From Couch to 5K is easier than you think.

Here's how to get going.

Man used to run for his life.  He had to hunt down his prey, chasing them across various terrain and over long distances.  To succeed, he had to be incredibly fit.  

With the modern conveniences of large-scale farming, fast food, and microwave dinners, man no longer has to maintain his fitness for his survival.  But be careful here: neglecting your health through poor diet and lack of exercise can kill you.  

If you're reading this, chances are you want to learn how to (finally) get off the couch and register for that 5K your friends are talking about.  Or maybe you want to take the lead in an office weight-loss and fitness challenge.  Perhaps, like me, you want to improve your fitness because you didn't have the energy to play with your kids anymore.  

Here's the easy part:

Whatever your source of motivation, write it down.  With the right motivation, you can accomplish anything.

Start With Why

Motivation is the key

My mentor and the great motivational speaker Brian Tracy says:

'You can have any what, as long as you have a big enough how.'

I've run dozens of races, from the classic 5K to half and full marathons, even an ultramarathon (50K).  I attempted the second 50K only to be forced to drop out after an early race muscle pull left me limping about 26 miles into it.  I could claim that as a completed marathon, but it wasn't.  I set out to complete an ultra, and failed.  That doesn't count as anything but additional training in my book.  

The recurring factor in all my races, successful or otherwise, was my motivation.  Why the heck would anybody want to go outdoors during the winter and run 10 or 20 miles for training?  Why did I even want to run a marathon?  Where did that willpower come from?

After all, I had moved from being a traveling salesman eating out at least 3 meals a week and an overweight smoker to a super-fit ultrarunner in just under a year and a half.

My third daughter was born with a cleft lip.  You may have seen those ads for Christian organizations that feature kids with a large split in their upper lip and the roof of their mouth.  Our situation wasn't that bad, but it did require surgery.  I felt terrible, however.  

The doctors said they didn't know what caused her cleft lip, but I was convinced: the responsibility layed squarely on my shoulders.  My lack of discipline and poor diet and lifestyle were ruining my family, and here was an obvious reason to change.

Maybe you haven't had such a dramatic life circumstance.  Maybe you just don't have the energy that you used to, or you're tired of hearing all the exciting weekend warrior stories from your friends and coworkers.  There's your motivation.  Take a minute and write it down.  Memorize it.  

If you're the competitive type, yours may look like:

I can beat (person) in a foot race by (future date, a couple of months away).  He/She's no good, anyways.  I'm the best runner in the world!

A little over the top, I know.  But if you're going to get moving, you have to muster all the positive self-talk you can, because you're gonna need it.  

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The Training

The hard stuff really isn't all that hard

You can find thousands of training plans on these tubes we call the interwebz.  Thanks for reading mine.  :)

The plan you're going to use is tried and true, it's the one I used myself.  You'll train three days a week.  You pick which days, but you should have a day of rest in between workouts.

Week One:

Run for one minute, then walk for nine.  Do this three times, for a 30-minute workout.  It's easier if you wear a watch.  These workouts are not designed for speed, but for endurance.  This will be hard, because you've been on the couch for the last hundred years.  Push through, you're a stud.

Week Two:

Congratulations, you made it!  You're well on your way to a healthier lifestyle, increased energy and vitality, and a sharper mind.  Keep rockin' it.

This week you'll do three workouts again.  

While you're running, make sure you breathe.  No seriously.  Pay attention to your breathing rhythm, and try to understand what your body is trying to do.  If you can sing the entire "Fifty Nifty United States" song from your daughter's second grade performance out loud with perfect pitch, you're not running fast enough.  And if you feel like you're suffocating, slow down a bit and focus on your posture to ensure your lungs are getting enough oxygen.  Your shoulders should be relaxed, not hunched up by your ears.  And your chest should be a little puffed out.  But if you can hold a conversation, you're running at the ideal training pace.  Go you.

Increase the running time to two minutes, and dial back the walking to eight minutes.  Again, do these back to back, three in a row, for thirty minutes.  Do this three days this week, with a day of rest in between.  It doesn't matter what time of day you run, just do whatever you can fit in your schedule.

Week Three:

Wow, you're doing great!  While you're running, remind yourself of your motivation.  Repeat your mantra, if you developed one.  If not, why don't you do that now, and tell us your mantra in the comments below.

This week is similar to the last two, with one exception: your third workout this week will be a push to the next level.  Up until now, you've been happy to get along just finishing the workout.  But you deserve better.  You deserve to finish strong.

Strong ArmCredit:

So your first two workouts are going to be three minutes running, and seven minutes walking, again for 30 minutes.  Your third workout of the week, bump that up to four and six.  There you go!  You're going to be running a full mile before you know it! 

Week Four:

Great finish last week!  By now you've already run for a total of more than 45 minutes, which is waaaayyy longer than it will take you to knock out your first 5K, so pat yourself on the back.

One other note: unless you're running in the desert, you don't need to take  any water.  Not that you can't, but you don't die without it.  If you're properly hydrating throughout the week, thirty minutes of exercise won't dehydrate you.  And proper hydration is drinking one ounce of water for every two pounds of body weight.  So if you weigh 180 lbs, you should be drinking 90 oz. of water each day.

This week, pick up where you left off: 4 and 6.  Then do it again.  Your final workout will be another strong finish.  Make it an even 5 minutes of running followed by 5 minutes of walking.  Do this three times, then celebrate with a long, hot shower.  Relax, and enjoy life.  You're making great progress!

Week Five:

Safety may have come to be a concern for you.  If not, cool, why don't you move to the city you crazed hillbilly runner?!  Otherwise, carry some mace.  One caveat: Do NOT test it on your pets.  That's all I'll say about that.  Or find a running partner.  Or take your dog with you.  Or get a teardrop tattoo underneath your eye.  That will scare any would-be-attacker into thinking twice.

Start with a step back in time, to a 4 and 6 for your first workout.  Then reverse it, and do two 30-minute workouts of 6 minutes of running followed by 4 minutes of walking.  

Week Six:

So you think you're a runner, eh?  Yeah, you are.  You ain't no Dean Karnazes or Roger Bannister, but you're tough like those guys.  You get up, you do the workouts, and you just... keep... getting... better.  

Begin the week with your 6 and 4 from last week.  Then do two workouts (30 min. each still) of 7 and 3.

If you're ending your workouts with the feeling that you can run farther, that's a good sign.  It means that your strength and confidence are improving.  Wahoo!  Have a beer or two this weekend, and celebrate your badness.

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Week Seven:

...movin' on up, to the East side...  You have made some incredible progress this far.  Sa-weet!

This week you're probably ready to let loose, and go for the full ten minutes.  But don't.  OK, go for it.  You'll probably love it, and never run for less than ten minutes again.  But if you want to stick to the incremental increases you've grown accustomed to, fine.  Do two 7/3s, and then push it to 8/2.  Next week will be the big one, anyways.  Get ready.  :)

By the way, how were those beers from the weekend?  They especially taste great immediately following a run.  Beer is a great post-run beverage, by the way.  I've been holding out on you, I know.  I'm sorry, but it was for your own good.  You can also refuel well with chocolate milk (8-16 oz) or a can of Coke.  For real, try it.  Just don't forget to drink some plain water, too.

Week Eight:

By now you've developed some pretty impressive stamina.  You're probably looking better, feeling more energized, and thinking more clearly than you can remember.  

Those are some of my absolute favorite reasons for running.  Sexy, you are.

Start your week with a nice, easy 8/2.  30 minutes of that, and call it a day.  Rest up now, little runner.

Next, hit your stride with a 9/1.  Really?!?  A nine minute run, followed by a one minute walk?  Why bother?

Wow, that was a strong reaction.  But, you're right.  Go for it.  10/0.  It's all yours.  You can taste the sweat now.  Feel the victory as your watch beeps the ten-minute mark.  Raise your fists above your head and shout, "I... am... a... RUNNER!"

The first time I ran for ten minutes straight, I knew then that I would bo on to run many more miles.  And I knew that if I could run for ten minutes, I could run indefinitely.   

I've since run numerous races, from 5K to 50K, and everything in between.  I even took 1st place in my Age Group once.  That was freakin' awesome.  You can do it, too.

Your training isn't over.  You've got a race to run, remember?  And it's not just one mile, it's three-point-one.

If you have more time between now and your 5K race, go ahead and keep pushing the limits.  You might try the following, and try to improve them over time:

  • measure how long it takes for you to run a mile
  • time yourself at a local track running the 1/4 mile
  • pick an especially challenging part of your course, and time yourself running it
  • how long you can run at a single stretch

If, however, this training plan wraps up at the same time as your schedule race, don't sweat.  Just get out there and run your mile.  You may surprise yourself and run the entire race!

On to the race day...

The Basics

Build your running foundation

If you follow this training plan, you're certain to make it to your 5K fully prepared.

First, get dressed.  Your neighbors don't want to see you running naked.  No cotton.  Ever.  Buy running clothes that are made of wicking material (usually polyester) such as Under Armour or something.  If you want a watch, get one.

Second, get outside.  Often the biggest challenge is just lacing up the shoes and getting on the other side of the door.  Push past this fear.  You're a winner, you can beat that doorknob.  Heck, it can't even turn itself, I bet.

Third, eat well.  Training to run this short of distance doesn't require any high-tech protein shakes, super-over-carbo-loading, raw eggs, or anything else.  Just eat healthy amounts of healthy food, and your body will take care of the rest.  Garbage in, garbage out.  You can take a multivitamin if you like, but nothing more.

Fourth, hydrate.  Don't waste money on silly sugary drinks.  Just drink water.  If you follow a sensible diet, you'll have enough nutrients you need to repair and strengthen your body. 

And fifth, get plenty of rest and avoid excessive alcohol.  'nuff said.

Race Day

Prepare properly for your big debut

The night before your big race you won't be able to sleep.  That's normal, especially if you're properly prepared, as I've taught you here.

Go to bed at a reasonable time, factoring in that you may not fall asleep easily.  Drink a cup of tea, or some warm milk, whatever helps you relax.  Avoid excess sugars and alcohol, however.  They'll drag you down.  And don't bother carbo-loading.  While this is a momentous event in your life, hopefully the first of many races, it's only 3.1 miles.  Even the fastest runners' bodies don't switch to glycogen burning over this short distance.  Eat a regular meal, hydrate well with plenty of water, and call it a day.  

You've done your homework, and tomorrow you'll turn in your assignment.

Wake up early, and check the weather.  Your body warms up about twenty degrees while exercising, so add twenty degrees to the current temperature and dress accordingly.  You can always ditch any extra layers you've taken with you, so don't be afraid to throw on a light shell to keep you warm before the race.

Eat a small breakfast, whatever you're used to eating for breakfast.  If you don't normally eat breakfast, shame on you.  Go back to the beginning of the training, and start all over.  This time, eat breakfast.  Breakfast helps you focus throughout the day, increases your metabolism, and helps you manage your weight.

Go to the restroom before you leave your house.  Trust me on this one.

Show up to the race about an hour early, maybe more.  Parking will likely be crazy, so be prepared to walk a ways to get to the starting line.  

Once you reach the starting line, move towards the back of the pack.  More experienced runners will plow you over if you start off too slow, and it's poor form to start at the front for your first 5K race.  Personally, I like starting at the back of a race, because as I have improved my running form, I am able to pass more runners during the race, which you'll also find very motivating.  

Races are usually kind of like carnivals without the attractions.  There's a lot of people around, from all walks of life.  Some have their stuff together, and some don't.  Just have fun.  There won't be funnel cakes, but you might get a donut or some other reward at the finish line.

As the race gets going, remember to be patient.  You started at the back for a reason, and you'll get moving soon enough.  And you may be tempted to go all out.  Races tend to bring out the competitive side of people.  This is fine, for sure.  You'll learn how hard you can push while running the 5K, usually by pushing too hard.  If it gets super hard, just slow down.  Walk if you have to.  Just promise yourself you'll get running again after one minute.  All that training was for you to run the race, so run it, and have fun!

If you wore a watch, you can count your official time by starting your stopwatch as you cross the starting line.  Many races time both chip and mat time (if using timing chips), but the time that really matters to you is how long it takes you to run the 5K distance.  

Enjoy the race.  That's all I can say.  It will be tough, and the weather may suck.  People will pass you that don't look like they could drive five miles.  It's okay.  You're there for your own health, and learn to enjoy the experience.

Remind yourself of your motivation if you need to, and be sure you focus on finishing.  

After the race, grab a snack, get some water, and go celebrate.  Put your race shirt on, and wear it proudly.

You earned it, you runner, you! 

Now go sign up for your next race.

For additional encouragement, read The Courage To Start: A Guide To Running for Your Lifeby John Bingham.  It's an excellent reminder of why runners run.

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