Tell me if you’ve ever said—or felt—one of these statements:
“I’m not really a runner.”
“I only run on the treadmill at the gym.”
“I run a little bit, but I mostly walk.”
“I only go out every other day, a few miles at a time.”
You’re not alone. You might be surprised to learn how often these kinds of statements are uttered inside running shops. Sometimes, the customer is barely through the front door before they start explaining why they really shouldn’t be there.
Honestly, I get it. When I started working in running specialty and heard the kind of mileage some of my co-workers hit each week, I was intimidated. I’d been running for nearly 15 years and it still made me question my commitment to the sport, considering I almost never sign up for races and run only a few days a week. (See? “Only” a few days. Some habits are hard to break.)
But being a runner doesn’t come with a lot of prerequisites. As Eric Fruth, co-owner of the Columbus Running Company in Columbus, Ohio, said in a Zoom call, “All it takes to be a runner is you go out and go for a run. We hear so many people who come in for the first time, and as we’re fitting them for shoes they’ll say, ‘Well, I’m not a runner.’ And, literally, they just told us they have gone out for a run this week, they’ve been running once a week, they’ve been building toward some goal. That makes them a runner.”
While starting your own running regimen has always been relatively low maintenance (simply grab a pair of shoes, lap the block a couple of times, and you’re on your way), shops have found that the shutdowns during the coronavirus pandemic have renewed the sport’s popularity.
“When we originally had the shutdown in March, we saw a lot of ‘born again runners’ whose gyms were being shut down and they needed to get a pair of shoes so they could do their cardio,” Nicholas Stanko, owner of Ann Arbor Running Company in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said via email. “Eight months later, we are still seeing these people.”
Beginning runners can keep their routine as simple as running a few miles a week, if that’s what works for them. But often, the more time you invest in a sport like running, the more questions you’ll have. These can range from “Are these the best shoes for me?” to, “How should I dress for the cold?”
This is when the experts at your local running specialty store are clutch. Every runner and walker can use some guidance on how to move their best, feel comfortable, and prevent injury. Still, it can be a challenge to make that first trip into the shop, so here are a few tips to get you going.
Know that if you run, you’re a runner.
Regardless of the distance or pace, anyone who wants to keep moving for as long as they can deserves the kind of attention and advice that a running specialty shop can offer.
At Ann Arbor RC, Stanko noted that right now, “We’re seeing that people have a little more time to take care of themselves and are finally coming in to replace their old shoes that they haven’t replaced in years. We’re seeing a good mix of walkers, too.” So even if you’ve been away from the sport for a few months or years, you’ll be in good company.
Don’t assume that all running shop employees are elite competitive runners.
Everyone’s experience with running is different. Yes, I worked with people who ran competitively in college, qualified for the Boston Marathon, and ran ultramarathons across entire island countries. But I also had co-workers who ran as a way to relieve stress, or because it gave them time to socialize, or who would go weeks or months without running at all because life gets crazy sometimes. We’re all just out here, trying our best.
And those experienced runners? They recognize that running is relative — they themselves feel like they’re barely runners compared to pros, and they know that we all experience similar problems and joys. Their goal is to help you become a happier, better runner, not make you feel inadequate.
Describe what your average week looks like.
While the right shoe for you ultimately comes down to comfort, there’s a lot of helpful information in your average week that can guide the shop employee’s selections. Do you run at a local track or on sidewalks? Prefer sprint intervals over longer mileage? Are you training to run a 5K? This information helps them pull shoes that make sense and feel great.
Fruth notes, “Getting people in the right equipment changes the entire game for them and suddenly, they can go out and start to add extra miles on, start building things up, and maybe get involved in a training plan. It starts with the right gear.”
Ask questions (and be ready to answer a few).
Have your friends been raving about a certain brand? Ask the shop employee why it’s popular and if it could be an option for you. If the person helping you uses a term you’re not familiar with, ask if they can clarify. It’s meant to be conversation, not an interrogation. Stanko says, “We ‘interview’ every customer to learn more about them. No specific questions or anything. Just talk and listen to customers, then help them find a shoe or whatever that is right for them.”
And your questions don’t have to be confined to shoe talk. Ask if the person helping you runs, if they know any fun routes around town, or even where to get a good pizza after a run. You can get all kinds of solid recommendations this way.
Don’t let the gear scare you.
Walk into a shop and you’re immediately greeted by the bright colors and reflective trim on technical apparel, dozens of ergonomic water bottles, piles of high-performance socks, mountains of fruity gels and chews, and walls filled with shoes—so, so many shoes. But depending on your goals, you don’t necessarily need one of everything in front of you.
“When we’re training new staff, we’re constantly telling them how intimidating walking into a running shop can be, and they have to keep that in mind whenever someone’s walking in that door the first time,” Fruth says. “Find out what their goals are, because there’s a difference between somebody who wants to run, who wants to walk, who wants to race, who wants to lose weight. Once they’ve defined what their goal is, then we’ve got to find ways to meet them and properly point them in the right direction.”
And being at the shop means you can actually try the shoes on — so try them! Walk around the store, ask if you can jog outside (most stores encourage this), and compare at least two or three pairs. You’re there to find the right fit, and the employee wants you to feel confident in your choice, so take your time.
Run your own race, literally and metaphorically.
Across wide-ranging personal bests, goals, and motivations, we all feel like runners when we lace up our running shoes and head out the door. Stanko wants new runners to know this: “[R]unning shops love to help new runners out and share their experiences so they can enjoy the sport as much as they do.”
For Fruth, it’s about being willing to take a chance on yourself. “This is something that you can do, and this is something that can make a big impact on your life, potentially in ways that you don’t even see yet.”