Running, in its purest form, may just be the simplest, most effective, least-fussy way to boost your fitness and lose weight. There’s no extra equipment (aside from your shoes), no specific schedule (you can run whenever), and no experience necessary (almost anyone can run, even if it’s just a mile or two.)
That’s not to say that running is easy.
If you’ve ever laced up a pair of sneakers and trotted around the block, you know that the act of running can initially feel like an assault on your body. There are those creaky knees to contend with and a racing heart rate, and that’s before you wake up sore the next day. And it’s no wonder you feel it: Experts say that for every pound you weigh, your legs absorb about four times that with each foot strike. So if you weigh 150 pounds, that’s 600 pound of force on your knees, legs and feet!
But, as Bruce Springsteen sings, “baby, we were born to run.” And the more you do it, the easier it will get. Honest. Don’t believe us? We had Kellie Redmond, a longtime runner and a high school track coach in the Washington, D.C. area, weigh in on ways to get on the path to pain-free running.
Ease Into Running
Like any new venture you attempt, practice makes perfect. Or, in the case of running, practice lessens the pain.
“New runners will certainly experience all-over soreness,” says Redmond. “That’s to be expected, but if you’re following a smart program, your body will adapt.” It may not happen from one run to another, but give it a couple of weeks, and that tight calf or that sore knee may seem like less of an insurmountable challenge and more of an insignificant niggle.
While you may notice more muscle definition in your legs or that you’re able to slide into those skinny jeans after a few months, what you can’t see is the effects running has on the inner workings of your body—and your tolerance for pain.
“A lot of things happen to your body as you run more and get more fit. Your muscles create more mitochondria and capillaries, your muscle fibers and your joints and connective tissue all get stronger, and your muscles are better able to process lactate,” says Redmond. “All in all, you become faster, stronger and more efficient—and able to handle more pain.”
Give it a Rest
Even if you’re amped to make running a regular part of your routine, it’s still smart to choose a schedule that will give you plenty of time to recover. Rotate your running days with recovery (that’s cross-training or taking the entire day off) to give those legs time to rest and refresh—and help you stay injury-free.
A good rule of thumb? Shoot for at least three rest days a week when you’re first starting out. Then, the more you progress in your training, you can increase your mileage and pace, but you should always keep those off days (from running) in the rotation. And no matter if you’re running hard or taking it easy, make sure to factor in time for stretching and foam rolling trouble spots post-run to stay injury-free.
Running Pain: What’s Normal, What’s Not
While tight and sore muscles tend to be part of the program when you first start (and as you ramp up training), you do want to make sure you’re paying attention to any acute or nagging pain that may indicate a running-related injury.
Redmond tells her athletes that if they can point to a very specific spot that hurts, as opposed to a general area, then it’s probably something to keep an eye on. “It’s concerning if I hear, ‘This spot right here’ versus ‘My whole leg hurts,’” she says.
If you have acute or nagging pain, take three days off from running, and rest your legs as much as possible. Apply ice to the area a few times a day for 10-15 minutes each time, and use a foam roller to reduce inflammation and loosen tight muscles.
“If it still hurts after that, check in with a doctor,” recommends Redmond. An orthopedist or sports medicine doctor should be able to look at any biomechanic imbalances you have to determine the root of the pain and how to address it. Often, it’s something as simple as needing more supportive shoes or orthotics (which stabilize your feet in your shoes), but tackling the problem early will prevent it from leading to a sidelining injury.
Check Your Head
Whether you’re determined to cross the finish line of your first fun run, or aiming to become a marathoner, you should go into that goal with the acceptance that running is—and always will be—a challenge.
Professional runners may make clicking off 5-minute miles look like no big deal, but trust us: It’s just as tough for them to get through their runs as it is for you. The good news? You will get used to running the more you do it, but: “going into it knowing that there will be easy days and hard days will help you mentally prepare for the process,” says Redmond.
Her recommendation for staying motivated? Find a training buddy to help you muscle through those tough days. “Having someone else to talk through your concerns and issues is a huge help,” she says. “And if you’re both hurting, you can pick each other up.”
Prefer to run solo? Track your progression in a running log or online, making sure to take notes of the times any pain pops up. That way, you’ll have a clear idea of how your body reacts when you ramp up your running. Plus, says, Redmond, “Seeing all of your accomplishments laid out in front of you is like a nice pat on the back for all of your hard work. It makes all the difference in the world.”