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I’ve been running since I was 14. I was bad for a while, then mediocre for most of the rest of the time. In 2020, I put up two respectable time trial efforts (3:10 marathon and 1:30 unsupported half-marathon). Because I look like a runner and because I was somewhat competitive in high school, I get asked a lot of questions by people who are starting to get a feel for the sport. Talking about running is fun! Though I’ve realized over the years that many of my opinions are unpopular.
In 2020, my beliefs became more radicalized as I was able to fully embrace some of them for the first time. Frankly, I had great results in every distance and every course I tried to conquer. Despite not having any monster times to my name, when I encountered the Reddit thread on unpopular running opinions, I knew it was my time to make my beliefs known.
The weird thing about having legitimate unpopular opinions is that, on a forum like Reddit, the comments are sorted by best. So rather than generating real discussion, the most popular comments don’t end up containing very unpopular opinions at all. They’re often just slightly-offensive truths.
My comment actually ranks highly if you sort by “controversial.” But are my opinions just anecdotes of a special runner or borderline truths? You can be the judge.
Stretching is Useless
Remember high school where you’d spend 45 minutes of every practice stretching? Pretty much bogus. I spend at most 20 seconds doing static stretches before and after most runs. Nothing dynamic. This is all despite leading a sedentary lifestyle. The only time I take stretching seriously is before and after highly explosive efforts in the weightroom or on the track.
When I see people stretching, it doesn’t make me mad. When people say things like “yeah this injury or this bad race performance happened because I didn’t stretch,” it’s kind of silly. Warming up? Sure, the science is there. I cold start most of my runs, though.
Carbo-loading is Pseudo-science
It’s fine to embrace ritualistic aspects of racing. This is one that has never made sense to me, though. Maybe if having that huge pasta dinner is the difference between eating a full portion and… not eating a full portion of dinner. Sure, go for it, eat your half-pound portion of ziti. In practice, I find it’s hilariously imbalanced as far as nutrition goes and detracts from the more important meal: what you eat the morning of the race.
Carbo-loading is the idea that your body stores a lot of energy by taking in complex carbs which eventually get converted to sugars and thus pure energy on race day. There’s some science to back it up. The “loading” aspect is often completely overblown. The stomach has a really hard time processing huge portions of pasta, not to mention the acidity and high sodium content of canned red sauce. Add on the extra bread with the sauce and it starts to get ridiculous. Yet a lot of people do this and think it’s the right thing because Runner’s World said so.
I’ve been widely known to have an iron stomach yet, whenever I emphasize carbs, I feel awful the next morning. Things are just irregular. And, most importantly, from the time I was 15 to now as a 26-year-old, I have never felt like I had some miraculous new store of energy.
As an adult, I can plan three meals a day without adhering to a budget or peer pressure. I’ve shifted focus to what I eat on the morning of the race. For longer distances, like the half-marathon or marathon, this has always struck me as more logical. Why would you rely on gels and gatorade at mile 15 for energy when you could just eat a gigantic breakfast?
Most people will say hey Tim, that’s easy–if I take your advice, I’m going to vomit! I truly think it’s more of a fear of what society would think if you vomited during a race than the negative affect it’d actually have on your race. If people can acclimate to hot, humid racing conditions for some of those silly desert races, I’m pretty sure you can experiment with upping your caloric intake before workouts and managing to hold it down.
Here’s a “hot” take–a lot of casual marathon blowups are probably caused by people completely running out of energy after undereating the morning of the race. How many people eat a banana and one of those tiny cups of yogurt? Umm… just check the race reports people post on Reddit, it’s scary. If this happens to you, your pasta dinner the night before isn’t going to save you.
You’ll be happy to learn that I’ve taken this to the extreme. On the days where I set my marathon and half PRs, I ate a large steak, 1-2 potatoes worth of hashbrowns, guacamole, 3-4 cherry tomatoes, smoked salmon, and simple sugars (3-4 cookies). All said and done, this was probably 1000 calories.
How did I feel? Amazing. In these races, you should be at least 30 minutes into the race before you even think about breathing, so there’s a slim chance that your stomach is going to become upset. As the races dragged on, my energy was still there, in fact in some cases it almost felt like I was gaining more energy as I ran. In both attempts, the grinding of my joints became the bottleneck on my performance.
Easy Days are a Waste of Time and Energy
I hate running easy. I’m bad at it, it still hurts my bones/joints in the same way as any other run, and it ends up taking more time than running fast. As an upper-casual runner not going outside 7 days a week, it made way more sense to run 3-4 days a week very hard than to run 7 days a week where 3-4 days were at a joke pace.
As I really established my training program, my weight was very close to my goal “racing weight” of 148. If you’re running to lose weight and still trying to feel comfortable, I concede. I think it makes way more sense to run one mile per day every day than most other permutations that a beginner would consider. For casual runners who didn’t run competitively in high school, it’s common for them to have only two or three gears. Running at race pace or at closing pace usually isn’t on the menu and that’s fine.
The other point is that those “off” days are wasted aerobic capacity. True, I was privileged in having a bike and being able to cycle on nearly every one of those days. Most high school or even college runners don’t have this option available.
Some may argue that all these hard days could lead to injury. That’s true. I got injured. Would I have gotten injured if all of my mileage was done on soft surfaces, though? No. When you’re going hard frequently but still giving your body time to rest, you will make solid gains. It really worked for me. The intensity of finishing each run with a sprint translated to races really well. For the beginning of my 2019-2020 training block, I was just so happy to be out there. If I was having a good day, I didn’t want to feel guilty about throwing in some surges.
This strategy worked extremely well as I prepared for the half marathon. Essentially, all of my training runs were done at half-marathon goal pace. Being intimately familiar with the differences between 6:40 pace and 6:45 pace made a big difference. Being able to run sub 7s in my sleep allowed me to hit a fairly low effort half marathon PR of 1:30. The main issue there was that I had actually cut back on training (~15mi per week total) and, since I raced on a hard surface, my joints started to hurt.
Admission: I don’t know where trail runs fall on this spectrum. It’s really hard to run fast on trails, especially new trails.
It’s Never Too Cold for Shorts
I’m a minimalist when it comes to running gear. I have 7 pairs of the same shorts, 7 pairs of the same shirt, roughly 35 pairs of the same socks, one hat, one jacket, two pairs of gloves (one pair was a gift), and that’s it.
In high school, we’d spend the whole winter running outside. Every day. This might be hard to believe, but for most of those days, I was wearing a cotton t-shirt as my base layer. An awful idea, I now admit. Some days, I also had a cotton-synthetic blended track jacket–also not functional at all compared to the clothing tech of today.
However, I wore shorts on every one of those runs. We’re not talking arctic temperatures, but it got cold. It was a team culture thing that people generally didn’t wear anything but shorts. I’m sure this was partially due to the fact that even the thinnest pair of tights restricts your movement.
For a while there, we were actually running in basketball shorts. It just came down to a matter of practicality. Nobody’s parents were going out of their way to buy a whole wardrobe of running specific clothing. Running in sweatpants wasn’t an option, but nobody was jumping to spend $100+ on a real pair of joggers. That’s really what it came down to.
If you’re in the frostbite danger zone, what’s the point of running outside? I don’t really see the rewards outweighing the risks, though it is true that once your body gets pumping, you can naturally tolerate pretty cold temps. Modern tech clothing is great, but a single gust of wind will surely ruin your day.
A lot of Half/Full Marathon participants are doing more damage to themselves by showing up to the starting line than by staying home
As some of the more awful aspects of self-obsessed social media culture have invaded running, you get a lot of undertrained people trying to run halfs (halves sounds wrong?) and fulls who really shouldn’t be running. These are the people who are guaranteed to post pictures of the race on all social media platforms. It’s really common to hear about someone with a 28-minute 5K deciding to sign up for a marathon or half marathon as a “goal.”
I get it, your life can’t revolve around running. People have different body types. People have different methods of motivating themselves. You need to set goals. The problem is that trying to grind out a marathon is awful for you. This is true whether you’re skinny and undertrained or fat and undertrained. You’re not going to die, but the truth is that it’s not supposed to be that bad. If you’re squarely in the “overweight” BMI category, you shouldn’t ever go beyond a half.
The problem is that most races need non-competitive, casual runners in order to be financially viable. We’re not talking about 3:45 male marathoners. We’re talking about 4:30, 5:30, 6:30, 7:30 marathoners. The Chicago Marathon passes by my apartment at miles 14 and 19-ish. When I say that there would be a sea of thousands of people in expensive gear just power-walking by halfway… I mean thousands. Start looking at the results in descending order and it’s pretty scary. However, if you’re completely unprepared, seeing walkers in the results probably makes you hopeful that you can complete it.
Now into the twenties, I don’t think “completing” a marathon is a feat. Well over 100,000 people do it each year just in the United States. We’re not talking about summitting Everest. Everyone has a right to compete at their own pace and race plan. But if you literally cannot stride past mile ten or twelve or fourteen, you didn’t train properly. Whether you’re a former D1 stud or a couch-to-marathon guy, if you show up and are completely cooked by halfway, you suck.
“Multi-use” paths […] are a waste of taxpayer money
There has been a boom in the development of urban running paths. Scranton has some, Bethlehem has an epic one, Chicago has a few. It seems like everywhere I go, there’s a place to run. Awesome!
When these paths are ideated or designed by people who don’t run, there can be a lot of problems. Further, when rules are not enforced on these paths, things can get out of control pretty quickly.
The first bad design principle is unnecessary meandering. A little curve here, a little curve there. Things that aren’t consistent with the geography but are there just because the budget was large or because they wanted to slow down bikers. When you’re running at 6:30 pace, it becomes an added challenge, and a bit of a liability, to hug such lines.
Next, we have the conversion of soft surfaces to hard surfaces. Easier to maintain and likely cheaper in the long run. Can you leave a little strip of dirt? Please? In Scranton, they invested a ton of money in the Heritage Trail. To pave miles of it. It was really fun when most of it was dirt, now it just hurts my legs and I need to go further outside of the city to run for real.
You Should Be Biking
Here’s a truth that even I don’t want to accept. If you’re wanting to burn calories and tone your legs, you shouldn’t run at all. Running is cheaper, more accessible, safer from a chance-of-death standpoint. But, man, even an untrained person can rip an indoor spin bike. An untrained runner? It’ll be months before you have a satisfying run. The impact is a little better for overall bone health, but the amount of strain on your body is hard to escape. If you don’t have access to soft surfaces and can afford biking gear, it’s not even close. Plus you won’t ever feel self-conscious about how you look on a bike. There’s no “ugly stride” equivalent.
Nothing contributes to running fitness better than running, according to the scientists. I’m really not sure about this, based on how my training went over the past year. Some people respond differently to different activities. Compared to running, I am a super-responder to cycling training
Historically, I’m bad at tying these things off. On Reddit, my only defense is, essentially, “well, I’m probably faster than you, so I’m right!” That doesn’t always hold up because I’m not faster than everybody. Some people have different sensitivities and will respond differently to different training. People end up impeded by accepting common practice and never questioning it. I tried to break the mold based on my own findings, and it’s worked well for me. Thanks for reading!