How I Went From 0 to Running 21.1K in 3 Months

A 3-month-guide from not being able to run to completing a half-marathon

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I like to run. Me and my dad used to do runs together when I was a little boy, and every time we would travel to a new place, we would discover it through running.

Running is like a religion to me. I do it when I am sad or depressed. I do it when I am happy and I want to celebrate. I do it when I feel overwhelmed. I do it simply for the fun of it.

Where I come from, running is quite difficult.

In Russia you can run only 4 months per year, and the rest of the time the weather is highly ‘unrunnable’ and you have to use treadmills most of the time. Those of you who do run, know that running outside and running on a treadmill are completely different experiences.

This February, I had a little surgery on my thumb (yup) that prevented me from any kind of physical activity.

For the first 2 weeks I couldn’t walk at all. When I had to take a shower, I would put on a plastic bag on my foot, so that it wouldn’t get wet. This took another 2 weeks. But it was 3 complete months before I could do any kind of serious physical activity.

If you’re like me, you probably need to constantly keep yourself physically challenged, or else you’ll gain weight. Fast food, donuts and beer — have a big gravitational pull, which increases exponentially once you stop exercising. It is as if your body tells you, ‘Ok, dude, if you don’t exercise, then you’ll be eating as much as possible’.

By the end of April, I found myself overweight (I gained 10KG over the time I didn’t exercise) and constantly tired. And as soon as I could run, I found that I couldn’t even run 1K. I was out of shape. It was horrible.

I knew I had to do something to get back.

I told myself, that consistency matters more than duration, so I started running daily, even if it was for 5 or 10 minutes.

Slowly it escalated to 15 minutes. Then 20. Then I ran my first 5K. I started noticing my body change, and I kept helping myself by changing my eating regimen.

Once I realized that whatever I was doing was working, I decided to create a goal for myself to be motivated. Running for the sake of running seemed too boing to me.

I opened Google, typed in ‘long distance runs in Moscow’ and found a half-marathon competition in August. I’ve never ran a half-marathon before (or any distance, in fact), so I didn’t even know what distance it is.

It said 21.1K. I looked at my Strava account. The longest I’ve ran was 7K so far, and it was with great difficulty. How could I possibly run 21.1K in 2 months’ time?

But I did.

Over the next 2 months I’ve trained regularly on my own, and by the beginning of August, I’ve completed my first half-marathon. And over the next few months I’ve ran several more. In the process, I’ve lost 15KG and am now in the best shape of my life.

Here’s how I did it.

In the Beginning: Build a System With Principles

When you set yourself an ambitious goal — you’ve got to build a system around it. Having a system in place allows your brain to focus on other things, while you still keep on getting progress.

And every system at its core has principles. Here are the key principles for long-distance running that I’ve created for myself (and I found many similarities among other runners):

  • You run every single day. No matter what happens, you get up and you run.
  • When you run, you don’t stop. If you feel tired, slow down. But don’t stop.

(Running differs from walking not only in speed, but in technique — during running, there’s a moment in time when both of your feet are in the air, while in walking there is always one foot on the ground)

  • You track your progress daily. And increase the mileage (or number of kilometers) every month. 100K per month is solid. 150K per month is fantastic. Run 200K per month and you’re golden.

Once I had these principles in place, I started training.

Month #1. 103.744K per month

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In May, me and my girlfriend decided to spend a whole month in Palermo, Sicily. It’s an exotic place (and I probably won’t ever go there again), but it was still a lot of fun. But most importantly, it was a great place to start running.

To track my runs, I used the Strava app and my Evernote.

Tracking is a cool little way to motivate yourself, as you wait for the moment when you log in today’s run and it gives you a rush of dopamine. Every time when you skip a run (and not write it down), you feel that you’ve let your Evernote down.

You also have data, which you can always use later on to track your progress. Having data also feels good, because you feel in control.

I had a head start in April, so May 1 was not the first day of my running. But the first month was nevertheless difficult. Even though I didn’t put a lot of pressure on myself (I just decided I would run and record my runs and see what happens in the end), running every single day turned out to be a challenge. Sometimes I had to skip days, mostly due to travels or not enough sleep the night before.

I started with a little run (3.8K) and scored my maximum during the month by the end of May — 7.056K.

Having a great place to run helps too, my runs in Italy were absolutely gorgeous and made me feel motivated and inspired every day.

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At the same time, I switched my eating regimen to a slow-carb diet. In short, it’s a diet in which you:

  • Don’t eat anything that is, or can be white (i.e., rice, wheat, bread, cheese, milk, etc.)
  • Eat mostly meat, fish and vegetables
  • Supplement yourself with enough Omega-3, Vitamin B and D.

During the first month, I’ve lost 5KG and was very happy. More to come.

Month #2. 151.52K per month

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In June, we came back to Moscow and, thankfully, the weather was great. Very ‘runnable’.

This month I tried to stick as much as I could to the everyday running regimen, as well as followed the slow-carb diet. In the process, I’ve lost 4 more kilograms, with a total of now 9KG (still 1to go).

I was very happy with running in June, as I increased my running distance by a lot. In May, the maximum I’ve ran was 7K, in June I had 13 (!) days when I ran more than that.

In my head, I have several “levels of running”:

  1. Under 5K — when you can’t run more than 5K at a time;
  2. 5K-7K — when most of your runs are usually in this range;
  3. 7K-10K
  4. 12K+ — in my experience, when you run more than 12K, it doesn’t really matter how long you run. The difference between running 12K and 18K is less than between 6K and 12K.

In June, I am confident to say that I was on ‘level 3’ of my scale, and I even broke the 4-th level once on June 9th.

I actually remember that run, it was in Milan and it was in a very beautiful park. I was running, looking around me and couldn’t stop myself because it was so beautiful. By the time I realized that I’ve already ran 6K and I have the same way to go back, it was already too late.

Month #3. 180.47K per month

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In July, I bought some new equipment for myself — a running bottle and a weightless belt that allows me to carry 2 small bottles during my runs. This increased my running ability dramatically.

It turned out, that drinking and staying hydrated during runs is very important. In previous months, I made the mistake of not carrying a water bottle with me, hence I couldn’t run more than 10K on average. In July, however, I could easily run 12–13K when I wanted to.

I was now on the ‘4th level’ of running and was almost ready for my big day running a half-marathon on August 8th.

As you can see from the screenshot, I also added crossfit and swimming, to build some additional muscle (you lose a lot of it during long-distance running) and take productive breaks during long runs.

I also switched from many little runs to few long-distance runs.

However, I tried to keep not more than 1 or 2 really long (10K+) runs during a week, as whenever I pushed myself too hard, my knees started to hurt.

My longest run during this month was on July 29, I ran 17.19K.

I also found out that I burned the month weight during this months. It was due to the long-distance runs that could easily burn 1500 calories per run. By the end of this month, I lost another 5KG, and was now -14KG since I started running 3 months ago. I looked great, felt great and felt confident that I could run a half-marathon.

One week before the actual half-marathon (first week of August), I made a big run at 19K (2K short of the full 21.1K distance) and was pleasantly surprised that it was now not that difficult. The following week before the half-marathon I didn’t run any long-distances any more, as I wanted to give my body time to restore. However, I still continued to run short distances (3–6K), in order to stay in shape.

One day before the marathon, I ate a lot of carbohydrates and didn’t do any physical activity at all, giving myself a full 24 hours to restore.

On the day of the actual half-marathon run, I looked something like this:

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I eventually scored 1 hour 40 minutes, which is considered above average. I didn’t really care. I was happy I could actually completed the distance, remembering that only 3 months ago, I was lying on my bed, not being able to walk.

For those of you, who are thinking about doing something similar, a parting bit of advice.

Tip #1. Focus on monthly running distance

It’s easy to start beating yourself up when you wanted to run 7 or 10K, but your body could only do 5. Don’t beat yourself up. Maybe you didn’t have enough sleep the night before. Maybe your body is hungry (if you’re running before breakfast). Maybe it’s something else.

Focus on monthly running distance (like I did), tracking each and every day. Running is just like writing (and many other important things in life), it takes a ton of patience, consistency and perseverance.

If you’re new to running, start with 100K per month as your first target. Slowly increase to 200K.

Haruki Murakami — the legendary running author is running 2 full marathons per year. His ‘serious’ month of running start at 300K.

Tip #2. Don’t push, but inspire and motivate yourself

Speaking of Haruki Murakami, read his book, ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’ for inspiration. I’ve read it in the first month I started training for the half-marathon, and it inspired me to treat running as a philosophy, rather than a physical activity. I re-read it once again right before my first half-marathon. In the book, he talks a lot about how you should be thinking about running.

Running is more of a mental game than a physical one.

Inspire yourself, motivate yourself and don’t be too harsh. It’s easy to break down and quit if you’re pushing yourself just too much. Realize, that this is in a very literal sense of these words — a marathon, not a sprint.

Tracking your runs keeps you motivated. Having somebody to run can make it great fun (although as introverted as I am, I like to run alone). Posting online what you’ve accomplished over the week, month, can create positive social motivation, too.

Tip #3. Keep yourself well nourished

During the runs and outside of them. I already told you that I used the slow-carb diet. The important thing about such protein-rich diets (especially when you do heavy cardio sports like long-distance running) is to keep eating a lot of carbohydrates. Your body burns fuel at an accelerated speed when you do long-distance running. Keep on providing it with what it needs.

During the run itself, always carry a water bottle and a couple of energy carb gels, like the SiS GO Isotonic.

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Tip #4. Run at the same time each day

There are as many viewpoints on this, as there are people, but I found in my experience that for long-distance runs, running right before lunch time (11AM–12PM) is the best time there is.

Sometimes I would run before breakfast, but I tend to call these runs as ‘jogs’, as it’s hard to run 10K, yet 18K with an empty stomach. I also think it’s not very healthy to do so.

There are people who like to run during the night or after dinner, but I am usually too exhausted from work and family matters to be able to do any kind of physical activity. At the same time, I found that whenever I run within 3 hours before sleep, I have a hard time falling asleep.

Pick whatever works for you, but I would suggest choose one and stick to it. Your body has a time clock of it’s own, so making sure it knows when it has to work will allow it to prepare and increase your productivity.

Running is much more than just a physical activity

I can’t imagine my life without running, especially after I’ve spent so much time and energy figuring it out. Personally, I don’t want to compete in marathons (42.2K) or ultra-marathons (100K). To me, running a half-marathon is a good enough indicator that you’re in a good physical shape.

So if you are thinking about running or bringing semi-professional running in your life, hope this provided some value to you. If it worked for me — overweight and not being able to run, it will absolutely work for you. Follow these rules, copy my system and you’ll be alright.

And always remember, that running is a mental game. Good luck!

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