Anyone can begin a running program. But the ones who succeed are those who realize that they can’t go from couch potato to marathoner in a few weeks. “The biggest inhibitor to long-term success in running is overdoing it, which leads to injury,” says Cris Dobrosielski, a spokesman for the American Council on Exercise and former collegiate running coach.
The following tips will help you ease into a running habit so that six months from now, you’re no longer a beginner, but a committed runner, maybe even training for your first race.
Buy a dedicated pair of running shoes.
If your hometown has a running store, go and get fitted for a pair of shoes. You might be a pronator (someone whose arches fall inward during foot strike); a supinator (someone whose arches are not flexible); or neither (generally referred to as having a neutral foot strike). If you don’t have access to someone who can help analyze your gait, buy a pair of neutral shoes with moderate support and wear them around the house. “You should love to put on your running shoes,” says Dobrosielski. “They should be so comfortable that you don’t want to take them off.” If they’re not, take them back.
Your best bet is to opt for a neutral shoe. In general, the toe box should allow for a full and comfortable spread of the forefoot. An athlete should be able to open up their feet width-wise without discomfort. When it come to length, pay attention to the space between toes and the front of the shoe. Aim for ¼ inch;too much space leads to an awkward gait and “slipping” with each stride, and toes that are hugged too tight can be a recipe for injury.
When you’re just starting out, your ligaments and bones need time to get used to the extra stress placed on them. That’s because at first, the muscles in your legs aren’t strong enough to completely support your bones, potentially leading to fractures. So go slow. “Just start running at a pace you can sustain, and don’t worry about needing to stop and walk,” says Dobrosielski. Most runners start with a run-walk program (see chart), but if the program seems too hard or too easy, you can adjust accordingly.
Think minutes, not miles.
When you first start running, don’t worry about how far you go. “It can be mentally grueling to think, ‘I have to go out and run three miles,’” says Dobrosielski. Instead, commit to running three days per week for no more than 15 or 20 minutes, ideally as a run/walk day, followed by a cross-training day, followed by another run/walk day, and ending with a rest day. After two or three weeks, you can ramp things up with two run days, followed by a cross-training or rest day, then two more run days, followed by a rest day.
Athletic coaches talk about “vertical polarity,” which means keeping your chin up, shoulders dropped, and hips over heels, with a slight tilt in your torso to aid in moving forward. “You want to be tall and vertical, but still make forward progress,” says Dobrosielski. On a hill, you’ll naturally take shorter strides, but you’ll still want to maintain good posture. It’s fine to integrate small hills as you progress through your program.
Take short strides.
Forget everything your gym teacher told you about stretching out your legs. When you’re first starting out, you want to take relatively short strides. “The bigger your steps, the more energy you’re exerting and the more quickly a beginner is going to get tired out and discouraged,” Dobrosielski says. “All of us have a sweet spot between tempo and stride length—that is, between how fast your legs turn over and how long your stride is. As your fitness and your muscle endurance increases, you can experiment with that sweet spot, so you find out where you’re strongest and most comfortable.” You’ll know when you’ve reached that sweet spot because running will start to feel effortless.
Get F.I.T. to avoid injury.
Sometimes, beginning runners want to move too quickly to get in shape, and they increase the Frequency of their runs, the Intensity of their runs, and the Total time running all at once. “If you increase more than 30 percent in any one of those categories, you’re going to get hurt,” warns Dat Quatch, DPT, a physical therapist at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Maryland who often hosts running clinics. For instance, say after two weeks, you want to increase your run time from 20 minutes to 30 minutes. Rather than add in an extra day of running right away,, try increasing your regular runs to 30 minutes for a couple of weeks, and then add in the extra day. Or if you want to increase the frequency of your runs from three days a week to four, avoid simultaneously increasing the total time of your runs. With Fitbit, you can easily track total time and distance each week.
Stop if it hurts — but not right away.
As a new runner, you can expect to feel a bit sore and achy. “If it hurts when you start, that’s okay,” says Quatch. If the pain persists during subsequent runs or feels unbearable, it’s time to see a medical professional.
Always warm up and cool down.
According to Dobrosielski, a good beginner runner warm-up consists of 2-5 minutes of walking, and a standard cool-down includes an additional 2-5 minutes of post-run walking and static stretches for quads, hip flexors, and hamstrings, including a standing quad stretch and a hip-flexor supported lunge. “The more intense your workout, the more important a proper warm-up and cool-down are,” he says. “The recovery process begins at the end of a workout, and it sets you up for doing better the next day. By setting good warmup and cooldown practices, you’re setting a good precedent, because you’re not going to be a beginner forever.”
A beginner running workout:
|Week 1||15-20 minutes as run 1 min/walk 2 min||Cross-train (swim, bike) for 15-20 min||Rest||15-20 minutes as run 1 min/walk 2 min||Cross-train (swim, bike) for 15-20 min||Stretching or light yoga||15-20 minutes as run 1 min/walk 2 min|
|Week 2||20 minutes as run 1 min/walk 1 min||Cross-train (swim, bike) for 15-20 min||Rest||20 minutes as run 1 min/walk 1 min||Cross-train (swim, bike) for 20 min||Stretching or light yoga||20 minutes as run 1 min/walk 1 min|
|Week 3||20 minutes as run 2 min/walk 1 min||20 minutes as run 2 min/walk 1 min||Rest||20 minutes as run 2 min/walk 1 min||Cross-train for 20 min||20 minutes as run 2 min/walk 1 min||Stretching or light yoga|
|Week 4||20 minutes as run 3 min/walk 1 min||20 minutes as run 3 min/walk 1 min||Rest||20 minutes as run 3 min/walk 1 min||Cross-train for 20 min||20 minutes as run 3 min/walk 1 min||Stretching or light yoga|
|Week 5||25-30 minutes as run 4 min/walk 1 min||25-30 minutes as run 4 min/walk 1 min||Rest||25-30 minutes as run 4 min/walk 1 min||Cross-train for 25-30 min||25-30 minutes as run 4 min/walk 1 min||Stretching or light yoga|
|Week 6||25-30 minutes as run 5 min/walk 1 min||25-30 minutes as run 5 min/walk 1 min||Rest||25-30 minutes as run 5 min/walk 1 min||Cross-train for 25-30 min||25-30 minutes as run 5 min/walk 1 min||Stretching or light yoga|
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.