Why is the first mile the hardest?

I’ve been running for a while now and I’ve noticed a pattern when I go out for training runs, and especially on race day.  It always seems like the first mile is really tough and I don’t really start to hit a rhythm until near the end of mile 2. 

I wasn’t sure if this was just me or if other runners encounter this as well.  After doing a little bit of research I discovered that it is indeed a well known issue that new and experienced runners face.  The reason’s are pretty basic, but just knowing them helps me keep my mind right when starting my runs.  Also, now that I know, I can better prepare on race day!  Here are 4 reasons why the first mile is often the toughest.

1. Aerobic Shift

Before your run, especially early in the morning, your body is in a fairly restful state, referred to as an anaerobic state.  Because of this your blood oxygen levels are too low to fuel a high level of activity.  After a short period of intense activity your heart and lungs get going and your body starts ramping up it’s oxygen levels to accommodate the higher demand.  This higher oxygen state is referred to as an aerobic state.  Once your body gets here you are getting the oxygen you need to perform at a high level, and you should have an easier go of it.

2. Starting Off Too Fast

If you are anything like me, you’ll glance down in mile one and see that your pace is great, the next thing you know is that you are sucking wind and feeling those legs and lungs burn.  Many runners have a tendency to come out of the gates too fast as their legs are fresh and excitement is high; especially on race day.  Much like in reason #1, you burn through your body’s oxygen and energy stores, and your body quickly has to look for more fuel.  This transition can make the second half of mile one, into mile two, feel really tough.

3. Getting Your Mind Right

Some people love waking up hours before they have to just to go on a long training run… for everybody else, it takes some strong self-motivation and negotiation to get out of bed.  This can make the first mile tough as you are painfully aware that you would much rather still be tucked away in your warm bed.  Or if you run in the evenings, perhaps you’d rather be hanging out with friends or family, or watching TV, etc.  A mile or two into the run you have forgotten those thoughts and you are more focused on the run, and you know you’re in it for the long-haul.  No turning back!

4. Waiting For Those Endorphins To Kick In

Anyone who has done any serious running or training can attest to getting the “runner’s high”.  That elated feeling that you sometimes get mid-run and after a tough run.  This is from a release of endorphins into your blood stream.  The first wave is often noticeable after about 10 minutes.  This positive, happy feeling is often enough to sharpen your focus and improve your motivation, making your run feel that much easier and enjoyable.

What you can do to get through this quicker…
Now that I really identified why this first mile or so was so tough, I thought, “there has to be some things I can do to get through it quicker right”?  What I found is that doing some exercise or a short, but quick, warm-up run to get your heart-rate up before your training run, and definitely before your race can help your body get into that aerobic state before the gun goes off. 

Also, if you start off at a slightly slower pace than you are capable of, it allows your body to more easily adapt and ramp up the oxygen and endorphins.  Before you know it you’ll be hitting your stride and feeling great.  (side note: TomTom GPS Watch helps me keep my pace)

I really hope my curiosity on this will help someone enjoy running a bit more or help in their next race.

Have fun out there and pace yourself!

~ Jay Cunningham

Jogger’s Journey