Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Time to Run: A Beginner's Journey Training to Run 5K

I manage to run a 5K. About 3.1 miles. While it was a physical challenge and well beyond my initial capacity, it was by no means an exhausting one. It took me two months of training. It was more a mental and organizational challenge rather than some quest of willpower.

I research it, set the parameters and followed a plan. Over 2 months, I did 23 training sessions that culminated in 35 minutes straight of running.

Here’s the story of why and how I started training to run a 5K. I’m a total beginner. The journey towards this goals has been a rewarding one I want to share.

A Late Train Sprint

“You’re gonna miss you train. You’re gonna miss your train,” I repeated to myself as I sprinted to get to my train gate. I was huffing and puffing. My body hurt. I tried to get there to the best of my ability.

I didn’t make it. In spite of my best efforts as I raced to get there, I missed my train.

A pained look was etched on my face as the attendant closed the gate. I was breathing hard. My brain ached as my heavy blood pulsed through my veins.

Still exhaling deep breaths, I walked to the ticket counter and I exchanged my tickets. I would arrive in Beijing a mere two or three hours later than expected.

From this affair, I realized two things. First, I should give myself more time in the future to arrive at my train on time, and, second, my body was out of shape.

While I’ll do my best next time to arrive earlier, it’s likely I’ll be late for future trains, planes or life’s other departures. We sometimes end up late. It’s unavoidable.

There are times I’ll have to run. We all do. I need to prepare myself.

To The Starting Line: Setting the Goal, Establishing a Plan and Choosing My Tools

With a strong visualization to get in shape, I began to scope out my fitness goal.

After some reading and considerations, on Dec 6, 2015, I set my goal: I would run a 5K by Feb 29, 2016. It’s good to set goals with a deadline, and it was measurable. I wanted to be able to run non-stop for about 35 minutes. 35 minutes is a standard number for completing a 5k.

I have never been a runner nor considered myself one but I am over 30 and I can’t really imagine that I’d be able to run a single mile non-stop let alone 3.1 miles. Tomorrow I’ll take a run and see. No more excuses.

Like all goals, I took some time to consider how to approach this goal. I read a couple of articles on running and training. I latched onto the idea of “couch to 5k,” which was where I considered myself. I was out of shape, but I walk regularly. If others (likely in worse shape than I) had done it, then I too could get to 5K.

The most common plan for “coach potato” training is mixing walking and running. First you’d warm up with 5 minutes of walking. Then, you’d do short bursts of running for 1 or 2 minutes, followed by a few minutes of walking. These cycles were the core of the initial training.

Subsequently, the running sections would get longer and longer. The walking (or walking rest) periods would get shorter and shorter. Depending on the exact system, the training plan itself generally took place over 7 or 8 weeks.

It was a pretty simple plan, and in my case, it worked.

On Dec 7, 2015, I took my first run using the app 5K Pro. In fact there are dozens of apps out there geared towards 5K training. I paid a couple of bucks for this one. Thus I committed to my objective with my cash.

This app worked well since it gave me vocal queues to start running or start walking. It also helped track my mileage and speed as well. While it’s not likely to be the tool I use for running in the future, it was an important aid towards this goal.

For reaching goals, it helps to visualize a specific outcome you want and you should settle on a plan. Tracking is also critical to achieving any goal.

There a lot of ways to track you goals. I journal regularly when I’m working on a goal. It allows me to tell the story to myself and think through the process.

Equally important on measurable goals is to track each “step.” To complete this 5K Plan, it called for 24 training sessions over 8 weeks. So 3 runs per week. After each run, I had the running stats as well as one more notch towards my goal.

The Middle Hurtles: Scheduling, Air Quality Concerns, and Consistency

Often times with new challenges, the hardest part isn’t the beginning or the end; it’s the middle humps. You start strong but fail to find the will or time to keep going.

In my running goal this was also true. There was also a unique China obstacle: air quality concerns.

After an initial push, life caught up with me. I had a period where work and travel made it nearly impossible to find time to run. I was also stuck in some of China’s most polluted cities, like Beijing and Shanghai. So, my training sessions got more spread out.

Interestingly, these break periods gave my body some time to grow. I also did my best to do some body weight workouts to ensure I improved my core strength, especially for my knees.

As a new runner I couldn’t get inspired to run on a gray, smoggy day.

Fortunately at the end of December and through most of Feb, I was able to spend time at my new house in Qingchengshan, outside of Chengdu. It’s one of the five famous Taoist mountains in China. The air and natural, mountain setting were a huge boost to my running routine. I begun running everyday.

Relaxing Running Today (Jan 1, 2016): Today the weather was perfect and my body had reached a nice state where I was able to do a nice short 26 minute run near the mountains. I felt like I had reached a new personal level, which was nice. My body and breathing were comfortable. Mentally I didn’t feel like I was out of my element, which considering a few previous sessions, I was worried about. It’s time to increase the pace/running time. I’m feeling confident I’ll reach a 5K ability within my timeframe.

For me, it’s important to visualize where I’m going and to have the stories of others to inspire and guide me.

There are a lot of books about running, which I hope to one day read. For this goal, I read “Running with Kenyans.” It was an interesting book. It was mostly memoir of a British runner training in Kenya. It contained some simple questions on why Kenyans are the best runners in the world. At my early stage, tt’s interesting to think about the factors, like running technique, diet, daily needs, dedication, culture of professional running, etc.

Reading about running kept my brain on running too, even if I wasn’t physically running.

Ultimately achieving goals is about consistency. What matters most is what you do everyday rather than what you do occasionally.

When you approach a new goal, you should track it, but one other great technique is to schedule it in your calendar. In my case, I made sure that after my first period, all my running sessions were on the calendar.

When the day of running arrived, my step to get started was key: I took off my day clothes and put on my running gear. I didn’t debate what to wear or go through some mental dialogue. I got dressed, put on my running shoes and went running.

I only needed to get to my first cue of putting on my running jacket and I was on the way out the door.

The Finish Line: Upon Finishing My 5K

My first run was Dec 7 and my final 5K run was on Feb 6. I completed this 5K challenge in about 2 months over 24 runs. My body is not quite there yet and I got some small aches, but overall, I made a vast improvement in my endurance and capacity as a runner.

Initially it wasn’t easy to do 5 minutes straight running. I was exhausted after only short runs. I quickly moved up several levels, and I feel like running for 15 minutes is easy now. Things get a bit harder from 20 minutes and more. I feel like this duration of 30 minutes or more is probably where I hit my wall.

My plan, tools, tracking and scheduling systems combined all together to create a solid system. I tracked if I did my running sessions in AskMeEveryDay, and I pulled in my nuanced data into a spreadsheet. The app I used “5K Runner” worked well, especially since it integrated a clear plan and effective vocal cues to run or walk. Putting my running sessions on a calendar gave me a set way to get there. In the end, I reached a physical and mental place where each day felt like a running day and I simply ran.

Looking back at the last 2 months, air quality was a big factor in my considerations to run or not. Periods of work and travel made finding time for running impossible. I had to take a couple breaks during the training since air quality was just too bad where I was. Similarly it’s impossible during certain travel patterns to find time to run.

In the end I did all of my running in Qingchengshan. I think the mountains and atmosphere were helpful. The setting added awe and beauty to the experience. It’s inspiring to run in nature. Happiness is outdoor activities.

Physiologically I think the most interesting change was in my breathing and recovery capacity. Starting off I got pretty tired after only a few minutes or running and it took me a few minutes to recover. This recovery time decreased and decreased. My body has improved. I can’t wait for my next late train sprint. I can do 15 minutes or more of running painlessly now.

Initially, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to make it. Mentally I wasn’t there. I honestly struggled through the initial sessions.

But the simple training plan and increasing sessions and durations effectively trained my body and mind for longer and longer endurance. I gritted my way through the initial sessions and stuck to the plan.

This same period I’ve been training my mind. Through meditation and mindfulness studies, I’ve come to understand much about our mental processes. I’ve taken some steps to become more focused and mindful. It’s made me more content and grateful. Without a doubt, it has strengthened my running. I’m there running. In the moment.

Conclusions: Lessons Learned and What’s Next

Since realizing how out of shape I was and completing this challenge, I discovered a lot about myself and about running. I learned that I can complete physical challenges. It takes many of the same technique I have applied to professional and learning goals.

I have learned a lot of lessons while training for my 5K. Here are a few:

You Have to Walk to Run

When you start running, you won’t just be running. It’s not day 1 run for 20 minutes. In fact, you use walking to get to running full-out. So, to run fully, you have accept walking.

Pick a Plan and Stick to It

There were a lot of plans to choose from when I was researching this goal. All of them had various differences and recommendations. I ended up picking one and stuck to it. I could have pulled this goal off with any of the other choices. So don’t don’t debate systems; stick with one that is good enough.

Consistency Pays Off

The biggest thing with training to run was consistency. You have to put in the time and the sessions. There is no getting around a bit of pain and putting in the time. By consistently showing up and doing the upcoming session, I improved.

Celebrate the Steps, Aim for the Bigger Change

With running like other goals, you should celebrate the small steps and achievements. For me, just surviving the first 3 sessions was an achievement. Each week added to it. In the end, I was visualizing a different and better me and this was the aim that kept me inspired.

Conclusions: What’s next?

As I neared the goal line on this challenge, I got to thinking about how I want to maintain this new activity. I could jump into the next level and start to prepare for a 10k or train for an actual race. This is definitely something I want to do in the coming months.

For now, I want to continue to focus on running as a whole. There are a lot of things to learn and try.

My body is not yet in incredible shape, so I hesitate to start pounding more mileage too fast. My feet, legs and knees need time to strengthen more. I want to get comfortable with the 20~30 minute run and continue to train several times per week. I want to get comfortable with this duration / distance of 5K. Build consistency and depth to this activity.

For tracking, I plan to get more quantified and more analytical. I’ve upgraded my running tools and apps. I’m recording my run times, mileage and split times. My weekly reviews will be about how many sessions and how many total kilometers. I’ll plan from there.

In terms of tech and apps, I am going to try out a few more apps for running. There are a lot out there, so I’d like to see what fits best. I’ve already started Zombies, Run! which is an interesting way to embed a run into a story and offered a way to schedule my next 20 or so sessions.

This running challenge has taught me a lot about myself and my capacities. I’ve reached previous goals but this is my first consciously physical one. I followed through on a plan to attack something I’ve never done. For now I want to continue to craft out how to integrate and enjoy running.

It’s been an amazing journey and I can’t wait for my next run.