Starting From Zero

<strong>Starting slow will help you stick to your training plan.</strong><br>Photo provided by Pearl Izumi
Judy Molnar still has the Popsicle stick she received for finishing her first 5k in 1996. "I remember I started giggling because at the time I was trying to lose weight and here they're giving me an ice pop," she recalls. Before the race she was overweight, out of shape and could barely climb a flight of stairs without losing her breath. Joining a gym and running a 5k were among her 1996 New Year's resolutions.

Now director of Iron Girl, Molnar, 41, has completed many more 5Ks since then, as well as 10Ks, marathons, triathlons and even an Ironman.

Angel Bell, 36, of Rahway, New Jersey, was intimidated by running. "I always wanted to run but never knew how to start," she says. Her opportunity came when a friend asked her to sign up for Running 101, a 12-week all-women program held by the Jersey Shore Running Club. She started slowly, walking a few minutes, running one minute, and then walking again. Each week she walked less and ran more until she gradually found herself running 30 minutes.

The program culminated in a 5K. "I had tears streaming down my face when I approached the finish line. People you don't know are cheering for you," says Bell. "Now I'm hooked."

As Molnar and Bell's experiences prove, taking small steps is key to successfully (and safely) accomplishing an athletic goal when starting from scratch. At first the idea of going from coach potato to Energizer bunny may seem impossible, but with determination and help from others you'll be surprised how fast the transformation will occur. Although the following guide for newbies focuses on running a first 5K, it can help anyone determined to start a journey toward a more active, healthier and happier life--no matter what the sport.

The First Step

If you're starting from zero, any first steps, no matter how few, are steps to a healthier, happier you. Regular aerobic exercise will not only help you lose weight and improve cardiovascular health, it will also help reduce stress, boost your energy levels and instill a sense of overall well-being.

Before beginning an exercise program, you should check with your doctor. "You want to make sure you don't have any health issues when you start," cautions Jim Fraser, a Washington D.C.-based coach for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team in Training. Knowing you've ruled out potential medical problems will help you start with confidence.

Overcoming mental hurdles--fears about being too out of shape or too slow--is the hardest part of getting started, says Jonathan Cane, a running coach for Brooklyn-based JackRabbit athletics store. "When we have meetings for prospective participants in the beginner running program, I ask the group, 'Who's afraid they'll be the slowest?' Inevitably, half of them raise their hands. My response is, 'You can't all be right, and who cares if you are?' " It helps beginners to see that others are just as self-conscious as they are and that they share the same doubts about whether they can become "runners," Cane explains.

Mental hurdles can be more overwhelming than physical ones. Molnar says many women new to running are discouraged by preconceived notions of what a runner should look like. They feel they could never be a runner because they don't fit the stereotype. "Not everyone is super fit," says Molnar. "Runners come from all walks of life, sizes, shapes and colors." Oprah Winfrey, for example, inspired thousands of women after she finished her first marathon.

If you have doubts, stand along the sidelines of any local 5K and observe the wide range of women who participate. You'll see teenagers and grandmothers, women from sizes petite to plus.

Having a support system, whether it's a friend, family or running club, can make training less daunting and ultimately more rewarding. Fraser says Team in Training is successful because people find motivation in groups. "You're there to reach your goal and help others get through it."

Molnar adds that meeting new people with similar interests helps keep motivation high and making a commitment to a group makes you feel more accountable. To find a group, she recommends tapping into your community. "Most local YMCAs will have a walking or running program, as will local running stores. Many charity races like Race for the Cure also have team training programs."

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