a beginners’ guide from couch to 5k

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  • Running is great for improving your health and it’s never too late to tap into the benefits. So, don’t be nervous if you are a complete beginner.

    You’ve got your best running shoes for women, one of the best fitness trackers and your water bottle, and you’re all good to go. But how do you start running if you’ve never done it before?  

    More than two million people in the UK run at least once a week. And, it’s no surprise to hear that those numbers are increasing, particularly among women and adults in their mid-life, as we begin to understand more about how it helps boost our bodies and minds.

    “Research shows that people who do sport, on average, live six years longer than those who don’t,” says Dr Sanjay Sharma, professor and consultant in cardiology at St George’s, University of London. “Sports and regular exercise have countless beneficial effects on a number of conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, depression and heart disease.” 

    Plus, there are the effects that general overall fitness may have on us, should we contract coronavirus. Many reports have suggested that those who carry less weight are better able to handle the virus, should they get it. Plus, they may experience less severe symptoms. So, there appears to be no better time to get into fitness than now!

    However, before you head out, it’s important to make sure you are properly prepared.

    Here’s how to start running

    Prepare properly for a run

    Make sure you choose suitable running shoes and hi-vis clothing, and do a warm-up/warm-down routine, which can be as simple as a five-minute brisk walk at the start and end. Avoid icy weather and busy roads (falls and fumes), minimise joint-damaging jolts and give injuries rest and time to recover. Check with your GP first if you have existing medical conditions.

    Remember, if you are diabetic, it’s particularly important to check with your diabetes team and also to choose well-fitting trainers – keep an eye out for damage to your feet.

    Why building up slowly is best

    How to start running and stay running? It’s important to build up strength and fitness gradually. Christina Macdonald, running guru and author of Run Yourself Fit, recommends experimenting with walk/run intervals. It’s a similar format to the NHS’s Couch to 5K running plan, which we really recommend and you can find here.

    “Each week, try to make small increases in the amount of time you run or reduce the walking intervals,” Christina suggests. Try her eight-week plan to help you steadily increase the volume, while giving your body time to recover. Only increase your run time by 10% each week to keep you feeling fresh and raring to go.

    Create a regular routine and follow a training schedule

    Week 1

    • Monday: Run 1 min/walk 2 mins x 5 = 15 mins
    • Wednesday: Run 1 min/walk 1 min x 5 = 10 mins
    • Friday: Rest or gentle cross-trainer, cycling or swimming 15 mins
    • Saturday: Run/walk 15 mins with as few walk breaks as possible

    Week 2

    • Monday: Run 1 min/walk 2 mins x 6 = 18 mins
    • Wednesday: Run 2 mins/walk 1 min x 6 = 18 mins
    • Friday: Rest or gentle cross-trainer, cycling or swimming 20 mins
    • Saturday: Run/walk 20 mins with as few walk breaks as possible

    Week 3

    • Monday: Run 2 mins/walk 2 mins x 6 = 24 mins
    • Wednesday: Run 3 mins/ walk 1 min x 4 = 16 mins
    • Friday: Rest or gentle cross-trainer, cycling or swimming 22 mins
    • Saturday: Run/walk 25 mins with as few walk breaks as possible

    Week 4

    • Monday: Run 3 mins/walk 2 mins x 4 = 20 mins
    • Wednesday: Run 4 mins/walk 2 mins x 4 = 24 mins
    • Friday: Rest or gentle cross-trainer, cycling or swimming 25 mins
    • Saturday: Run/walk 30 mins with as few walk breaks as possible

    Week 5

    • Monday: Run 5 mins/walk 2 mins x 3 =  21 mins
    • Wednesday: Run 5 mins/walk 1 mins x 5 = 30 mins
    • Friday: Rest or gentle cross-trainer, cycling or swimming 25 mins
    • Saturday: Run/walk 35 mins with as few walk breaks as possible

    Week 6

    • Monday: Run 6 mins/walk 1 min x 4 = 28 mins
    • Wednesday: Run 9 mins/walk 3 mins at brisk pace x 3 = 36 mins
    • Friday: Rest or gentle cross-trainer, cycling or swimming 30 mins
    • Saturday: Run/walk 37 mins with as few walk breaks as possible

    Week 7

    • Monday: Run 7 mins/walk 1 min x 3 = 24 mins
    • Wednesday: Run 12 mins/walk 3 mins at brisk pace x 2 = 30 mins
    • Friday: Rest or gentle cross-trainer, cycling or swimming 35 mins
    • Saturday: Run/walk 40 mins with as few walk breaks as possible

    Week 8

    • Monday: Run 8 mins/walk 1 min x 4 = 36 mins
    • Wednesday: Run 15 mins easy pace/walk 3 mins at brisk pace then run 5-10 easy pace at the end = 23-28 mins
    • Friday: Rest or gentle cross-trainer, cycling or swimming 40 mins
    • Saturday: Run/walk 45 mins with as few walk breaks as possible

    couch to 5k running woman running alongside sea

    Think about your posture

    How to start running and not get injured? You need to think about your posture. Good posture is crucial for health and performance, says Lynne Cantwell, clinic director and physiotherapist at Six Physio. “Imagine a line going from your ears to the ground – all of your body parts should stay as close to this as possible.”

    • Neck: Avoid sticking it out and keep it in line with your shoulders. A Pilates chin-tuck exercise will help you practise retracting your neck.
    • Shoulders and mid-back: Keep your ears over your shoulders and gently drawn back. Keep your back straight and upright, but not rigid.
    • Arms: Bend your elbows at 90º and keep them underneath your shoulders. When you extend backwards, your hand should just graze your pocket.
    • Feet: Aim for a mid-foot strike. You’ll be lighter on your feet and have more bounce – plodding on your heels will put more pressure on your knees. Keep your foot stride close to your centre – so one foot is in front and one foot behind (but no more than a foot length).

    What to eat before and after a run

    Pre-run breakfast shake: 125g low-fat fruit yogurt, 200ml skimmed milk, 30g rolled oats, 1tbsp clear honey.

    Post-run refueller: ½ avocado and 2 large poached eggs on 1 wholemeal muffin, with a dash of lemon and pepper. Eat 15-30 mins after training to replenish glycogen stores. And make sure you drink plenty of water throughout.

    Three common mistakes to avoid when starting your running journey

    1. Don’t set off too quickly. “Use the ‘talk test’ to tell whether you’re running at the right speed,” says Christina. You should be able to speak in normal sentences. 
    2. Don’t come to a sudden stop. Slow down gradually to prevent dizziness or even fainting. Legs have more blood moving through them during exercise and suddenly stopping may mean blood pools in your lower body.
    3. Don’t give up. Consistency is key to improvement. Get into a habit of running at a certain time every other day and your stamina will build up quickly.

    And if you feel you need a bit of support, try Parkrun, a group run that anyone can join. Before the social-distancing measures began, Parkrun ran a free timed 5K run in parks across the UK every Saturday at 9am and they plan to start up again as soon as they are able.

    All you have to do is register online, print off a barcode and take it with you to take part in any event. It doesn’t matter how fast you are (loads of people simply walk them), but you’ll be emailed details of your time, position and age grading, so you can aim to improve week on week. Find your nearest runs and sign up at parkrun.org.uk.

    The benefits of running on mood

    Following the plan will also help your mental health, too. Dr Melanie Wynne-Jones says, “Running gives us time to think or clear our heads, while exercise, natural open spaces and companionship (if we want it) boost feel-good brain endorphins.” 

    “Serotonin, dopamine and even growth-hormone levels have all been shown to be higher post-run, all of which contribute to that euphoric mood-boosting feeling,” Adidas Runners Captain Olivia Ross Hurst explains. “The more you exercise, the more you can boost your mood, as repeated exercise actually enhances the number of dopamine receptors in the brain over time.”

    Indoors vs outdoors?

    So, should we run outside or on a treadmill? “Both are good, but if you can get outside to run, even better,” says Olivia. “Breathing in fresh air gives your muscles a boost of oxygen, increases your energy levels and wakes you up. Natural sunlight (even on a cloudy day) stimulates vitamin D production (crucial for overall health and wellbeing) and boosts serotonin release.”

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