When I first started running it was all I could do to make it through one mile. It was tough, but like most new endeavors, I threw myself into running with fervor and enthusiasm. I quickly built up to two miles, but it took me awhile to figure out pacing. Finally, the day came when I could run three miles and not feel like I was going to die.
That doesn’t mean it felt good. Six years later, the first three miles are still tough.
It took me a long time to figure this out. The midweek three and four milers always seemed so much tougher than my Saturday long runs. I quickly knew I was a true long distance runner because I always enjoyed my long runs more than my shorter midweek runs. Once I got past the first three miles I was good to go. I remember many six mile runs at the lake when I thought I would have to walk back to the car at the turn-around, only to get a second wind around mile five and feel like I could run the whole lake.
Now that I’ve been running for almost six years I’ve noticed it takes me even longer to hit my stride. The first three miles are still not pleasant, but it isn’t until after the first six miles that my running starts to feel smooth and effortless. I noticed this the first time when I ran an easy five miles before a 15K race. I was surprised at how great I felt after the first mile of the race (which was really six total miles into the run). I ran fast, too, and placed in my age group that day. It’s happened to me several times since, and I’m always amazed at how fast I can run after already putting in five or six miles before a race.
I know elites and competitive runners tend to do a slow warm-up run before a race, and this is comparable, but I’ve always suspected there was more to it than that. I finally came across what I think is an explanation.
In his book The Marathon Method, Tom Holland writes about getting new runners to the point where running is enjoyable, and isn’t such hard work. He says most people who start running quit when they get up to two or three miles because they never reach that point of ease that I wrote of earlier. He calls this “the ‘cardiovascular turning point,’ or CTP, a physiological state that occurs after running for a certain amount of time during each workout.” Just like I’ve experienced, he says most people reach this point after thirty or forty minutes of running, which generally equates to about three miles. He also says this:
Over time the CTP is pushed back. In other words, after you become accustomed to running long distances, namely two hours or more, your body seems to “need” to go farther and you will experience the CTP at fifty minutes, an hour, or longer. This doesn’t mean that you are in discomfort until that point. It seems that once you have greatly increased your endurance, the human body almost wants to be challenged further and the CTP is pushed back.
This makes perfect sense to me. Even though it is somewhat irritating that I have to run six miles before my running becomes more flowing and effortless, now I know it isn’t merely my head telling me those first three miles or so are hard work. They really are. But after that, when I hit my stride and find that place where I feel like I can run forever, it makes it all worth it.