Noakes on starting out in running

Posted by Dave on August 30, 2011 | 9 Comments

Lore of Running

930 pages of science!

This summer I’m reading Tim Noakes’ massive volume Lore of Running, bit by bit, then reporting the critical bits back to you. Last week I covered the ideal running drink: What Noakes believes is the best way to hydrate and fuel up during runs.

Leave it to Tim Noakes to save information for beginning runners until page 258 of his book! While the first part of the book covered the limits of elite runners, in this part he goes back to square one and explains what it takes for a beginner to get started in running.

So what is the best way to get started as a runner? Walking, says Noakes. If you are completely inactive, Noakes doesn’t recommend running at all until week 4 of your training program, and then only for 5 minutes on a single day. Noakes says that stress fractures are the most common injury of beginning runners, and the easiest way to get a stress fracture is to overtrain. Here’s Noakes’ table of the first 20 weeks of a training program designed to ease newbies into running:

The amount of each workout is given in minutes (W=walking and R=running), and as you can see, it’s not until week 13, about three months in, that the time spent running exceeds the time spent walking. It takes nearly four months to get to the point where a new runner is actually running for all of her or his workouts. Noakes based this chart on his own research introducing runners to the sport, eventually bringing many of them up to the level of finishing the 56-mile Comrades ultra-marathon.

This may seem exceedingly conservative, but it also matches my own experience. People who leap straight into running tend to get frustrated, injured, or both. Once they have built that foundation, they actually progress much faster. In Noakes’ case, many runners were able to complete a marathon 26 weeks after this initial training schedule.

The second key to getting started as a runner is figuring out how to motivate yourself, and this depends on how intrinsically motivated you are already. If you are naturally a very driven, focused person, the difficulty may be in trying to do too much and getting injured. For most people, however, motivation will require some work of its own.

Here Noakes emphasizes social support. Running with a supportive group, and having the backing of friends and family, go a huge way towards helping new runners get started and continue to make progress. Having well-defined, achievable goals (“complete a 5K after 20 weeks,” “run at least 5 days a week”) also helps.

I was a casual runner for decades, until five years ago when I started running with a partner who helped me complete my first half-marathon. Then a year and a half ago, I joined a running club in my town, and this group helped me lose 40 pounds and finish two marathons! Since joining this group I’ve seen many other runners move from being beginners to enthusiastic regular runners.

One area where running clubs can be problematic, however, is if there is pressure for runners to overtrain. Noakes has developed what he calls “The 15 Laws of Training,” designed to build solid running habits. I’ll discuss the first 8 today, then cover the rest in a later post:

1. Train frequently, all year-round. It’s tough to be successful if you stop running for months at a time; when you restart you may be building back from square 1. That said, taking a couple months off per year is probably not a bad idea either, as long as the rest of the time the training is consistent.

2. Start gradually and train gently. This is a huge key to avoiding injury, as mentioned above.

3. Train first for distance, later for speed. Indeed, most of your training should be at a relatively slow pace–just putting in miles. Once you’ve built up to a reasonable distance you can work, just a couple days a week, on getting faster.

4. Don’t set your daily training schedule in stone. If injury or other mishaps occur, you need to be flexible enough to adapt. I have a training schedule I follow, but I’ll drop portions of workouts (especially speed workouts) if I’m not feeling 100%. Weather and other events may force you to move workouts, and that’s fine too.

5. Alternate hard and easy training. Hard workouts probably cause some minor muscle damage, and so it’s important to have easy workouts in order to give yourself time to recover. But individual recovery times vary, from as little to 24 hours to 3 days or more.

6. Achieve as much as possible on a minimum of training. As you train more, your returns diminish and your chance of injury increases. It’s doubtful that training more than 10 hours per week is useful for any a typical runner.

7. Don’t race when in training or run at race pace for distances above 16K (10 mi). Basically the advice here is to race infrequently, especially for marathon and longer distances. I know many runners who race frequently, nearly every week, but what they really are doing is using shorter 5- to 10K runs as speed training, and in general they run marathons much less often.

8. Specialize. This advice may matter less for recreational runners than for serious athletes but it is true to some extent that training hard for one sport diminishes our ability in another. There is even evidence that runners who were successful in their 20s and 30s will not dominate among their same-age peers when they are in their 40s and 50s: The sport has probably taken too much out of them. The most successful masters-level runners typically took up the sport later in life.

Noakes has more tips for new runners, but they will have to wait until next week.

Noakes, T. (2003). Lore of Running (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.


9 Responses to “Noakes on starting out in running”

  1. Mike
    August 31st, 2011 @ 12:13 am

    Great post! I always recommend to new runners to take it easy at first. My personal advice has always been to start out with a 1/4 mile, and bump it up in 1/4 mile increments from there.

  2. Adrian
    August 31st, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

    Does the 10hr/wk also apply to ultrarunners? If you do a couple longer runs during the week and a long run on the weekend, it’s easy to top 10hrs.

  3. Dave
    August 31st, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

    Great question, Adrian!

    The 10-hour “rule” is a really rough guideline, a very quick summary of a section that goes on for several pages. What you need think about is both volume and intensity of training. If you rate your workout on a scale of 1-10, then multiply that by the number of minutes you work out per week, you get a number that you can think of as a “training load.” Once this number passes 3,000, then for most runners there are diminishing returns and increasing risks. You can get to 3,000 by doing 10 hours (600 minutes) of moderately hard workouts (a “5” on the scale), or by doing 25 hours of easier workouts (a “2” on the scale).

    Ultrarunners tend to train (and race) at a much higher volume and lower intensity, and so it still works out for them even though they are putting in more than 10 hours per week.

    But the capacity of a runner to handle longer training hours varies by individual. Ultimately every runner needs to set a training volume themselves by carefully tracking progress and seeing when their own returns begin to diminish.

  4. Josh
    August 31st, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

    WOW! That walking chart blows my mind, and I think it is indicative of the car culture in the US. I live and work in a small city. Even if I wasn’t a runner, I get WAY MORE walking in than this chart just going to and from work five days a week. When I factor in doing an errand or two (also on foot) I can easily have over an hour of walking several days a week (in addition to my running routine) without calling it exercise.

    It just baffles my mind that some Americans need instructions and a chart just to get in a few hours of walking a week. I wish more people would consider the negative effects of their car culture.

  5. Dave
    August 31st, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

    Good points, Josh. Someone who already does a lot of walking could probably safely start in Week 7 of this program.

    BTW, the “car culture” isn’t just an American problem. Noakes does his research in South Africa, and according to the study I discussed a few days ago, 54% of Taiwanese get *no* exercise!

  6. Adrian
    August 31st, 2011 @ 4:06 pm

    Thanks for the clarification Dave, that makes a lot of sense. For a while I tried taking more rest days but my endurance suffered so now I do several longer runs during the week where I keep a close watch on my breathing and heart rate and make sure neither get too high. That way I get more time on my feet and can still do a couple days with some intense hill climbing. It’s good to know that I might be doing something right (or at least not too wrong :) )

    re walking: The first time I tried to run, I had great cardio and was doing 4-8 hr bike rides but a short 1km jog left me breathless and cramping because I was so unused to that particular motion. I didn’t try running again for ten years. Car culture or no, I was a young, fit bike rider and I would still have benefited from a gentle progression.

  7. Donell
    March 4th, 2012 @ 12:30 am

    Hi dave i found this chart really interesting right now i can run around 15 minutes straight on a treadmill with a slight incline at 5.5 miles an hour but i really want to improve faster can i skirt out on the rest days?

  8. Tyler
    April 10th, 2012 @ 11:34 am

    Hopefully this was reprinted with permission. It’s an incredible book and worth buying.

    The table should be taken in context of the entire chapter and there are other programs in the book to consider…this is just one. If I recall, this program was part of a large study (not sure if Noakes was the lead researcher) and it used subjects who were “completely sedentary” (or something to that effect). I’ve never understood if that meant desk job, inactive lifestyle, couch potato but the main point is that, without a solid foundation of walking, the body will break down at weeks 9-12(?) with significant injury. I think he states that this is demonstrated in multiple studies. So you could risk running sooner and you may not have injuries; is it worth the risk?

  9. Marnix
    July 6th, 2012 @ 9:57 am

    What about day 7 in week 19? Seems a typo. 20 min? 30 min?