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Learning to Run

The most daunting part about triathlon for me, in the beginning (and still), was (is) running.  I think, for the most part, people come to triathlon as runners.  Or swimmers.  Or cyclists.  Me?  Well, I came to triathlon as Choice D, “None of the above.”

But I think there is a natural progression for runners to become triathletes.  And while runners, historically, may not make the best swimmers if they are new to swimming, they survive the transition to triathlon pretty well, sinking legs and zero bodyfat and all.

So here’s the issue.  What happens when you want to run—but you “can’t” run? When you seriously suck at it? When running doesn’t look like running….like… at all?

Well, the non-runner?   She was me.  She, arguably, still is me.  I’m a turtle. But a running turtle, nonetheless.


When I was a little girl, I never ran. I read books and wrote stories. My mother would push me outside, “Go play!” and I would say, “Can I bring my books?”

Enter middle school where all the cool kids were trying out for basketball and volleyball.  I wanted to be cool, so I tried out for all these things. I made the teams (not quite sure how) and I began to run (but only where necessary… in the games and at practice).  My dad was quick to note my terrible running form and scream at me from the bleachers on game day, “Pick up your knees!”  Bless his heart.  My dad who was a hotshot runner in high school had a daughter who dragged her legs behind her like weighted paddles.  I was a great volleyball player (not much running there), and mediocre at basketball (tall, but too tired to score goals from being too exhausted from running down the court).

From learning a little bit about coaching youth triathletes, I found that running is something that is learned and mastered as a child.  So if you didn’t run much as a child, you’re behind the eight ball as a running adult.  I could use this as an excuse.  But I am a triathlete (see that? I said it!)… so by default, that makes me also a runner. So I’m still a work-in-progress on the running myself…  but really who isn’t?

Another Mother Runner! @dimityontherun

But here’s the thing… over the last four years, my running has greatly improved. Four years ago, I couldn’t run a mile without stopping. And I could never go out and truck for 10, 12, or 14 miles.  Now, I can.  Slow and steady, and get it done.  When I want to go fast, I can easily do a 5k in under thirty minutes.  And when I want to Fartlek (excuse me!), I have seen a 7 minute mile pace. (It was quick. I fartlek’d).  So overall, I have grown as a triathlete and a runner.

But starting out running? As a newbie?  Wow.  It’s tough.  Seriously, tough.

I receive emails all the time: “I’m new to running. I can’t run at all. How do I start running?”

So I thought I’d write a little blog post from non-runner to non-runner about how to become a runner–no matter how slowly you go.

First, throw out all expectations of what it is to be a runner.  Get yourself a nice shoe fitting, a cute running top and socks that wick–and decide that you (yes, you) are a runner.  Because you are (or you will be, very very soon).

Second,  start slowly and be patient with yourself.  Seriously.  Do not attempt to go from the couch to a half marathon in a week. It won’t happen. That’s like the binge diet of triathlon training. You may run thirteen point one miles, but you’ll end up in the ER or on the injured list.  Furthermore, getting on the treadmill and busting balls for three minutes is not going to get you anywhere either.  First, it will be crazy discouraging.  Next, you won’t train your aerobic engine either–so you’re not going to get any better aerobically.

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If in doubt, jazz hands help.

So what then?  Well, take your time and run slowly (Zone 2 training, as it is called—keeping your heart rate in Zone 2 or in the “Carry a Conversation” zone), which will build your aerobic engine.  Keep at this for weeks and weeks. If you are coming straight off the couch, especially. Work hard to build a solid foundation of aerobic “base,” good running form and habits.  Read more about heart rate training here.

Yes, sometimes this means that your “run” is going to be a walk.  I mean it.  Walk until you can jog without being breathless.

Going slow does work. If you structure your training in a methodical way, the simple adaptations to your body will happen to make you a better runner. Eventually, the speed and distance (and speed over distance) will follow.  Once you nail some “going slow” training, you can start building in some intervals, speed work and fun things like Fartlek’ing to build your anerobic and fast engine. (Yes, I said it again!).


Next, leave your mirrors (or other reflective surfaces) at home.

Do not worry about what you look like when you are running.  Pay attention to your running form–yes–but do not think about what faces you are making, what body part is jiggling, or what the kids on the bus are laughing at.  (It is probably you… just let it go.)

This sport is not always the prettiest. Just get out there and be you–the new runner.

Work on staying positive and consistent in training.  The more you run, the better you will be.  Of course, don’t run everyday. Three times a week is great for triathlon training, and even you can add in some shorter runs after the bike, to get the body accustomed to running off the bike, up to as much as five times a week (and by short, I mean 10-20 minutes off the bike).

Time to brrrrrrr.... I mean, run. :)

Finally, wrap your mind around the fact that you are a runner.

“I only ran for 3 minutes.”  So what!? You ran, didn’t you?  The biggest part of this sport is mental. You must believe that you can–what you believe, you will acheive.  If you say you can’t run–then guess what? You can’t.

The definition of a runner?  “A person, thing or animal that runs.”

Well, there you go.  Whether you are human or thing–if you go for a run, you are a runner.  Start acting like one. 🙂


  • Karen

    December 3, 2014 at 3:06 pm

    Thank you for this! I consider myself a failed runner, but I keep trying! It’s so great to hear the stories of others who went from failed runner to awesome triathlete!

  • Kim

    December 3, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    This is me! I came to the sport a swimmer and beginner cyclist. And I still have difficulty running. I collapsed in tears of frustration after my last run because I felt I wasn’t improving. This honestly makes me feel that I’m not alone!

  • Nancy

    December 3, 2014 at 3:34 pm

    I am sooo this person. Definitely a swimmer, and a “decent” cyclist. Age 55, and have competed in about 5 mini-tri’s and LOVED the experience. but last year, I pooped out. I NEED to get back on the Tri-wagon this summer 2015, so I feel the need to train all winter. I live in Michigan, so the roads become icy and treacherous. What to do?!?!? No gym membership 🙁 I do have an elliptical ~ altho. it is a bit dusty right now, from inactivity 🙁 Need to find some motivation and way to train! HELP.

    • strollerfreak

      December 3, 2014 at 4:38 pm

      Elliptical your pretty little heart out Nancy! Or walk in the winter if you don’t feel comfortable running outside. If this means you walk laps at the closest mall, or, gasp Wal-Mart…then do it. Heaven forbid someone actually do something healthy inside the Wal-Mart, and omgosh I’m sure you would be dressed more appropriately than at least several of the patrons of the store while you are in there exercising! If you are willing to go a little crazy, visit a local running store and ask them for YakTrax…they are made for running outside in the ice & snow and give you traction.
      Winter in Michigan *can* be daunting…I know, I live here too…look for a local running group, there may be one on Facebook for where you are, and if there isn’t, start one! 🙂
      (I could possibly be the “zero body fat sinking legs runner” Meredith is talking about…along with others out there…oh lawdy give me my wetsuit or give me death!)

      • Nancy

        December 5, 2014 at 10:56 am

        THANKS! Getting through this holiday month first, keeping my sanity….(including a side trip out of state, to help elderly parents move, a legal hearing, and oh yeah.. Christmas….) THEN BRING ON THE WINTER ACTIVITY! The WalMart stuff made me laugh… apparently you have BEEN to my local WalMart.

    • SoAnyway

      December 5, 2014 at 10:45 pm

      I run outside all year round here in New England. I love running in the cold. Just need to wear enough layers (but maybe less than you might think). I agree with strollerfreak about the YaxTrax, but find them more useful for ice than deep snow (The snow balls up underfoot more with them on)

  • Joan Bennett

    December 3, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    Fantastic that is so true, I am encouraging my daughter to do a bit more running, and she is starting slowly.
    when she visits me next august we are running in the City2Surf in Sydney, 14k Charity fun run, she has done a 5k fun run so far, and is planning a couple more before her visit.
    Love your blogs.
    cheers JB

  • Heather

    December 3, 2014 at 10:50 pm

    I so needed to hear this right now. I know I need to get out there and just walk (pretty sure that’s what zone 2 is for me) and that doesn’t make me a failure if I can’t run yet. Thanks for the extra motivation!

  • Kaitlin

    December 3, 2014 at 11:12 pm

    I don’t typically post on blogs, etc. but I just had to on this one! I’m new to running and a lot of this hit home for me. Thank you for keeping it all in perspective and you are 100% right: if you run, you’re a runner. My mom says something similar, “at least you put one foot in front of the other.” I’m also not particularly accustomed to running (I was a swimmer and even now much prefer cycling), but 5ks have gotten easier and I feel more confident in my abilities. I’ve been considering training for a triathlon and I think your post has convinced me to do it. Thank you!

  • Beth

    December 4, 2014 at 10:52 am

    I played tennis and volleyball in high school and tennis in college. I always considered myself athletic but not a “runner”. I did what I needed to to get the job done. In my mind I have always wanted to be a runner. I dreamed about it, thought about it, read about it, but never actually did it until two years ago. It was difficult and long to get where I wanted to but now I am going to take on my first half marathon next spring. I need to work on my speed now. I am a fellow sister turtle.

  • jen

    December 8, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    Support helps. Check out your local running shops and local running groups, many of them have a couch-to-5k program. If you’re new to running, starting with someone who’s in the same position gives you a built-in support system. Many of them start out with running for 30 seconds and walking for a minute and build from there. Week one you think you can’t do it, but by week 10 – you’ll be running 3 miles without stopping. Celebrate finish lines not finish times as Meredith would say! (Full disclosure – I coach a C25K program for a local running store in Maryland)


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