Hit the ground running
The best-laid resolutions to get fit can quickly crumble with no plan in place and no budget for a personal trainer. Don’t worry -- we asked fitness experts to map out monthlong strategies to jump-start running, cycling, swimming and strength-training programs designed to remove the confusion and intimidation many feel. We kick off this four-week series with a running program courtesy of Andrew Lockton ( www.andrewlockton.com), a professional triathlete, private running and triathlon coach, and track coach for the L.A. Leggers running club ( www.laleggers.org).
The main goal is to establish a routine, Lockton says -- so set a time to run and hit the ground. “The key is making this a part of everyday life.”
That means determining the best time to run every day -- mornings before work, in the middle of the day, or in the evening -- without making excuses about having to take the dog for a walk or needing to pick up dinner on the way home.
Getting into that routine is key, he adds, because it tamps down the desire to put it off. “You shouldn’t be making a decision about what you’re going to do each time,” he says. “You’ve already decided, so just keep it going.”
Don’t worry too much about distance in the very beginning -- just run, and do it consistently. But ideally, strive for covering three miles five to six days a week via running, walking, or a combination of the two (if you’re skipping two days, don’t make them consecutive -- it’s too easy to fall off the wagon). While that may seem daunting, it can be worked up to gradually. “The key isn’t so much pushing yourself really hard,” Lockton says, “but getting into a pattern and covering that distance.”
Run on whatever terrain is available -- track, sidewalk or dirt road. But save the treadmill for emergencies only -- Lockton isn’t a fan of the machines because the biomechanics of running on a moving surface are different from running on a stationary one. Most of your running will be done outside, so get used to that.
There are various schools of thought on stretching. Lockton advises to do some light stretching after a run when the body is warmed up, but never before. When you start running, begin at a pace that’s about a minute or two slower than your usual speed to warm up the body and prepare it for the work ahead.
Take this week to set goals. “If you’re just going out haphazardly, it’s harder to find an internal motivation,” Lockton says. “Have a clearly defined goal, whether it’s losing weight, being able to run consistently or doing a race -- something tangible that keeps you motivated.” If motivation is a recurring problem, consider running with a friend or joining a running group. “Having people you’re accountable to is huge,” Lockton says. “It helps keep you to that routine and structure and offers fewer opportunities to let yourself slack off.”
Continue the same running routine, and aim for running the entire three miles if starting from a walk or walk/run.
During this time, runners may experience a few aches and pains; some can be chalked up to using new muscles. But chronic discomfort shouldn’t be ignored. “When something hurts, don’t run through it,” Lockton says. “Figure out the problem and fix it and then continue.” An orthotic could be in order to correct an overpronation (excessive inward rolling of the foot), or a complete running gait overhaul might be needed. You may need the help of a running coach to work on biomechanics, or to consult a podiatrist or orthopedist who works with athletes.
Diets will vary depending on whether the goal is weight loss, weight gain or weight maintenance, but Lockton suggests all runners should eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and avoid going heavy on the bread and pasta. “The biggest mistake people make when they’re starting a running program is to compensate for the amount of work they think they’re doing by eating more,” he says. “They end up overcompensating. If you’re running three miles a day you shouldn’t need any extra calories unless you’re at the bare minimum, since you’re only burning about 300 calories during the run.”
Lockton also advises eating more meals at home than at restaurants, because hidden fats and calories in restaurant foods can derail healthy aspirations. As for alcohol, Lockton says the pluses and minuses of drinking should be weighed by each runner: “The key is understanding what you’re doing,” he says. “Your muscles might be more relaxed the next morning, but your sleep might not have been as good.” New exercise programs are easier to adopt if they allow for the occasional glass of wine or piece of cheesecake, he adds: “If you try to change to a spartan lifestyle, you might have quick results, but five weeks down the road you’re probably going to quit. You have to have balance.”
This week is about progression. Begin to incorporate 20- to 30-second bouts of acceleration five or six times during two runs a week, not on consecutive days. Don’t try for an all-out sprint, just push a bit more and stay relaxed. Make sure you leave enough energy to complete the run. Allow yourself time to recover after the interval; walk or jog slowly to bring the heart rate down.
“You’re getting the heart used to bursts of speed,” Lockton says, “and you’re letting the muscles also get used to running fast.” This will eventually help increase speed and muscle growth as well as improve the cardiovascular system to make longer runs easier. Lockton adds that it’s important to stay focused on how your body feels. Let it tell you how hard you can push.
In addition to speed work, increase the length of one weekend run by a mile or two.
As the running intensifies, so does the need for sleep, because this is when the body recovers from its efforts, Lockton says. “If sleep is cut short, it’s more likely you’ll feel little strains and wear and tear.” Missing an hour or two here and there isn’t critical, but as a sleep deficit accumulates, recovery might be compromised.
Week 4 and beyond
Repeat the routine for Monday through Friday of Week 1. “By the end of the third week, we’re putting a lot of stress on the body it wasn’t used to,” Lockton says, “and you need to let your body adapt to the changes.”
So, to give the muscles a break, decrease the amount and intensity of the runs, or ditch the running altogether and cross-train. Bicycle, swim, hike -- any activity that’s not too taxing, is aerobic and doesn’t involve a lot of strength work. Whenever possible, to maintain your routine, do these activities at the same time you normally schedule your runs and take the same days off.
As your program progresses, go back to this five-day recovery plan every four weeks to allow the body to recuperate. Then, on the weekend, resume the running plan and increase the distance by a mile or two.
In the ensuing weeks, as you become more fit, gradually increase the speed bouts to 45 seconds to a minute, and strive to decrease the recovery time in between. Continue to increase distance on weekends until you can run easily for an hour.
At this point, you may want to reassess your running goals and decide whether you want to work with a running coach or join a group to begin training for a race. Once a routine is firmly established and the running kinks have been worked out, Lockton says, runners begin to look forward to training. “It becomes easier on the body and it’s a much more enjoyable experience.”