How to Start Running for Beginners

Want to try a running program, but not quite sure how to go about it? Here, the basics on how to start running for beginners, according to the pros.

If you're wondering how to start running and you're a total newbie, there are probably a million questions flying through your brain: How fast should I run? How will it feel? What should I eat? Could I do a race? Trying a new skill can bring a certain level of anxiety, but also a ton of excitement. Running is a great activity for anyone to try, regardless of age or fitness level, so if you're chasing the feeling of the so-called runner's high, use this helpful guide as a resource for how to start running for beginners.

How to Get Started On a Beginner Running Plan

First, you'll want to map out your schedule and set aside time to devote to your new running routine. You can reap fitness rewards with just 30 minutes a day, three to five times per week in your beginner running plan. (The same can be said for walking 30 minutes a day.)

When you start running, don't plan to go too far or too fast right away — doing so is a very common cause of injury among runners. Start by running for 20 minutes at a time, three times per week. Gradually increase the amount of time you're running and the number of days you run, but don't increase either until you feel comfortable completing your current level of training. If 20 minutes is too much, don't be afraid to take walking breaks. Perhaps begin by running for four minutes and walking for one minute, until you complete the 20 minutes. As you get stronger, begin eliminating the walk breaks.

When you're learning how to run, don't worry about how many miles you're running — focus on the number of minutes instead. Gradually, you'll begin to cover more ground in the same amount of time, and that's when you'll want to increase the duration of your workout. Following a plan can help keep you accountable and help you ease in without going too hard or too fast.

How to Start Running for Beginners: A Guide

Below, a few things to consider before you hit the pavement.

Invest In the Right Running Gear

One advantage of the sport of running is that so little gear is required. But the most important investment runners should make is in a good pair of running shoes — not cross-training, walking, or tennis shoes. Running shoes are best purchased at specialty running stores, where employees can recommend models based on your current running level and goals as well as your gait (aka the way your foot strikes the ground).

You should also have a quality, well-fitting sports bra, preferably made of a sweat-wicking material to keep you cooler and drier. A digital sports watch (or a free running app on your phone) is also helpful. As you advance in your running and set new goals, a heart-rate monitor is nice to have, to make sure you keep your effort level where it should be.

Know That You'll Feel Sore

Your legs will be sore in the beginning, but if you keep up the routine, the leg soreness will subside relatively quickly. If you feel acute pain anywhere, stop running for a few days and let your legs recover in order to prevent injuries. Shin splints are the most common injury, usually incurred when you overdo your training or wear improper shoes. Be aware of the difference between being tired and being injured, and make sure you're not encouraging overuse injuries.

Learn Proper Running Form

Most people think they can just slip on a pair of sneakers and run out the door, but running with improper form can lead to serious injuries, says Chris Hoffman, a certified running coach.

To set yourself up for success, follow these quick tips for proper running form from Hoffman:

A. Stand tall and lean forward slightly at ankles, not hips.

B. Keep head slightly forward, with chin slightly tucked.

C. Focus the eyes 8 to 16 feet down and out in front of body.

D. Breathe normally through the mouth and/or nose, with mouth slightly open.

E. Hold arms at sides with elbows bent at a 90-degree angle. Keep arms from flailing or over-swinging to prevent wasting energy.

F. Keep hands loosely cupped, as if they were holding a pebble that can still bounce around in the palm.

Set Your Base Pace

Running will certainly feel challenging at first, and you will be slightly out of breath when you start. That should eventually subside. It's helpful to use the talk test to check how hard you're working. If you can hold a conversation while you're running, you're at a good pace. Once or twice a week, however, go for a shorter run but complete it at a higher speed so that talking is more difficult. It will help increase your fitness level and cardiovascular strength. (See: Which Is Better — Running Faster or Longer?)

Plan Your Route

If you're running outdoors, you'll want to know where exactly you'll be going. Alternately, using a treadmill is always an option. Both outdoor and treadmill runs have their advantages: Treadmills are a perfect alternative when the weather is uncooperative and can be helpful in easing into new distances or paces. Also, treadmills complement outside running because the cushioned surface reduces the risk of injuries that many runners get from constantly pounding their legs on the pavement outside, says Adam Krajchir, the head coach and program director for the New York Road Runners Team for Kids.

"Run, wherever you can, inside or out," says Krajchir. "Getting into a regular routine is more important than finding a perfect solution," he explains.

Don't Avoid Hills

Running hills is a great way to improve leg strength and test your abilities. When you run up a hill, shorten your stride and pump your arms forward. Going down a hill, let gravity do the work and give it a little help by leaning slightly forward.

Be Prepared for Possible Side Stitches

Side stitches are common for runners and other types of athletes alike. They are caused in part by "gravity and the natural movement of running, which strains connective tissues in the abdomen," Bob Murray, Ph.D., founder of Sports Science Insights, previously told Shape. To stop them, try exhaling hard and long or bending over at the waist while exhaling, recommends Krajchir. You can also slow down your pace until the stitch subsides. (Here are some breathing tips for beginner runners that might help.)

If side stitches become a recurring problem, try avoiding solid food immediately before a workout and making sure you're always well hydrated, suggests Krajchir.

Consider What to Eat Before and After a Run

Good news: You don't really need to change your overall diet when you're learning how to run unless you're training for an endurance event such as a marathon. But it's important to not restrict carbohydrates. You'll also want to get plenty of protein to rebuild muscles, and eat sensible, healthy, high-energy foods (think: plenty of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains).

Runners should experiment and find what works well for them, recommends Danny Dreyer, the author of Chi Running: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running. When it comes to nutrition before and after a workout, you may find that you like to run on an empty stomach in the morning, or after a small snack. (More here: What to Eat Before Running)

Sign Up for Your First Race (If You Want)

Setting a goal to run a 5K (3.1 miles) race or any other distance is an excellent way to stay motivated and true to your running routine. Local races attract people of all abilities and provide a supportive and encouraging environment to complete your goal. Many people walk the entire race, while others will sprint from the beginning. If you'd rather wait until you're sure you can run the entire distance, sign up for one that is three or four months away, and work toward that goal.

shot of a person's legs as they walk on a treadmill facing a window
Sorrasak Jar Tinyo/Getty

Treadmill Running Workouts for Beginners

If weaving your way through a crowded sidewalk or jumping over large roots and rocks on the trail doesn't sound like an ideal running environment to you, try taking your running workout to the treadmill. In general, total newbies should start their treadmill running workout on a 1-percent incline (since most treadmills are on a slight decline to start) and set their speed to a pace that they can still hold a conversation with the person next to them, whether it be walking or slowly jogging, says Hoffman. "That endurance training builds up your base mileage and base endurance," he says.

At this point in your beginners treadmill running routine, focus on running at your base endurance level for a certain period of time rather than finishing a distance. Not only can distance be intimidating, but time is an easier metric to track when you're starting out, as you can clearly see your improvements in the distance while running for the same amount of time. "We don't tell people to go out and run five miles because everyone's [abilities are] different," says Hoffman. "But we do say, 'work out for 50 minutes, whether that's walking or jogging.' It doesn't matter if you complete a mile or you complete 10 miles," he explains.

And while everyone's body and fitness level is different, as you continue to train, you'll generally want to add different elements such as speed and incline to your treadmill running workout to improve your overall running fitness ability, explains Hoffman. To add in those elements, each of your treadmill running workouts can have a different theme, whether it be endurance, speed, or hill workouts. Or you can do all three in one session to keep it interesting, he adds. But you shouldn't hop on a tread, crank the speed, and incline up to the max. "The important thing is to start out slow, take it one step at a time, and listen to your body," notes Hoffman.

When you first feel comfortable and safe enough to increase your incline, which helps build strength and power, do so for a short period of time, such as running at a 3-percent incline for a minute, then going back to your base, and repeat a few times. Once that feels easy, try increasing the time you spend running on that incline, your speed, or the incline itself.

You should apply the same slow-and-steady interval approach to increasing your speed, too. "It's even more critical to take it easy and be careful about what you're doing [with speed]," says Hoffman. "You don't want to be running at such unsafe speeds that you're losing control of your body. You need to get your body used to those increasing speeds, and the only way to do that is gradually over time," he explains

And no matter what treadmill running workout for beginners you do or how fast and far you run, warming up and cooling down is essential in preventing injury, says Hoffman. Before you step on the treadmill, do some dynamic stretches with active movements, such as leg swings and butt kicks, for at least five minutes to get your body warmed up. Then, once you finish your running workout, spend at least five minutes performing static stretches, such as calf stretches and forward folds, to cool the body down and keep injuries at bay.

Running Words You Need to Know

Use this glossary to follow your running plans like a real pro:

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE): How hard you're working on a scale of one (sitting) to 10 (sprinting).

  • RPE 4 to 5: Easy; you can talk with little effort.
  • RPE 6 to 7: Moderate; you can talk, but you're slightly breathless.
  • RPE 8 to 10: Hard; you can only speak a few words as you run.

Cross-train: These are complementary workouts that will help you work muscles that don't get enough attention during your primary modality (in this case, running). For example, swim, bike, walk, or do total-body strength training for 20 to 30 minutes. "Activities that don't tax running muscles are ideal," says running coach and professional pickleball player Scott Fliegelman. "If lifting, keep reps high, weights low, and make sure you're not overly fatigued for key workouts," he recommends. (Here are five cross-training workouts all runners need.)

Strides: Strides are short, fast intervals. Not a sprint, but running as fast as you can (RPE 8 or 9). If you add some strides to your running workout, jog easy for the same duration as the stride after each.

Off: Rest! "Following a strenuous workout, muscles need to repair their microtears," says Fliegelman. Twenty-four hours of R&R (or a proper active recovery day) helps.

Beginner Running Plans to Try

Follow one of these running plans for beginners to ensure you don't run too much too fast, and to keep you headed in the right direction (maybe toward a new running goal).

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