WASHINGTON -- In three months, you could run a 5K even if you have never run in your life.
If you are otherwise healthy, 12 weeks of training is all you need in order to make that 5K not just doable, but enjoyable, says Bill Pierce, co-author of "Run Less Run Faster" and a longtime marathoner.
"A big part of my philosophy is to be prepared, to enjoy it and to have a good experience on race day," Pierce says.
The number of people completing road races has been steadily rising over the past couple of decades, according to Running USA, and people who run 5Ks made up close to 38 percent (or 5.2 million) of race runners in 2011. "You get a lot of novices, and they can realistically train for and run a 5K," Pierce says. These races are also popular among experienced runners, he says, because there are so many at that distance.
"Races can be so much more than just something to check off the list," says Pierce, who is also a professor at the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training in Greenville, S.C. "They can also be part of a lifelong healthy lifestyle. And that's what we want to help create."
Where to start?
Pierce and a couple of Washington-based run coaches agree that the first few weeks of training should entail a combination of jogging and walking -- with walking making up a bigger portion.
Elyse Braner, a run coach at the Pacers running store in Washington, says she recommends doing this walk-jog combination for 30 minutes at a time, three times a week.
The first few times, jog 30 seconds, walk 90 seconds and repeat until you are at 30 minutes total. Once that combination becomes comfortable, start upping the jog portion and decreasing the walk portion. Then start going for distance.
Don't expect to finish a full 5K (3.1 miles) in those first few weeks. But after some tweaking you may be running the entire distance, Braner says. "You might get to a 5K in Week 3 or 4," she says. And by eight weeks, you might even be race-ready, she says.
Summer might not be an appealing time to start a training program, but working in the heat is good preparation for fall races: Your times are likely to be better in cool weather than in hot weather. But take it easy and hydrate well before, during and after -- even for shorter runs.
It's important not to push too hard, too fast, Braner says.
"If you get too enthusiastic, too quickly, it may not feel good, and you get discouraged -- or, worse, injured," she says.
Other ways to prevent injuries, says Kathy Pugh, coach with the EZ8 women's running program here (goal: to get you running an eight-minute mile comfortably), are to get good shoes (get fitted at a running shoe store) and to practice good form and posture.
"A lot of the posture issues come from bad habits that we get into from living in the modern world," Pugh says, "slouching shoulders from sitting at a desk, for example."
She also checks for arm movement (arms shouldn't cross in front of the body) and arching backs (engage through the core to prevent lower-back arching).
Pugh also incorporates hill running to create running-specific strength training for the gluteus, quadriceps and hamstring muscles.
Other runner-friendly strength exercises, according to Pierce, are those that strengthen the core (important for maintaining good form) and the muscles that stabilize the hips (such as glutes and abductors) and knees (quads and hamstrings). These exercises include squats, lunges, step-ups, bent-over row and bird dog (start in tabletop position, reach out with your right arm and left leg, then alternate).
"Strength training is so important," Pierce says. "It helps prevent injuries, and it helps make you stronger, not just as a runner but in your daily activities."
It is particularly important for people 40 and older, he says, with the natural lean body mass loss that comes with aging. (If you are over 40, he suggests checking with a doctor before starting any exercise program.)
The key with strength training -- just like running -- is consistency, he says.
"The body is amazing in its ability to adapt. With consistency, it is almost guaranteed in the average person that you will adapt and become successful," Pierce says.
Pierce also promotes -- particularly for longer distances -- cross-training such as cycling and swimming to take some of the pressure off the joints while still getting the same conditioning benefits you would get from running.
Cool-down and stretching -- which have been hotly debated lately -- are also important, according to Pierce, in terms of injury prevention and the body's need to recover and relax.
"People ask me all the time, and I say that I have three things: Don't go out too fast, don't go out too fast, don't go out too fast," Pierce says, laughing.
But he's serious. When you start out too fast even at a shorter distance like a 5K, you can deplete your energy very quickly and hit a wall midway or at the end of the race. That's no fun.
Other key points are to stay hydrated -- many races have water stations, but be sure to hydrate before the race, too -- and to enjoy yourself, Pugh says.
"You want to cross that finish line and say, 'I'm ready to sign up for my next race,'" she says.