Laying the Fitness Foundation: How to Skip the Intro Training Plan for Beginners

Have you ever met a successful runner who has only been running for a few months? I have. There are certain people who seem to jump into running and are able to perform at a competitive level. How do they do it? What’s their secret?

Your Fitness Foundation: How Fit Are You?

It’s not actually a secret. These people have a general fitness foundation that allows them to run without a lot of the roadblocks that many new runners experience. You may even have this foundation already set up for you (lucky) and are primed to start a great running career!

Even if you don’t, there are ways that we can build your fitness foundation so that you can worry less about injuries, skip the “walk/run” part of becoming a runner, and start reaching your potential faster. All that’s needed is some good planning, some time and effort, and a little bit of luck.

Each person is going to start at a different point on the fitness spectrum. I can’t predict how long it will take you to get ready to start running, but the range might be anywhere from 2-8 weeks. If you’ve been a couch potato for a few years, it may take even longer. But this will still make it easier to make the transition!

Your fitness foundation will help you train more and ultimately, race faster with less chance of injury. You’re going to have a serious advantage over others who just jump into a training program. So let’s dive in and set you up to become a runner.

Health Comes Before Fitness

Even before you jump into a training program, you have to be healthy.

Sounds easy, but it’s not. You have to adopt the healthy habits now or you won’t be ready to start a real running program. Runners know that it’s not just a sport, it’s a lifestyle. And it’s more than simply eating a healthy diet.

First, make sure you don’t have any lingering injuries from other sports. Rehabilitate that twisted ankle from pick-up basketball. Rest your sore back from helping your kid move into her college dorm.

Next, start with your bad habits. If you smoke, stop. If you’re a drinker, cut it down to once a week and try not to get too wasted. Improve your diet so that you’re eating more fruits and vegetables with less processed food. Consider a 1-2 week Paleo Diet to detox from the typical American fare. You may even consider switching to the diet on a more permanent basis.

Improving your diet will also help you get closer to your target weight (if this is an issue for you). A large contributor to beginning runner injuries is the excess weight that many are carrying. It places extra stress on all of your joints and muscles. You have to work harder to move yourself. By being in a healthy weight range, you’ll dramatically reduce your risk of injury. And you’ll feel a helluva lot better.

Being “healthy” also means being free from illness or disease. If you’re recovering from the flu, an infection, or any serious disease, don’t start running. You’ll already be at a disadvantage. Of course, consult with your doctor if you have any condition that may preclude you from starting a running program.

Building General Strength

“To be a good runner, you must first be a good athlete.” – Coach Jay Johnson.

If anybody has ever told you that anybody can run or that running takes no skill, they are absolutely wrong. Running properly and consistently takes coordination, strength, and athleticism. To prepare you for your first running program, it’s important to build a fitness foundation that includes general strength.

Strength exercises are vital to keeping you injury-free and running your best. Without them, you may not be able to absorb the stress and impact of running. They include core exercises like the plank, bridges, and medicine ball work. Other home gym exercises include lunges, simple dumbbell lifts, and push-ups.

In Christopher McDougall’s best-seller Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, he transforms himself from an injury-prone jogger to an ultra-runner who completed a 50 mile ultra-marathon in the rugged canyons of Mexico. Part of his transformation included general strength exercises every other day, including squat-jumps, medicine ball work, and lunges that helped him prevent the injuries he was so prone to beforehand.

Mobility Increases Athleticism

To continue your development as an athlete and runner, it’s important to build functional mobility into your pre-running training program. Before any general strength workout, incorporating mobility and dynamic flexibility drills will help you prepare.

Mobility drills, like dynamic warm-ups, increase your range of motion and are a more active way of warming up for a workout. A lot of athletes and runners still use static stretching, but this can actually reduce performance. Many new studies are showing that static stretching is bad for power and endurance running.

A more comprehensive approach to warming up includes light core and general strength exercises, with the majority of the warm-up being dynamic drills. This type of active routine helps warm your muscles, lubricate your joints, and minimizes your chance of injury. Here are my personal dynamic warm-up and core routines that I do on a weekly basis.

The Benefits of Random Sport Participation

Playing other sports, either competitively or just recreationally, is one of the best preparations for a new training program. I grew up playing basketball and the countless games and practices prepared me well for running. Suicide runs, coordination drills, and all of that running is beneficial.

Many coaches believe one of the primary reasons that Kenyans and Ethiopians are such talented distance runners is because they had a very active childhood. Growing up, they ran to school and back. Their family required them to help with chores and manual labor was frequent.

I doubt you ran 6 miles to school and back when you were a kid, but a childhood spent playing soccer and running around in your neighborhood provides a great aerobic foundation for running. You’ll also have a stronger body and probably have more general athleticism.

If you played a lot of sports as a kid or participate in a lot of adult leagues (think Ultimate Frisbee, Softball, or Volleyball), your active lifestyle is creating a great fitness foundation for a new running program. If not, then no worries. Aside from core and strength exercises, mobility drills, and designing a healthier lifestyle, start being more active.

You could go for several long walks per week. Start cycling. Play pick-up basketball or swim laps. Keep it fun and don’t think of it as “training” – recruit your friends and go hiking or play at the beach for a few hours. The more active you can be without being stressful the better.

Putting it Together: Your Fitness Foundation

Your foundation of health, activity, and fitness will make you more able to jump into a beginner’s training program without any problems. Before you start running, evaluate where you are on the fitness spectrum. If you think that you’re not very fit and have an unhealthy lifestyle, start slow and improve your fitness one day at a time. Here are action steps to help you on your journey to remarkable running:

  1. Consult your doctor and cure any old injuries or illnesses.
  2. Kick your bad habits: get more sleep, stop smoking, drink less, and skip the fast food.
  3. Improve your diet with more fruit, vegetables, and high-quality meat. Avoid processed food. Read In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto; the simplest book on diet I’ve ever read that changed how I look at food.
  4. Start doing general strength and core exercises 3-4 times per week. Include mobility drills before and after your workout.
  5. Lead a more active lifestyle, but keep it fun.

Soon, you’ll be healthier, stronger, more flexible, and ready to tackle a running program. At this point, you can probably skip the introductory, stock plans like Couch to 5k and move into a more intermediate program. Consider a running coach if you want to reach your potential.

Running is a journey and this is just the beginning. What are your stories of starting to run and how did you make running part of your healthy lifestyle? Let us know in the comments!

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  1. Great post! I have a very hard time convincing people to develop general fitness before specializing in running or anything else. Many of the people I work with are profoundly out-of-shape, and they are usually “less than enthusiastic” about doing anything other running. However, they are usually thrilled with their how much faster they are running when they do take my advice.

    • Thanks Ken. It’s true – to be a good runner, you have to do more than just run. I always preach “the little things” – and they’re not that little! The ancillary work is crucial. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Can’t argue with your five steps in putting it all together. Good synthesis. I think more than people know, numbers 3 and 4 are critical at the beginning. There is a thought that if you just start out in running gradually/slowly, all the things that need strengthening will get stronger. The problem is that your form is likely not to be conducive to that, because by sitting on our butts, some of our muscles needed for running will have atrophies (become weaker) than others. For example, those needed for good stability in the core/hips and upper legs will often become exceedingly weak compared to the major muscles groups, and our form will reflect that weakness and be less than ideal for correcting it.

    Another thing that happens through inactivity is the neural signals that coordinate muscle movements will also have become weak and somewhat uncoordinated. If you ever become inactive, and then suddenly are forced to sprint after a bus you’re about to miss or something, You might have found it awkward and even a bit painful. It’s important to try and do your running with good form, which will require you to have strength in all the appropriate muscle groups, so you can get your neuromuscular strength and coordination back, as well.

    My wife is about to start running again, but before she does, I’m going put her through some core strength and stability training and give her some form lessons, so she can get off to a better start than I did, when I decided to hit the road again!

    Thanks for a well thought-out article and synthesis. Cheers!

    • Interesting point about the neural signals that coordinate movement. My fiancee is reading “The Brain that Changes Itself” and she was telling me about brain maps. In one example, the book discusses how shoes worn for decades limit the neural feedback from the feet, which is one reason older people have decreased balance and coordination. The brain map of their feet is limited and requires them to relearn how to feel with their feet. It’s really interesting stuff!

  3. This is one area where CrossFit certainly has it figured out.

    Sport Specific Movement

    I’m glad you’ve emphasized a holistic approach to training. A lot of athletes seem to think that exercise gives them a “Twinkie License” as I call it. They see it as something to cover up more severe problems.

    I’m curious about your take on PreHab and general core strength. I think a lot of runners are scared of dead-lift/squat/etc and start doing a ton of planks and other things that aren’t quite as beneficial.

    Do you think that the “Pillar” exercises like dead-lift can cover most PreHab needs if combined with specific individual needs?

    Great work Fitz!!!


  4. Found you via twitter and just started reading your blog today (congrats on the wedding!!). I just started running a year ago, I never trained for track or had a coach. Originally my aim was to lose muscle and I had read that long slow distance was really one of the only ways. I’ve always been active I’m a professional dancer and acrobat. I had been doing p90x for over a year and I had built so much size. So I signed up for a 10k and just started running. I’m running my first 21k next weekend and to train I just run as long and as fast as I can as many days a week as I can fit in and do strength exercises most days (push ups and sit ups). I ran my first 10 miles on Monday! reading this has really given me insight to focus my training but also makes me feel good that I am in fact a “real” runner 🙂 perhaps “my way” hasn’t been so bad! Thanks, can’t wait to read more.

    • A lot of muscle mass can also be lost if you stop lifting so heavy and eat less. It takes a lot of hard work to maintain a high muscle mass. Also, just be careful with running “as long and as fast” as you can as many days a week as you can – sounds like an injury in the making. Easy days have their place! Let me know if you have any other questions on other articles. Great to have you as a reader Crista!

  5. Unfortunately, I learned all this the hard way. 6 years ago when I wanted to start running, I had a specific goal to just “tone up” after losing 80lbs living a Weight Watchers life. My core strength was lacking. My mobility was good and I have always been a very limber person. For years, I played softball and other sports on a regular basis. My goal really was to tone up from the weight loss and gain more energy with running. I hired a personal trainer. That personal trainer never showed up for our first two appointments – I never scheduled a third. So I decided to do it myself and I began my own program….I just started walking. Walking led to a walk/run. I did not have a plan. I just walked to warm up then ran until I couldn’t breathe properly, then walk long enough to catch my breath and started a run again. It took me a month and a half to run a full mile with no walking. Two months later, I ran my first 5k with no walking. And so it began…my love of running.

    Cross training and strengthening were never big items on my to do list since I barely had time in my schedule to get my run in 3 times a week. 6 years, countless 5k’s and 10k’s and a half-marathon later, I am now 8 months in my recovery from a hamstring injury. When I will get back what I have lost is in question, but I have learned a lot in 8 months. Cross training and proper stretching will most certainly prevent muscle imbalance and poor flexibility from tightened muscles. Thankful for a great physical therapist, I am now running, not long distances (my favorite) yet, but I am running AND cross training AND stretching AND strengthening AND feeling GREAT.

    I am doing my part by encouraging others to do this “prep work” before they go head over heels.This article will be the first link I send them! Thank you!


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