by Chad Kerksick PhD August 18, 2010 6 min read
I can relate to this question. My years throughout college and after I rarely did any form of cardio exercise. I lifted weights several days a week and moved at a pretty fast clip when I was in the weight room, so I didn’t feel the need. More importantly, I just didn’t like it. The mental involvement was so much different than resistance training. During lifting, you need to have pretty sharp focus while lifting the weights, but it’s only for 30 – 60 seconds usually. When you run you have to focus less, but stay dialed in for twenty, thirty, maybe even sixty minutes or longer. I begin this way because while your question is asking about physical things, the mental aspect of making this change could be a bigger beast to conquer than the physical part.
In the simplest of terms, developing some form of physical attribute involves consistency and a little bit of specifics. The specificity principle of exercise training again takes center stage because when you’ve been slinging steel around in the gym for multiple repetitions and then resting for one to three minutes, this doesn’t challenge your heart and lungs in the same manner as consistent jogging, cycling or swimming (1). The easiest approach is to just get out there and start doing it. If you’re going to jog outside, then jog for a little bit and then rest for a minute or two. You can’t expect yourself to just lace up some shoes for the first time in (maybe never) and go out there and jog for 30 minutes.
Wait a minute, before we get too far ahead of ourselves. If you are over 40 years old and haven’t been to a doctor since high school sports physicals, you may want to give your physician a visit and make sure that all is well with your heart, lungs, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. All of these things will improve immensely as a result of this type of exercise, but you shouldn’t take any chances. This becomes especially important if you have immediate family members (parents, siblings, grandparents) that have had any form of serious health complications. For example, my father had a stroke at 48 years of age, his father died of a heart attack and his mother died of a disorder associated with her lifelong high blood pressure. Not exactly a clean bill of health for me when it comes to family history.
Assuming the doc says you’re good to go, start easy. If you are starting at ground zero, I would suggest jogging for five minutes and walking for two minutes and repeating several more times until you’ve jogged for a total of 25 minutes. Continue with this until you can jog for a total of 45 minutes (while still resting two minutes after every five minute jog). Once you achieve this, you’ve built a pretty good base of fitness and you can start decreasing the time you rest. For example, for your next workout jog for five minutes and only rest for one minute. Continue this until you get built up to 45 minutes. Keep reducing the rest time (45 s, 30s, 15s, etc.) until you are running continuously and again get yourself built up to 45 minutes. If you can only go for 15 minutes without needing to stop then only rest for a minute or so and go again. Eventually, you’ll get to solid 45 minutes. Don’t worry about the time, your pace, how far, just keep track of how long you run and how long you rest. After 45 continuous minutes are achievable, then you can start trying to run faster and farther.
For those of you that are disappointed in the simplicity of what I’ve suggested, I’m sorry, but it works. Again, it takes more of a mental effort than anything else. The same can be said if it’s wintertime or you don’t want to run outside (or maybe because it’s 95+ degrees by noon right now). Or for many people if you are a little embarrassed with how tired you get and want to work out alone. If this is the case then get on a treadmill. Again, from a safety perspective, if you’ve never been on a treadmill before or haven’t been on one in a while take your time walking at different speeds and jogging before jumping right into a workout. Many people will also jump off the side of the belt to briefly rest. This works great, but take extra caution to make sure both feet get all the way to the outside of the belt because you’ll be on your behind before you even know what happened and to make matters worse when your body comes to a rest, some part of your body is likely going to be against the treadmill belt grinding away at your skin making you a bloody abraded mess. Be careful!
To start, set the treadmill to 1% incline to more closely mimic running outside and do the same exact thing I mentioned before. This interval type workout can (and should) be applied by almost everyone. Studies have shown excellent fitness benefits using young people, old people and even people with heart problems when they train with intervals or short periods of ‘work’ followed up with short periods of ‘rest’ (2).
One of my favorite workouts to get some cardio is to change the speed a pre-determined amount (0.1, 0.2, 0.3 mph or even more!) every minute for five consecutive minutes before returning to your initial speed. For example, a beginner may start at 5.5 mph for one minute, then increase to 5.7 mph for the next minute, then 5.9 mph for the next minute, 6.1 mph and then 6.3 mph. After the fifth interval, go back to your starting point (5.5 mph) and repeat. Of course if you are more fit and want to start at a higher speed, feel free. Also, you can increase the interval amount to 0.5 mph (or any amount you wish) so this workout would then consist of the following speeds (5.5, 6.0, 6.5, 7.0 and 7.5 mph, respectively). Literally hundreds of examples can be developed and all of them will work just fine.
When I was first starting out, my calves and other muscles between my knee and my ankle would get really tight making it nearly impossible to run after a period of time. OR what if you’ve gained a little more weight than you realize and running/jogging makes your knees, hips, etc. hurt too much to enjoy it? OR your fitness is poor and jogging is too strenuous? In this instance get on the treadmill and walk, but you must aggressively change the incline. Most fitness treadmills will incline up to around 12 – 15% and I’d be willing to bet >80% of you don’t realize how high that is. Well it’s substantial. In fact, you can burn roughly the same amount of calories walking at around 3.3 mph and 11 – 12% incline as jogging at around 6 mph and 0% incline (3). In this instance, start slowly and build up. You may need to start at 3 mph with the incline at 4-5%, but you can do one of two things: 1) increase the speed (like running) and keep the incline the same or 2) keep the speed the same but increase and decrease the incline. Yes, you can change the incline on the treadmill while running too, but if you can hammer away on a treadmill and aggressively change the incline this article isn’t intended for you. Eventually you’ll get to a point where you can walk at a pretty good clip with an incline and you can then transition into slow jogging and walking or what we discussed at the beginning of the article.
Finally, a half marathon. I’ve run two and once you can get up to around 45 minutes, it’s just a matter of plotting out your workouts to progressively increase the distance of your runs. Once you can complete a 10 or 11 mile run, you can knock out the entire 13.1 mile distance. As I said earlier, this part is as much a mental struggle as physical. It’s time consuming, monotonous and during the summer times you have to run early because it’s so hot. But it’s a pretty cool feeling to finish and also to know you lugged around 50 lbs (or more) more than some of the skinny folks you’ll see out running all the time. This last point transitions me nicely into the next topic that must be addressed and that is what are the nutrition concerns as I’m training for a half-marathon or endurance type activity. Stay tuned for that article for sure! In summary, it’s small baby steps of mental and physical power. While you may indeed ‘suck’ at running, don’t give up on yourself, stay focused and keep putting one foot in front of the other. You may not be fast, but remember the hare didn’t beat the tortoise…