Couch to the Summit

Icon Collap
Home / Training Science Series #4 - Advice for Beginner Runners

Training Science Series #4 - Advice for Beginner Runners


This is an article series designed to help further educate my Performance Coaching clients. I am releasing it in this article series to help educate more people to create a life of health and adventure. If you are interested in getting fitter -- irrespective of whether you are a novice or regular athlete -- then please read through this series and learn more about the endurance training process. I welcome you onboard as your performance coach to help guide you to the summit of your athletic potential!

Training Science Series: Why We Focus on Capacity Training…to Eventually Go Really Fast

Part One - Introduction

Part Two - The Utilization Problem

Part Three - Overtraining Syndrome (OTS)

Part Four - Advice for Beginner Runners

Part Five - Aerobic vs Anaerobic Fitness

Part Six - The Aerobic Base - Capacity Training 101

Part Seven - The New Science of Fat Adaptation

Part Eight - Introduction to Threshold Training

Part Nine - A Brief Introduction to Heart-Rate Zone Training

Part Ten - How to Choose Which Zones to Train in Regularly

Part Eleven - Peaking: When to Enter a High Intensity Training Phase

Part Twelve - Keeping the Ego in Check and Sticking to a Long-Term Plan



Part Four - Advice for Beginner Runners


Beginner athletes are most at risk of overdoing utilization training. When novices start running, they have basically zero movement economy and technique, so the demands of running - even the slowest shuffle -- can quickly elevate heart-rate into the high intensity heart-rate zones of utilization training. Therefore, it means some novice runners do almost exclusively utilization training when they begin to run. Compounding this, they also see all these other runners, friends, rivals – on the streets and in races – running so much faster, and assume running even faster, and for longer time, is what they need to do to rise to that level. Without a proper foundation in place, the demands of this type of training regularly ends in disaster.

High levels of fatigue, encourages muscle breakdown and fat accumulation, the opposite outcome of what most people want. Then these same people blame running as a terrible body damaging sport, when in fact, it was their poor application of the correct way to train for running, that was entirely to blame. Often these runners rebound into gym culture HIIT training to lose bodyfat, only to dig deeper into fatigue debt. Then they just give up on exercise entirely. Despite what the gym people say, you can be a strong, lean endurance athlete that retains muscle, keeps off the bodyfat and performs optimally with a high volume of endurance training (See Figure 2). You see these types of people out there occasionally, but it’s not easy to make it to this level.

People who want to start running often do so out of a desire to lose weight and get fit, often starting from the place of a completely sedentary lifestyle. A common choice to elevate from this unhealthy place is to start running again. What beginners don’t realise is that often running is not the place they should start at if they want longevity in running. What would be the optimal strategy for a new runner is working hard to develop movement economy and aerobic capacity first, before trying to take on the more challenging and demanding intermediate level movements such as running. Don’t be ashamed to walk and hike, it’s a key part of my overall approach to staying healthy and getting more time on my feet. I strongly advocate a hierarchy involved in the safe development of running:

Stage 1 Beginner: High volume walking/hiking (lots of hills) with occasional brief slow running intervals;

Stage 2 Intermediate: Regular low-intensity running;

Stage 3 Advanced: Regular low-intensity running with occasional high-intensity.

You don’t start at the intermediate level when learning any skill in life, and running is no different. You cannot learn a new language skipping the basic beginner vocabulary lessons. Without this foundation, nothing in the intermediate lessons are going to make any real sense to you. You are going to be way out of your depth. You might learn a few bits and pieces, but won’t learn the language effectively, and after a period of frustration you will invariably quit.


Figure 2 – Lean but still retaining muscle after three-months of very high-volume long-duration low-intensity days in the European Alps.

Ultimately, safe progress can be made with a strong diet of low-intensity walking and hiking to condition the muscles, ligaments and tendons in the lower body to handle the future demands of running. It’s really hard to convince someone they actually need to stop running and slow down, walk more often first, to actually make optimal running progress in the long-term. Those people who are open-minded and listen, who listen to the experts, who are patient, are the athletes who actually rise above the pack to become the elite.

After a period of developmental capacity training through a solid regime of incremental hiking and walking volume, the longer duration of exercise starts to build more movement economy, fatigue resistance, and aerobic fitness. Then, very short intervals of running can be introduced and built up over time while keeping the athlete below the level of utilization training.

Keeping a beginner athlete in the capacity training zone, substantially lowers the risk of injury because it helps to moderate the impact demands on the body and let the body slowly and carefully adapt to the new forces. The same theory applies with fatigue too, your body will begin to elevate its level of fatigue resistance, so you can handle more volume in future for the same level of perceived effort. You will find that as you increase more volume in training, you won’t go home any more tired than you previously were with lower levels of training. This is how Kilian Jornet can be out all day, go to bed, wake up, and feel fresh enough to go out for another full day, day in, day out.

Most people are not willing to invest the effort into taking a more patient longer perspective approach, but you can quickly leapfrog most other athletes if you take this information onboard.

Next Article -> Part Five - Aerobic vs Anaerobic Fitness