How to Go From Sedentary to Running in Five Steps

By Leo Babauta

As a runner, there is almost nothing in this world that can take me to the places that running does. I find solitude in my running, I find my thoughts and my peace, I find energy and motivation, I come up with my best ideas and solve my toughest problems. Running transforms me.

I try to encourage others to run, but even if they want to do it, they don’t know how.

Today, I’m going to give you my advice (as an intermediate runner, not an expert) on how to go from sitting on the couch to being a true runner. I won’t say that it’ll be easy, especially in the beginning. But I will say that it won’t kill you (assuming you don’t have major health problems) and that it will get easier and even fun in a few short weeks.

I will start with the standard disclaimer: Before starting this program, get checked out by a doctor, especially if you have any health risks, such as heart or lung problems, major diseases, pregnancy, or the like.

If you’re fit enough to walk for 20 or 30 minutes, you should be able to do this program.

The Benefits of Running

Why should you even consider doing this program (or running at all)? Lots of reasons. Just a few to start with:

  1. You’ll get healthier. There are other ways to get healthy, of course, including dozens of other types of exercises. But running is one great way. If you stick to a moderate running program, I can almost guarantee that you’ll get slimmer and your heart will get stronger and your cholesterol will go down. Your diet is a big factor, of course, but more on that in the next benefit.
  2. You’ll eat better. When you start running — and this can take a few weeks or more — you start to realize that what you eat is fuel. And you realize that burgers and fries and soda are not the best fuel. So you start to eat cleaner fuel, and it can start to be a lifetime habit. This doesn’t always happen, but I’ve seen it happen a lot. It may take awhile before you get a really clean diet, but the desire to change starts relatively soon.
  3. You’ll want to quit smoking. It’s hard to keep smoking if you really get into running. Some people keep smoking while running, but I’ve seen tons of runners who quit smoking, because they know that smoking doesn’t jibe with their lifestyle. If you’re looking for a good way to quit, start with running.
  4. You’ll find solitude. In the hectic bustle of everyday life, many people have trouble finding time for themselves, time to think and to find peace. Running will become your oasis of peace, a time you look forward to each day.
  5. Races are super fun. Once you’ve been running for a month or two, you should sign up for a 5K. It’ll be a great time. The camaraderie among runners, slow and fast, young and old, is a wonderful thing. The feeling of accomplishment when you cross the finish line is unbeatable. And after awhile, you might try 10Ks, half marathons, maybe even a marathon. There’s nothing like doing road races.
  6. You’ll lower your stress levels. It beats smoking, drinking, vegging out in front of the television, almost anything else I can think of, for getting rid of the stresses of your life.
  7. You’ll think better. Running is the time when my mind is clearest. It’s hard to really think about things when you have the noise of the modern world around you, but when you’re alone on the road, you can’t help but think in silence.
  8. You’ll find the warrior within you. There is something about running that transforms you. In the beginning, it can be very difficult, and there will be times when you feel like stopping, but if you can beat that little negative voice inside you that wants to stop, you will learn that you can beat anything. Running will teach you to overcome your doubts and negativity, and that’s a gift that will take you to new heights in anything you do.

The Rules

Before we start, I’d like to offer a few rules:

  1. Start small. This is mandatory. Many people make the mistake of starting too hard, and they get burned out or injured or discouraged within a couple of weeks. This program is designed to get you running for life, so if you have lots of enthusiasm when you start, that’s great — but you MUST rein it in and start small. That enthusiasm that you have to hold back will keep you going for much longer if you don’t spend it all the first week.
  2. Increase gradually. Another mandatory rule. If you don’t follow this rule, you shouldn’t follow the program. Trust me, I know how it feels like the rules of increasing gradually don’t apply to you … I made that mistake when I started out and got injured. Your mind (and even your heart and lungs) might be able to handle doing more, but your legs might not. It takes awhile for your muscles and tendons and ligaments and joints to adjust to the stress of running, and if you progress to rapidly, you’ll get injured. Increase but very gradually.
  3. Enjoy yourself. Very mandatory. If you don’t enjoy yourself, you’ll never stick with it. So try to have as much fun as possible. Enjoy getting fit and healthy! Enjoy burning off your fat! Enjoy the sweat! Enjoy the relaxation of burning off stress! Running should be fun, not torture.
  4. If you can, get a partner. This is not really a rule but a suggestion — if you can find a reliable partner, it makes it a bit easier. First, having someone to talk to while you walk (and later run) makes the time go by extremely quickly. Second, if you make an appointment to meet that person for your walk (or run), you’re more likely to stick to the appointment rather than wimp out.

The Five Steps

OK, here are the five steps to becoming a runner. There are some rough timeframes in each step, but the real rule is to increase only when you feel ready, and no sooner. If you need longer for a step, take longer. There’s no rush. But if you think you can do it sooner, I would suggest that you not.

Step 1: Start walking. Start out by walking just 3 times the first week, and four times the second. The first week, you only need to do 20-25 minutes. Increase to 25-30 minutes the second week. After this, you can graduate to the next step, or if you’d like to stay in this step for a week or two longer, that’s OK. If you stay longer, walk 4 times the third week, 30-35 minutes each time. The fourth week, stay at 4 times, but increase to 35-40 minutes.

Step 2: Start run/walking. Do this step very gradually, just a little more each time. For this step, you’ll continue to exercise 4 times a week. You want to warm up by walking for 10 minutes. Then do a very, very easy run/walk routine: jog lightly for 1 minute (or 30 seconds if that seems too hard), then walk for 2 minutes. Repeat these intervals for 10-15 minutes, then do a 10-minute walking cool down. Do this step for two weeks, or longer if you like.

Step 3: Lengthen the running. Once you’re comfortable running for a minute at a time, for several intervals each time you exercise, you’re ready to start running a little longer. Continue to exercise 4 times per week. Increase your running to 1 minute 30 seconds, with an equal walking (1:30 running, 1:30 walking) for 15 minutes. Do this a couple times or more, then increase running to two minutes, with walking for 1 minute. Do this a few times or more, then increase to running 2:30, walking 30 seconds to a minute. If any of these increases feels too hard, feel free to go back a step until you’re comfortable increasing. Don’t rush it. You should stay in this step for 2-3 weeks or more.

Step 4: Follow the Rule of 9. Once you start Step 3 above, you’re basically running with short walk breaks. This can seem difficult, but it’ll get easier. Commit to doing 9 running workouts in Step 3 … after that, it’ll get easier. The first 9 running workouts can be difficult, but after that, it almost always gets better and more enjoyable. Don’t quit before the 9 running workouts! After the 9, try running with only infrequent walk breaks.

Step 5: Take your running to new levels. First of all, celebrate! You’re now a runner. You might be walking a little during your runs, but there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, feel free to keep doing walk breaks as you work on your running endurance. Some runners have been known to do a marathon with walk breaks, running 10 minutes and walking 1 minute. That’s completely fine. Eventually you probably won’t need the walk breaks, but no need to rush.

In this step, you want to continue taking your running to new levels. There are a number of ways to do this:

Most of all, enjoy your runs!