With the arrival of spring, many people are retooling their exercise programs to include some outdoor time. And there is no better way to get exercise outdoors than to begin a running program.  We’ve already seen some of the benefits regular exercise can bring, including having a positive effect on mood, decreasing stress levels and, perhaps most importantly, exercise can significantly lower inflammation in your body as you age.

Moving your exercise program outside comes with its own set of benefits as well, including the positive effects sunlight has on your sleep-wake cycle, since natural sunlight is a powerful biological agent that assists in regulating your body’s internal clock and can help you consistently get a better night’s rest.

When I talk about beginning a running program, I don’t want you to get the idea that I’m asking you to train for a marathon! I’m going to introduce you to a running program that takes only 20 minutes 3 or 4 times a week, and that has tremendous cardiovascular and fat burning benefits and is easy and enjoyable.

As always, just to be on the safe side, you should consult with your licensed healthcare provider prior to beginning any exercise program, especially a running program, as your heart is going to get a workout as well as your legs. And, no worries if you can’t imagine yourself running for even half a minute, much less twenty!

The key to success here is to begin very slowly. You’ll actually begin with relaxed walking alternating with fast walking and work up gradually to your 20 minute goal. Many beginning running programs will have you do some combination of running and walking for a total of 30 minutes each day over a period of about eight weeks and gradually increase the minutes you are running until you are running continuously for 30 minutes.

The problem I see with these programs is that they assume the same level of fitness of everyone who begins and this is simply unrealistic. There are some folks who can just take off and breeze through eight weeks, and others who can’t run at all on the first day. I would rather see you make a plan that works for you and your level of fitness.

Here’s one way to get up to speed that has worked well for a lot of people and is based on the idea of progressive accelerated exercise which Dr. Al Sears has popularized with his P.A.C.E. program and others are calling HIIT or High Intensity Interval Training. Here’s how it works:
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On Day 1, start walking to warm up at a comfortable pace for 2 to 3 minutes. Then gradually pick up your pace until you are walking like you are late to an appointment. Walk at this pace for a minute or two. Then slow your pace back down until you are completely recovered in terms of your breathing and heart rate. This is one complete cycle or set.

You may not be able to do more than this on the first day, or you may be able to do two or even three cycles of relaxed walking alternating with fast walking. Do this every other day or at least three times a week, gradually adding in more cycles of relaxed walking and fast walking up to 20 minutes.

When you do this consistently, you will be surprised at how quickly you progress and it will become much easier to walk even faster. At some point, you will likely naturally begin to run when your cardiovascular conditioning reaches the level where it seems natural to do that. The key to this is to rest in between periods of exertion, by slowing down to a relaxed walk until your breathing and heart rate recovers.

Add cycles of relaxed walking and fast walking or running until you are exercising for 20 minutes at a time. Once you get to the point where you are doing three or four cycles or ‘sets’ in one 20 minute period, you can gradually increase your exertional effort from say, 30% in the first set to 50% in the second set to 70% in the third set and on the fourth set, give it all you have.

The beauty of this type of exercise is that it’s over quickly and takes no more than twenty minutes to accomplish. Unlike running at a moderate pace for thirty minutes, this type of exercise is training your body in a very efficient way that minimizes stress on your connective tissue and minimizes your chance of sustaining the types of injuries that so often plague runners.  Plus, the benefits of this type of interval exercise continue long after you’ve put away your running shoes, as your body continues to burn fat for hours after you exercise.

Here’s another benefit. Once you have been doing this regularly and you have to run to catch a train or quickly change gates at the airport, you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to not only sprint quickly but to recover quickly as well. So why not give this a try? Don’t be roped into believing you have to become a marathon runner to get fit. It’s just not true! Let me know how you are doing in the comments below.

Enjoy today!