Running is a great sport because of its simplicity. All you really need are a pair of running shoes, some basic workout clothes, and off you go. Sure, there is a bunch of other stuff you can add in, but the essence of running is just you and the terrain.
To start, you should visit your local triathlon or running retailer, so they can put you in a pair of running shoes that will work for your foot type. You don’t want to run in regular tennis shoes or sneakers.
But after that, what do you do? How do you structure your workouts to build up your endurance, gain speed and avoid injury?
When you start at the beginning or after a long time off from competitive sports, it is crucial to ease into it. Fifteen- to 20-minute walk-jog type workouts for a few weeks may be appropriate. If you’re carrying extra weight, it is even more important to be very cautious as you get started.
Your body needs time to adapt to the new regime. Your muscles and soft tissues will gain strength, resiliency and endurance if you allow them time to progress. Go too hard too soon, and you’ll be sidelined with one injury or another. Running is great, but it’s also easy to become injured running.
Two terms to remember as you begin are adaptation and progressive overload. Adaptation is the body’s response to regular exercise — improved cardiovascular and muscular systems. Exercise becomes easier because you become stronger.
Progressive overload is the training routine that allows you to continue the improvements beyond the initial stages. Essentially, once you start to level off, you need to increase your exercise frequency, duration or intensity. This ‘challenges’ your body to continue adapting to the effort.
Great. Where do I start? As mentioned earlier, a few weeks of easy, short efforts is your best bet. I’d recommend an upper limit of 30 minutes for new runners. This could include any sort of ratio of run:walk that raises your heart rate to a point where your breathing is moderate — you could hold a somewhat broken conversation but are neither gasping for air nor able to talk without some pauses.
Doing this run or run:walk routine two or three times a week for at least 4 weeks and up to 8 would kick start your adaptation. On your non-run days, you could include easy or light strength and conditioning workouts, swims or rides. Those are different subjects but the premise is the same — ease into these sessions as well. If you have never done resistance training or it has been a long time, a few sessions with a personal trainer would be good to ensure you perform the correct movement patterns. Again, it is easy to become hurt if you don’t know what you’re doing.
The next phase of training is when the routine becomes more interesting. Now it’s time to add in interval training, plyometric and run form drills, and longer endurance sessions.
Working with a baseline 3 x 30 minutes a week runner, we could alter the schedule to be:
Session No. 1: 30 minute easy with plyometrics and running drills. The basic/entry level drills to include here are high knees/fast feet, heel-to-butt kicks, a b c skips and strides. There are more advanced drills but these definitely get you started.
Either in the middle or at the end of the session, include 1 repetition of each drill. After 2-3 sessions (weeks), up this to 2 repetitions of each drill.
Session No. 2: 30-minute session with fartlek running. Fartlek is Swedish for speed play, meaning you now include some intentionally faster running within the workout. Fast does not mean sprint in this context. For new runners, fast means moderately hard. Your body is still undergoing soft tissue adaptation (tendons, ligaments) and it’s critical you run at controlled speeds. An example workout: 10 minutes easy running, 10-20 leg swings, 10-20 x jumping jacks (aka a dynamic warm up), then 5-6 x 1 minute moderate hard/1 minute easy or walk. 8- to 10-minute easy cooldown. After 2-3 weeks, you should be able to run 6-8 x 1 minute intervals, and here you would start to extend the workout time. You always want to do a thorough warm-up and cooldown.
Session No. 3: Gradually increasing longer endurance run. There is a rule of thumb called the 10 percent rule. This means the total distance of the long run AND the total volume of the week shouldn’t increase more than 10 percent per week. It’s a rule of thumb because everyone is different, but this is a safe starting point.
So, in the new period, in week No. 1 our longer run might go to 33 minutes. Week No. 2 to 37 minutes. Week No. 3 would either bring it back down to 35 minutes or increase to 40. If week No. 3 went up then week No. 4 should go down. The pace continues to be easy-steady.
After a few weeks of this sort of training, you’ll be ready to change things up again. That, however, is an intermediate-level article, because at this point you will no longer be a beginner!
Be aware that as effort increases on the interval workout, your total volume increases because of the intensity of that session. Training volume = duration * intensity. There is a lot of variability in how quickly an individual progresses due to past exercise experience, age and condition at the beginning of any new training routine. It’s always a good idea to consult with your physician before beginning.
About the Author
Marty Gaal, CSCS, is a USA Triathlon coach who lives with his wife and son in the Raleigh/Cary area of North Carolina. He has been coaching since 2002 and is the head coach for One Step Beyond, osbmultisport.com.