Running Free

After health problems stopped me running for almost two years, I decided to start up again. My first forays out onto the open road (or gravel track) were tentative to say the least. All I could manage to begin with were short bursts of a few minutes, follwed by a period of walking to recover. My chest burned the whole time. My breath came in wheezing gasps. In short, I felt like an absolute beginner, and nothing like the seasoned athlete who could run regularly for an hour and a half without stopping.

The current thinking in sporting circles is that aerobic training is out. According to the experts, what you need to do is speed up the metabolism by running harder for shorter periods of time. The excess pounds will then fall off quickly, saving you the burden of spending endless hours jogging around the local park.

But what about the humble beginner? The sedentary type, perhaps a stone or two overweight, more suited to the armchair than the running track. Could he/she be expected to benefit from such advice?

Training Law no 3: Train first for distance, only later for speed.

The Training Laws are, primarily, a set of guidelines based on the experience of long distance runners from as far back as the turn of the last century. They cover all the facets of training for endurance sport and have influenced scores of athletes along the way. The generally held belief has always been that to acquire the stamina and physical durability to run long distances, you first have to develop the aerobic system.

Mark Allen, perhaps the greatest triathlete of all, attributes the success of his career to a heart-rate formula known as the MAF technique. This required that he spent the early period of the training year exercising below his aerobic threshold, even walking up hills if his heart-rate began to rise above the prescribed limit. Years later, when asked why other athletes chose not to follow his, obviously successful, example, he simply shrugged and said ‘Ego.’

The ‘No pain, no gain’ theory has dominated sporting circles for decades, implying that to get fit you have to push your body to extremes of endurance constantly. But for the unfit beginner, looking to break a sweat for the first time in ages, this gung-ho mantra is ill advisable and could even be dangerous.

Exercise should, above all, be a source of pleasure, something to look forward to and not feared as a brutal necessity. High intensity training has its place, but as part of a structured programme based on the sound fundamentals mentioned above. It can take years to build an engine capable of sustaining hard sessions on the running track. Conversely, the enthusiasm for keeping fit can be undone in seconds by adopting the wrong methods. Burn-out, injury and disillusion are not the basis for a career in fitness.

For the beginner, facing the unknown in a pair of Nike trainers and a high-viz jacket, the word is Caution. Everything in moderation, like Mama said. Then, when the dust settles on your first season out on the road, you can look back and review your efforts, knowing that there will always be time to up the ante.

My running prescription for an unfit beginner is as follows:

Walk for five minutes to warm-up. Run for one minute/walk for one minute x 5 (repeat five times). Walk for five minutes to cool down. 

As your body gets used to regular exercise, you can increase the duration of this exercise, adding one or two minutes to the set each week. Try the run/walk method for at least a month, until you feel able to run short distances without stopping. Always warm-up and cool-down, either by jogging lightly or walking, and never increase duration by more than a few minutes at a time.

Follow this prescription for a long and injury-free career in fitness.

Thank you …

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