How to progress from a Running ‘Beginner’ to ‘Improver’

In this training article (one of many on this site), we look at how runners can progress their running from that of a ‘beginner’ to an ‘improver’. That is, from someone who has gotten through those initial, difficult first running challenges and is now looking to develop their running further.

The first step is to define exactly what it is you mean by ‘improvement’. That all depends on what it is you want to get out of running, or the goals you’ve set yourself. For example, do you want to:

  • Get faster?
  • Run further?
  • Find it easier?
  • Enjoy it more?

The first two can be thought of as physical progression, and the second two are both physical and psychological.

Faster or further

Wanting to run faster or further is probably the classic progression route that people will think of. After all, if you’ve come through the Couch to 5K process, you may find yourself thinking, ‘Could I have run that 5K faster?’ or ‘Could I run further than 5K?’

This is natural because if you capped your Couch to 5K experience off with a parkrun, as many people do, you’ll have received a time and may find yourself wondering if you could reduce that time. Plus, those first few weeks or months as a runner have been about gradually increasing the total amount of time spent running when you go out the door, so you’re likely to carry on with that mindset of adding more mileage, too.

As you will have experienced from Couch to 5K, gradual increases of difficulty are the key to progressing without getting injured.

The need for speed

During Couch to 5K, all your runs will probably have been run at more or less the same pace. To get to the point where you can run a bit quicker, simply add in some slightly quicker running every now and then.

Remember, you want gradual increases of difficulty, so don’t start hammering all your runs as fast as you can. Instead, start by inserting short periods of quicker running into one of your runs a week. At this stage, it doesn’t matter how you do it as any form of ‘speedwork‘ will be a new training stimulus and likely to be of benefit. With this in mind, we suggest mixing things up. Over a period of a few weeks, make one of your runs slightly quicker by rotating through the following options:

  • Surges – Whenever your watch beeps to mark a new mile or kilometre, speed up for a short surge of quicker running, perhaps for 30 seconds, then ease back down to your easy pace.
  • Hill sprints – Find a steep hill and run up it, as fast as you can, for no more than 10 to 15 seconds. Walk back down. Wait until your breathing returns to normal (because you want to be able to stay smooth when sprinting), then try it again. These are tough, so a couple might be enough to start with. As you get more used to hill sprints, half a dozen is a realistic target.
  • Fast finish – As you get near the end of your run, imagine you’re neck and neck with a competitor, racing for a finish line, and accelerate. The first time you do this, keep your sprint finish short, adding in distance as you get used to it. At first, you might manage the distance from the last lamppost to your front door. Eventually, you may find you can start your faster section a mile away from home.

The idea is to introduce your body to the sensations of faster running. Eventually, you’ll find you can add longer segments of speedwork, or perhaps add it to a second run each week. Stick to the 80/20 principle (at least 80% of your running should feel easy) and you should find you’re able to improve without wrecking yourself.

Go far

The other goal many new runners set themself is to increase the distance they can run for. After 5K, 10K seems like a realistic option. This can then lead to half marathons, marathons, and beyond.

To do this, spend time carefully adding extra distance to your runs. If your longest run of the week is currently half an hour, you might find that adding a few minutes each week gets you gently up to the hour mark. This rate of increase will vary from runner to runner, so we’re not going to be specific and say ‘add X minutes each week’.

Instead, use this period of distance progression as an opportunity to learn how to listen to your body. It will tell you if you’re trying to run too far, too soon. If you’re constantly tired, find that aches are turning into pain, or you’re excessively or abnormally sore, then ease off for a bit. Settle back into a lower volume of running that feels comfortable (which might be no running at all for a bit), then, once you’re running pain free, try extending the distance again. You may have to repeat this ‘2 steps forward, 1 step back’ process a number of times, but eventually you will condition your body to withstand the increased distance. By being patient you’ll reduce your chance of picking up an injury.

As well as increasing the distance of your longest run each week, you might consider slightly extending your other, shorter runs too, as these will help with your overall running fitness.

Get off road

Easy and enjoyable

These two points are very closely related, so we’ll consider them together.

It is not uncommon for new runners to say ‘I completed Couch to 5K, but I still don’t enjoy running’. This is often because it still feels hard to do. A new runner may not have built the physical fitness to run 5K comfortably, yet have still managed it by pushing through the pain barrier. For these runners, we would recommend not trying to get faster or run further just yet.

Instead, repeat the last few weeks of Couch to 5K and take some time to get used to running for 30 minutes. Before long, the experience will go from being a painful one-off, to a comfortable, regular occurrence. That’s because your body will continue to get fitter and your effort/pace judgement will improve.

If it still feels too hard to be enjoyable, slow down. Running slower is the single most effective way to make running more fun. Keep your breathing calm and low, to a level where you could hold a brief conversation if necessary.

If this still doesn’t work, and you still don’t like running, consider whether there is something else you could change about your running habits. Here’s some suggestions for things you could try:

  • Get into nature – Explore the wilder reaches of a park, head into the woods, or run up a big hill on the trails. Spending time in nature is proven to improve your mood, so consider combining it with running.
  • Run at different times – Switch up your routine.
  • Headphones or no headphones – If you think you’d appreciate the distraction, get some headphones (bone conducting ones are best for running as you can still hear background noise) and listen to music, a podcast or audiobook. Alternatively, if you’re currently running with sound in your ears, consider unplugging and immersing yourself in your surroundings.
  • Set an alternative challenge – Running is not all about races and fast times. There are other, personal challenges you can complete. For example, try to run on streets in your neighbourhood that begin with each letter of the alphabet. Over a few months, can you tick off the whole lot, from A to Z?

Lean on the community

Beyond the physiological training advice, or the tips for changing your mental relationship with running, the most important piece of advice is this:

  • Do what’s right for you.

If you want to get really quick, or run around the planet, by all means do so. If you’d rather never enter a race and would much rather use your running to get outdoors to look for birds, or spot when different flowers appear in your neighbours’ front gardens, then that’s just as valid a running ambition.

You get to decide what ‘improvement’ looks like for you.

Finally, remember that you can always turn to the support of the Lonely Goat Running Club community if you’re looking for inspiration or advice. You can get stuck into the Chat Group here: LINK


📷 courtesy of Mark Shaw: Lonely Goats at the Ferriby 10.

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