The Beginner’s Guide to Running

by Matt Fitzgerald
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The Beginner’s Guide to Running

In a recent online survey, American adults were asked to name their preferred form of exercise. The winner, coming in just ahead of weight lifting, was running.

It’s not hard to understand why. Running is convenient, requiring little more than a pair of shoes and a safe road or trail. It’s also simple—something almost anyone can do on his or her own without hiring a trainer or watching instructional videos. Running is extremely beneficial, as well, proven to shed body fat, increase cardiovascular fitness, extend life and reduce the risk of a long list of chronic diseases, including heart disease and diabetes. And to top it all off, running is enjoyable—or at least, it can be once you’ve acquired a taste for it. In an annual survey conducted by Running USA, two-thirds of the respondents who classified themselves as experienced runners named “having fun” as one of their main motivations for continuing to run.

The goal of every new runner is—or should be—to become an experienced runner with no intention of ever quitting. After all, that’s the only way to continue reaping the activity’s many benefits. Your chances of arriving at that point will be much greater if you get off to a good start, avoiding some of the common mistakes that turn beginning runners into former runners. Here we’ll address some of the questions that new runners most often ask and need answered to get off to a good start in America’s favorite form of exercise:

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The one necessary piece of gear for running is a good pair of running shoes. No single type of shoe is right for every runner. Buying the right model for you will enable you to run more comfortably and reduce your risk of developing an overuse injury such as shin splints.

The best way to find the right shoe for you is to shop at a running specialty store staffed by knowledgeable salespeople with lots of experience in matching individual runners with shoes. Try on a few models, and select the pair that feels most comfortable to run in. Research indicates that comfort is the best indicator that a given shoe is a good match for an individual runner.

Speaking of comfort, although you can run in almost any exercise clothes, you may feel most comfortable in socks, shorts, tops and (if needed) outer layers designed specifically for running. These products may also be found at running specialty stores.

As for technology, a stopwatch is a useful tool for monitoring the duration of workouts. If you prefer to run by distance or to monitor this variable alongside time, purchase a GPS watch. Alternatively, use the stopwatch that’s built into your smartphone or use a tracking app such as MapMyRun.

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As a high-impact activity, running has the potential to cause impact-related overuse injuries such as plantar fasciitis (inflammation in the heel). The risk of injury is greatest for beginners, whose muscles, bones and joints have not yet adapted to the stress of repetitive impact. A recent study reported that more than 1 in 10 new runners suffered an injury while participating in a 6-week “Start to Run” program.

The best way to minimize your risk of getting hurt is to ease gently into running. Begin with workouts that mix walking with running. Gradually lengthen the running segments until you are comfortable running the whole way through the workout. For example, you might alternate 1-minute walking segments with 1-minute running segments in your first week, then move to 2-minute running segments in week 2 and 3-minute running segments in week 3 before removing the 1-minute walking segments entirely.

This approach will allow the tissues of your lower extremities to gradually adapt to the stress of repetitive impact, making them stronger and more resilient. At the same time, it will gradually elevate your aerobic fitness level to the point where running is as comfortable as walking was initially.

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Whether your goal is to lose weight, improve your health or participate in races, you will get the best results from your running program if you exercise more or less daily. But this doesn’t mean you have to run every day. In fact, in the early stages, you should run only every other day. This level of frequency will give your muscles, bones and joints time to recover fully and adapt between runs. On nonrunning days, do some other form of aerobic exercise, such as using an elliptical trainer, or work on strength and mobility through an activity like yoga or weight lifting.

Once you’re comfortable running every other day, you may choose to increase your running frequency by replacing nonrunning workouts with runs or gradually work toward running every day. Neither option is inherently better than the other. If you enjoy running a lot more than other forms of exercise, work toward daily running. If you enjoy variety in your exercise program or wish to minimize wear and tear on your legs, continue to run every other day and do nonimpact exercise on alternate days.

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As a general rule, the farther you run each time you lace up your trainers, the more results you’ll get. But the returns are diminishing, with each added mile providing less benefit than the last. So a sensible approach is to gradually increase the average distance of your runs until you are getting the results you desire, and then hold steady thereafter.

If your goal is to maximize your general health, you might aim for the World Health Organization’s standard of 150 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise per week. You can hit that mark with 5 half-hour runs. (Note that the WHO recommends 2 full-body strength workouts per week in addition to aerobic exercise.)

If your goal is to lose weight, consider aiming instead for a calorie target. Some men and women who run for weight loss try to burn 500 calories on a typical run because it’s a nice round number and because, done consistently, it’s enough to yield substantial weight loss over time. The average person burns .85 calories per pound he or she weighs per mile. To figure out how far you need to run to burn 500 calories, multiply your weight by .85 and divide 500 by the result. For reference, the average person who weighs 150 pounds needs to run just under 4 miles to burn 500 calories.

If your goal is to participate in races, how far you run should be influenced by the distance of the event you’re preparing for and by the specific nature of your goal. Naturally, if you’re getting ready for a marathon, you need to run farther than if you’re prepping for a 5K. If your goal is to place in your age division, you need to run farther than if your goal is just to finish. But rather than try to figure it out for yourself, follow a training plan designed by a trusted running authority for those of your experience and fitness level.

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The results you get from your running program are affected not only by how much you run (i.e., how often and how far) but also by how fast you run. Exercise scientists actually prefer to speak of intensity rather than speed because it is the relative intensity of running (i.e., percentage of maximum heart rate or breathing rate) that determines its effects on the individual runner, not the absolute speed (i.e., minutes per mile or mph). For example, a beginner might find herself at an intensity of 75% of maximum heart rate at a pace of 11 minutes per mile, while an experienced competitive runner might have to run 7 minutes per mile to hit the same intensity, but the benefits for both runners will be the same.

So what is the most effective running intensity? Trick question! Different intensities offer different and complementary benefits. The most effective running programs include a variety of intensities. Specifically, research has shown that a program in which 80% of total running time is spent at low intensity (60–75% of maximum heart rate) and the remaining 20% at moderate (80–90%) and high intensity (>90%) produces the best results.

Different formats work best for workouts targeting low, moderate and high intensity. Low-intensity workouts are done at a steady, easy pace. Moderate-intensity workouts usually take the form of tempo runs, where a block of moderate-intensity running is sandwiched between a low-intensity warm-up and a gentle cooldown. High-intensity runs are structured as intervals, where multiple, short segments of high-intensity running are separated by low-intensity recovery periods.

Below is an example of 1 week of training that conforms to the “80/20 Rule.” Note that strength workouts and other nonaerobic workouts don’t count toward the intensity balance.

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Heart rate is not the only way to monitor intensity. Many runners use pace, and there are several tools available that help runners target appropriate paces for various workout types given their current fitness level. You can also use perceived effort, which is a subjective rating of how hard running feels generally in a given moment. On a 1–10 scale of perceived effort, low intensity corresponds to ratings of 1–4, moderate intensity is 5–6, and high intensity is 7–10.

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In addition to increasing your running volume gradually and wearing the right shoes for you, there are a couple of other measures you can take to reduce your risk of developing an overuse injury.

One is strength training. Weakness in particular muscles is known to contribute to some common injuries in runners. For example, weak hip abductors are often seen in runners with knee pain. Doing a couple of full-body strength workouts per week will shore up such weak links. Avoid traditional bodybuilding exercises, such as biceps curls, and focus on movements that target important stabilizing muscles, like the hip abductors, and functional movements that replicate elements of the running stride, such as walking lunges.

Another way to prevent injuries is to listen to your body. Inevitably, you will develop sore spots as your running program progresses. When a sore spot is highly localized in a particular area and becomes increasingly uncomfortable as you continue to run, stop. In the ensuing days, stay fit through nonimpact activities that you’re able to do pain-free. When you’re ready, do a test run. If the sore spot is gone, cautiously resume your running program. This aggressive way of responding to “red flags” in your body will not prevent sore spots from appearing, but it will keep them from becoming much bigger problems.

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In the past, runners were taught to drink as much as possible during every workout to prevent dehydration and its consequences, particularly heat illness. Nowadays, experts advise runners to drink only during runs that are long or intense enough to generate significant thirst—and to drink only as much as they are thirsty for during these workouts. The new guidelines are based on research showing that drinking more than one is thirsty for while running does not improve performance or body temperature regulation (compared to drinking by thirst), while it does greatly increase the risk of gastrointestinal discomfort.

Water is sufficient on most runs. In workouts that are long or intense enough to leave you more than moderately fatigued, a sports drink containing carbohydrate and electrolyte minerals will give you an extra boost. In races lasting longer than about 1 hour, use the sports drink offered at official aid stations to maximize your performance.

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As simple as running is, there is no limit to the amount you can learn about it. I’ve been running for more than 30 years, and I am still learning things that help me train more effectively and enjoy the activity more. But the information I’ve shared here covers just about everything you really need to know to get off to a good start. And by getting off to a good start, you’ll maximize the chances that you’re still doing it, and enjoying it, many years from now.

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  • Amanda Spina

    Hey there. Would the same beginner rules apply for someone who is a bit overweight? I would love to start running, especially now since the weather is cooler, but because I’m bigger, it’s kind of daunting. I have a vacation in June of next year and would like to lose at least 50 pounds. I don’t like the gym so I thought running might be great, as well as being a good form of stress release!

    • Darko Alavanja

      Pretty much yes, but since the excess weight means more stress to joints it is recommended that the exercises be as light as possible to avoid injury. I would suggest at first walking and light jogging, or swimming, then later higher intensity runs. Also don’t forget the food intake, that is the basis of weight loss, and exercises won’t help in weight loss if the calorie intake is too high.

    • Alisha Allison

      I started out at 269 lbs. I’m currently 232 lbs. I love to run, but sometimes it doesn’t love me. I started running and went for a few weeks then got some pretty bad shin splints. To allow my legs to heal, I started biking on a recumbent bike for several more weeks. I again started running this past week and the bike has helped so much. Strengthened my legs and helped to build up my cardio. This is in addition to a regular weight training routine. So I’d recommend biking first and then try running. You may find it makes starting your running routine a bit easier.

    • SabrinaFaire

      Keep in mind, too, though, that a too-low calorie intake won’t help you
      lose weight either. Too low and your body thinks you’re starving and
      holds on to every. little. bit. I find that, while you may not lose
      pounds when you’re just starting out, you will lose inches. Muscle weighs more than fat and it takes up less physical space.

      I’m a big girl runner and I find I respond better to stress when I get my run in the mornings. It doesn’t have to be a long run and it doesn’t have to be entirely running. Walk/run intervals have helped me ease into it, without as being as overwhelming as thinking I have to run the whole time.

    • Kelley Anderson

      I think this depends on what you mean by over weight and if you have other health issues. I am 185lbs, 30lbs over weight from where I feel my best and according to national standards. It would be best to talk with your doctor first but Darko makes a good point to start slow and build up to a full run. I have been running off and on for years so when I pick it back up I follow a similar program to what this site prescribed.

  • NinaR

    I started running about a year ago. Followed the NY Road Runners Club program for beginners that I found in a book on Amazon. Excellent program and very similar to what this article talks about. In the meantime, my friends joined a “train for half marathon beginner program” put together by experienced runners. It was ridiculous. It was something like 3 miles one day, 5 mile another, then 7 miles etc. The key is to build up in minutes. Needless to say, most of the beginners in the group dropped out. I’m now running 30 minutes about 4 days a week. I am not fast…about a 12 minute or less mile, but I am not going for speed. Though I notice on some days I average 11:25 minute miles. I run for fitness…I am a little over 60.

    This article is very good.

  • Kim Harden

    I’m a new runner and I’m constantly second-guessing my posture. I’m like an awkward junior high kid: “where do I put my hands??”

    Do I swing my arms or keep them more rigid? Should I bounce up and down a little more or try to be more fluid? I feel like I should lift my knees more but it doesn’t feel natural. Tips appreciated!

    • You will second-guess forever (as I do). 🙂 “Try not to overthink it” is my advice, but I am still a beginner after 4 years of running for joy. Here are a few things that have been valuable to me on my journey; maybe they will resonate with you. 🙂

      I try to concentrate on pushing off from the ground behind me more than reaching out in front of me with my legs, but beyond that I just try to be like a little kid running while playing: they don’t think about how to run, they just let it happen. If you’re running uninjured, don’t worry. Once (if) you begin to form goals and seek performance improvements, you will have a feel for what your body does on its own and you can adjust to experiment with small changes (foot strike, cadence, posture).

      Many have said that any up/down bouncing is wasteful of energy that could be useful sending you forward, but if it’s allowing you comfort as you begin to run, I think it’s ok bounce a little until you are strong enough to run more smoothly by keeping your pelvis level and not tipped forward (a constant goal of mine).

      Don’t cross your arms too much back and forth in front of you, but pumping them a bit (more backward than forward) when you’re tired can help motivate your legs in a weird way. 🙂

      My favorite advice from a runner friend: pretend you’re holding a potato chip between your thumb and middle finger to keep your hands from becoming fists (it can be calming when running as well).

      Check occasionally your shoulders and neck to make sure they’re not tight and tense.

      Only a few times in my life I’ve been able to stop thinking about the actual running and just run: THAT is my goal every single time I go out. I wish you all the fun and health that running has to offer you, and may we both find that incredible joy that is ‘running without thinking’. 🙂

    • clg

      Human bodies are kind of designed to walk/run on two legs. I’d say let your body do what feels natural, unless you know you have an orthopedic/chiropractic imbalance that may be exacerbated by or cause poor form.

  • Nancy Conklin

    Can you go over the math on how far to run to burn 500 calories? 150x.85=127.5/500=.255 how’s that just under 4 miles? Thanks

    • Kelley Anderson

      150x.85=127.5

      500 (calories) /127.5 = 3.92 miles

    • clg

      This will ENTIRELY depend on you, your body type/composition, as well as the intensity with which you run a given distance. While I’m sure there is a maths formula somewhere that takes into account these factors, It will not be so cut and dry as what you note above.

  • Cheryl Waters

    I have been following the segmented run/walk routine and cannot go beyond this because my calves tighten up so much I have to stop. Can you please recommend steps to help with this?

    • Kelley Anderson

      My running buddy has the same problem. Look up some calf and hamstring stretches to use before or even during the run. Another thing that helps is rolling your calves out with a foam roller which will increase blood flow.

  • Everyone knows that running is a great way to get into shape. running can actually help to lower your risk of breast cancer. It can also help reduce the risk of having a stroke

  • Hi Matt –
    Thanks for the great tips! Running is such an accessible sport because it requires little out of pocket money and it can be done just about anywhere. I had not heard of any new research about drinking during running. Do you happen to have any links to this research?

  • Kelleen Porte

    I get the worse shin splints when I run on hard surfaces. Treadmills are better but, can still be a factor if I haven’t been jogging. What can I do to prevent them?

  • MsKitty

    I’ve been doing the treadmill walking/running for several months to improve my health (I’m diabetic), lose weight, and just to feel better. I should be running about 4 miles to burn 500 calories but – I CAN’T! I just can’t exercise that long! What can I do? I’m totally stuck at 172 lbs,….

  • Jay

    Only one somewhat quibbling point: the author correctly points out how many have been injured and consequently turned off to running by following one of those “couch to 5k’ schedules but then followed up with a suggested run/walk interval routine that IMO is very aggressive.

    There is no question that interval training is a fantastic way to transition from walking to running. That said, do NOT allow yourself to become a slave to an imposed schedule. Start off very easy, say 30 seconds of running and 3 minutes of walking and go from there. If you finish a running segment feeling like you’re about to die, back off a little. Your body will tell you when it’s time to run longer and walk less. 🙂

  • Beginner38

    “For example, a beginner might find herself at an intensity of 75% of maximum heart rate at a pace of 11 minutes per mile…”

    Well, I’m a 38-year-old sedentary male that’s not overweight and was considered to be in good shape physically (by my family/peers) but I recently started running on the treadmill at the gym and at 75% of maximum heart rate (which is where I do most of my training) I still can’t run an 11 minute mile and I’ve been at this for 5 weeks already. I admit it’s been a little on again, off again with my training, but most weeks I’ve got three runs in. I’m actually usually doing about an hour of cardio but I am keeping most of down at 135 to 150 bpm heart rate. The next morning my heart rate is back to normal and I feel good the next day so I’m pretty sure I’m not overtraining. An hour of cardio wasn’t too uncommon for me before I started this running, though I’ll admit in days past most of my “cardio” was brisk walking, not running and my heart rate was probably more like 100 to 120 bpm.

    So I’m really not too sure how the author expects a beginner to be running 11 minute miles. 13 to 14 minutes would be much more common for a beginner I think.