Running Training Intensity for Beginners

Most beginners train too hard when they start running. The result is loss of motivation, as well as both physical and mental fatigue. Inevitably, they end up concluding that they are not made for running, and quit before they can make running a habit.

Running Is Uncomplicated

I know this sounds like a joke, coming from a guy who wrote two thousand words as an introduction to running training intensity. But, hear me out.

The mechanics are the same for all physical training. Whether you’re a runner, cyclist, swimmer, or even a weight-lifter, the process looks like this:

  • Perform a strenuous task that stimulates the body to improve its capacity.
  • Give your body the necessary rest to recover to a higher capacity.
  • Repeat.

That’s all there is to it. Exercise broken down into three bullet points. 

Everything else you ever read about one form of exercise or another is about how to optimise the mix of the three points above. In fact, all detailed discussions about training aims to answer two questions:

  1. How much should I train?
  2. How hard should I train?

Every long-winded discussion on running training is trying to answer these two questions. Heart rate monitors, power and lactate metres? Tools, to help us train within the guidelines provided by the answers to the second question.

Where New Runners Go Wrong

There is a whole host of ways a new runner can go wrong when picking up running. I know, because I made every single one. Before I managed to make running a lifestyle, I thought I needed the right gear — which I couldn’t afford. And then winter came around, and stopped me in my tracks. This was, of course, before I became totally overwhelmed by the minutiae that characterised running litterature.

However, while all of those mistakes are common, the most prevalent reason new runners quit running is something else entirely. And I can sum it up with the following sentence:

«New runners overestimate the amount of fitness they can gain from a single run, and underestimate the life changing effects of a year of regular running.»

Almost every new runner falls into the trap of thinking that they have to make every run count. They believe that improving fitness is about working hard, and improving quickly. They give every run everything they have — with the best of intentions — unwittingly setting themselves up for failure.

Nobody can sustain peak performance for a prolonged time period. Your progress as a runner is not determined by how fast and hard you run every single time you go out. 

Progress, instead, comes from consistently nudging your body in the right direction. By stimulating your body to improve, with regular frequency over long periods of time. 

This is why, when starting out, your foremost priority should be to establish the habit of running. Only by making running a habit, can you reap running’s many benefits. 

It’s Easier Than You Think

The question we need to answer, then, is how hard should a new runner train? And the answer is not very hard.

If you’re a completely new runner, with no background from endurance sports, brisk walking is your baseline for what “easy” should feel like. And the only other relevant intensity is running.

Yes, it really is that simple. All you need to know and consider when starting out is walking fast and running. Your first couple of months of running should be nothing more than brisk walking interspersed with segments of running. 

Combining walking and running is a sustainable approach to running training intensity for beginners
Combine brisk walks with running for an appropriate running training intensity for beginners. Photo by Annie Niemaszyk.

Let your fitness guide you in determining how frequent and how long your repetitions of running should be. When I write training plans for brand new runners, a 30 minute walk consisting of 5 minutes of walking and 5 minutes of running is a staple session.

However, remember that the only thing that matters at this point is to nudge your body in the direction of improving. The real benefits start compounding when running becomes a habit. If five minutes of continuous running is too hard, then your blocks of running should be shorter.

Embrace Discomfort

While the above may seem to indicate otherwise, you need to prepare for discomfort. Regardless of how short your segments of running are, discomfort will be a part of your journey.

Increasing your tolerance for discomfort is one of the most valuable results of regular running. Because that uneasy feeling of being uncomfortable is the foundation of improvement. It is how we command our bodies to improve.

No matter how fit you become, there is always a level of discomfort involved. You tolerate it, and then get used to it. And, at some point, you come to depend on it. Because improvement is addictive.

As the famous cyclist Greg LeMond once said:

“It never gets easier, you just go faster.”

Greg LeMond


February 25, 2022


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