Yesterday I was browsing the shelves of a large bookstore and I was struck by the fact that almost all of the health/diet/fitness publications appeared to be written by celebrities. I was particularly surprised to see that the ‘running’ books on offer were written by a couple of well-known radio and TV presenters. Now, these books were clearly marketed at complete novices, but they also contained advice on goal setting, training, nutrition and the obligatory training ‘programme’. These books were also rather long and quite pricey, and also made running appear quite complicated. My initial thought was ‘I could do better than that’ (as could many other of the thousands of extremely competent coaches, sports scientists and academics in the UK alone). The only problem is that by the time you have removed all the waffle and personal anecdotes it would be a very short book.
So – here is my (short) guide on how to become a ‘runner’. This is aimed at the complete novice adult who is otherwise healthy but would like to get fit and enjoy a sport at a recreational level without having to organise their life around it and living like a monk. If you are interested in 4-minute miles or 2h20m marathons this isn’t for you!
First of all, if you don’t like running (or endurance activity) do not try to become a runner. Find something else you enjoy if you want to establish a lifelong fitness habit. The primary goal should be to establish an enjoyable habit that is sustainable in the long term, not to get ready for an event in 6 months / lose weight / get ‘fit’ (although these might be nice ‘spin off’ benefits).
Don’t see the marathon as the be-all and end-all. Shorter races are just as satisfying, can be completed more frequently, are less destructive and involve less suffering. So, when you take up running start conservatively. Moreover, if you are beginning from a very low level this may initially involve walking, then a combinations of running and walking (eg 1 minute run / 1 minute walk – if you are dubious about this just convince yourself that you are ‘interval training’ to give it some legitimacy) before eventually progressing to continuous running. I would suggest running a pace that you can hold a conversation at (hard at first but gets easier).
Run by distance (eg 3 miles) or time (eg 30 minutes) but avoid timing yourself over measured distances, at least initially, or else before you know it every run becomes a time trial. My preference is to run for time, but you may differ. Most runs should be ‘easy’ if you are in this for the long haul. Given the previous instruction to keep the pace slow (conversational) to make the majority of runs easy they will also need to be ‘short’. ‘Short’ is obviously relative but for the newbie runner I’m going to suggest 20-30 minutes is appropriate for the majority of runs.
Don’t do the same thing every day. So, variety is key, this can be achieved by doing less on some days and going longer or faster on others. Let’s say that after a few months of running you are comfortable going 30 minutes on 5 days of the week. Try increasing the length of ONE of the runs by 10 minutes per week until you reach an hour (KEEP THE OTHER RUNS THE SAME). You could also make ONE of the runs a bit quicker occasionally, or to use fancy terminology, a ‘tempo run’. The simplest way to achieve this is to run ‘out’ at your normal easy pace and then come back a bit quicker at a ‘can’t quite talk’ pace. Alternatively, you could do a fartlek – run around a hilly course and run up the hills hard.
Although the point above gives general advice, don’t tie yourself into a strict schedule. Life will get in the way and on other occasions, you will simply not be ‘feeling it’ for no obvious reason. If this is the case, always err on the side of caution and do less. If you plan a tempo but feel a bit rubbish on the ‘out’ leg, keep it easy on the back leg.
At some point, you will probably want to race. Do it, but keep it shortish at first (5k – 5 miles). As a novice you have no idea how good you are, so for the first few the goal should be simply to run strongly and evenly. Racing is a skill that needs to be learned through practice before you can expect to realise your potential. Therefore, no hard or long training in the week before racing or until fully recovered after (which will take longer than you think). So, don’t kid yourself that you can do a weekly Parkrun as a ‘tempo’. You and I both know it will turn into a weekly time trial…
Be wary of club nights. Yes there is a nice social element, but with big groups, there is a high likelihood that no one is training optimally (remember – training’ not ‘testing’). Strength work? Probably. At this point, a few bodyweight circuits after an easy run a couple of times per week is probably sufficient. ECCENTRIC CALF STRENGTHENING!!
Finally, enjoy the process!
That’s it – learn to read your body and keep it consistent week after week, month after month and you should never be far away from being fit enough to jump into any short race without negatively impacting your personal or professional life. No mention of HIIT, heart rate zones, blood lactate, periodisation or other mumbo jumbo. You can save the £16 you would have spent in Waterstones or else buy a more interesting book instead!
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