5 easy steps to becoming a regular runner

July 07, 2015                 5m read time
Chris Lieto

Ironman triathlete (and reformed run hater) Chris Lieto tells you how to go from couch potato to confident runner in two months.

In high school, I went out for the cross-country team because my older brother was a member. It only took one day of practice for me to swear I’d never run again. Running while feeling unfit is such a frustrating experience.

Obviously, I did return to the track, but it would take about 10 years, a shift in perspective, and setting a new goal for my life—not just to be an Ironman triathlete, but to be the best—to make it happen. Read on to find out how I did it—and how you can, too.

Fire it up.

First and foremost you have to have the motivation to get off the couch. Set a goal or visualize something big and success-based that excites you: a challenge, an obstacle, a physical goal such as losing weight, or a running event that is unique or in an amazing place.

Pick something that really challenges your spirit, revs up your passionate side, and pushes you out the door. Understand why you chose what you did as your motivator. What’s the end result you’re wanting? Do you want to complete a 10K to feel a sense of accomplishment, and then be able to take that feeling into your professional life? Do you want to lose 50 pounds in order to be healthier? Or more active? Or around in 20 years to walk your daughter down the aisle at her wedding?

The reason needs to be important to you. That way, when it’s raining or you’re super tired or you’re ready to back out and say that this whole exercise thing was a stupid idea anyway, you won’t.

You don’t have to go fast, just go.

Set realistic timelines around the exercise that you’re going to do. Once you’ve determined your massive goal (see No. 1), then set smaller goals that are easily achievable.

Don’t sign up for a half-marathon, and then go out and try to run for three hours the very first time you lace up your shoes. You’re gonna burn out—both physically and emotionally—like I did back in high school. The first week or two is not the time to over-challenge yourself.

Awhile back a friend of mine approached me and said, “Hey, Chris. I don’t want to do triathlons. I don’t want to do an Ironman. I don’t want to do any of the crazy stuff that you do, but I want to lose some weight, and I want to run a 5K. What should I do?”

I gave him this challenge: For the first two weeks, walk for a half hour every day. You can do a brisk walk but no running. Just walk. I set a plan for him so he wouldn't feel horrible. I know that if you haven't run in two years (or ever), and you head out and run for a half hour, it'll suck. It's going to be super painful, awkward, uncomfortable. You're going to be super slow and you could get hurt. For him, and for most beginners, it’s important to start out walking to build a solid foundation. Then enjoy feeling good when you're done.

As your fitness increases, you might not want a beer (or donut or pizza) ever again. But it’s okay if you do.
— ZOZI Guru Chris Lieto

Once you do get going, go steady.

My next tip is to be consistent. Training once or twice a week isn’t going to get you where you want to be. So pick exercises that will get you off the couch pretty much every day—or at least five days a week.

With my friend, the walking I assigned him for the first two weeks helped set a consistency of going out and doing something active every day for a half hour. This process also helped him build fitness and some endurance strength before starting to run. After the first two weeks, he called again and said, “OK, I did it.” So I stepped up the game. For the next two weeks, I told him, I want to you to run for five minutes, and walk for two, for a total of about 30 minutes. Don’t run fast, don’t sprint, just run a painfully slow shuffle.

About three weeks later, having kept that consistent schedule, he called again. I kicked it up once more. “Run straight for a half hour, every day.” When he was comfortably doing that, I had him start increasing one of those days by 10 minutes a week, building that one day’s time up to an hour.

As all that happened, his fitness came. The slow process meant no failure along the way. Each step was achievable for him. Before he knew it, he was three months in, feeling fit and active. (And then he called, and said, “Hey, Chris, I want to bike now. I want to swim. I want to do a triathlon.” He ended up doing an Ironman.)

Rope in cohorts and cheerleaders.

I also have to recommend finding a friend, or family member, or a group to get off the couch, workout every day, and do the challenge with you.

Don’t try to beat each other up in the workouts, just participate and hold one another accountable. When you don’t feel like getting out and doing something, it’s always easier to have other people around you.

I can't tell you how many swim workouts I would show up to feeling so exhausted, not focused, and not wanting to train—and having to swim a two-hour, really hard workout. When I would get to the pool and see the 30 National Team kids who I would swim with (a group of 14 to 18 years olds who were ready to go, with me as Mr. Late-Thirties Old Guy at the time), before I knew it I was in the water, having the best workout I've ever had.

Having others join you in some way lets you have an experience with someone else, versus just focusing on your feet hitting the trail.

Eat the donut.

My final tip is reward yourself. Once a week, if you’re consistent in your training and in the goals you have for your running, reward yourself with something.

For me, every once in awhile I would have a donut or pizza. I wouldn't do it all the time, because if I did that consistently then it would affect my fitness and how I felt. But it’s okay to reward yourself with a beer if that's what you enjoy.

When you’re trying to transition to a new way of life—in this case, from “coucher” to runner—beating yourself up or punishing yourself for things that you've enjoyed in the past doesn’t help. As your fitness increases, you might not want a beer (or donut or pizza) ever again. But it’s okay if you do.

Of course, your reward could be something completely different, especially when you achieve the big goal that you set for yourself. Whether it's a 5K, a half-marathon, or a triathlon, whatever it is, when that race is over, reward yourself for your success. If you traveled for the event, stay and do something fun the next day. Or spend some time with your spouse or your boyfriend or girlfriend. See a movie. Take a nap.

Maybe buy yourself a new pair of running shoes … and set your next big goal.

Recap: 5 steps to becoming a regular runner

  1. Set a big goal that is exciting and meaningful to you. This will help keep you motivated when you want to quit.
  2. Walk a half hour every day for two weeks.
  3. For the next two weeks, run for five minutes, and walk for two, for a total of about 30 minutes. Don’t sprint, just run a painfully slow shuffle.
  4. Three weeks later, start running for a half hour straight every day.
  5. When you’re comfortable doing that, begin increasing one run by 10 minutes a week, building that one day’s time up to an hour.
Chris Lieto

Chris Lieto has won 50-plus triathlons, including more than 10 Ironman events and two U.S. Ironman Championships. He also placed among the top 10 at the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii three times, finishing with a career best of second place in 2009. Today, Lieto is most passionate about sharing his experiences and getting people excited about accomplishing their dreams.

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