Jeff Archer explains why it’s OK to run if you’re overweight

Many people who are overweight think running isn’t for them. They assume pounding the pavements or the treadmill is off limits if they’re carrying a few extra kilograms, and that running will immediately put too much stress on their muscles and joints.

The truth is, running is a brilliant form of exercise for anyone who is overweight. If you’re thinking of taking it up, it’s a good idea (as it is for people of any weight) to get the all-clear from your doctor; then the secret to successful running is all about designing a structured, progressive training plan. The benefits of running are plentiful. There’s nothing more satisfying than getting from A to B under your own steam, and it’s a great way to have some time to yourself and de-stress. It’s also one of the best ways to lose weight. So if you’re carrying a few extra kilo’s, it’s a great idea to dig out your running shoes.

The reason running is such an effective way to work out is because it challenges your whole body – muscles, joints, connective tissue, heart and lungs. The key to successful running is to ensure all areas of your body have a chance to develop at the same rate, as this will dramatically reduce the likelihood of injury. A schedule that increases intensity gradually is  important, as it allows joints to grow stronger in proportion to the demands you’re placing on your body. It also enables your cardiovascular system to adapt to an ever-increasing workload and efficiently deliver oxygen to the muscles that power your running.

Don’t run before you can walk

To ensure injury-free exercise, start? your running regime with some walking. Walk at a regular pace to start with and then add some brisk walking, followed by some power walking. In the beginning, aim for around 30 seconds of brisk/power walking for every four minutes of walking at a comfortable pace. On successive training sessions, gradually increase the time spent power walking by 30 seconds at a time, until you’ve achieved an even balance of four minutes power walking to four minutes recovery walking at a slower pace.

Start with training sessions that last around 20 minutes and gradually work up to 40 minutes of faster and slower walking. When you begin your programme, you should leave a couple of days between workouts and then, as you become more used to exercising in this way, you can reduce this to one rest day between workouts. When you’re comfortable with walking at a faster speed for longer, it’s time to begin running, which you can introduce in the same way as you did with the power walking. Start with 30-second bursts of running punctuated with four or five minutes of walking to recover. For the first few outings, only include two or three bursts of running. If you can complete two to three workouts comfortably, you’re safe to start increasing the number of running sections and the time spent running for each section. Once you can complete intervals of five minutes running and five minutes walking recovery, start reducing the length of your recovery sections by 30 seconds at a time, and then aim to run for five to ten minutes without stopping. This may take a few weeks, but if you’re patient and push yourself regularly, you’ll have created a solid fitness base for running that you can build on quickly.

Give me strength

As a now-regular runner, it’s a good idea to introduce some strength training to your workout schedule, as this will help develop your stamina and stability. Although your focus is geared towards running, don’t neglect the upper body. Ideally, you should start with a routine that works the upper body with light weights, while performing a selection of bodyweight exercises, such as squats, lunges, wide squats and calf raises to train your lower body. In the early days, you can alternate running and strength training, with a rest day between each session. This can then be progressed to running and strength training on consecutive days, followed by a rest day.

The final elements of a successful running schedule are plenty of stretching – do this after each workout and also periodically throughout each day – and cross-training. Including some swimming, cycling, rowing or time on the cross-trainer at the gym will help improve your fitness, while giving the areas of your body that you use specifically for running a breather.

Bitten by the bug

One thing many people agree on is that running can be addictive, because of the satisfaction you experience as you build up the times and distances you’re able to run for, as well as for the other results it brings, including a positive outlook on life, increased confidence and, of course, effective weight management. I’ve trained a number of clients who wanted to start running in order to lose weight and who quickly found themselves hooked. One client began running on the treadmill, before discovering that outdoor running was her salvation in an otherwise chaotic work and family life. Another started running outdoors with just 20 strides at a time and completed a marathon within 18 months. Yet another took up running after a long illness, and was then inspired to enter both 5km and 10km races to raise money for charity.

So, whatever your reasons for running, if you like the idea of it, don’t let the fact you’re overweight hold you back. Just grab your trainers and get started!

Feel the beat

Will running place more strain on your heart? A common concern among overweight runners is that they are putting too much strain on their heart. It’s a legitimate concern, but as the heart is a muscle, putting extra demands on it will only help to strengthen it and improve its efficiency. As long as there’s no medical reason why running isn’t allowed, it’s a great way to give your heart a thorough workout, providing you increase the intensity of your exercise regime gradually. Using a heart rate monitor is the perfect way to alleviate any fears and will also help you plan running routines that develop fitness at a steady pace.

Friends United

Often, the only reason people who are overweight are put off running is that they feel self-conscious and don’t want to venture out alone. If you know someone in this position, why not head out with them? You may have to slow down a bit or take more breaks than you’re used to, but you may also be surprised at how effectively they are able to transfer fitness from other training across to running.

For the first few outings, ask them enough questions to monitor how they’re doing – their responses and ability to respond will give you a good idea. Gentle encouragement, such as pointing out that you find running challenging too and highlighting how quickly the distances they cover will add up over time, can really help them keep going when they struggle.