Want to learn to run but don’t know how to start? Follow along as I share my journey from zero to runner, and all of the bumps and lessons along the way. And yes, whether you are 40 or 50 or overweight but able and ready, you can learn to run at middle age.
If you want to lose weight along the way, this may be just what you need.
This post was originally published in September 2012 and has been updated.
The Key To Running
If you just want the sound bite, here it is. Learning to run is about learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. And that’s it. Once you know and accept that, with an able body, you can run.
Well, no. It’s not all sunshine, swift feet, and roses.
Update: Months after writing this I read the book Runner's World Run Less Run Faster and learned that running 3x per week or every other day (maximum) can make you a far better runner than running daily. The body needs recovery time between sessions. After adopting this schedule, my running really improved.
But first, see how I got started…
Can You Become a Runner at Age 40 or 50?
Why I Chose Running
1. I have never felt happier or more connected with my body than I did when I was a kid running. Mind and body were united. As quick as you can think it, the body just does it. Done! Easy! No hesitation, no arguments.
Could my comfortably plump middle-aged self even dream of getting that feeling back or finding a new, grown-up version of it? Time to stop regretting and start trying.
2. Of all the activities you can do to keep fit and clear your head, to me, running is the best. It’s fast, bold, efficient, readily available, and most important of all, you can’t fake it. Unless you’re one of those runners who hops on the subway midway through the Boston marathon. So yes, you can fake it with other people, but not yourself. Running is real, hard work.
Lots of people start running in later life. Why not me?
How to Start Running or Jogging
To prepare for this new adventure, I got myself a good, comfortable pair of running shoes and found a suitable running trail. I wasn’t keen on hoisting my carcass around the streets for the amusement of my neighbors, so this quiet trail seemed like an excellent choice where I could do my best (huff, puff, swear, groan) without feeling too self-conscious.
Two out-of-shape friends started running when I did but we don’t run together. We actually go our separate ways, figuring it out for ourselves, doing it our own way, reporting back on our experiences, encouraging each other. As I write this, the three of us have shed about 60 pounds total and I’ve clocked about 160 km.
But that’s getting ahead of the story. When you read my diary below, you’ll see that it’s been a struggle, I’ve come a long way, and I still have a long way to go. Especially since there really isn’t an end point.
Zero to Runner Plan – Day by Day
We based our plan on the Couch-to-5k model (which I do not actually recommend*) and modified it from there. Seriously modified it, really, since none of us was able to even come close to the suggested week by week plan.
*We found the incremental increases in the Couch-to-5k plan much too drastic and discouraging. Better to just increase gradually and keep at it.
Five kilometers (5 k or km) is equivalent to just over 3 miles. The only way to get started is the same way you eat an entire elephant or climb a mountain. One bite or step at a time.
There’s also a legitimate fear of injuries and it’s crucial to do whatever you need to do to feel limber and warmed up before running. The trail I use has long sections of uneven ground, and I find I have to keep my eyes on the ground at all times to make sure I navigate it safely. One twisted ankle and the party is over.
To get started, it is advised that you run three times a week for a total of twenty minutes (or choose a set distance to run).
For each session:
- Walk briskly: 5 minute warm up
- Jogging: 60 seconds
- Walking: 90 seconds
until you’ve gone a total of twenty minutes.
Eventually (which for some of us mere mortals will be many months or years), your strength and endurance will increase and you will eventually be able to run 5k continuously. Or so the story goes.
My Running Diary (Hell On Legs) Running Week 1
- Distance: 2.6 km Time: 22 minutes Frequency: 3x week
- Nature Alert: If you have to torture yourself with running, this trail is the place to do it. Lots of beautiful wildflowers, birds of prey, and more.
Day 1/Week 1
This first day was a test to see where I am on the scale of couch to 5k. And the sad truth is: it was pathetic. Those initial 60 second runs were more like an eternity of hell. I felt like a most unfortunate star on The Biggest Loser, not nearly as big, but apparently as out of shape, huffing and puffing, and feeling completely discouraged and miserable. Running will tell you the truth about your body, that’s for sure.
The trail runs in a loop (2.6 km) and it took about 22 minutes to go once around. I hobbled my way through, cutting back the running times to 30 seconds instead of 60, and mentally cataloguing a million excuses why it would be unwise for me to ever do this again. It didn’t help that we were in a heat wave and temperature was about 34C/ 94 F in the shade.
But that was the least of my problems. I’ve concluded that I’m not cut out for running. To be perfectly graphic, the feeling of excess fat on my hips flopping around as I ran was grossly uncomfortable and semi-revolting. And that seemed to alternate with my inability to take in air. Oh body, we have work to do. I hated feeling so separate from my body.
Considering I walk briskly for at least 5 km each day, I couldn’t believe running could be such a challenge. But remember what I said at the start about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable? That’s your clue. How many of us intentionally do things each day that we know are good for us but feel really uncomfortable? Not many! Instead, we gravitate toward activities that keep us in our comfort zones.
Walking is easy for me. In fact, it doesn’t even warm me up for running. Running was apparently way out of my comfort zone. And then some. One of my friends felt worse than I did and the need to comfort her seemed to keep me from giving up entirely. Welcome to the bottom. We can only go up from here.
The Day After Day 1
I was so freakin’ stiff you’d think I’d been to boot camp. My legs were so sore that getting in and out of chairs was excruciating. What have I done to myself? Seriously. Twenty minutes of attempting to run in small increments and I was a mess. Real boot camp would be the death of me. This is pathetic.
Running Day 2/Week 1
Back again for more punishment. Oh. My. God. My inner thighs are hurting. I must have pulled something. But I still wanted to try. What’s up with that? I hobbled around the trail, alternating 30, 40, and 60 second “runs” with 90 second breaks for twenty minutes (2.6 km).
Funny how a 90-second rest period flies by so much faster than a 60 second run. Science has yet to explain this.
Two trouble points:
1) My brain wants to count every single running step (be quiet, brain!) which makes things seem worse than they are.
2) I daydream so heavily on the 90-second breaks that I almost miss my cue to run again. Don’t be fooled: if my daydreams weren’t just my brain’s way of trying to escape from running, I’d daydream while running. I’m onto you brain: you will not defeat me! I need a sports psychologist asap.
Running Day 3/Week 1
Thank god for yesterday’s day off. What kind of jackass wants to run anyway? I really, really did not want to go today. I argued with myself and then agreed to simply show up and at least walk. When I arrived at the trail, I was very sore but convinced myself to sort of jog (like a stiff robot), doing mostly 40 second hobbles/”runs” with 90 second breaks.
It was stinking hot out and I sweated like a beast for at least an hour afterwards. Poor baby.
Upon returning home, I had some work to do outside and actually sweated through 3 sets of clothes (they were drenched!) and drank 4 litres of water. I must have been dehydrated in the end because I got one wicked headache through the night.
Running Week 2
- Distance: 2.6 km Time: 20 minutes Frequency: 5x week
- Nature Alert: I have never seen so many moths and butterflies. Plus thousands of swallows eating mosquitoes overhead. Thank you very much.
Something weird is happening. I not just want to go running, but a few hours after my morning run, I feel like going again. What the hell is happening to me?
The advice at Couch to 5k says to just go three times a week, whether you want to do more or less. The body needs rest and recovery time. But seriously, I really want to go more often.
This week I went running 5 times, settling on 40 second runs with 90 second breaks. Don’t tell anyone how often I went: I know it’s not advised. I can’t really run for beans but I’m not sore anymore either. And I feel really good after I go even though I sweat like a maniac. Hello midlife quirks and quarks.
When I got out of bed this week I felt much healthier. Firmer. Less fat. Stronger. Lighter. Is that even possible after just two weeks of running/hobbling? Life is too short to feel like your body is an extra burden you haul around like luggage. I’m giving my blubber an eviction notice.
Running Week 3
- Distance: 2.6 km Time: 20 minutes Frequency: 5-6x week
After noticing that I really wasn’t challenging myself, I increased my runs from 40 to 45 seconds, with 90 breaks. It’s easier to track on the watch this way (working in 15 second increments).
I still daydream heavily when I’m walking and lose track of time. You’ll know I’m a legitimate runner when I lose track of time when I’ m running. For now my brain still counts every step (45 seconds of running = 170 steps). Please stop counting, brain! (I figure out a cure for this later on.)
Running Week 4
- Distance: 3.6 km Time: 23-30 minutes Frequency: 6x week
- Nature Alert: Feral cat #1. You’d think he’d seen a ghost when I came along the trail where he was sunning himself.
My shorts fell off. For real. I was running fairly fast and Ta-Da! my shorts slipped right down over my hips. This chunky monkey isn’t quite as chunky now. Time to wear a belt or get smaller shorts.
I’m running mostly 40-ish seconds, sometimes up to 60, with 60 to 90 second breaks. I’m playing around with varying both running and resting times.
It seems the road to 5k is not going to be a straight path. There will be good days and bad days. Fast days and slow days. Days where I phone it in and days where I let it rip. And that’s okay. At least I’m trying. And most surprisingly of all, I’m liking it.
I now run six times a week. I can’t resist. I could stick to 3 days and fill in the others with yoga and weight training, but there’s something about the running that I find so alluring even though it’s by no means easy. I will have to get back to yoga before too long though: my hips have become really stiff and inflexible (is that a word?) again and yoga always helps eleviate the problem.
Once around the trail (2.6k) now takes 18 minutes (down from my original time of 22 minutes), and I usually go an extra 5-10 minutes for fun. Because that’s just the kind of girl I am.
Running Week 6
- Distance: 3.6 km Time: 22-26 minutes Frequency: 4-6x week
- Nature Alert: Feral cat #2. I wonder if Feral cat #1 and Feral cat #2 have met?
I’m running 4-6 times a week. I run 60 seconds, rest 60-90 seconds. I go for 22-26 minutes. I feel like running every day. I have chronically low iron (a lifelong problem, thus far) and sometimes my leg muscles feel really weak. Drained. Even though I’m not that much different in appearance, I feel much healthier, lighter. I like it.
Running Week 7
- Distance:4 km+ Time: 25-30 minutes Frequency: 5-6x week
- Nature Alert: Turtles, beavers, snake, frogs, and a mama Heron with her brood.
Time to change things up a bit.
1. I experimented by running as long as I could. I measured what I ran on Google maps when I got home. Drumroll please: I ran 750 m without stopping. That’s 3/4 of a km for you math geeks. Not bad for the chick who wanted to die after running 30 seconds in June.
2. On another day this week I did 1-2 minute runs with 1-2 minute breaks for 30 minutes. Some days I want to run long and hard, other days I like shorter sprints. It’s all good. I hope.
Running Week 8
- Distance:4 km+ Time: 25-30 minutes Frequency: 5-6x week
- Nature Alert: Saw a pair of Great Cranes at the water’s edge. Lots of shorebirds (and birders photographing them).
I did 40 seconds running, 40 seconds walking, the entire way around the trail. My body seems to respond really well to this interval style. It was just enough challenge to feel both annoying and invigorating.
I’m noticing that it seems to take one lap around the trail for my body to really get warmed up. After 2.6 km, I feel ready to run faster and tend to get a good pace during my bonus run at the end. What kind of nutjob falls for that absolutely optional Bonus Run mental trick? Me. That’s who.
Running Week 10
- Distance: 5-6 km+ Time: 33-45 minutes Frequency: 5-6x week
- Nature Alert: Ran into a flock of wild turkeys. Sent them flying! Also scared about 10,000 blackbirds who were dining in the woods. Paging Alfred Hitchcock.
Good news. I figured out how to stop my brain from counting all my steps: music. I started bringing my iPod. I chose some upbeat favourites and put them on shuffle. I challenge myself to keep running the entire length of the longer songs. Between watching where I step (some of the trail is not smooth) and listening to the music in one ear, my brain totally fails at counting steps. Eureka! I’m free at last.
I decided to increase my distance since I’ve not been doing a great job of increasing my speed, though I always feel like doing more at the end of the run. Plus, it seems to take one entire lap of the trail to feel really warmed up. Why not add a second one? Who is this woman and what has she done with my old self?
I now run twice around trail in 35 minutes. That’s 5 km in 35 minutes. My best time so far (probably carried by the wind) was 33 minutes. In the great scheme of things, it’s, well, nothing impressive whatsoever. But compared to my June times (5 km would have taken at least 44 minutes, if I’d tried it), it’s pretty good indeed.
How Long Does It Take To Run 5 km?
- Professional runners: 15 minutes
- Intermediate runners: 20 minutes
- Yer Average Fitness Buff: 25 minutes
- Up and Comers: 30 minutes
- Jokers Like Me: 35 minutes
Running Week 12
- Distance: 5-6 km+ Time: 33-43 minutes Frequency: 5-6x week
- Good News: Down two jean sizes.
- Nature Alert: Black fox on the trail. Appeared injured. Feral tabby kitten chasing moths. Too cute. I guess Feral cat #1 and #2 made a #3. Plus new deer tracks and huge racoon prints. Or Bigfoot has also discovered the trail.
It’s been three months. When I started, I secretly wondered if/hoped I’d be able to run 5 km without stopping by this time. And the answer is, no, not by a long shot! But that’s okay. I feel so much healthier than I did back then and it’s been worth every ache and pain. Big changes take time.
I’m also down two jean sizes and my body feels much firmer as I run.
Speaking of aches and pains —hold your applause— I’ve run through all the usual monthly cramps and headaches, heatwaves, hail, rain, a knee problem that acts up now and then, seeasonal allergies, the common cold, my ever-present low-iron which means low energy, and more (black flies, no-see-ums, mosquitoes…). Yet I still enjoy it. It’s also still hard but I expect it always will be. After all, it’s called running, not floating.
I now run 5-6 km in 35-43 minutes. My best time is still 33 minutes. My goal is to shave a minute off, and then a minute more, and so on, in however long that takes, knowing this activity really has no end or finish line. You just keep doing it forever more.
If it’s snowy this winter, I’m going to have to adapt to running on the streets since the trail will not be plowed. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Will also need winter running gear. It’s getting a little chilly in shorts.
Update: we ended up getting a treadmill. I enjoy using it much more than I thought I would.
As I mentioned at the start, between three of us we’re down 60 lbs (almost half of that from one person—not me). All of us feel better, fitter, lighter, and dare I say, happier?
Treadmill Tip: Watch out: most treadmills when assembled will not fit through standard 34-inch wide doorways. You may have to get it assembled in your home.
My Best Running Tips For Non-Athletes Like Me
- Take time to learn about how to run properly. There’s plenty of articles online. This will not only prevent injuries but make running more enjoyable.
- Run on an empty stomach in the morning. Have cool water ready for the end of each run.
- Wear good, comfortable running shoes and absorbent socks.
- Wear a headscarf for sun protection, sweat absorption, and to keep hair off face.
- Sunglasses are essential if you’re sun-blind like me.
- Pick comfortable clothes. I like form-fitting shorts and a top. Baggy clothes annoy me when I run. Growl!
- Take as long as you need to truly get warmed up. For me, walking doesn’t do it. A few minutes of jogging does.
- Create playlists on your phone or iPod with songs that make you want to run and keep you on pace.
- Wear your iPod on your head! Ponytail elastics make good iPod holders. I also string the earbuds through my headscarf to hold them firmly in place. Much nicer than carry the unit on your arm or waist.
- Accept that fact that progress will not be linear. Some days are better than others. Showing up is everything.
- Set really small goals and play whatever mental games work to get you trying just a little harder each time.
- If you startle a massive flock of wild turkeys, say sorry but keep running. They want you healthy too.
UPDATE One year later
I dropped another jean size.
It’s best to run every other day (3-4x per week), not daily. This way, I run better and feel better on the days in between.
I can run 5k in 26 minutes.
I know, right?
Do we have a miracle on our hands, or what?
And, I’ve had what I think are a few runner’s highs. This is where some weird endorphin-like thing takes over and you feel nothing but peace and joy while running. And I mean, nothing—it’s a body-less sensation. My best one lasted an extra 2 km after my daily run. It was divine. I’d run another 1000 5kms just to feel that way again.
Oh, and there’s now about 30 more feral cats at the trail.
~Melissa the Empress of Dirt ♛
This is the book about running that helped me improve as a beginner.