Assessing your fitness before starting to run

Assessing your fitness before starting to run

Here's how to make a self-assessment of your fitness, so you can work out how much training to do in the initial stages of your running plan.

The more exercise you've done in the past, the easier it will be for you to get into running. Other factors affecting how easy it will be are:

Age

A young beginner may make faster progress than an older one simply because their body is able to adapt to exercise quicker. However, that does not mean there is any age limit for taking up running - running is enjoyed by young and old alike.

Smoker or non-smoker
 

There's no age limit - running is enjoyed by young and old alike
Smokers may well struggle with a regular exercise routine, particularly at first, as the lungs adapt to the extra demands. Anyone taking up running should seriously consider giving up smoking, otherwise the benefits of running will be significantly reduced. Unsurprisingly, those who give up smoking find that their lungs become accustomed to exercise much faster and they benefit from less breathing difficulties.

Occupation

A manual worker may initially adapt to exercise quicker than his less-exercised office counterpart.
 
How fit are you?
Road racers Body shape and weight

Everyone varies in their genetic structure - some people are more suited to running than others. Ideally, a distance runner should be reasonably lean in body mass and have a high concentration of a particular type of muscle that is good at using oxygen for the production of energy, called 'slow twitch muscle'.

Some people are born with a greater proportion of one specific muscle fibre over the other and this can influence which events they are best suited to. A competitive marathon runner should ideally have 80-90% slow twitch muscle fibre, but the average person is born with around 50%. 

Although your muscle make-up is relevant because it may have an initial impact on how quickly you progress or how comfortable you feel, it is more important to enjoy your running, as more relevant to your improvement is the amount you get out and run!

Medical history

If you have a history of medical problems this could affect your running capabilities to begin with and you should consult a doctor before taking up the sport.

Heart disease and other heart ailments kill more people than any other disease. It has long been accepted that physical exercise helps to prevent cardiovascular (or heart) disease. For some, this will be the motivation to start running, while for others, it will just be an added bonus. For everyone however, it can be a significant lifestyle benefit. If you are starting to run because of a medical condition it is especially important to have regular health check ups with your GP.
Your resting heart rate is a good indicator of your fitness

Heart rate

How can you tell how fit you are? Your heart rate (or pulse) taken while at rest is a good indicator. An experienced runner with a long background in the sport will usually have a resting heart rate of around 45-50 beats per minute, while a person without an exercise history will be nearer 85 to 95 beats per minute. Age will have some bearing on your resting heart rate but the values outlined below will give a good guide of your current level of fitness.
 
Fitness Level Heartbeats per minute
Unfit 80-100
Average 70-80
Fit 50-70
Very Fit 30-50

Your resting pulse should get lower as you progress through your running career. This is because your heart has increased the volume of blood it is pumping each beat - called stroke volume - which means your heart does not beat so often.

It's important to get into the habit of taking your resting heart rate regularly as you embark on a training schedule because you can then easily monitor how you are progressing.

Taking your resting heart rate
  • Your resting heart rate varies throughout the day - take it at the same time every day so there are similar conditions each time you take your pulse - a good time is first thing in the morning before eating.
  • Good places to take it are the radial artery located in your wrist or the carotid artery found in the neck.
  • If you are taking the pulse at the radial artery, use the tips of your index and middle fingers to locate your pulse - first feel for the wrist bone at the base of the thumb and then slowly move towards your wrist.
  • Once located, start the watch and begin counting your pulse - after a minute you should have an accurate reading. Try to avoid looking at the watch as the pulse is being counted as there is a tendency to count seconds instead.
  • Make a note of your pulse for future reference, for example in a training log.
Young and old alike can enjoy running
Young and old alike enjoy runningMaking progress

Remember the importance of assessing your body and its fitness is to determine how far, how fast and how often you should begin running in order to establish a routine that will ease you slowly and safely into the sport. While being a realistic assessment of your starting point, it should in no way limit what you can achieve.

Once you are running comfortably it is then up to you to decide how much time, effort and commitment you are willing to dedicate to achieve your goals and make further progress. All progress is relative to the individual and no one should be disillusioned by comparisons with others. Define your own level of achievement and simply enjoy your running.

Summary
  • Determining your genetic structure and initial level of fitness will help you establish how far, fast and often to run at first.
  • You can tell how fit you are from your heart rate.
  • You should not let the initial fitness assessment put a limit on your long term goals.

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