Noob runner needs help
May 9, 2018 9:15 AM   Subscribe

I am participating in a C25K program and feel like I'm plateauing/hitting a wall. Please help this struggling runner get better...

Through a confluence of events, I decided to start the Couch to 5K program in February. At first, the program was great - it actually kept me motivated, and I was very proud of myself as I stuck with it and started to be able to run longer distances. However, I recently 'finished' the program and I've only been able to run for 30 minutes once - and I have to say I want to stop just about the entire time.

I'm 47, female, and about 25-30 lbs overweight. I'm 5'8", and the weight is fairly evenly distributed, mostly in my belly/upper body. I've found really good sports bras and shoes for me.

On the plus side, I have clearly gotten much better - I now run the 1st mile fairly comfortably - by that I mean it feels pretty good and I don't feel an urge to stop. My pace has always been slow, but it's steadily improving - I started out at 13 minute miles and am now about 11. I can tell that my fitness level has greatly improved, and I'm really, really proud of myself for sticking with it - and tell myself often that any run, regardless of how long or how fast, is better than what I was doing before.

However, I'm frustrated with my progress overall. Here are my specific questions:

- I LOVE the feeling of accomplishment when I'm done, but I still actively dislike jogging! As I mentioned above, I now feel pretty good for the first mile, but after about 10 minutes, I just. want. to. stop. The whole time. On occasion there's some pain - my calves feel really tight, or the bottom of my feet hurt - but I can manage that OK. It's just that I hate how much WORK I'm having to do, and I feel exhausted already, and the lazy part of me is trying to talk the active part of me into stopping every. single. minute. If you've experienced this, how did you get past it?? I've been pushing through it, with varying levels of success, but it really sucks and if there's a trick to improving it I would sorely like to know.

- When I run in the morning, I have a ridiculous amount of really thick phlegm, to the point that it covers my airways and I have to spit. I did some reading online and discovered it's impacted by air temperature (so now I try to run more in the evenings, when it's not as cold as in the morning) and hydration levels (so I've been really upping my water intake, which was not where it should have been). If anyone knows of any other tricks, please let me know, as I don't mind spitting when it's just me but don't want to be hocking loogies constantly during the race.

- I still get out of breath very quickly - usually within the first minute of jogging. I'm a fast walker and I take the stairs to my 2nd floor office every day. My breath is still labored when I get to my office (though definitely improved), and I feel like it shouldn't be - it's just 2 floors, even if I do them fairly fast? Are my expectations too high, or does this sound like an issue?

- I am concerned that I've only ever been able to jog for 30 minutes without stopping on one occasion (this weekend, and it was HARD). I feel like I'm not at the level I thought I would be after completing the C25K program - I thought at this point I'd be able to do 30 mins runs regularly. Maybe not fast or enthusiastically, but I thought I'd be doing it. But instead I frequently run out of steam around the 20 minute/2 mile mark. Clearly this is much better than nothing, but I haven't finished the full workout more than once during the last 6-7 runs. How do I improve this?

- I am not doing this program for weight loss reasons. However, I was expecting to lose some weight along the way and I'm not really seeing much, despite going from no exercise to running 2-3 times a week. I was ravenous in the beginning, though that has abated - but I don't think I'd have enough energy to sustain a run if I try to eat more salads etc. Any ideas?

Based on the above, I know one obvious answer is 'find something else active to do that feels better.' However, I'd really like to make this work. I've been sticking with it, when in the past I've given up on exercise very quickly. I love the post-workout feeling of accomplishment. Running is something I can do within my busy schedule (I have a demanding job and 3 kids) and physical issues (I have an issue with my right shoulder, so sports like volleyball [my favorite sport in my 20's] are out).

So TL;DR: I would like to get better at running. Ideas/tips are greatly appreciated.
posted by widdershins to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Basically: slow down.

I was once like you -- to be honest, I was like you many times because I've completed C25K and then been disappointed that I wasn't an effortless happy 30 minute jogger and stopped running and had to do C25K over again the next year.

The last time I got peer pressured into rolling straight from C25K into half marathon training, which ended up being a huge blessing; not because I ran a half marathon or became a super fast lighthearted happy cardio monster, but because I realized -- out of necessity of following the program -- that by slowing way the fuck down, I can plod my way through a ten mile run (which takes me over two hours; as I said, very slow). Even though I actually feel like shit and want to stop for the entire first half hour.

In fact, I still feel bad and miserable at the beginning of virtually every run. Sometimes I warm up and start to feel good after 5 minutes, sometimes I feel bad for 30 minutes (and I only find out that I'm even able to hit my stride because my run is longer than 30 minutes). I do find that when I'm well rested, nourished, hydrated and running in ideal temperatures the time-to-feel-good tends to be shorter, but I still have days when I go out expecting to feel great and feel bad. But the opposite is true as well!

Anyway -- slow down, and if you want 30 minutes to feel easier, start working toward running longer distances/durations.
posted by telegraph at 9:25 AM on May 9, 2018 [17 favorites]

You're running too fast.

For reference: I started C25K 2 years ago, then dropped it for a while because of reasons, then picked it back up and have been running consistently for a year and a half, and a "good" pace for me is a 13 minute mile. But, I breathe steadily, there's no pain, and at the end of my 3 miles I feel like I could keep going.
posted by Automocar at 9:28 AM on May 9, 2018 [8 favorites]

You might try HIIT, too - walk for .15 of a mile and run FAST for .10. Then walk again and repeat. You can use time, too - say 1.5 mins walk and 1 min running, if that's easier, or less running and more walking. This has helped my race times quite a bit and it's enjoyable because you can mix it up - I do maybe half a mile and a little walk at a slower speed, then faster for 1/3 a mile, then faster still for .25 and so on until the last .10 intervals are pretty much at max speed/not sustainable for long periods. Has the added advantage of making your usual pace seem a lot more comfortable! I find treadmills easy for this since I know/can control speeds.
posted by OneSmartMonkey at 9:31 AM on May 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

The other option is to do less, harder. (HIIT) high intensity interval training can be very effective but plan it carefully and don't over do. The cheesily named One Minute Workout has a lot of good science written by an professor of physiology.
posted by sammyo at 9:32 AM on May 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

My one tip is this: the C25k program is written as if it is one size fits all, but it just isn't. Nine weeks is really fast to make that much progress, so it's really not surprising you only just barely made it and felt like it was work the whole time - it was! My partner and I are in the last "week" of the program now, with week in quotes because we doubled each one. Gave our bodies a lot more time to adjust.

And yeah, go for speed, go for distance, but one at a time. If you want to work on running faster, don't also run longer. FWIW my pace is like automocar closer to 13-min miles than 11, and I may have a much longer stride than you being 3" taller.
posted by solotoro at 9:33 AM on May 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

What that smart monkey said! ;-)
posted by sammyo at 9:33 AM on May 9, 2018

The other advantage I'm thinking of HIIT is less long term pounding on the knees. One tricky part I'm finding is figuring out how to ramp up without pulling a muscle and getting shut down for weeks.
posted by sammyo at 9:36 AM on May 9, 2018

You are almost certainly going out too fast. The first mile being comfortable can fool you into running faster ("Woo hoo! This feels great! I'm Joan Benoit!!!") when you should actually be taking it at a slower pace to conserve that awesome feeling for when you'll need it (like mile three). Go back to running 13 minutes miles and take a break every five minutes and walk briskly for one minute. This won't slow you down as much as you might think, you might even be faster, but the real goal is to get you to the three mile mark feeling only moderately crappy.

The goal is endurance, not speed. In order to finish a 5K you have to cover the whole distance and there's no way to fake that.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:37 AM on May 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

I agree with everyone else and think Couch to 5K should print this in all its later weeks. "If you can't finish this run, you are starting too fast."
posted by advicepig at 9:46 AM on May 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

I did the C5K program about 5 years ago and then did 3 or 4 half marathons after that. I have never run for 30 minutes straight. At a certain point I found that it just wasn’t for me so I did the Galloway method and started running 3 or 4 minutes and walking for 1. Again, I did 3 or 4 half marathons that way (at about a 13min pace I believe). I just felt like I couldn’t go fast so I went farther (hence th half marathons).

At a certain point I wanted to go faster but I couldn’t do that when running straight through. I actually got faster by going back to the beginning of the program and using the 30sec/1min timing to do speed work. Then I moved into 4min/1min and did that ever since.

Do what works for you.
posted by raccoon409 at 9:48 AM on May 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

I am a C25K alum (a couple times) and yes: slow down. I, too, was given this advice multiple times when I first started, and it is 100% correct.

As far as the weight loss: exercise doesn't really accomplish that. Your cardiovascular health will increase, your overall health will improve, but you probably won't lose weight. Calorie counting in conjunction with C25K is how I lost 35 lbs a few years ago. And now that I'm a regular jogger, my motivation to keep my weight down is that running is easier if I'm under a certain weight threshold. If I start to gain too much, my knees start hurting and running turns more into lumbering. When I was first losing weight, I took some time off from running and did lower-impact cardio instead, until I got enough weight off that running felt better. I eat a regular high-protein/lower-but-not-no-carb breakfast and lunch on the days that I run and that keeps my calories down while giving me the energy to run.

This winter, I started C25K all over again, with an eye to increasing speed. So, I've been a 3-times-a-week jogger for a few years now but slooow (which is fine--it's what you need to do right now), so when I wanted to challenge myself further but not spend any more time running (I run on my lunch hour, time is finite), I did the program again but at a faster treadmill pace.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:59 AM on May 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

I have been in a similar training program (targeted at 10ks), and my trainer keeps saying that 1-5% of your run will feel good, and the rest will be kind of a slog.

This gave me a new way to look at running - it is always work, and it shouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable ever. Slowing down and running longer are good suggestions. I get the painful calves and feet thing, and I find they go away if I just keep going. My longest run so far is 6 miles, and the last 2 miles were definitely better (more comfortable, less painful) than the first 2. But it always kind of sucks and I hate it in the moment. I constantly joke that my favorite part of the run is enjoying the post-run feeling of triumph with cold water.

Sometimes music or a podcast helps from a distraction standpoint. I just started Zombies, Run and that seems like it has potential.

I am similarly sized and aged to you - 42, 5’7”, technically 20 or so pounds overweight. I have not seen much in the way of weight loss in 6 weeks, and ime the adage that weight loss happens in the kitchen rather than the gym is true. I have really only had appreciable weight loss from a full paleo diet and from cancer treatment, but I’m not willing to do either one of those right now. So I’m just focusing on what my body can do instead of my weight.
posted by jeoc at 10:51 AM on May 9, 2018

I agree with everyone else about speed. I built up to 9 miles at a time a few years ago, starting with Couch to 5k, but I never tried to be fast. Slow and steady wins the race.

I had to quit running for a while because I got hurt, and since then I've done C25K a couple more times - but in the end, I find that I enjoy intervals of running & walking a lot more than watching the clock to complete a 30 minute run. There isn't anything wrong with you if you never learn to love running three miles at a time.

One last thing to consider - I have a much, much easier time running if I have a full day's worth of meals in me - or at the very least waiting until after lunch. Running in the morning is exponentially harder, even if I've eaten breakfast.
posted by something something at 10:51 AM on May 9, 2018

A few things came to mind:

1) Is your pace even throughout your run? This is a really hard thing to learn how to gauge. It kind of sounds to me like you start out fast and slow down as you get more tired... For working on pacing, try an app like MapMyRun with pace prompts turned on.

2) Can you carry on a light conversation while you're running? If not, you're running too fast. Slow down.

2) Fueling. When are you eating before you run? What are you eating? As an eat-for-pleasure person, it had never occurred to me prior to C25K that when and what I ate could make such a huge difference in how I felt during a run.

3) When I was a runner (I can't now due to join issues), the first mile pretty much always felt like hell to me. It was like my body and lungs were not sure what was going on and needed to wake up to the fact that "hey, we're running now!" Once I got past that point, everything settled into a rhythm and then I'd have the nice runner's high afterwards. I did a dynamic warm up beforehand, but that's just how my body is. The runner's high and improvement in my mood kept me motivated.

4) Core strength. Doing planks and crunches and glute bridges for five minutes after a run (AFTER not before) can really increase your core strength. You might find that doing so makes the running easier.
posted by purple_bird at 10:58 AM on May 9, 2018

Adding my voice - go slower on your runs. I race but I don't do it against the clock and I have a great time.

I agree with other advice about cross training, etc.

But the one thing that will make this better right now is just go slower. I did an 8k last year early in the season where my race was a blast and so much fun...for the last 2k, much of it uphill, I paced myself against a speed walker. It was perfect for me. You will still get lots of benefits of running! My hatred level is: First 5 minutes are great, the next 10 I want to go home, and after that it gets better. But I am going slowly the whole time.

I only have lost weight using Weight Watchers or MyFitnessPal to monitor calories in/out and basically stay honest. That said, combined with exercise which helps me to destress and cut cravings, I've kept it off.
posted by warriorqueen at 11:03 AM on May 9, 2018

Nthing advice about slowing down, but also: exercise-induced asthma is a thing, so if slowing down doesn't help, you might want to ask a doctor whether that could be affecting you. I have a friend who was prescribed an inhaler to use before exercising and it made a world of difference for them.

Regarding calf/foot pain: what kind of shoes are you wearing to run? If you haven't already, it's absolutely worth going to a running store and having someone watch your gait and recommend a pair of shoes to match; I started C25K with a cheap pair of generic department store sneakers and had to stop because my knee got screwed up. I invested in a decent pair of running shoes after that and have had zero issues since.

RE: weight loss, as others have said you probably won't see a ton of weight loss from running alone, but I think it's an important component. Regular exercise is good for metabolism, and what I found when I was logging my runs was that seeing the number of calories I was burning made it a lot easier to talk myself out of eating so much empty calorie garbage. As in, "I just put in all that effort to burn a few hundred calories earlier... is it really worth eating this handful of Oreos?" * The more I ran, the more mindful I was about eating, and I lost a pretty good amount of weight.

*Sometimes, the answer is "Hell yeah it's worth eating this handful of Oreos!", and that's OK too, because I've already offset those calories by running and don't have to feel bad about having a treat once in a while.
posted by Funeral march of an old jawbone at 11:13 AM on May 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

One thing I haven't seen mentioned yet is heart rate. You want to aim for 60%-70% heart rate on these training runs, approximately talking range, and which I can pace just by listening to my heart -- but you don't have to. Get a heart rate monitor, wear it on your run, and compare that to heart rate ranges for your age (with modifiers if that range doesn't fit you, of course). If you go by your heart rate instead of by your speed and keep it in the comfortable range, you'll be able to expand your total time running.
posted by tooloudinhere at 11:14 AM on May 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

It's a chorus, but you're running to fast. How do I know? You're out of breath!

First, I'll preface everything that perhaps you might have asthma or exercise induced bronchial contriction (EIB) (also called exercise induced asthma). If this is true, an inhaler will work wonders. I have EIB - cooler winter months especially make it bad. With my maintenance inhaler (symbicort) I've never needed my emergency inhaler (albuterol) for exercise reasons.

How much/often are you breathing? At the end of a 60 minute run (excluding workouts (which I do only about once a week)) I'll be taking between 4-6 steps for a full breath cycle. I.E. I breath in over 2 steps. I breath out over 2 steps. Total of 4 steps for a breath cycle. Sometimes as an exercise I'll do an easy run with only nose breathing (which significantly limits the volume of air exchange). During *none* of this time do I feel like I can't get enough air (excluding time leading up to going to the doctor and coming back with inhalers).

I'll also note that if you really want to get a metric for "how hard of an effort" your running is, you can look at heart rate training - memail me (or dig through my answer history) if you want to know more. But this requires buying additional devices most likely. Rate/ease of breathing is a great metric. (on preview as tooloudinhere mentioned)

When I race, depending on the distance my breathing will be faster - for doing a 5k by the first 1km marker I'll be taking 2 steps to exhale and inhale with 1 step. As a 5k moves on I'll go up into a 1 step exhale, 1 step inhale - but that's a lot of work to maintain. Again, this is when I'm racing. Little of my running is racing/workouts, and when you're learning to run less of it should be racing.

Something that might help your legs - try to take more steps/minute (cadence). Yes, this likely means your steps will get smaller, but it also means less peak forces on impact. A lot of first time joggers/runners will be taking 130-150 (bounding) steps per minute. More experienced runners tend to be in the 160-180 range. If you don't have a foam roller yet, get one.

If you find the increased cadence tires you out too quick, I'd suggest going back a few weeks in the c25k training and do the runs slower with the higher cadence. If you find yourself short of breath and don't feel you can go any slower, then switch to a walk period. You want to train your body to be able to run well at the "easy" level.

Lastly, I'll say that if you want to be a runner, I'll strongly recommend doing all the work you can to strengthen your hips. I've been running 4 years now, but I've been a professional sitter for well over 20 years. I just had a blowup at my last marathon because my hips weren't strong enough. Because I haven't been as consistent with the strength work I know I should be doing. For a start, look for "myrtl routine" on youtube and do this (and/or something else) daily.
posted by nobeagle at 11:51 AM on May 9, 2018 [3 favorites]

You've gotten really far - an 11 minute mile is an excellent pace for a beginner. And yes, slow down. A little over a year ago I re-did Couch to 5K because I'd been having some similar trouble running more than 10 minutes at a time, and the advice I got was to do it as slow as possible. Try repeating the last three or four weeks of Couch to 5K at that 13 minute pace, or maybe slower. It'll probably feel easy and boring at first, but keep going slow. Once you've done a few 30 minute runs at your slowest pace, then start working on speed.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:59 AM on May 9, 2018

Wow, considerable consensus here that I'm actually running too fast, which is not something I ever thought I'd hear ; ) However, it does make sense not to go for both speed and endurance at the same time, and at this point I'm definitely much more interested in endurance.

I am intrigued by the comments about exercise-induced asthma. I don't have regular asthma, so I wouldn't have considered it, but I just looked it up and several things in the description do apply, particularly quick shortness of breath, but also wheezing when I run, fatigue during exercise and production of mucus in the airways. Who knew??

I'm going to go back a couple of weeks on the C25K program and go more slowly, and I'll make an appointment with my doctor to check the bronchoconstriction. Your responses have been super helpful - thank you so much!
posted by widdershins at 12:03 PM on May 9, 2018

There are a bunch of answers here but I'm adding mine anyway.

I tried to do C25K three times. The first two times I failed. The third I started on April 3, 2017. The first couple of weeks were okay, but by week 4 I was struggling. I'm not an athletic person, I sit at a desk all day and my idea of a good time out is drinking beer and watching movies, not hiking or stand-up paddle boarding or any cool crunchy shit.

NONETHELESS, this last time my running culminated with doing the Walt Disney race weekend this past January, where I did the Goofy challenge. I ran a half-marathon on Saturday, and a full marathon the next day. So I went from never running to running almost 40 miles over a weekend, and I did the whole shebang over the course of nine months.

TL;DR: the last time I tried C25K it worked. Here's what was different for me the last time.

1. To hell with time. The whole point of doing this is to build up endurance, not to win races. You are not racing anything, so do not worry about time for the next six months. I call myself La Tortuga: I'm slow, but I finish.

2. Get a running app. I use MapMyRun, but there are a lot of them out there. The only thing you absolutely have to have is it marking distance. Turn off all notifications except distance run. You can set it up on increments of every quarter- or half- or full mile. I do full miles because I want to keep track but I don't need it up my ass all the time.

Turn OFF EVERYTHING relating to minutes/mile or whatever. It doesn't matter. You are not usain bolt, you are not going to win any races. The goal is to finish, that is all.

3. Podcasts! Fuck listening to music. People get music that pumps you up, and that makes you run fast, and that tires you out. I listened to Serial, and Radiolab and This American Life and all kinds of things. These are good because sometimes you'll be so engrossed in a story that you'll be like "holy shit I just ran two miles and didn't even realize my legs hurt!" Which means your legs don't hurt; you're just not focused on your legs any more.

4. Running long distances without taking some breaks to walk is bullshit. There is NO WAY the original running at the battle of Marathon ran 26 miles without walking sometimes. So walk! I have found that even after running 40ish miles over a weekend, I still often will hit a wall around mile 3 and have to walk some of that. And I've never run a half-marathon without taking walking breaks at least every couple of miles.

5. How's the weather? I live in Texas and it's already hot as hell out here. It is insane how going from 70 degrees to 80 degrees will slow me down to where I'm barely above walking, and yet I'll sweat anyway. But that's how it is. When it's hot, you have to slow down even more.

Okay that's all I've got. Good luck!
posted by nushustu at 12:54 PM on May 9, 2018 [9 favorites]

Okay one more thing: regarding weight loss.

I haven't ever been crazy overweight, but I had a noticeable beer guy/spare tire. I didn't start to lose that until I was running 15-20 miles every week. And even then, I didn't really lose weight, I just firmed up. The gut went away, but my legs started to look muscular, which was awesome.

Point being, I have heard from a lot of people that if you intend to do endurance running, you shouldn't expect to lose weight unless you get a trainer and get your diet crazy specific, which I don't care to do. And I can confirm that I have seen LOTS of people run half- and full-marathons who were faster than me and were what you could call overweight. Endurance running will make you fit, but it's not a great diet tool.
posted by nushustu at 1:01 PM on May 9, 2018

If I might--I'm basically in the same place as the OP with regard to running, doing about a 11:30 minute mile that feels like torture, so I've been following everyone's answers with interest and going slower seems like the unanimous vote. But... how? My brisk walking pace on flat pavement is a 13 minute mile. If I run much slower, I'll just be walking.
posted by jesourie at 5:05 PM on May 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Wait, are you wheezing while you run? That is not normal. You might want to see a doctor. I have exercise-induced athsma and it is no fun but I can control it pretty well by breathing through my nose until my airway gets hot enough from exertion that the cold air doesn't trigger it. My doctor also suggested medication.
posted by wnissen at 5:15 PM on May 9, 2018

If slowing down your overall pace doesn't appeal, perhaps try run-walk intervals instead? This is how I'm training for a half marathon, fully intending to continue the intervals during the race itself. Check out the Galloway method if you want some pointers.

A couple of weeks ago I managed my first sub-30 minute 5km, using run walk intervals of 1m 45s for running and 30s walking.
posted by eloeth-starr at 12:08 AM on May 10, 2018

I thought I was fairly fit while starting C25K (from previous long walks and hikes), and feeling really short of breath was just something I had to overcome as I became a more experienced runner. Turns out - yep, exercise induced asthma. An inhaler 15 minutes before my runs does wonders now. I mean really a huge quality of life improvement all around. Don't rule this out! My doctor didn't hesitate at all prescribing something to see if it'd work.
posted by erratic meatsack at 7:23 AM on May 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

erratic meatsack - yes, that's exactly what I've been thinking too - I just assumed that it was part of getting fit and was something I had to overcome! The more I read/hear about it, the more convinced I am that I might have EIB. I'm definitely speaking with my doctor about it.
posted by widdershins at 7:45 AM on May 10, 2018

Just thought I'd post a quick update for anyone stumbling across this question in the future: I just ran my first 5K race yesterday!

Slowing way down absolutely did the trick for me. I initially slowed down to 13-minute miles and that made me able to run 3 miles each time. I naturally (without consciously thinking about it) increased my pace a little bit, so now I hover between 11:30-12:30 miles, which feels fairly 'easy' - at least in comparison to the heavy work I was doing earlier.

I did go to the doctor and after testing was given an inhaler. Since I'm running more slowly now, my symptoms are much milder and I don't think I need to use it much, but I can tell it's going to be very helpful when it gets colder out, which is when my symptoms are worse.

I heard somewhere that it's a good idea to pick 2 goals for my 5Ks - one if I'm feeling good, and a goal B if goal A seems out of reach. My goal A for yesterday's race was to do the whole race without walking, and goal B was to complete the 5K in under 40 minutes. Due to a number of factors (there were way more hills than I'd known about, it was almost 80 degrees and very humid, and I'd just gotten my period), I ended up having to walk on the last hill. But I did complete the race in 38:12, so I met my goal B, and it made me feel better about the experience to achieve one goal even if it wasn't the highest one.

Thank you to all of you who answered, and to barchan for reaching out! You all really helped!
posted by widdershins at 9:59 AM on May 21, 2018 [4 favorites]

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