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Beginner’s Guide: Starting Equipment

“Okay, so I want to get into running, and I need to know, what sort of special pants should I buy?”

That’s a question my best friend’s wife asked me back in February. As I write this it’s August, and I’m still not really sure how to respond. Special pants?

I understand up to a point. Getting involved with something new can be daunting. Every hobby has its own lingo and etiquette. Who knows, maybe one day you show up to run in the wrong pants and suddenly you can’t sit with the popular kids at lunch, so you’ll never get a date all through high school, which means you’ll have to pay a prostitute to go to prom with you, but it’ll turn out she can’t dance, so… Okay, maybe we’re a little off track here.

Look the nice thing about running is it’s relatively light on equipment. Really, if you’re stepping out the door for your very first run there’s only one thing you really need: something to strap your vulnerable bobbley bits in place. If you’re a girl that means a decent sports bra, if you’re a guy either a jock strap or a supportive pair of compression shorts. That’s it. Everything else you need to get started is probably already in your closet. Clotheswise just wear something comfortable that’s appropriate for the weather. More often that not any old t-shirt and shorts will do. Same goes for your shoes. If you’ve got a pair of sneakers, you’re good to run. You don’t need shoes designed specially for running on day one. First off it’s hard to pick a pair of running shoes that’s really gonna suit your needs if you haven’t gotten out there and logged a few miles. Second, you don’t know if you’re gonna want to stick with it just yet. Running shoes can get ungodly expensive, and running’s not for everyone. Why plunk down a hundred and fifty bucks on something that might not see the outside of your closet two weeks from now? At least when you wasted money on that exercise bike you got to hang clothes from it, and seat the 17th person at your dinner party when you realized you only had 15 chairs (best we not talk about where you put person number 16). Besides, some runners *gasp* don’t even wear shoes. And I’ve borne witness to other oddities of footwear you newcomers wouldn’t believe. Heck just last year during the annual charge up the 14,000+ foot high Pikes Peak I saw a guy with square cork board cutouts tied to his feet with strips of hemp. Odds are you’ll be fine muddling along in regular tennis shoes for a couple of months.

Eventually though, if you stick with it, you’ll probably want to start looking into a few supplemental pieces of equipment, if just because they’re gonna increase your comfort level (which is always a plus, because as I repeat endlessly, running hurts). So let’s look at a few things in order of importance.

Shoes: Like I said, not essential on day one (or ever according to our barefoot brethren who’ve apparently replaced the soles of their feet with consecrated aluminum). But if you do stick with running, once you really start piling on the miles, there’s really no better investment you can make towards a less painful future, short of morphine drip headwear. And since you’ve logged a few hundred (thousand) steps now you’re probably starting to get a feel for how you run and what sort of shoe you may be looking for. And trust me there’s enough variety out there to find something for everybody. Do you need lighter shoes? Something with better grip? More cushioning? Voice activated saw blades? Look around and try some things on, I’m sure you can find it. Just remember the two most important rules of shoe buying: First, that the shoe actually feels comfortable on your foot, regardless of other factors, and second that a bigger price tag doesn’t necessary mean a better shoe for you. All the magic foot technology in the world isn’t gonna make your training any more tolerable if that three hundred dollar pair of shoes is pinching your arches.

Moisture Wick Clothing: You may have noticed many of the other runners on the trails are wearing clothes that have a suspicious sheen to them, giving off the impression they did some creative cutting on their polyester Boogie Nights cosplay outfit to create a unique brand of casual wear. And while that’s possible, its more likely they’re wearing moisture wick clothing (and yes I know not all of it looks like polyester, but a lot of it does), which is essentially designed to move sweat away from your skin. It’s not perfect, but if you’ve been running in cotton for awhile, when you make the switch you’ll notice the difference.

Body Glide: Okay, technically it’s anti-chaffing gel, and Body Glide is a brand name, but it’s one of those brand names like Pop Tarts. You don’t ask a kid if she wants a “toaster pastry,” you ask them if they want a Pop Tart, and then hope the shiny foil wrapper and ten cubic pounds of sugar distract her long enough not to notice the sad, logoless, cardboard box you pulled it from that screams to the world you’re a bad parent who doesn’t want their kid to have nice things. Except with anti chaffing gel nobody cares if you go off brand, both because you’re the one wearing it, and because, frankly, we like to call the gel we rub on ourselves Body Glide no matter what it’s actual name is. It makes us feel special. Digression aside, this is a product designed for those of us who chafe noticeably in unpleasant places when we run, or who tend to get blisters on or flat out bleed from our nipples. You wear this stuff on the problem area, become slick like a dolphin, and hopefully cease to worry. Many runners also wear band aids over their nipples to deal with this particular problem. I find the tugging at my skin unpleasant, but at this point both options have something of a twinge of the kink going for them, so do what feels right.

Water Belts, Packs, Holsters, and Remote Delivery Via Hover Drone: I never actually carried water with me while running until I started training for my first marathon, but I hear tell some of you don’t actually live thousands of feet above sea level, and actually have to deal with this strange weather anomaly known as heat, which apparently leads to dehydration. I know it must be a common problem because there are more products designed to deal with it then there are molecules in the solar system. As always what you think will work for you is going to be best, but here’s some of the pros and cons of the more common water carrying systems. First up, hand held holsters. I don’t get these, but you see a lot of them about, and even my own Mom has been using one for more than a decade and swears by it, so obviously there’s something to it, even if that something is cult inspired brainwashing that takes place while you sleep. For those of you not in the know, what we’re talking about here is a little holder you slip on your hand that keeps your water bottle there. If you don’t use this product, it’s probably because you have fingers that do the same job, and, before the industrial accident, cost you nothing. The other issue with these things, from my perspective, is that your water bottle more or less becomes a miniature dumbbell you’re forced to tote along with you for the entire run. What’s worse, once you drink some of the water what ever is left behind starts sloshing back and forth every time you move your arm, essentially turning it into one of those creepy shake weight things you see on late night infomercials that everyone makes fun of for simulating… Anyway, another popular option is hydration packs, usually just known by their most popular brand name manufacturer, Camelbaks (no I’m not doing the Pop Tart/Brand Name bit again, go back and reread it if you need to). These are just backpacks with artificial bladders inside of them for holding water. In a lot of ways it’s a great option, because it carries boatloads of liquid, and even usually has the convenience of a straw that sits right in front of your face to slurp from, in case running has left you too tired to devote more effort to hydration than slightly moving your head. The downside though, is they tend to have lots of straps which can lead to new chaffing issues, and, more obviously, carrying that much water adds a lot of weight to your run, which is bad enough in and of itself, but since it’s strapped to your back another concern is it often causes people to lean forward as they tire, which can cause a whole variety of lower back issues down the road. Finally there’s the classic water belt, which holsters bottles around your waist like six shooters, fulfilling the dreams of all latent Super Soaker desperadoes out there. This is what I use, because it combines the three main attributes I’m looking for: it’s light, it’s out of the way, and it’s easy to use. On the downside the water bottles can’t hold much because they’re usually pretty small (and when they’re not some people find they scrap against the under part of their arm as they run) and… how do I put this delicately? Running has been known to cause some stomach issues for quite a few of us, and cinching a belt tight around your waist can exacerbate the problem (Pro Tip: I wear my water belt backwards, resting the pouch and bottles against my lower back, leaving just a thin strap up front, and limiting the contract near the soft part of my stomach. It doesn’t 100% solve the problem, but it does help quite a bit).

Thermal Wear: If, like me, you live in an occasionally chilly climate, or your preferred method of self torture involves running up the side of mountains like some sort of blissfully unaware alpaca, it may be worth investing in some clothing that’ll keep you from dying of exposure seven steps from your front door. There’s a lot of clothing specially designed for runners (and other winter athletes, I suppose) to be right in that sweet spot of light yet warm. And usually, as an added bonus, the inner material is moisture wicking in order to move the sweat away from your body so it doesn’t freeze there and create the worst tasting version of an Otter Pop known to man. All that being said, I don’t like thermal wear, and the stuff I own has been rotting in my closet for a couple years now. The main issue for me is that most of this stuff clings very tightly to your body in order to trap in extra heat, which, since it can be a decent thickness, ends up feeling a little constrictive. And, frankly, since I’m already short of breath from running, or staggering around above treeline, any tightness on my chest is an immediate no go. If that’s not an issue for you, have at it, because my alternatives haven’t exactly proven superior at accomplishing the basic goal of keeping me warm, and I’ve occasionally had to literally thaw myself out after arriving home because the sweat inside my hoodie has frozen the stupid thing to my head.