Couch to Marathon: Getting From Zero to Running

I was never an athlete, except for a brief burst of activity when I was in eight and ninth grade. Other than that, I’ve been closer to a couch potato for my first 30 years. Last spring, after my 30th birthday, that changed. Today, I want to share how normal, non-athletes like us can go from couch potato to running the Chicago Marathon in 18 months.

Get Running

Steve Jobs, the visionary who created the iPhone, gets a lot of credit for my running. So do the developers of the Get Running iPhone app. The app does what I could never do on my own: it got me started really slowly. Three days  a week, you put on your running clothes, pop in your headphones, and run when the app tells you. In the first week, you spend just eight minutes running and about 15 walking each day. No run is longer than 90 seconds. The first day felt easy.

Over nine weeks, the program slowly increases the duration of the runs. There were two or three days during the program where I felt I was pushing myself. That was the exception. On most runs I felt like I could not only do that activity, but I could run more if I wanted. But I didn’t. I held back and followed the program.

Ten weeks after I began, I did my first 5k, the Ohio City Run & Crawl, and finished in 25 minutes and 59 seconds. I felt good physically and fabulous mentally. Three miles felt like a marathon, but I did it. The bar crawl that followed was fun, too.

Racing Matters

When a friend suggested that we run a 10k, I told her she was nuts. 6.2 miles is a lot farther than 3.1. The thought of finishing the 5k and running back the way we came was madness. In a moment of weakness, I registered for the Towpath 10k. I knew if I signed up, I’d do it. The fall run takes you through the densely wooded Cuyahoga Valley and along the Ohio Canal as the most gorgeous fall colors surround you.

Signing up for a race kept me going. I looked at the calendar, mapped out how far I’d need to prepare, and got started. Without an event to shoot for, I wouldn’t go on. If you are looking to get in shape, my biggest recommendation is to pick a race and signup. Without it, it’s too easy to slack off when you’re feeling tired.

I’ve been surprised by races. When I signed up, I was worried about being slow and embarrassed. I was worried about looking like a failure. But now I know better. The running community is full of people at every level, shape and size. It’s not competitive, but cooperative. Everyone is there in a spirit of unity. No matter how slow you feel, you’ll be welcomed and supported. So don’t be afraid to register: sign up with a smile. It may seem inconceivable, but it will be fun.

Running Alone Is a Bit Boring

For me, running long distances alone (unless I’m exploring a new city on vacation) is intolerable. I think too much about the running and can’t quite relax. Runs seem to take forever.

As you look for a race, look for a running buddy. Running with a friend is a great time to talk and bond. Even running quietly next to someone else is motivating. When you both reach a hill and feel like slowing down, you look at each other in your peripheral vision and keep on moving. Somehow it’s easier to know that you’re not doing it alone.

It’s also nice to have a friend to share your successes.

If you have trouble finding a running buddy, call or visit a store that specializes in running shoes. Most of them have running clubs. You meet up with a group and enjoy a leisurely, low-pressure run. It’s fun, laid back, and supportive.

Advanced Tips

  • Get a hydration belt for long runs. I used this FuelBelt.
  • Practice eating carbohydrates on long runs (over 90 minutes). I would have one little Shot Blok square every 15 minutes-ish starting around 45 minutes into my run. I never hit the wall in the marathon.
  • After long runs, try taking an ice bath! Get in the bath, fill it with cold water, then add ice. (Ice is optional, I only used it for really long runs over 13 miles.) I found that my body felt much, much, much better after an ice bath and it’s only touch for the first few minutes. Although you look funny with your legs in ice, wearing a sweatshirt and cap, and drinking coffee. 🙂