From Couch to 5K (part 1)
[This two-part article appeared in the Nittany Valley Running Club Newsletter about 10 years ago. It's been revised a few times over the years.]
The Nittany Valley Running Club is committed to the “development” of young and adult athletes. We’ve certainly covered the young athletes with our Fall Youth Cross-Country Series, Kid’s Races, the Nittany Track and Field Youth Club training program, and our presence at the Youth All-Comer’s Meets. And experienced runners have numerous opportunities to develop their running abilities at winter Indoor Mile Series, Thursday Track Workouts, and a panoply of races throughout the year. But the beginning adult runner needs just as much attention from the Club, and the guide presented here takes a step toward providing it.
Over the next few months, we will be developing a series of web pages devoted to “Coaching”. There will be articles on beginning running, training techniques, and race preparation. The pages will also have links to other sites that we think provide valuable information. Some of these articles will appear from time to time in the Newsletter. We’re starting the series off with the first part of an article on starting from scratch. The second part of this article should be read after you've started the program and are on your way to running your first 5K.
What Do You Want?
Maybe you want to lose some weight and get in shape. Running is a great way to do both. All you have to do is start it and stick with it. Maybe some of your friends run and you’d like to join them. Maybe you’ve always harbored a secret dream of completing a distance race.
Whenever you start any new hobby or activity, it helps to know a little about how to get started, it helps to have a goal to shoot for, but most importantly it helps to have an inkling that you might enjoy it. So remember, you can have fun, get in shape, and loose weight any number of ways. To do it through running, it helps to want to run.
Before we get into the program, let’s start with the caveats, health warnings, and legal disclaimers. Legal first: I and the Club are worth way less than it’s worth suing over. Running is potentially hazardous to you health, especially if you are way out of shape or particularly clumsy. See a doctor and have your eyes checked first. Second, Caveats: (Runners, cover your ears! Heresy is about to be spoken!) Here it is: Some people are not meant to be runners! This is my opinion. Very overweight people should consider starting with a different exercise program. People who have tried running and hate it should accept that and move on to something they can have fun with. Fun is part of it! Third, Health: If you are over 30, have been relatively sedentary, and especially if you have current health problems, are more than a few pounds overweight, or if you are a smoker, see your doctor before starting any exercise program.
Getting Off the Couch.
If you’re a kid, your parents should be kicking you outside right now. I can’t help there. If you’re in your twenties, you can probably go “Couch to 5K” and back again in 3 months. I’m really addressing the over-30 crowd here, but most of what I say applies to all ages. So what do I say to you? You’re an adult. Kick yourself off the couch! You’re missing too much fun!
Before you start your running program, you should buy yourself a new pair of shoes specifically designed for running. Don’t take up the sport in basketball shoes, cheap knock-abouts, cross-trainers, “sneakers”, combat boots, or anything else. Running shoes are the most expensive thing you’ll have to invest in to get involved in the sport, but besides motivation, they are the most important thing you need for the sport. And, compared to the accoutrements of many other sports and hobbies, running shoes are a bargain. You’ll need to shell out between $75-$110 for a good pair.
Dos and Don’ts: Do not buy yourself the same shoes your accomplished running buddy wears. Each person is different: different body types, sizes, running styles, “foot strikes”. Do go to a shoe store that specializes in outfitting runners. A well-trained running shoe salesperson will fit you with the kind of shoe you need. He or she will have you take a “test run” in the shoes and watch how your feet land in the shoes. He’ll also make sure you are comfortable in the shoes. In State College, Rapid Transit Sports on South Allen Street does an excellent job fitting shoe to runner. And they give NVRC members a 10% discount on all purchases. Do replace your shoes about every 300 miles. As a beginner, this might mean you’ll need a new pair in 9-12 months. Later, you may need to buy 2-4 pair a year. It’s still cheaper than a lot of other sports! Do rotate your shoes. As you start to run more frequently, you’ll want to have a couple of pairs, especially in the summer. Wearing the shoes every other day helps them air out better. Besides, if you get caught in the rain, you’ll want a dry pair for the next day while the wet pair is drying out. Do buy a few pair of good, cushiony running socks. Thorlo makes a good runner’s sock.
If you start running in the good weather months, all you’ll need besides shoes is a few pair of shorts and some tops. For beginners and those on a budget, nylon shorts and shirts are fine. Brand name synthetic fabrics such as Cool Max help move moisture away from your body faster, but are considerably more expensive. Most running shorts have an inside liner, so there is no need to wear panties or a jock strap. They only hold in the moisture. Runners should avoid cotton clothes, especially in the winter.
Protection from the sun is important. Wear some sun screen. Some runners like to look stylish by investing in wrap-around shades. They can also be useful to protect your eyes from bugs, or if you run in the woods, from vines and branches. Some runners press on under the philosophy of “That’s what God invented squinting and blinking for.”
As the weather gets cooler, you’ll need to invest in some cold weather gear. The basic idea in cold weather running is to stay warm and dry without being overly encumbered by your clothing. Cold weather gear can be fairly expensive, but the good stuff is a good investment if you get into running for the long haul. Running will naturally raise your body temperature and make you feel warmer. You'll be able to wear less clothing while running than you might if you were just out for a walk. Still, it's important to dress for the conditions. When starting out in cold weather, you might feel cool, but you shouldn’t feel cold. If it’s windy, make sure your exposed skin is covered so as to avoid drying your skin in the cold wind, or worse, getting frostbite. Invest in some running gloves and head gear.
The cheap way to go is to layer a few shirts and top it off with a sweatshirt or nylon shell. The problem with this approach is that it can be cumbersome, and if the layering material is cotton, it can make you uncomfortable and is potentially dangerous. Cotton soaks up your sweat and does not transfer it to the outside for evaporation. As you inner layers get soaked, you’ll be in for skin irritation. If you are out for a long run, you risk getting chilled.
There are numerous superior synthetic materials that help keep moisture away from your body, transporting it out to the air for evaporation. Combine undergarments made of one of these fabrics with a Gore-Tex shell, which will transfer your sweat to the air while shielding you from rain, sleet, snow, and wind.
Finally, you should buy yourself a running watch. You don’t want to get obsessive about keeping time, but as you progress toward your goal, you’ll definitely want to see how you’re doing. Get a digital watch with a large readout and chronograph (stopwatch) capability. You can get a watch that’ll do everything you need for as little as $10. Many of the name brands, such as Timex, Casio, and Nike, have watches with many more features. These are, of course, more expensive. If you're really into tracking your training and want to accurately log your miles, preferrably online, you can invest in a GPS watch. Several companies make GPS watches that range in price from around $100 to $600. Garmin is the leader in the field, but in recent years they've been getting worthy competition from Nike, Timex, and others.
Setting The Goal
Now that you’re outfitted, you’re ready to set out. As with any activity, it helps to set a long-term goal for yourself. This article builds a program to take you to a 5K race, but of course your goal doesn’t have to be to run a race. You can use the program developed here to get you to the point where you could run a 5K. That point includes being able to run 4-5 times a week, for a total mileage of about 12-15 miles per week. That would mean you’d be doing aerobic exercise for about 25-30 minutes 4-5 times per week, which is what is generally recommended for cardiovascular fitness.
As you work toward your long-term goal, you’ll want to set near-term goals as well. That will give you a sense of accomplishment along the way. Such goals can include working up from a couple of runs to four runs in a week, working up from being able to jog for 5 minutes of your workout to being able to jog 10, 15, etc., up to the entire workout.
The Constant Time Program
The way the program described in this article works is that you will spend roughly the same time per session exercising at the beginning of your program as you do when you are ready to run your 5K. That’ll be about an hour. Now don’t let that scare you! That hour includes stretching, warm-up, exercise, cool down, and a quick shower. I’m letting you know how much time the total package costs you so you know just where you can fit it in your day. When you begin running, you might only run for 5-10 minutes. The remainder of your exercise time will be spent walking briskly. That way, you’ll be doing yourself a lot of good right off the couch!
The Warm-up Stretch
Ready to head out the door? Not so fast! You need to stretch first. Stretching loosens up your muscles and tendons, relaxes tension, and gets blood flowing to the proper places. It also helps get your mind set to run. Stretching can help prevent injury. There are numerous stretching exercises specifically designed to help runners get their muscles and tendons ready for running. The basic ideas are:
- Stretch the muscles you’ll be using to run. Concentrate on legs (Achilles tendons, calves, hamstrings, knee tendons, quads (the large front leg muscles above your knees) back and abdomen.
- Stretch by using gravity, your own weight, and opposing pressure or tension. Hold the stretch position for at least 20-30 seconds. You can also do dynamic stretches, but these generally do not involve jerky or bouncy motions.
- Spend a good 8-10 minutes stretching before a run. If you do it right, you should feel “springy”, i.e. relaxed, but ready to go.
- Stretch for 8-10 minutes after your run, especially if you’re going to be sitting for a while after your run. This will help mitigate stiffness.
Cool Running has a nice page on stretching, including illustrations of some essential runner's stretches.
Out The Door
OK, you’re ready to hit the pavement. However, don’t hit the ground running! If you’re a beginner, you should start your run by walking. Walk at a brisk pace for at least 5 minutes. Walk with upright posture, and swing your arms a bit, but walk. Walking will further help you warm up and get you joints slowly ready for the pressure of running.
With the Constant Time Program, you’ll be combining running and walking for 25-30 minutes. Depending on your age and general level of fitness, you may be able to jog 2 or more miles in this time. However, resist the temptation to run the whole time. Warm up for at least 5 minutes. Then start out jogging at a slow pace.
How does one jog? Jogging is a slow run. There’s no need to be obsessive about form. However, here are a few pointers. Relax, but run with good posture, looking up and forward. Slouching puts undue stress on your back. Your arms should be relaxed and in an “L” shape, moving loosely at your side in time with your stride. Holding them up high like a squirrel will make you tense, while letting them droop too low will cause you to slump. Finally, your upper and lower legs should move in line in the direction you are running. Many beginners, and especially women runners, sway their lower legs outward as they run. This is not good for the knees.
On your first run, see if you can keep jogging for about 5 minutes. Then go back to walking. Alternate until you’ve been out for 20-30 minutes. Let the last 5 minutes of your workout be a 5 minute cool-down walk.
How fast should you run? Run at a “conversational pace”, that is a pace at which you can keep up an easy conversation with someone without getting out of breath.
If you’ve had a successful first day of running, the biggest temptation will be to ramp up your program too fast. Resist! Your body might have a delayed reaction to the new stresses you’re putting on it. The key to success is to keep up a regular program, and you can’t do that if you’re stiff and sore. Don’t increase the percentage of the time you are running for the first few workouts. You’re accomplishing a lot just by getting out there!
After a week, you can start to increase the time you are running. You need to strengthen your leg muscles and ligaments, and that takes time. Many beginner’s injuries can be traced to ramping up too quickly. The rule of thumb is to increase your mileage (or time running) no more than 10% per week. Walk briskly for the remainder of the time in your workout. The 10% rule might seem a slow rate of increase, but in 7 weeks, you will have doubled your mileage, and in 14 weeks quadrupled it.
Continue slowly increasing the percentage of your workout that you are running. You’ll also find that your speed will naturally increase a bit as you get in better shape and get comfortable with running. Again, resist the temptation to run too fast at first. Speed training will be discussed in the next part of this article. For the first few weeks, all your running should be done at a “conversational pace”.
[This concludes Part I of the article. It’s enough to get you started. After you've been running for about a month, graduate to Part II.]