Running for Beginners

Featured Article, Fitness, News and Advice, Weight Loss
on May 15, 2012

Lisa Delaney is one of the rare souls who know what it’s like to be an “after.” This journalist and author of Secrets of a Former Fat Girl shed 70 pounds—and six dress sizes–and has kept it off for 20 years. She answers your questions here each week.

DEAR FORMER FAT GIRL: I weigh 145 pounds and am 5’6″. I am writing because I WANT TO BE A RUNNER! In fact, I want to run a marathon in four months, and possibly also qualify for the Boston Marathon. I would also like to lose 20 pounds. I have revamped my diet and am good nutritionally. My husband is a runner—he just randomly decided to start running one day and went out and did it, and now he’s running a marathon and trying to qualify for Boston. I’m not sure why, but when I try to run I get out of breath so easily. I know this is a lofty goal—do you think it is possible? Can you give me advice on how to start training?—Allison

DEAR ALLISON: Do I think it’s possible? Which goal are we talking about—losing 20 pounds? Becoming a runner? Running a marathon? Qualifying for Boston? Running a marathon and qualifying for Boston in four months? Because there’s a whole lot going on in your little note. You have to figure out what you really want here, and maybe I can help with that. So many of us do the same thing you’re doing—we get so excited about changing our lives that we try to change too much too fast, set those “lofty” goals, and feel like failures when we don’t reach them. Yes, it’s great to be ambitious, but you have to step back and look at where you are and where you want to be, and figure out what it will take to get there in a REALISTIC time frame.

RELATED: Running is For Everyone

So. Let’s tackle the weight question first. I’m wondering how you decided you want to lose 20 pounds. At your height, you are not considered overweight, and getting down to 125 will most likely take extreme measures. Judging by your emphatic use of ALL CAPS, your goal of becoming a runner seems to be more important to you than losing the weight. That’s where I’d put my focus. After all, if you’re eating healthfully and start training, you will likely lose some weight, and more importantly begin building muscle and cardiovascular endurance. So let go of that 20-pound number for now and focus on training to be a runner.

Let go, too, of your husband’s experience with running. I know it’s difficult not to compare yourself with him, but everyone’s bodies are different. You even said it: You can’t do what he did. So Let. It. Go.

Now, is it possible for you, a total non-runner, to complete a marathon after four months of training? Yes. Will it be the best experience of your life? Not likely. A full marathon—26.2 miles—is a LONG way, even when you’ve properly trained for it. It will really beat you up if you’re not ready. The less prepared you are, the more likely you will be to be MISERABLE during and after the race, to suffer injuries that may keep you from exercising at all for months, and to end up HATING running and giving it up completely. I don’t think that’s what you want.

You said you want to be a runner, which I take to mean that you want to make running part of your life for a good long time. If that’s the case, I would think about that, about building a life-long habit rather than crossing “marathon” off my bucket list and moving on to skydiving or alligator wrestling or whatever’s next in line. Consider setting your sites on a 5K in 3 months, or a 10K in 4, and making a marathon your goal for next spring. Because from what you’ve told me, you’ll need to focus on building up your endurance, which takes time. There are a variety of training programs to help you do this. One of the best was created by running coach Jeff Galloway, who uses a run/walk approach to help minimize injury and ease beginners into running. He suggests that you do the following three days a week: After a short warm-up walk, do a 2-minute run, followed by a 4-minute walk, and repeat that five times. Gradually increase the running time and decrease the walking segments each week until you’re running 30 minutes straight in about 3 months.

Download a 5K training program from Jeff Galloway

This won’t prepare you for a marathon—let alone a FAST marathon—in your timeframe. You may find that you can run more than three days a week and accelerate this program a bit, but I wouldn’t suggest running more than 5 days a week. You need those rest days to get stronger and to recover.

I hope I haven’t burst your bubble—take that enthusiasm and drive you have now, and channel it toward a more realistic goal. Go to Boston in the spring and cheer your husband on—and case the course so you’ll know what to expect when YOU qualify. Because if you’re smart about training and you stick with it, you’ll get there.