Coach Mike Mead

Starting a Running Program - Part III - December 2004
(NOTE: This is the third of a four-part series of articles for the beginning runner. I originally wrote the articles in 1996 for a now defunct monthly publication.)


In Part I of this series about starting a running program, I discussed the varying motivations that get people to run. Most folks do it for health reasons, but staying motivated to run is a very challenging chore.

Running provides many physical and psychological benefits to those folks who maintain a consistent workout schedule. Maintaining this schedule is another matter. Over the years, I’ve found the best motivation for me is competitive running. That’s how I got hooked into running.

Competitive running opens up additional possibilities regarding motivation. I find it harder staying motivated to run when I’m not pointing for a competitive run, be it a road race, cross country meet or track meet. That’s why it is important to have running goals – to give direction and purpose. As I stated in my first installment, losing weight or looking good are vague motives to run or exercise. That’s what I like about competitive running.

Running races provides you with added challenges and goals. No matter the size of the race, your toughest competitor will always be yourself. I don’t always worry about the competition. The focus many times will be on performance or time. You might, say, run a 5K where 50 people finish ahead of you. However, you run 30 seconds faster than your goal time. Now that is a satisfying performance! The end result ultimately comes down to how well you prepared and how you handle the challenge.


Once you’ve gotten beyond the Shakespearean, “To run, or not to run” dilemma, you might want to give competitive running a try. I do not recommend rushing right out and jump into the next available road race. Just like constructing a home, one must have a solid base to build upon. By base, I mean you need to have logged many months of consistent running.

The more common racing distance these days is the 5K (3.1 miles for the metric-impaired). The 10K (6.2 miles) is still a good distance to race, but requires more stamina and dedication to training. For the first time racer, I recommend a 5K. The distance is short enough to enjoy while allowing recovery time that does not throw off your training schedule. However, if you believe three miles is too long, you are not mentally ready to race this distance.


Once you have gotten about six month’s worth of consistent running, you can begin preparing for a particular race. Don’t pick a race at the last minute. Give yourself a few weeks (at least three or four) to fine-tune your training. In those few weeks leading up to the race, work on some speed.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “Speed kills.” If you are not prepared to handle speed, you will be the one getting murdered. You can also be “hurt” by those who use it to their advantage – those experienced racers who live for speed.

The best place to work on speed is at a local (high school, recreation or college facility) running track. A common workout for those who run 5K’s is going to a track and running repeat, or intervals, of 400’s (one lap around). If you have never done such a workout, start out by running half (200m) a lap and walking the rest of the way around back to where you started. Repeat this until you’ve completed four laps. Then work up to doing an entire lap four times. The veteran racers may do anywhere from 10 to 24 of these 400’s. Experienced racers vary the distance for each speed session, depending on the time of the season in their training, from 200 meters to two miles.

Before beginning any speed workout, run easy for 10-15 minutes. You will want to run each 400 slightly faster than you will average for an entire 5K. You will need to run relaxed and be consistent so that you are able to run the complete workout. In between each 400, walk or jog for at least a minute. It’s best to check your heart rate that can be done by counting the number of beats within six seconds, than multiple by 10. You are ready to run the next 400 when your heart rate reaches 120. If it’s below 120, you’ve rested too long. The time between each 400 should be fairly consistent. As you get stronger, you can shorten the rest for a more challenging workout. When you have completed the workout, be sure to do another 10-15 minute run and finish with some stretching.

The key to doing speed is training your body to handle it. Just like any aspect of running, the more you do it, the easier it will eventually get. Beginners should only do one speed session per week and work up to no more than three per week. Speed can also hurt you if you do too much.

If you do not have access to a track on a weekly basis, there are other forms of speed training that can benefit you just as well. One form is call “fartlek” a Swedish word meaning “speed play.” Fartlek is incorporated into a distance run of four to nine miles. After running for 10-15 minutes, begin to throw in some steady bursts of speed. You can determine the length of the speed by time (say, three minutes hard, then three minutes easy) or distance like light pole-to-light pole, or from mailbox-to-mailbox. The idea of this type of speed work is to simulate racing conditions which often times finds the pace shifting with surges.

Once you have done some speed training, you should be confident going into your race. Our final installment of this series will deal with final prepping for that first race.