In the span of one year, I went from sedentary, overweight, and out of shape, to completing the Chicago Marathon in 4 hours and 18 minutes. I’ll write about the personal journey that sparked such a big change in my lifestyle in another post, but I wanted to share the practical exercise tips I used to start my fitness journey.

1. Start working out with someone who knows how

I recognized that I didn’t have a clue about how to exercise and made the decision to invest in a personal trainer. I allocated $300 dollars a month for training, and started working out three times a week with a plan customized for me.

If you don’t have access to a trainer, find a friend or colleague who can show you the ropes, and study up on workout technique. There are lots of apps, YouTube channels and websites that can show you proper technique, exercise tips and form, as well as standardized workout plans designed to help you get in shape.

If you want to start running, go to a running store where you can get advice on your stride, gait, and running form. They’ll help you pick out a shoe that works for you based on your running preferences. I prefer to run barefoot style with a forefoot strike and a zero-drop shoe.

2. Change your diet

Exercise tips are only half the battle. Without a healthy diet to accompany your workouts, you’ll see little progress. Before I even started running, I replaced breakfast and dinner with a nutrient-rich protein shake and started eating high-protein lunches with limited fats and carbs.

I also did 2 two-day fasts that helped reset my body’s cravings for sugar, fat, refined carbs, and processed foods. During these fasts, I drank acai juice and allowed myself two almonds if I got intense hunger cravings. The fasts were difficult but I made myself as busy as possible on those days to stay distracted from hunger. By the end of the fasts, I felt so clean and only wanted to put healthy, whole foods in my body. I lost about 20 pounds in the first month.  Then I started building it back in muscle.

My new diet consisted of lots of lean protein, roasted veggies, whole grains and legumes, and flavorings from spices and herbs. Once I started running longer distances, I adjusted my diet to include more complex carbohydrates to give me endurance.

3. Get in shape with circuit training

Before I even thought about going on a real run, I spent three months doing light circuit training to get in shape. Simple exercises like jumping jacks, jump rope, halos, planks, sit ups and squats are a great way to begin.

Start with each movement for 30 seconds, then 45, and then a whole minute. I typically completed 5-6 exercises in a circuit, and repeated the circuit 3-4 times. Once I could do each exercise consistently for a minute, I decided to see how it felt to run.

I was exhilarated to find I could run miles and miles without that awful lung-burning, winded feeling I experienced in my prior attempts. The rush of endorphins as I finished was enough to put the horrors of my previous runs behind me.

4. Set a goal

Once you’ve achieved a baseline level of fitness, decide what your next goal will be. Want to run a race? Maybe a triathlon? Or maybe you want to bulk up or get toned and lean? The important part is setting a goal with some numeric targets related to weight, body composition, or speed. Then choose a dieting plan and exercise routine that will get you there.

You have choices between aerobic and anaerobic exercise, and decisions between number of reps and weight. When I chose to run a marathon, my exercise plan included lots of cardio, with low-weight, high rep circuits to keep my core and arms toned and strengthened. Yoga provided a good foundation of stability and flexibility to keep my muscles loose.

My diet included lots of whole carbohydrates and healthy fats that gave me energy for my long runs. If your goal is to bulk up, then plan to do fewer reps and more weight, and add lots of lean protein into your diet. Whatever your goal is, there is a diet and exercise plan to complement it.

5. Stick with it

Consistency, discipline, and practice matter. Sticking with it doesn’t mean exercising every day. I’m a little skeptical of those people who come across really hardcore about working out every single day, no matter what.

There are some days where the healthiest thing you can do is give your mind, body and soul a rest. But there will also be those days where you know you should get out there, and you just don’t feel like it. On those days, I remind myself that the choice before me says more about my character than my health. Will I still be healthy if I miss a workout here and there? Yes. But, I can make choices that will not only benefit my body but will also build character. Sometimes the right choice is also the hard choice.

“I really regret that workout” said no one, ever. Stick with it, even when it’s hard.

A Setback Before the Finish Line

The combination of these five things helped me go from completely sedentary to a marathoner in less than a year. But it was not without its setbacks.

Five months before the Chicago Marathon, I shattered my wrist riding a mechanical bull (trying to impress a boy). I was out of commission on bedrest for over two months on heavy painkillers, unable to exercise at all.

jacob little photo

When the cast came off and pins came out, I had less than three months to train and prepare all over again. Yet, through diet, circuit training, persistence, and a bit of luck, I crossed the finish line in a sunny Chicago 4 hours and 18 minutes after I started running. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

After all that work, I knew I could never go back to being a couch potato. I set a new goal and started my next journey: bulking up.

jacob little marathon