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Laying the Fitness Foundation: How to Skip the Intro Training Plan for Beginners

Posted Feb 16 2011 9:18pm
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Have you ever met a successful runner who has only been running for a few months? I have. There are certain people who seem to jump into running and are able to perform at a competitive level. How do they do it? What’s their secret?

Your Fitness Foundation: How Fit Are You?

It’s not actually a secret. These people have a general fitness foundation that allows them to run without a lot of the roadblocks that many new runners experience. You may even have this foundation already set up for you (lucky) and are primed to start a great running career!

Even if you don’t, there are ways that we can build your fitness foundation so that you can worry less about injuries, skip the “walk/run” part of becoming a runner, and start reaching your potential faster. All that’s needed is some good planning, some time and effort, and a little bit of luck.

Each person is going to start at a different point on the fitness spectrum. I can’t predict how long it will take you to get ready to start running, but the range might be anywhere from 2-8 weeks. If you’ve been a couch potato for a few years, it may take even longer. But this will still make it easier to make the transition!

Your fitness foundation will help you train more and ultimately, race faster with less chance of injury. You’re going to have a serious advantage over others who just jump into a training program. So let’s dive in and set you up to become a runner.

Even before you jump into a training program, you have to be healthy.

Sounds easy, but it’s not. You have to adopt the healthy habits now or you won’t be ready to start a real running program. Runners know that it’s not just a sport, it’s a lifestyle. And it’s more than simply eating a healthy diet.

First, make sure you don’t have any lingering injuries from other sports. Rehabilitate that twisted ankle from pick-up basketball. Rest your sore back from helping your kid move into her college dorm.

Next, start with your bad habits. If you smoke, stop. If you’re a drinker, cut it down to once a week and try not to get too wasted. Improve your diet so that you’re eating more fruits and vegetables with less processed food. Consider a 1-2 week Paleo Diet to detox from the typical American fare. You may even consider switching to the diet on a more permanent basis.

Improving your diet will also help you get closer to your target weight (if this is an issue for you). A large contributor to beginning runner injuries is the excess weight that many are carrying. It places extra stress on all of your joints and muscles. You have to work harder to move yourself. By being in a healthy weight range, you’ll dramatically reduce your risk of injury. And you’ll feel a helluva lot better.

Being “healthy” also means being free from illness or disease. If you’re recovering from the flu, an infection, or any serious disease, don’t start running. You’ll already be at a disadvantage. Of course, consult with your doctor if you have any condition that may preclude you from starting a running program.

“To be a good runner, you must first be a good athlete.” – Coach Jay Johnson.

If anybody has ever told you that anybody can run or that running takes no skill, they are absolutely wrong. Running properly and consistently takes coordination, strength, and athleticism. To prepare you for your first running program, it’s important to build a fitness foundation that includes general strength.

Strength exercises are vital to keeping you injury-free and running your best. Without them, you may not be able to absorb the stress and impact of running. They include core exercises like the plank, bridges, and medicine ball work. Other home gym exercises include lunges, simple dumbbell lifts, and push-ups.

In Christopher McDougall’s best-seller Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, he transforms himself from an injury-prone jogger to an ultra-runner who completed a 50 mile ultra-marathon in the rugged canyons of Mexico. Part of his transformation included general strength exercises every other day, including squat-jumps, medicine ball work, and lunges that helped him prevent the injuries he was so prone to beforehand.

To continue your development as an athlete and runner, it’s important to build functional mobility into your pre-running training program. Before any general strength workout, incorporating mobility and dynamic flexibility drills will help you prepare.

Mobility drills, like dynamic warm-ups, increase your range of motion and are a more active way of warming up for a workout. A lot of athletes and runners still use static stretching, but this can actually reduce performance. Many new studies are showing that static stretching is bad for power and endurance running.

A more comprehensive approach to warming up includes light core and general strength exercises, with the majority of the warm-up being dynamic drills. This type of active routine helps warm your muscles, lubricate your joints, and minimizes your chance of injury. Here are my personal dynamic warm-up and core routines that I do on a weekly basis.

Playing other sports, either competitively or just recreationally, is one of the best preparations for a new training program. I grew up playing basketball and the countless games and practices prepared me well for running. Suicide runs, coordination drills, and all of that running is beneficial.

Many coaches believe one of the primary reasons that Kenyans and Ethiopians are such talented distance runners is because they had a very active childhood. Growing up, they ran to school and back. Their family required them to help with chores and manual labor was frequent.

I doubt you ran 6 miles to school and back when you were a kid, but a childhood spent playing soccer and running around in your neighborhood provides a great aerobic foundation for running. You’ll also have a stronger body and probably have more general athleticism.

If you played a lot of sports as a kid or participate in a lot of adult leagues (think Ultimate Frisbee, Softball, or Volleyball), your active lifestyle is creating a great fitness foundation for a new running program. If not, then no worries. Aside from core and strength exercises, mobility drills, and designing a healthier lifestyle, start being more active.

You could go for several long walks per week. Start cycling. Play pick-up basketball or swim laps. Keep it fun and don’t think of it as “training” – recruit your friends and go hiking or play at the beach for a few hours. The more active you can be without being stressful the better.

Your foundation of health, activity, and fitness will make you more able to jump into a beginner’s training program without any problems. Before you start running, evaluate where you are on the fitness spectrum. If you think that you’re not very fit and have an unhealthy lifestyle, start slow and improve your fitness one day at a time. Here are action steps to help you on your journey to remarkable running:

  1. Consult your doctor and cure any old injuries or illnesses.
  2. Kick your bad habits: get more sleep, stop smoking, drink less, and skip the fast food.
  3. Improve your diet with more fruit, vegetables, and high-quality meat. Avoid processed food. Read In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto; the simplest book on diet I’ve ever read that changed how I look at food.
  4. Start doing general strength and core exercises 3-4 times per week. Include mobility drills before and after your workout.
  5. Lead a more active lifestyle, but keep it fun.

Soon, you’ll be healthier, stronger, more flexible, and ready to tackle a running program. At this point, you can probably skip the introductory, stock plans like Couch to 5k and move into a more intermediate program. Consider a running coach if you want to reach your potential.

Running is a journey and this is just the beginning. What are your stories of starting to run and how did you make running part of your healthy lifestyle? Let us know in the comments!

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