I got back into running despite my weight gain. Managing impact intensity was the key to success.
Learning to listen to my body and avoid injury took effort, but it’s a year later and I love being a runner.
If you ask a heavy person to name something they feel is impossible to do at their weight, there is a strong chance that “running” would make their top ten list. I felt this way myself and didn’t think I would ever be able to run again because of my weight.
But I am happy to report that I was wrong. Running is possible when you are overweight if you approach it in the right way. And as I approach my first running anniversary, I thought I would take some time to share the strategies that I used to get back into running, stay injury-free, and actually begin to enjoy running.
My Doctor’s Advice
As an overweight person, I probably saw my doctor more than most people. I was on a cocktail of prescription drugs designed to keep my poor lifestyle choices in check.
It was during one of these wellness checks that I came to confront my weight and talk to my doctor about a diet and exercise plan. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to share your fitness plans with your doctor. — if for no other reason than to have them clear you medically to begin.
In my case, he strongly recommended that I put running on hold and start with a solid walking program. Walking… really?
Low-Impact vs. High-Impact Exercise at Higher Body Weight
In the past, I have been guilty of not following my doctor’s advice. But this time around I decided to listen to what he was saying and not jump right back into running. Walking wasn’t what I wanted to do, but I decided to give it a chance, and it is something that I strongly suggest you consider too.
According to a 2016 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the forces generated by running are almost 50% greater than those generated during either normal or incline walking:
“Peak vertical ground reaction force was 49% greater per impact during running than during incline walking. Moreover, the frequency of impact (steps per minute) during running was 32% greater than during incline walking, compounding the potential orthopedic stress.
Thus, the product of peak VGRF and step frequency was 97% greater during running than walking uphill at the same aerobic intensity.”
The study goes on to indicate how peak VGRF is directly related to body mass: The higher the body mass, the higher VGRF.
But even before I started walking way back in 2019, I knew it wasn’t a good idea for me to start running at the weight I was — I had a gut feeling telling me to listen to my doctor.
So with the encouragement of my dog, who was all too happy to go on as many walks as I wanted, I embarked on a walking program to kick-start my fitness back from the dead.
I started with a small distance of just over a mile at a slow (18-minute mile) pace. The beauty of a low-impact exercise is that its recovery time following the activity can be quite short. Walking, for example, is something that an overweight person can eventually do on a daily basis.
Listening to your body is an important skill that you can also start to build at this time. If something doesn’t feel right, take a day off. The goal here is to avoid injury. The more you can avoid injury, the more you can do the exercise and begin making it into a habit.
Building a habit takes time. You have to commit to a schedule and execute without fail. If you fall off the horse, get back on the schedule and learn from the experience.
This can also be helpful when it comes to friends and family. Taking an hour out of your day, every day or on whatever schedule you determine, will eventually come up against conflicts.
When people around you see your commitment to doing the activity without fail, they will be more supportive and less likely to try and convince you to break your schedule.
Commit to 3+ Months of Walking
My advice is to commit to three months or more of a low-impact walking routine before you consider transitioning to running. Once you reach the point where you can walk 3.1 miles (5k), try to slowly increase your walking pace.
While this will not change the impact your body is feeling from walking, it will start to improve your base cardio level. By this point, your body will have started to adjust to a more active lifestyle.
When I reached this point, around four months had passed. Between walking and my diet, I had started to see some positive changes in my health and weight.
I went back to my doctor, who told me to keep doing what I had been doing. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to check back in with your doctor at this point as well.
OMG, I Can’t Walk Down the Stairs
The morning after I decided to try running for part of my daily walk, my body was in complete revolt. The months of walking didn’t prepare me for the levels of soreness I felt after that first day of running for part of my walk.
To add insult to injure, my muscles remained sore for days after. So what happened?
When I reached the point where I thought I could safely start transitioning to walking, I spent a considerable amount of time looking into various beginner running programs.
The most commonly recommended program I found was the Couch to 5K (C25K) program. To be honest, when I looked at the multiweek progressive program, I found it to be way too intimidating.
I just wasn’t ready for that kind of commitment, so I decided to do something I felt would be much easier. Since I was walking 5k almost every day, in my mind the easiest thing to do would be to jog/run a small portion of the beginning of my walk. After this, I could finish the remainder of the walk at my normal pace.
In my mind, this would start getting my body used to the added stress of running in a controlled way with a built-in cooldown period that would help my legs to recover.
The problem I ran into that caused me to be so sore was perhaps the most common mistake that new runners make — Trying to run too far too soon.
That first day I ran just shy of a mile. That was way too far for my first run. What I should have done was only try running about a quarter of that distance. My ego was cashing checks that my body couldn’t support, and I paid for it in a very physical way the next day.
After I recovered from this initial mishap, I scaled the distance I would jog at the beginning of my walk back to around a quarter of a mile. Speed was not my focus, and if you are overweight it should not be yours either.
I then set a straightforward goal — Every two weeks I would attempt to increase the distance I ran by a quarter-mile.
Conventional running wisdom is to only increase the amount of distance you run by ten percent at any given time. At this early stage, if you are more comfortable with a 10% increase, by all means, do what works best for your situation.
And My Body Was Still Sore as Hell
Despite all my great ideas, my body was still sore after scaling it back to a quarter-mile. But the soreness was manageable and I quickly recovered. I wish I could say that I don’t get sore after almost a year of running, but the truth is that running is hard on your body and I still get sore from time to time.
Muscles, you will find, are the quickest to adapt to running. Tendons, ligaments, bones, and skin take a longer amount of time to become hardened to the rigors of running. Sadly there is no way to force this to happen quicker; you simply have to put in the time and distance to achieve these goals.
Stretching, you will find, both static and dynamic, pre- and post-run, can dramatically improve your running recovery and overall performance.
In my case, stretching has always been a weak point for me. An old back injury has prevented me from doing many of the recommended running stretches. So I do what I can — some stretching after all is better than none at all in my opinion.
Focusing on Form & Avoiding Overstriding
Running form is something that generally improves over time. I learned that one of the most common issues that a beginner runner can run into is overstriding when they run. Triathalon.com has this to say about overstriding:
“Because it’s less efficient and can cause injury. ‘Generally when people run with a longer stride it increases the load on the knees and the hips. If you shorten the stride, it reduces the amount of work that the knee and hip have to do while you run,’ Larson says.
‘A longer stride also tends to be associated with greater up-and-down movement, which requires more effort from the legs to cushion the fall.’ And just because you’re a forefoot striker doesn’t mean you’re exempt — you can be a heel striker and not overstride or be a forefoot striker and overstride.”
After I had started running my short distances at the beginning of my walks, my knees began to ache after about a week. Years earlier I had run into a similar issue which led me to buy IT band straps to help alleviate the pain.
This time around I happened to be reading the book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall. This fascinating book about running and a unique group of Mexican runners had me spellbound.
The insights in this book made me re-evaluate my running form. The book preached lightweight footfalls — mine felt like lead.
It extolled the virtues of shortening your stride to reduce the force of impact on your legs, along with transitioning to be more of a forefoot striker (referencing what part of your foot lands first: heel-striker, mid-foot striker, forefoot-striker) — I was clearly a heel-striker who was overstriding.
Shortening my stride felt like it would be the easiest change to make, so I focused my efforts there. Over the course of a week, the soreness and pain I was feeling in my knees disappeared. It would take my longer to transition to more of a forefoot strike, but by shortening my stride I naturally become more of a mid-foot striker.
Shortening your stride is therefore one of the best things that an overweight runner can do to help avoid getting injured. It will feel odd at first, but stick with it and those feelings will quickly fade.
I firmly believe that shortening my stride is the primary reason that I have remained injury-free in my running despite having a more frequent running schedule than most.
Buy Good Shoes, Retire Them After 350 Miles
As costs go, running is a pretty affordable activity if you stick to running outside. Shoes are your primary cost, and here I can’t emphasize strongly enough to buy quality running shoes.
If you have normal-sized feet and a dedicated running store close by, go there. Expect to pay between $90–$150 for shoes. Don’t just pick up a pair of no-name shoes at Target that looks like they are running shoes. There is a reason that quality shoes cost money. Don’t skimp.
And don’t be afraid to try on many different types of shoes to see which ones feel right. Try them out for a run or two, and if they are hurting your feet, don’t be afraid to take them back. Most running stores will accept returns if the shoes don’t work out.
Once you have shoes, retire them after 350–500 miles of running. I personally retire my shoes after 350 miles. Once retired they become shoes I wear around the house for non-running activities. I suggest replacement after 350 miles for overweight runners because our higher weights compress and break down the cushioning in the shoes at a quicker rate than lighter runners.
Record Your Runs
Recording your runs and uploading them to Strava or Garmin or Nike Run Clubs can be a fun way to stay motivated to run. Every service offers different types of challenges that can be participated in, and there is an opportunity to make friends and support other runners who are also out running and logging their distances.
They also offer a convenient way for you to track your miles and be notified when your shoes have reached their end of life mileage that you set. But for people just getting started in running, having access to a record of your running efforts over time can be really inspiring.
I constantly feel like I am a slow runner. And while recording my runs isn’t going to make me any faster, it does give me perspective in that I can look at the pace when I started and compare it to my pace now.
When I do that I don’t see a person who can only run a 9:30 minute mile, I see a person who improved from a 17:45 minute mile to a 9:30 minute mile. It’s hard to be depressed about your efforts when you can see your improvement over time so clearly.
I hope I have given you some tips and suggestions that you can use if you are overweight and just getting back into running. I use all of these tips today, one year later, and they have served me well.
The one last thing I want to leave you with is perhaps one of the hardest things I have struggled with — comparing my running to others. I read a quote from someone somewhere that said: “Comparison is the killer of joy.”
When it comes to running, I think this statement is especially powerful. In running it is very easy to look at your running progress compared to others and downplay your efforts.
All I can say is don’t do it. The pace you run that you might think is slow could very well be fast to another person. The same goes for your distance. If you continually compare your efforts to those of other people, you will not enjoy running as much as you could.
In my opinion, the more you can enjoy running, the longer you will do it — so why not avoid negative thoughts when you can?
Thanks for reading, and I wish you the best of luck in your running journey. Please feel free to ask any question — I will gladly answer as time permits.