How to Go From Zero to Running

Q I’m starting from ground zero this year in terms of my activity. I’ve been fit in the past with cycling classes and Zumba, but now I want to focus on learning to run. I must admit I’m incredibly intimidated, as it seems so hard, but I’d love any advice you could share with this newbie. – HEATHER


A You stand with a long list of other runners I’ve heard from this year about falling off the fitness bandwagon. Although running doesn’t come easy for most (it didn’t for me), when you master that first 30-minute run, there’s nothing like it in the world. The sun shines more brightly, the flowers are more beautiful, and all is good in the world.

The key is to think of this as a journey, not a destination. As cliché as that is, it’s true. Pack the following for your journey to running happiness:


1 Wisdom

When I first tried to run, I made the most typical mistake over and over again. I’d try to run as far as I could (a block) and as fast as I could (think snail), and it ended badly every time (crying). The most important tip for new runners is to start from where you are and evolve like a fine wine, in due time. If you’re coming off the couch, start with a walking program for the first two weeks to establish a base and build motivation. If you’re fit doing other activities like cycling or swimming, start by using a run-walk interval strategy and mix seconds of running with minutes of walking, and then build up the running time over a period of 2-4 months.


2 Plan.

Follow a training plan that progresses nice and gradually. Running isn’t like Twitter – it’s more like snail mail, and you’ll need a plan that gets you to running in time. There are a lot of great learning programs out there. Mine is called “Zero to Running,” and it is a 10-week program that starts with a little running (seconds) and walking (minutes) and builds to running 30 minutes continuously in about 10 weeks. (You can download it here for free.) I say “about 10 weeks” because everyone is different, and some may need more time to complete the progression (I did).


3 Happiness.

One rule I have when coaching my newbie clients is to finish every workout feeling strong and happy. This happens when you follow points one and two above and follow a plan that is based on a slow progression from your current fitness. The benefit of finishing happy versus crabby and swearing is you’ll think, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. In fact, I kinda had fun.” Post-workout happiness breeds motivation to want to repeat it again and again, which creates a running habit down the road. It’s not about pushing through the pain – it’s about making friends and weaving in incremental challenge.


4 Effort.

The next most repeated mistake new runners make is to try to run a certain pace. It’s hard not to these days because we have access to our pace on our phones and GPS watches. The body knows effort not pace, and the difference between a strong run and one that kicks your ass is how you manage the intensity of your running workouts. When you’re a newbie in any sport, running included, it’s all about building a solid base of fitness and skills. You can’t do this if you’re running by pace because your mind will always tell you to go faster, that you’re a loser because you’re so much slower than Sally, your brother’s girlfriend, and that you are that much slower today than you were two days ago, so you must really suck at this running thing. Get my point? Pace is the outcome, and effort is how you manage the intensity of your workouts. It’s simple, really. You want to run at an effort level where you can hear your breath but you’re not gasping for air. Some will tell you to run “easy,” but let’s be honest, there is no easy gear for newbie runners. It’s hard because it’s new. Once you establish a base of running fitness, you also develop more gears to use (easy, moderate, hard), and that’s when things get really fun!


5 Patience.

Running is like life. There will be days where you feel like Wonder Woman (or Superman) and days when you feel like Wonder Woman is landing her invisible jet on you. Go with the flow and keep a log to track your progress along the way. When you look at the big picture, you’ll begin to see a trend in running farther. It is especially important to pack patience in the first 3-4 weeks of your plan when all is new. No matter the sport, everyone feels the same when they start – vulnerable and “less than.” That is your mind speaking, so turn that off, crank up some positive tunes, and have faith that you’re headed in the right direction.


6 A support system.

Ultimately what got me out of my bad habit of running failure is a small group of supportive runners that held my hand, showed me the way and trained with me. Research has shown that when we exercise with a group or buddy, we can go longer and harder than we can alone. I believe this is especially important for newbies as social support can be like therapy if you give it a chance. Plus it works wonders for accountability on those days when you don’t feel like working out.


7 Accessories.

Because running is a high-impact sport, it is vital to get fitted for the right running shoes for you. These days, the options can be overwhelming when buying running shoes. If you’re lucky enough to have a running store near you, you’ll find your shoes there. They should measure and look at the shape of your foot and watch you run and walk in several pairs of shoes. If they don’t, find another store. Using the Runner’s World Shoe Guides will also help guide you in the right direction, shoe-wise. Ultimately it comes down to fit and feel. If it doesn’t feel good on your foot in the store, it won’t get any better on your runs. Also consider technical socks to avoid blisters, a comfortable sports bra, and – down the road – technical apparel. All will help support you kilometre after kilometre, and more importantly, make you look like a running rock star!

You’ll hear a lot of things that might confuse you along the way, like you should run on a treadmill or you should never run on a treadmill. The key is to make it convenient and safe for you. For some that may mean running on a treadmill due to the elements, the darkness, or feelings of shame running in public. Others may want to get out and run in their local park or on a track. Make it yours, make it fit your life, and keep track of what works for you. When you do, you’ll develop a running habit that will take you places.

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