that first mile or so, your body is either (a) transitioning out of sleep (for those early risers among us) or (b) transitioning from a day of sitting hunched over our desks (for the evening crew). Neither is conducive to awesome athletic achievement in that first mile.
I like to think of proper warm ups like a gentle wake-up nudge vs. the screeching alarm clock for your body.
Again, you could just dial back the pace and effort and ease into running if you like. Easy running can be a great warm up before running.
But if you choose to start your runs with warm-up exercises, there’s no need to overcomplicate this. Including some dynamic work to get your heart rate up and prime your body for what’s coming — skipping, jumping rope, or hopping — is great for this.
These dynamic stretching exercises for your running muscles can be a great warm up before running, which gets your body warmed, increases blood flow going into your running muscles and connective tissues in and around your hips, knees, ankles, and feet, so you are prepared to run BEFORE you begin.
Contrary to common belief, you do NOT need to do static stretching right before your run, save those for after your run or your recovery days.
If you’re feeling stiff, some pre-run self-myofasical release with a ball or from rolling is a great way to increase blood flow and ease that tension, so your first mile feels smoother and more relaxed.
Some of the best warm up exercises: Jumping rope (or faking it if you don’t have a rope) is an awesome way to warm up for a run — the cadence and general springiness you create when jumping rope mimics the timing and the way your running stride should feel while it brings your heart rate up. Then, I suggest adding in some butt kicks for hamstrings, high knees and skipping drills for hip flexors, leg swings help for hip joints, heel walks for your calves and shin muscles, and walking lunges with a trunk rotation to help your whole body loosen up and feel less stiff.
Want a simple pre-run warm-up routine? Try this one on for size.
Ease into the run
Whether or not you do a specific dynamic warm up first, this next part is key.
Don’t just head out there and expect to hit the pace you want to end with. I mean, you can try, but it’ll probably feel pretty awful and leave you questioning all your life choices.
Treat that first mile as one thing and one thing only — gently and gradually getting your body geared up for the rest of your run.
I know, I know, it’ll bring down your run tracker stats, but seriously, for the first mile, do not … I repeat, do not … worry about pace or the numbers on Strava. Focus on finding a pace that feels comfortable until your whole body is ready.
Two perfectly fine ways to warm up
Either way, warm-up on the run or do a specific running warm-up, it comes down to personal preference.
Obviously, if you’re about to toe the start line of a race that you hope to perform well, it helps to warm-up BEFORE you start your watch so you can hit your goal pace right out of the gate. But for those of us just going for a run, well, you’ve got options.
Do a specific running warm-up if you like, or just start running and ease into it for the first mile or so. Both are fine warm-ups.
The key is in recognizing that your first mile is not indicative of what the rest of your run will be like. Give your body time to warm up and prepare to support you, especially during the colder months. Be patient and understand that you’re not out-of-shape or broken, it’s just physiology baby!
And remember, no matter how tough it gets out there, this is the mental side of the training process — developing the fortitude to carry on when things get tough … as they do from time to time. Creating mental toughness will not only allow you to enjoy running more, it will benefit you greatly in every area of your life.
What about you? Do you prefer a specific warm up? Or are you a warm-up-on-the-run type?