Family health

Fitness: The six-week running challenge

Mom of two and self-described couch potato Marci O’Connor finds her stride as she masters our six-week running challenge: Zero to 5k. (Yes, she really did it and you can, too!).

By Marci O'Connor
Fitness: The six-week running challenge Photos by Genevieve Charbonneau

The reality that running my butt of for years has done nothing to offset its actual dimensions just doesn't seem right. (To be fair, I acknowledge that no actual running was ever involved.) I don't necessarily want to equate this with shedding pounds (OK, I do), but the reality is that I have more than 60 to lose, so I'll admit it: Taking up this running plan was in part to help me slim down. I'm not aiming for a Cameron Diaz-like physique (not really), but I am determined to turn this body of mine into a leaner, well-oiled running machine.

I will remind myself of this often in coming weeks as I begin a training program designed to teach me to go from zero (and I do mean nada) to completing a five-kilometre run. I'm 41 years old, I have two sons (Ethan, 12, and Callum, 10) and a tush that hasn't seen the inside of a gym in years. This means I will need to remind myself to strive for endurance rather than perfection, and that strength matters more than the size of my backside. My new motto? Just do it — without dying.

Marci will follow a program designed by running coach Seanna Robinson that incorporates three running workouts a week, with the option of a mix of rest days or gentle cross-training exercises (like biking) in between. Each run will involve timed walking and running intervals designed to slowly build her strength and endurance.

NOTE: This running plan was created according to Marci's fitness level, but is suitable for any new runner to try. Just be sure not to push yourself past your limits, and consult a fitness expert or your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.

Fitness: The six-week running challenge

WEEK 1 The plan
Workout 1: 30-min walk Workout 2: 7-min walk, 2-min run, 1-min walk, repeat 3 times, 7-min walk Workout 3: 7-min walk, 2-min run, 90-sec. walk, 3-min run, 90-sec. walk, 2-min run, 7-min walk

The results This week's training program is supposedly designed to gently introduce me to running, combining brisk walks with short jogging intervals. It didn't feel like a gentle introduction, though. My first day running was worse than the first day of anything else I have ever done. Seriously. This includes the first day of a new job, the first day of school, and maybe even the first day of a stomach flu. The good news is that it can't possibly get worse, right? (I head into week two with my fingers crossed.) Note to self: Rewarding myself with a caramel macchiato with whipped cream (at 420 calories) as a reward for completing my first run may have been a tad self-defeating.


Robinson's tip A 30-minute jog only burns about 300 calories, so watch your snacks carefully if you're aiming to lose weight. One high- sugar or high-fat treat can derail your efforts.

The plan
Workout 1: 5-min walk, 2-min run, 90-sec. walk, 4-min run, 90-sec. walk, 2-min run, 5-min walk Workout 2: 5-min walk, 2-min run, 90-sec. walk, 5-min run, 90-sec. walk, 2-min run, 5-min walk Workout 3: same as 2 but 2-min runs become 3-min

The results Turns out that sometimes the things we do to prevent heart attacks can feel like they're causing one. It's been a tough week. I've also had some pain in my ankles and calves to work through. This is repentance, big time, for my years of being a couch potato. And yet, I'm almost enjoying it. I feel good about pushing myself and achieving something. I guess this is what running is supposed to feel like: challenging, rewarding and, sadly, not at all like eating bonbons.

Robinson's tip Doing regular stretches before working out hasn't been shown to reduce injury. Instead, walk to warm-up, or try dynamic stretches like squats, leg swings and butt kicks to get moving.

Fitness: The six-week running challenge

WEEK 3 The plan
Workout 1: 5-min walk, 5-min run, 2-min walk, 5-min run, 5-min walk Workout 2: same as workout 1, but increase first run to 7 min Workout 3: 5-min walk, 10-min run, 2-min walk, 5-min run, 5-min walk


The results As a kid, running was fun and effortless, and that's what today almost felt like. This week's run-to-walk ratio increased and I spent even more time jogging than I did walking. It was hard, but I'm starting to recover much quicker between intervals and, at one point, walking felt more like lollygagging and I was actually ready to break back into a jog before my time was up.

Robinson's tip Make a playlist of upbeat songs to listen to while you run to keep you motivated.

WEEK 4 The plan
Workout 1: Same as last week but first run bumps up to 10 min Workout 2: 5-min walk, 8-min run, 90-sec. walk, repeat 3 times, 5-min walk Workout 3: Same as 2

The results This week I was excited about my new sneakers, a running outfit made of that dry-fit stuff (a foreign material in my closet) and a new subscription to Runner's World. I was feeling like a real runner. When I started this program I told myself that I could never be a runner. I know me. And if you knew me, you'd agree with me. But I've stuck to it. How did that happen?

Robinson's tip Routine is important for new runners. Jogging the same days, at the same time of day, will make sticking to it easier.

Fitness: The six-week running challenge

The plan
Workout 1: 5-min walk, 10-min run, 90-sec. walk, 10-min run, 90-sec. walk, 5-min run Workout 2: 5-min walk, 10-min run, 90-sec. walk, repeat 3 times Workout 3: 5-min walk, 20-min run, 5-min walk, 5-min run

The results This week I was expected to run for 20 consecutive minutes. I couldn't reach this goal, despite some neighbourhood reconnaissance in search of the longest downhill stretch. I fluctuated between irritation at not being able to do it and pride. (At least I was trying!) I also went to the podiatrist to investigate a pain in my foot. Turns out I just needed to add an orthotic to my new sneakers to give me the right support. I heard this as "you will need to buy new shoes," which didn't seem so bad after all.

Robinson's tip Plan to eat a light meal or a nutritious snack that balances protein, healthy fats and carbohydrates (think a banana with 1?2 cup of yogurt) — no more than an hour before you lace up to prevent cramps.

The plan
Workout 1: 5-min walk, 25-min run, 5-min walk Workout 2: 5-min walk, 5-min jog, 1-min walk, repeat 3 times, 5-min walk Workout 3: Your final run of a 5k mapped-out loop

The results I don't know how long it took, or how many walk breaks I needed, but I did it. I conquered the 5k run. Six weeks ago I was rolling my eyes at Facebook status updates about early morning jogs, and now I'm one of those people who shares her running highs with whoever will listen. My other achievement: I've lost 10 pounds and no longer need to lie down to zip up my skinny jeans. So what's next for me? I'm not ready to quit running, but I'm not sure if I've got the stamina to keep this up. A running store that offers group clinics just opened in my neighbourhood. I'm thinking I could really get into communal complaining — and the camraderie.


Robinson's tip Keeping a journal helps new runners track their progress (both the highs and the very lows) and how they're feeling as they progress.

If you are a runner or are thinking of becoming one, check out our "Run-at-home mom" blog.

This article originally appeared in our June 2012 issue with the headline "In the Long Run" (p. 44).

This article was originally published on Feb 15, 2015

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