How to run 5 km (aging, overweight people edition)

[A quick break from the Heavy Metal Timeline series. We’ll get right back to that after this announcement.]

I am no kind of athlete. Even as a kid, I was a slow runner. I loved football, but I was never a good player. Humiliatingly, I could never think quickly on the pitch, to spot the pass others miss — the one thing I might legitimately have expected to be good at.


And now I’m 46 years old, I weigh 104 kg, I have a BMI of 31.3 which makes me clinically obese, and my job is the most sedentary imaginable: I walk the five meters from my bed to my desk every morning and spend all day sitting in front of a computer.

That means that if I can run 5 km, so can you!

And I do run 5k, every Monday and Friday (plus a faster 2k run on Wednesdays). And my times (while still very slow) are improving every time.

If you, like me, know you ought to get more exercise but just can’t seem to get yourself into a habit of running, then I’m here to help you. “But Mike”, you say, “You just admitted you’re a terrible runner. Why should we listen to you?” For that very reason, my friend. I’m a terrible runner, but for decades I wasn’t a runner at all. I’ve just recently made the transition from non-runner to runner, which means I’m perfectly placed to help others across that chasm.

And then there’s this: actual runners are so darned intimidating. You look up “running for beginners” there are shedloads of articles about how first you need to spend £150 on a pair of quality running shoes, and how you need the right balance of carbs and proteins in your diet, and what the best rehydration regimen is, and how you need an app that tells you when to alternate between fast run, slow run and walk. I used to look at all that and just think, pfft. I don’t have the time or energy to invest.

sushi (2)

Badgers to all that. I’m going to tell you how I went from Not Running to Running, and how you can, too. The secret is simple: lower the activation energy. Everything else follows from that.

Activation energy is a concept from chemistry: it’s the energy that has to be put into a chemical system before a reaction occurs. Once the reaction begins, it can be self-sustaining: for example, you have to have to put heat into a system to start a fire, but once it’s going it will keep burning until it runs out of fuel. By analogy, we have to put energy into going for a run — mental and emotional as well as physical energy. And for people as unmotivated as me, it doesn’t take much to stop me running at all.

It’s raining outside? Nah, I don’t fancy that. Cold? Ugh, forget it. Too hot? I’ll run another day. It takes very, very little to make me not bother.

Or how about this: “You mean I have to put on special shoes just to run? Count me out!”

Seriously, I am sensationally lazy when it comes to physical exercise. Almost any excuse suffices to get me out of doing it. If I run regularly, it can only be because I’ve made it as easy on myself as humanly possible.

Stone House Inn

The secret to my success, such as it is, is that we bought a second-hand treadmill. We didn’t get it for me — our youngest son wanted one for Christmas last year. Turns out that they’re surprisingly cheap second-hand, probably because they’re so big and heavy and hard to move. If you’re prepared to pick it up in person in your car, you can probably get one for about £50-100 on eBay (that’s what we paid).

This is great for activation energy:

  • I don’t care how cold it is outside
  • I know I’m not going to get run over
  • I can easily run a set distance (it’s on the display)
  • I don’t even bother putting shoes on, I just run barefoot

There are two other big advantages, too.

I know some people actively enjoy it, but for me, running is incredibly boring. The only thing that keeps me sane as I put one foot in front of another for 30 or 40 minutes is brain-food, which usually means complex music (usually prog). That’s easier to arrange at home than when running on roads, especially as you need to be able to hear traffic on roads. (One day I might even get around to sorting out how to listen to podcasts.)

Finally, using a treadmill at home gives you more control over how far and how fast you run. Again, this probably isn’t an issue for proper runners, but for someone as unmotivated as me it’s crucial. I can force myself to run a bit faster by adding 0.1 km/h to my speed each time. I can see the distance accumulate in front of me, and do endless mental arithmetic to figure out what fraction of the distance I’ve covered and what my projected final time is. Because I don’t like actual running, I need all that.


And the thing is, it’s working. The first few times I ran on the treadmill, I felt like I was going to die. The first time I successfully pushed myself to do the full 5k, I could hardly breathe at all by the end. Now, only just over a month since my first 5k, I’m doing it four minutes faster and breathing easily at the end.

I’m still not enjoying it, but I’m not hating it.

And that’s enough to stop me getting progressively fatter and more unfit as I make my way into middle age. I recommend it.

[Historical note: I wrote this back in February; but just as I was readying it for posting, the treadmill crumbled under my mighty mass and I stopped running. It’s only now that I am once more running 5k on the repaired treadmill that I feel I can post this with integrity.]

14 responses to “How to run 5 km (aging, overweight people edition)

  1. I love how you illustrated this article with chunks of sushi :)

  2. Yes, when one’s only exercise is “pushing a desk”, it doesn’t take much intake to start the bloating process. At your age, I started by walking at least a few miles a day in the woods near my work, and then running trails, up to where I was running 10K three times a week. I dropped about 20lbs but never got much under 195lbs. I’m over 65 now so I don’t run any longer, but by cutting my intake significantly, I am keeping at that weight and slowly dropping. My goal is to reach about 180 which would be a good weight for me, heart-wise.

  3. I ought to have a target weight, I think — it would be more effective to aim for something than just vaguely “weigh less”. If I approximate my height as 180 cm, then it looks from this graph that I need to get down to about 97 kg to no longer be classified as “obese”. That seems tough but realistic. (I’d need to get all the way down to 81 kg to not be “overweight” and there is no way that’s going to happen.)

  4. Thanks Mike – this really inspired me to get off my behind.
    I’m a little younger (39) and my BMI isn’t too bad (yet) but I work from home in the software biz, so it’s probably only a matter of time.
    Time to hit eBay for a second-hand treadmill… and stock up on prog, of course :-D

  5. Christian Selvaratnam

    Great post Mike. BTW this Saturday is the 10th anniversary of Parkrun, the free 5K run in a park near you. I go most weeks and there is a full range of runners from elites who are doing 16mins and less to newbies doing 5K in 30-40mins.

  6. Thanks for the kind words, Andrew — best wishes for your own running!

    Fiona and I attempted a Parkrun earlier this year. She finished it; I didn’t. (It was a while after our first treadmill broke and I had lost the stamina I’d gained.) I plan to take another stab at it in a few weeks, when running 5k is normal again for me rather a thing I’ve only just managed to do again. My long-term goal is get below 30 minutes. I’m just not built for faster times.

  7. I was edging up to unhealthy a few years back myself. The one change I made that started to make a surprising difference was to switch to a standing desk arrangement. I was suddenly more alert all day long, and my stamina increased measurably. Standing for an 8-hour work day burns around 800-900 calories over sitting! It’s rather incredible. A pound is about 3500 calories, so you can do the math. That, and my standing desk was kitbashed from about $200 worth of IKEA bookshelves, so the price was right.

    When I tried a treadmill desk, it was odd to get used to it, but my attention to my work was razor-sharp. I tuned everything else out and was incredibly productive. And I was walking for hours a day while I was doing it. It was a loaner, and since my wife thought it was too weird I didn’t pursue making my treadmill setup permanent. But I’m still satisfied with the standing desk.

  8. Very interesting ideas, Kit, thanks for this.

  9. Crash Random

    My age, weight, and level of athleticism are very similar to yours (and we have other things in common as well). Our points of similarity make me evangelize my own experience a bit more than I otherwise would.

    What I found really worked for me was swimming: 20-25 minutes of swimming, about 4 times per week (i.e. try and do it every day, and end up doing it 4 times a week). I started off as the slowest guy at the pool, excluding the aged and infirm, but kept at it. In about a year, I lost 20 kg and started looking like a moderately athletic man. To say this was a huge surprise to everyone who knew me would be an understatement.

    And okay, I eventually fell out of the routine for various reasons, including an unrelated arm injury, and gained back 5 kg. It was still well worth it.

  10. This post reminded of me of this one by fellow hacker Matt Might:
    (Maybe the most interesting thing I’ve read on exercising.)

    His idea of “minimizing transaction costs” is very similar to yours of “lowering the activation energy”.

  11. Swimming is appealing, Crash Random, but again the issue comes down to activation energy. I’d need to get in a car and drive all the way to Cinderford (actually, to Ross at the moment, as the Cinderford pool is closed), which means at least 30 minutes in the car every time I swim. I know myself well enough to know that that’s just not going to happen. I need exercise that I can just fall into.

    Thanks for the link, Nicolas. I like Matt Might’s approach to laziness: harnessing it to be force for good. Still, his approach to fitness and diet is still much more elaborate and demanding than what I have in mind. I’m not trying to develop strength or muscle tone or anything, just avoid getting progressively fatter indefinitely.

  12. Thanks for the post Mike; a year or two back I did a ‘good solid year’ .. tried to reduce intake (no more cola! pare things down a touch), and increase burn a bit (elliptical runner). It worked a little, but not nearly as well as I’d hoped, for a variety of reasons. I did lose 20 pounds or something, but then babies came along and no sleep and sitting around a lot bleery eyed, gained it back. But now, I want to get back to it…

    Some obstacles..
    – Exercise may not really matter all that much; you need to reduce intake (hard :(, and burning it off is Very Hard. The amount of effort to burn off a few calories is outrageous, but just not eating it.. if you can manage that, it is far easier (on time, anyway.) Our fridges are all too near at hand… and Crom help you trying to find tasty and healthy food when out and about.
    – Exercise is fantastically boring, as you point out
    – Apparently, distracted exercise is not as good as focused exercise; I’m not sure on this point – running is running? – but I’ve read that if you’re watchign TV (say) – hanging a LCD in front of your exercise equipment – you tend ot actually watch it and are doing much less effort than if you are just standing there pounding it out
    – Your body is entirely about beating you; I found doing the elliptical .. the first day, doing 10 or 15 mins was murder and I was a dripping mess; but each day, add 5 or 10 mins, and after a few days I coudl do 50mins no problems — really could go as long as I wanted, except I couldn’t handle the boredom. But your body beats you — if you do the same exercise day in and day out, your body optimizes and it stopsbeing effective; while still good for the heart and pipes, your actual calorie burn decreases from some amount to some other amount .. not sure if this is real, and what the floor is, and such .. but..
    – all the information you can find online is either fluff or really intimidating hardcore. Same as for dieticians who every decade entirely change their tune … you really can’t tell what the real goods are.

    Boils down — you need to do hard work, no way around it.

    Now, a treadmill at a useful incline sure seems hard to cheat; the elliptical seems ‘too easy’ but it too can be tuned so I think I need to get back into shape, and set it on a rigourous challenge-easy-repeat pattern.

    .. but the trick then is .. givewn the above – you need to do the exercise ‘at all’, so put up with the fact you need TV or something to get through it; may not be perfect, but you can’t listen to the negatives or you will never do it at all, as you say.

    Goddamn it.

    Need to find a show that is addictive as hell, and 10 seasons long, and wrapped up in the past, so have lots of material. (If you’ve never seen it, nows the time to watch The Wire.) I have seen it, but may be time to re-watch some DW, catch up on Veronica, and re-watch Hustle.

    FWIW – the Metal Evolution series by Sam Dunn – 10 hour long episodes about the history of Metal – is _fantastic_; thats good music to get you through some exercise, and its really very well done! So that’ll buy you a couple of weeks of time :)

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