How to Start Running for Beginners
Thinking of trying a running program, but not quite sure how to go about it? Here's a list of the most common questions—and all the answers.
If you're wondering how to start running, 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 relax! Running is a great activity for anyone to try, regardless of age or fitness level. (Also, runner's high!!)
Here's everything you need to know about running for beginners.
How do I get started on a running plan?
First, plan your schedule so that you're sure to 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.
When you start running, don't plan to go too far or too fast right away—doing so is the number-one 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 4 minutes and walking for 1 minute, until you complete the 20 minutes. As you get stronger, begin eliminating the walk breaks.
When you're a beginner, 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 like this Couch-to-5K Plan for Super Beginner Runners can help keep you accountable and help you ease in without going too hard, too fast.)
What equipment do I need?
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 ability and goals. Many will also watch you run, to make sure the shoes you buy complement the way your foot strikes the ground.
You should also have a quality, well-fitted sports bra, preferably made of 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.
How sore should I expect to get?
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, 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.
How to Start Running: Training 101
How fast should I be going? Should I be out of breath from the beginning?
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." 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 Longer or Faster?)
Should I run on the treadmill or outside?
Both have advantages. Treadmills are a perfect alternative when the weather is uncooperative and can be helpful in easing into new distances or paces. Adam Krajchir, head coach and program director for the New York Road Runners Foundation Team for Kids, believes that treadmills complement outside running because the cushioned surface reduces the risk of injuries that many runners get from constantly pounding their legs on pavement outside. (Here's more about the benefits of running outside and the benefits of running on a treadmill.)
"Run, wherever you can, inside or out," he says. "Getting into a regular routine is more important than finding a perfect solution."
Should I avoid hills? How should I change my form if I come to a hill?
Running hills is a great way to improve leg strength and burn calories. 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. (Try these 3 Hill Running Workouts if you don't know where to start.)
What are side stitches and how to I get rid of them?
Side stitches are common and are caused by a lack of oxygen in your GI muscles. To stop them, Krajchir recommends exhaling hard and long or bending over at the waist while exhaling. 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, Krajchir suggests avoiding solid food immediately before a workout and making sure you're always well hydrated. (Have other weird pains? Read this: 10 Running Pains and How to Fix Them)
Food, Weight Loss, and Racing
What should I eat now that I'm running?
Good news: You don't really need to change your overall diet unless you're training for an endurance event like a marathon. But it's important to not restrict carbohydrates. Get plenty of protein to rebuild muscles, and eat sensible, healthy, high-energy foods (plenty of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains).
Danny Dreyer, author of Chi Running: A Revolutionary Approach to Effortless, Injury-Free Running, recommends that runners experiment and find what works well for them. For those trying to lose weight, try to balance the percentage of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins, with the majority of intake coming from carbohydrates, followed by equal parts fats and proteins.
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) Post-run, you should take these things in consideration when deciding on a snack or meal.
Will I lose weight from running?
If it is your goal to lose weight, running is an excellent way of doing so—but it's no magic bullet. As with any exercise program, it will help you expend more calories, which can help you lose weight, but plenty other factors (such as your diet, sleep habits, and overall lifestyle) also play an important part. (If you want to use running for weight loss, read this for more info.)
I'd like to enter a local 5k road race. Will I finish last?
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 a 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 the goal. (Related: 10 Things to Know Before Your First 5K)
Running Words You Need to Know
Use this glossary to follow our running plans.
Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE): How hard you're working on a scale of 1 (sitting) to 10 (sprinting). (BTW: You can learn to do this intuitively!)
- 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: 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 Scott Fliegelman. "If lifting, keep reps high, weights low, and make sure you're not overly fatigued for key workouts." (Here are 5 Cross-Training Workouts All Runners Need)
Strides: Short, fast intervals. Not a sprint, but running as fast as you can (RPE 8 or 9). Jog easy (same duration as stride) after each. (More here: Running Interval Workouts Every Runner Should Do)
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
Follow one of these beginner running plans to ensure you don't run too much too fast, and to keep you accountable for a new running goal.