Getting started from ground zero – The how’s and why’s of how I introduce new runners to running
First things first: Running should be fun. If you aren’t having a good time, there’s something else you could be doing with that time to fulfill whatever goal or reason you have for doing it in the first place. And as much as I personally want everyone in the whole world to enjoy running, the fact is that some people just don’t like it. There are more time efficient ways to burn calories. There are lower impact methods to get your cardio in. There are lower effort ways to spend time in the woods. That being said, people run for all kinds of reasons. Some people like the social aspect of being in a running group. Some people like seeing how far into the pain cave they can push themselves. Some people like crushing the competition like the bugs they are. Some of us use it as moving meditation, seeking that perfect Zen moment when everything clicks. Whatever your reason, you’d better enjoy at least some aspect of it, or you are wasting your time.
If the primary reason to run is for the fun of it, it can be worth a little bit of effort to think about why a new runner would think its fun. The answer is different for everyone, but acknowledging whatever it is that drives that particular runner to do it allows us to make sure we’re including some of that on a regular basis. By including that part that they find fun on a regular basis (even if it is kind of infrequent), gives them a reason to keep going during the parts that aren’t so enjoyable. If they can relate the workout or race they’re doing to their fundamental reason for running to begin with, they’re more likely to stick with it and get it done. And probably enjoy it a bit more. There’s something to be said to doing gut-busting 400’s if you can think about how they’re going to let you out-grind that one annoying guy who always beats you. Much more than can be said for going and doing the same workout simply because the training plan or coach “says so”.
Once we’ve established how to integrate the “fun” part for a new runner, then we can get down to the actual work of introducing them to running. There is one undeniable truth of running: miles matter. Now this doesn’t mean that new runners should go out and start logging 50-100 mile weeks right off the bat. That’s a sure fire way for them to get hurt, and being hurt sucks because you can’t run. One of the biggest mistakes that I see new runners and a lot of coaches make is they simply try to grind out some miles on a consistent basis. But what they’re missing is the fact that they often aren’t actually running. They’re jogging. And that’s okay if that’s what they’re after, but we’re talking about introducing folks to running. Jogging and running are two different gaits. Just as a trot, a canter, and a gallop are three different gaits for a horse, walking, jogging, and running are three different gaits for people. They have fundamentally different mechanics. And a lot of new folks may start a run running, but quickly switch gears to a jogging gait for the remainder of the run. They simply don’t have the stamina to maintain the running gait for a prolonged period of time. The kicker is that they aren’t developing a ton of stamina in that particular gait (i.e. running) by spending the rest of the time in a different one (jogging). They may be getting generally more fit, improving their cardiovascular health, etc. But they aren’t getting better at the skill of running.
So how do we structure that initial training to help them spend as much time as possible actually running so they get better at it? Intervals. Drills and intervals. One of the reasons new runners don’t spend a lot of time in the running gait (even if they’re working really hard) is that they simply don’t have the motor pathways established to allow them to activate the muscles in the right sequence to do the motion. They have to learn how to run just as someone new to the gym has to learn how to properly do a squat. Drills are really focused on the central nervous system. We do the drills to get be able to be more coordinated and recruit muscle fibers in the right order at the right intensity to be able to complete a desired motion. Of course, if someone is brand spanking new to running it’s probably going to work those muscles pretty well too. The specific drills that a new runner will have to do will vary from runner to runner, but most of the new runners I’ve worked with over the years benefit a bunch from the 100-ups drills (Link to 100-ups drill), butt-kicks, and striders. This is because most new runners don’t properly engage their glutes to stabilize their hip/knee, resulting in lost power (i.e. speed) and a higher risk of IT-band syndrome, SI issues, and knee injuries. Learning to use the posterior chain (glutes, hams, calves, etc.) to run instead of being 100% reliant on the quads (which should just be shock absorbers for most distance runners, really) reduces their injury rate (again, getting hurt isn’t fun) and allows them able to actually run instead of jog.
The second big piece of getting new runners actually running is to break their initial workouts up into intervals. By breaking the run up into intervals, it allows them to actually run the whole workout instead of running for the first couple of minutes and then jogging quickly for the rest. They’re more likely to spend more actual time running if they get a recovery period every little bit. It’s important to remember that even slow running is a relatively high demand for a completely new runner. They don’t have the cellular and tissue infrastructure to support extended demands on the systems involved. So what might seem like an “easy” interval can actually stress their body enough to stimulate the adaptations that allow for better, faster, longer running down the road. Which is the whole idea of training in general, right?
This is the basic principle behind any couch-to-5k program for a reason. By starting with 45-60 second efforts with plenty of recovery in between, the new runner spends much more time actually running than if they were just trying to do a steady state effort. As the introductory training plan proceeds over the course of 6-12 weeks (depending on their overall starting fitness level and rate of progress), the length of the intervals should get longer and the amount of rest should get shorter as their body develops the necessary plumbing to fuel the exercise and recover from individual repeats.
The other nice part of starting with interval training is that it allows the new runner to run faster than if they were simply trying to jog for the same total duration, and it’s a lot easier to maintain good mechanics (i.e. avoid injury) if we exerting enough force for it to not be “easy” effort. Similar to learning how to properly execute a dead lift, it can be easier to engage the muscles in the right sequence while engaging all the stabilizers we need to do it properly if there is enough of a force output demand that it makes us to engage those muscles. As humans we’re fundamentally lazy. So we have a harder time doing the mechanics correctly (i.e. with good core support, hip stability, etc.) if the workload isn’t high enough that we need to do that to get it done.
Once a new runner can actually run for 20 or 30 minutes continuously, then we can start working in some of the more traditional type of workouts that we typically think of when we’re trying to become better runners. For most of the new runners I’ve worked with over the years, their ability to hit their top speed isn’t the thing keeping them from running a faster 5k time. It’s the fact that their potential top end is so low. If that potential top end is low enough, then it doesn’t take much for us to be swimming in lactate and acidosis to shut us down. So the priority for most of my new runners (not all, but most) is to increase that lactate threshold and aerobic endurance so that any given percentage of their maximal effort goes up as well.
Threshold repeats at 80-85% of maximal heart rate are a great workout. They need to include frequent enough recovery periods that they can keep their heart rate down though so that we’re not being counter-productive. If we get over that lactate threshold we’re going to actually stimulate the body to lower that threshold, providing more power at the cost of lower the “potential maximum” that we’re after. It’s always better to err on the side of caution and back off during lactate threshold workouts, especially in the heat of summer. We can do some harder intervals down the road when we get “in season” or closer to the race we’re going to do to sharpen up a bit.
The other key is easy miles. The total amount of “hard” work we do over the course of a week shouldn’t really be more than maybe 20-25% (depending on the runner) of the total weekly volume. The majority of the work needs to easy so that we’re training the body to utilize fat as a fuel (i.e. provide the energy necessary for running through aerobic respiration). By keeping the heart rate between 65-75% of maximum, we can ensure that we’re working hard enough to stimulate the body to build more capillaries in the muscles we’re using to run, allowing a greater supply of oxygen. At the same time, we’re also encouraging each muscle cell to build more mitochondria, the bit that actually turns fat into energy to be used for muscle contractions. Each particular mitochondrion can only produce so much ATP (i.e. energy) at once, which means that we need more mitochondria in order to produce more ATP from aerobic respiration at any given time. By stressing the ability of the muscle to provide enough ATP for sustained work (i.e. those long easy runs), we can stimulate the production of more capillaries and mitochondria in the tissues we’re using to run (i.e. those beautiful runner’s legs). Those easy miles also help repair the micro-tears sustained during the harder training sessions by delivering the nutrients those cells need, allowing us to actually improve as runners.
Just “running” your guts out every day isn’t the best way to learn to run. Not only is it a really un-fun experience for most folks, you’re also more likely to get hurt because your tissues never get the chance to heal and you’re beating them up all the time. There’s a time and place for “get tough” workouts, but they shouldn’t be every day, and they shouldn’t be used to introduce new runners to the sport unless you’re actively trying to scare them off. And then you’re just a jerk. Don’t be a jerk.
Running is a skill. And you have to be able to run before you can get better at running. Drills can help develop the coordination and movement patterns required to run, and reduces the risk of injury. Shorter intervals with frequent recovery are a great way to introduce new runners to actually running. It allows them to successfully run instead of struggling along with a jog (miles matter, right?), and helps reinforce good mechanics. Once runner can actually run, then we start working on some of the more specific adaptations we need as endurance athletes (VO2max, lactate threshold, anaerobic threshold, stride rate, etc.), depending on the specific even in question and the runner’s current parameters. If you’re helping a new runner get their feet wet, keep these points in mind. And if you’re a new runner… Welcome to this awesome sport filled with the coolest, craziest, zaniest people you’ll ever meet! Now get out there and have some fun.