The secret to becoming a runner (from scratch).

Think about this: You join the gym (for the first time) to get better at lifting heavy things. What would happen if you start day one with the heaviest weights? You’ll find it quite difficult, and possibly get injured and/or demotivated.

Now apply that algorithm to running. What would happen if you (starting from scratch) hit the road aiming to run 10 km in a target time? You’ll find it quite difficult, and you might get injured.

Another familiar scenario is starting your first run from your home with confidence. Two blocks on, you are already struggling. As you eventually return home semi-defeated, you console yourself with statements like “running isn’t for me”.

The right type of fitness is key.

Your body needs to adapt to distance running, which unfortunately takes time. One reason it takes a long time is that your muscles and joints need to strengthen and adapt gradually to handle impact and forces of running. Another reason is fitness also takes a while to build, and not all fitness are the same.

To allow this adaptation of fitness and strength, you need:

  • Enough of the right type of training to build running-specific fitness.
  • Time for your muscles’ and joints’ to improve their capacity to handle running for long periods.

That means building the right type of fitness is key. Fitness is (VERY simply put):

  • How effectively your body can get enough energy to the muscles,
  • and how adapted your muscles are to use this energy and do the work.

The better that happens, the “fitter” you are.

It helps to understand the difference between the two energy systems your muscles depend on: A fast and short one (anaerobic), and a slower and long one (aerobic)

*Disclaimer – I’m oversimplifying a lot here. For a more elaborate explanation, I highly recommend this podcast.

Anaerobic fitness – “fast and short”

The fast and short system uses carbohydrates for fuelling muscles. That means energy is immediately available: the energy source (carbohydrates) gets stored in- and close to the muscles, providing large amounts of energy quickly. Unfortunately, you only have the amount that is stored available. That means that after a minute or two your energy level depletes, and you have to rest and wait for it to regenerate and by-products to clear up. Thus, it’s great for supplying energy at a very fast rate over a short period of time, like a 400m sprint in athletics.

Aerobic fitness – “slower and longer”

On the other side, the slower and longer system uses oxygen as one of its energy sources. Great news, because that means you have an endless supply. The problem is getting it from the atmosphere to the muscles. This takes a minute or two and relies on your cardiovascular system (lungs, heart, blood vessels). Then, your muscles need to be conditioned to prefer oxygen for energy.

The rate at which the aerobic system can provide fuel is limited. This means that if the demand for energy exceeds this rate (in other words, if the muscles work harder / you are running faster than the rate of production), the anaerobic system takes up the slack. It depletes quickly, forcing you to a walk or stop after two blocks.

The conclusion: Developing your aerobic fitness early on and improve your cardiovascular system’s capacity is a smart move.

From this foundation, you can develop the rest – speed, strength and running economy.

Here’s an example: Notice how a 400 meter Olympic sprinter (anaerobic) looks just as tired as the Olympic marathoner (aerobic) at the finish line of their events, even if the one athlete ran for more than 2 hours and the other for less than 60 seconds. They rely on different forms of fuelling. Again, this is an oversimplification – there are a bunch of factors they play into fatigue. But this concept is a big differentiating factor between how each athlete trains.

Start long and slow.

This brings us to the punchline: Your initial training need to start off SLOW and be LONG enough to allow this improvement to take place.

Your aerobic system has to first improve to a point were it can handle running.

Also, running is hard on your muscles and joints, and starting off slow gives the body time to adapt to handle this load. I discuss this in detail in this post here.


Dilute the running with walking. This allows you to be on your feet LONGER and keep you SLOW enough to keep the intensity at a level where the anaerobic system does not take over. Then, you gradually decrease the walking as: 1 – your cardiovascular system improves, and 2 – your body gets used to the impact forces as your strength and running gait improves.

It takes time, discipline and consistency. It might be frustrating to start slow in the beginning, but your patience will be rewarded for long after you’ve reached that first goal.

If you still prefer some help, reach out to me, or check consider one of the running program options. Maybe work with a coach for a while to get the hang of running.

RPE: An alternative to heart rate.

We use distance to determine how much you should run, and days per week to tell us how frequent we should run. But what do you use to determine at what intensity your runs should be? How do you rate how hard a training run was?

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