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 on running—plus 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-fitting 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
What should proper running form look like?
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, owner and co-founder of Formula Running Center in Arlington, Virginia.
To set yourself up for success, follow his quick tips for creating proper form:
- Stand tall and lean forward slightly at the ankles, not the hips
- Keep your head slightly forward, with your chin slightly tucked
- Focus the eyes 8 to 16 feet down and out in front of you
- Breath normally through your mouth and/or nose, with mouth slightly open
- Hold your arms at sides with elbows bent at a 90 degree angle. Keep your arms from flailing or over-swinging to prevent wasting energy
- Keep hands loosely cupped, as if they were holding a pebble that can still bounce around in your palm
(Related: What Is the Proper Running Form, Anyway?)
How fast should I be going? Should I be out of breath?
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. 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, says Adam Krajchir, head coach and program director for the New York Road Runners Foundation Team for Kids. (Here's more about the benefits of running outside and the benefits of running on a treadmill.)
"Run, wherever you can, inside or out," says Krajchir. "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 the muscles surrounding the organs of the GI tract. 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)
Treadmill 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 workout to the treadmill. In general, total newbies should start their treadmill workout on a 1 percent incline (most treadmills are on a slight decline to begin with) 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 treadmill workout for beginners 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 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. But we do say, 'work out for 50 minutes, whether that's walking and jogging.' It doesn't matter if you complete a mile or you complete 10 miles."
And while everyone's body and fitness level is different, as you continue to train, you'll generally want to add different elements like speed and incline to your treadmill workout to improve your overall running fitness ability, explains Hoffman. Each of your treadmill workout for beginners can have a different theme, whether it be endurance, speed, or hill workouts. Or you can do all three in one sweat sesh to keep it interesting, says Hoffman. But you shouldn't hop on a tread and 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," he says.
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 repeating 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."
And no matter what treadmill 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, perform some dynamic stretches with active movements, like leg swings and butt kicks, for at least five minutes to get your body warmed up. Then, once you finish your 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. (Related: 9 Running Stretches to Do After Every Single Run)
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.