Four Stages of Running

Most lifelong runners progress through four definable stages of running. The time spent in each stage will vary from runner to runner. Some never progress past certain stages and some revert back to previous stages. Some may even skip a stage, but most will move from one stage to another. The four stages of running are beginner, weekend warrior, competitor and athlete.


A beginning runner usually starts to run because they want to lose weight and/or regain some lost fitness. This is the most difficult stage to begin and has the highest drop out rate. There is, in many cases, a lack of confidence and fear of failure in this stage. Motivation is a problem. Years of bad habits gained while being a sedentary “couch potato” are hard to break.

A beginning runner usually trains inconsistently and without a concrete goal in mind. There may be a general goal of weight loss and fitness gains, but thoughts of speed improvement or long term goals may not be present. It is important, in this beginning stage, to train your mind as well as your body for the challenge ahead. You must try to make running part of your every day routine. This stage can last anywhere from a couple of months to as much as a year or more. Some are happy and comfortable with their accomplishments in this stage and never leave. Once you begin to feel the health benefits of running and your increased fitness makes running easier, you will probably advance to the next stage.

Runners in this stage are many times identified as joggers. I hesitate to refer to anyone with this term, because many runners are insulted by the term jogger. There are many and varied definitions for the term jogger. Many writers refer to anyone that runs at an easy pace as a jogger, while faster paces are associated with runners. That is really not an accurate association. The real difference between a runner and a jogger is one of attitude and mindset. I believe that the lack of a goal is the true difference between a jogger and a runner. Speed is not a determining factor. It is the mindset of the runner that set him or her apart from a jogger. A runner has a specific goal in mind and is training to reach that goal, while a jogger runs aimlessly with no concrete reason. For that reason, most true joggers do not continue to run their entire life. It is very difficult to maintain any kind of exercise program without having goals to work toward. Since most beginning runners have not set specific goals, it is important to do so in order to get started on the road to becoming a true runner.

If you are starting a running program with the long term goal of becoming a life long runner, then you are a runner, not a jogger. Your goals can be anything. Weight loss, fitness gains, physical health improvements, stress reduction and training for a specific race are all common goals for beginning runners. Improvement in race performance is also a possible goal, but is less common in beginning runners because the competitive juices have usually not began to flow.

Vicki is a typical example of runner that progressed through all of the stages. Vicki came to me for coaching because she wanted to begin running to lose weight – a very common goal for beginning runners. After an initial consultation and clearance from her physician, she started her training with walking, which progressed to a program of alternating walking and running. At this point her only goal was weight loss and overall fitness improvement.

After about six weeks, Vicki was well on her way to meeting her weight loss goal. The running and strength training her program called for had improved both her physical and mental health. Vicki began to see and feel the benefits of running. She now started to move into the next stage – The Weekend Warrior.

Weekend warrior

The second stage is the weekend warrior. This type of runner has started to reap the health benefits of running. He or she is feeling better and running is starting to become part of their everyday routine. A weekend warrior is making it a habit to run fairly consistently, when they have time. They are beginning to make time for running, even when it seems difficult to do. In this stage, the runner, if uncoached, is usually running at the same pace in each run. Once this stage is reached, the drop out rate is less than in the beginning stage, but is still high. This stage can last a few months or many years. Many runners never leave this stage. This stage is called weekend warrior because in this stage the runner does their workouts most consistently on the weekends or days off.

In this stage, the runner should be starting to plan for long term goals. They may want to make running a lifelong pursuit. A weekend warrior will start to compete in some local 5K or 10K races. They may even begin to think about training for a marathon. A structured training program begins to take on more importance. The weekend warrior is probably starting to self-educate by reading a lot of books on running and is exploring the various training programs.

Towards the end of this stage, the weekend warrior is probably starting to add some speed work into his or her training program. They are starting to think about increasing their speed and will want to improve their performance in races.

The jump from this stage to the competitor stage will depend upon how much the runner enjoy’s racing. If they enjoy the competition and the challenges of performing at their best, they will make the transition to the competitor stage. If not, they may stay in this stage.

When Vicki made the jump to this stage, she became more self motivated. It was no longer necessary for me to “force” her to work out. She started to enjoy her daily workouts. She dedicated a portion of her free time on weekends and days off to her running and strength training.

During this time period, Vicki’s made additional gains in fitness and confidence. In the beginner’s stage, she at times felt awkward and uncomfortable. She told me that she did not feel like a runner and was self conscious about running in parks with other runners. During this stage gained confidence and felt more like a runner.

Because of her new found confidence, Vicki decided that she would like to join in the fun, camaraderie and competition of some local races. She asked me to help her train for her first 5K. Five weeks later she successfully completed her first race. The accomplishment of that goal further increased her fitness and confidence and Vicki went on to complete several more races. This advanced her into the Competitor stage.


For the runners that make it to this stage, the drop out rate if very low. In this stage, the runner has discovered the exhilaration and excitement of competition. They have found that special feeling that comes from meeting every challenge that comes their way with strength and courage. Racing and competition has become an important part of their life. Training has evolved from jogging to a goal-oriented plan of threshold runs, speed work, base training and rest days.

The goal of the competitor is to improve their race times and place of finish in weekend races. Running is now part of their everyday life. This is a long stage and can last anywhere from a year to forever. There are several levels of competitors. Beginning, Intermediate, Advanced and Elite competitors. The elite level is the highest level and is reserved for athletes that compete for the top spots in national and international races and are able to devote the majority of their time to training. The difference between the four levels of competitors is to a high degree the intensity of and dedication to the training program and to a smaller degree their degree of accomplishment in racing.

A runner will not necessarily progress through the four levels of competitor before jumping to the runner stage. Some will progress through the four competitive levels, but most will move through only the first two or three levels before making the jump to the runner stage.

The competitor stage is a very exhilarating stage and is an exciting time of a runners life. The fairly new thrill of racing and competition and a new form of excitement. New friends are found and new challenges are met. Confidence can soar in this stage as fitness is gained and race times drop. Goal setting is easy in this stage. Common goals become training for longer races such as 10K’s, half marathons and full marathons. There is the constant short term goal of beating your PR (personal record) and improving your finishing position.

In addition to the excitement and confidence gains, you will gain a lot of fitness in this stage. The need to include speedwork and other types of higher intensity workouts into your training will make great improvements in your fitness level.

When Vicki reached this stage, she no longer needed any encouragement to exercise. She wanted to train in order to improve her race performance. She began to workout consistently 5 or 6 times per week. She was now fully confident in her abilities as a runner and was also able to be her own coach. She had learned the basics of exercise and training.


This is the final and ultimate stage of running. In this stage the runners goal is to train his or her mind and body to be the best it can be. Racing is still an important part of this stage. The racing goal of an athlete has become more than just finishing time and place. The goal of every race has become to meet every racing challenge with courage and best effort. Finishing time is still important, but if the runner meets the challenges of the race with the best possible effort, it was a successful race.

An athlete wants to achieve the best fitness level of body and mind that is possible. The drop out rate in this stage is nearly zero. The main cause of dropping out in this stage is a serious injury or illness, which happens infrequently because of the high levels of fitness, strength and health that runners have acquired.

In this stage a balance of physical, mental, emotional and social goals and responsibilities are reached. No portion of a runners life is ignored or overemphasized. Running provides somewhat of a balance for all other areas.

When Vicki reached this stage she had become an athlete. Her body was operating at peak efficiency. Her confidence level was high and she was if full control of all areas of her life.

Running does not cause all of these positive changes directly, but acts as the catalyst and a positive channel to allow these changes to take place. The changes start with the body, improving strength, endurance, cardiovascular fitness. These changes result in improved confidence and creates a positive attitude and outlook on life.