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5 Steps to Starting a Walking or Running Program

Sunday, January 17, 2010 Posted by Travis Saunders


Today's post is part two of a two-part series on how to begin a walking or running program. On Friday I discussed the questions that we are asked most frequently by friends and family members who are considering starting a new exercise program.  Today I'd like to outline 5 simple steps that can help you on your way, as well as some useful sources of additional information and guidance.  Like the FAQ's I posted Friday, these steps are not meant to be definitive, but we do think they could be very useful. Most of these steps are identical whether you want to start walking or running, so this advice applies equally to both unless otherwise noted.  And although it is not listed as a step in the list below, remember that you should always meet with a qualified health professional before starting a fitness program (for details, please see my FAQ's from Friday).

Step 1: Perform a baseline assessment.

How much walking or running do you do on a regular day right now? For the next week, write down the amount of walking you do everyday. Did you walk to the bus stop? Did you take a stroll at lunch? Did you walk your kids to school? Don’t do extra activity this week as a means of inflating your numbers – you want to get an accurate depiction of the amount of physical activity you are doing now, which will help inform your training plan.

One terrific and objective way to assess your physical activity is to purchase a pedometer. This will count the number of steps you take each day, and will be a great way to chart your progress. Pedometers vary in accuracy, but even “research quality” pedometers like the DigiWalker only cost about $30, and pedometers are easy to find at most pharmacies, electronics stores, and running shops.

Step 2: Set realistic targets.

Add up the amount of time you spent walking or running during your baseline assessment week, or calculate your average daily number of steps if you were wearing a pedometer. A reasonable goal is to increase this amount by 5-10% per week. So if you walked for about 210 minutes your first week (30 minutes/day), then aim for about 230 minutes next week. If you are going by pedometer steps, aim for an extra 1000 steps per day. The long-term goal (with emphasis being placed on long-term) is to be physically active everyday, meaning 60 minutes of physical activity (either all at once or in smaller bouts spread throughout the day), or more than 10,000 steps/day. But for now, just focus on increasing the amount of physical activity you have been doing over the past few weeks.

This might seem like a slow process – and it is. It’s is much better to start out with small, attainable increases in activity, rather than shooting for the moon only to crash and burn.

Step 3: Choose a reasonable workout schedule.

The next step is to decide how you are going to reach your new weekly targets. When do you have time to walk and/or run on a daily basis? Can you go for a family stroll after supper (kids can be pushed in a stroller, pulled in a wagon or sled, or ride alongside on their bikes)? Could you park a few blocks from work, and get a 10-minute walk at the start and end of your day? Maybe you can take a 5 minute walk-break every hour of the work-day, or fit in a 20 minute walk at lunch. What about taking public transit 2 days/week, which often involves walking at either end of the trip? Are you a morning person, who would enjoy a short walk or run before work or school? What days work best for your schedule? Which days are not realistic options for physical activity right now? These are all things worth considering while you plan your training schedule.

Remember, you want this to be realistic. I hate morning workouts, so I never count on being able to get up before work because I usually just hit the snooze button. Try to think of the ways that physical activity can be worked into your life, and consider which consequences you are willing to deal with (e.g. missing a few TV shows in the evening because you are out walking) and those that you are not willing to deal with (e.g. getting up before 7am).

If you’re having a hard time deciding how to work physical activity into your life, you might benefit from our previous post on 10 simple ways that physical activity can be incorporated into your daily life.

Step 4: Track your progress.

Now that you’re in the habit of writing down your physical activity, keep doing it! For nerds like myself, I find it can be very helpful to chart my progress in Excel. I have friends who write down their daily training in a notebook, and others who use Facebook or other online applications. The point is to keep track of what you’re doing. That way you will know what is working, and what is not. If you haven’t hit your target for the week, sit down and try to figure out what happened, and look for things that you can change in the week ahead. There will be days and weeks when you come nowhere near your targets, and that is normal and to be expected. Don’t let it throw you off. This is going to be a long process, so it’s important to expect some bumps in the road, and to develop strategies for how to deal with them.  Below I've included a graph of what you're training log might look like.




Step 5: Don’t forgot to get some rest!

In general you should build your weekly mileage for 3 consecutive weeks, then take one “down-week”, where you lower your training volume to allow your body to recover. Without adequate rest, your body will start to wear down after a few months, and so taking one easy week each month is a good way to ensure you aren’t over-training. Similarly, it’s a good idea to take off at least 1 day per week, especially once you progress to a running program.

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The steps above might not get you ready for the Boston Marathon, but they’re enough to get you started on the road to a more physically active life. What to do if you’re interested in starting a walking or running program, but you need a bit more information before you get started? Here are some more resources to help along the way:

1. Your local running or fitness store. This is where you are most likely to find people who are knowledgeable about walking and running shows, and who will be able to help you find the most appropriate gear for you. Large sports chains which are not running specific or department stores are less likely to have staff who will have the background necessary to be of much use.

Your local running store is also likely to have running and/or walking “clinics”, where you can workout with a group of people at a similar level of training. Almost every running store in Canada has such a clinic, and I imagine it is the same in the USA. At Running Room, the Walking and Running clinics both cost roughly $70 for a 10 week program, and I have many friends who have benefited from these programs (as well as friends who lead the programs themselves). Many shops also have free weekly group runs or walks, which can also be a good way to meet other like-minded individuals. These clinics are not full of hardcore runners – they are for people who are just starting a new training program, so you won’t be shunned if you have no previous running or walking experience. Be sure to ask the store which of their programs would be best for you. If I had to spend my own money on a beginner training program, a walking or running clinic is the first place I’d go.

2. The Complete Book of Beginning Running. There is only so much that we can cover in 2 blog posts. Luckily, our friend (and former winner of the Boston Marathon) Amby Burfoot of Runner’s World has put together a comprehensive book that answers just about every question you could ever want to ask prior to beginning a walking or running program. His website also has a handy training program calculator, which I recently used to help train a friend for her first marathon. If you want to start running or walking but think that a running store clinic is not for you, this book will be a very valuable resource.

3. Obesity Panacea. We love to hear from our readers, and to help out whenever we can. If you have a question, feel free to place it in the comments section below, email us (travis (at) obesitypanacea.com) or send us a note via Twitter. If we can’t help you, we probably know someone who can.

4. CSEP Certified Personal Trainers and Certified Exercise Physiologist.  These are certified health professionals who have extensive training and experience in the area of exercise and physical fitness.  For more details on who they are and how they can help you, you can visit our previous post on the topic, or contact the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology.

Good luck with your walking or running program, we'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments section below!

Travis Saunders

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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.

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