Getting Started with Running
Running can be hard work when you take your very first steps and it can be difficult to imagine how people actually enjoy it. However, with a bit of consistency and focus it is entirely possible to quite quickly build up to a point where you too will enjoy the running process without torment. Then you start to love it. And before you know it you've got the running bug.
Some beginners like the structure that a couch-to-5k plan provides. If you're one of these people and feel that the structure of a plan will help motivate and guide you then it's an excellent way to get started.
Running apps are becoming more and more popular and there is a good selection available.
However, these aren't ideal for everybody, and it's important to progress at your own pace in the initial stages of fitness development. With a few pointers it's not too difficult to reach a respectable level of fitness by designing your own sessions.
So, where to start? Our main recommendation for those who have never run before is to proceed gently and begin by spending a few weeks doing walking sessions with short segments of running thrown in. This will enable you to have full control over the intensity of the sessions and ensure that you're neither being held back by taking things too easy nor being pushed too hard and suffering unduly as a result.
A First Session
An excellent first session that shouldn't be too demanding is to simply go for a twenty minute walk with a few 10-second bursts of running included.
What's nice about that session is that there are no details about how fast you have to walk, how fast you have to run, how many times you have to run or how much time you should spend recovering from running. It's entirely up to you.
After just one running session you'll probably have a pretty good idea of what you can manage when you venture back out again. Luckily, there are plenty of ways to make sessions more advanced:
- Increase the overall length of the session. The first session suggested above was twenty minutes long, so a simple progression would be to simply add five minutes to this.
- Increase walking speed. Walking is a great activity for beginners since it is possible to vary the intensity by a great deal. A gentle walk doesn't feel like exercise at all, whereas walking as fast as you can up a hill can be even more demanding than running in some cases.
- Increase the length of time spent running. For the first session we suggested 10-second bursts. You could increase this to 15- or 20-second bursts for your next run.
- Increase the number of running repetitions. If you did five in the first session you could add a couple more to the next.
- Decrease the length of time between running periods (i.e. the time spent walking) so that you have a reduced recovery time.
You might be tempted to increase running speed, but we wouldn't recommend this in the early stages of your running journey. A classic mistake made by new runners is to try to run too hard, and this is where injuries are likely to occur. There is a time and place for hard running sessions, but that time will come a little later in your running journey. Also bear in mind that even for elite athletes the majority of running is done at a relatively comfortable pace.
In general it's best to change one thing at a time so you can better monitor exactly how you respond to the increased stress. That said, if you do find a session very easy then it's acceptable to look at modifying a couple of things at once for the next one.
And remember you don't always have to make every session harder than the previous one. It's absolutely fine to do something easier or have a complete rest sometimes. What's important is increasing the frequency, volume and intensity of sessions over the medium- and long-term. Not every single week.
Once you're comfortable running for 20-30 minutes without stopping you can start considering more structured sessions. Have a look at our sessions section for ideas.
Most new runners are motivated by the fitness gains they see early on and want to do more and more. But although it is necessary to increase load in order to continue to progress, this should be done cautiously. Muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons all take time to adapt. Annoyingly, this takes time.
Hold back a little and cross train if things start aching or you get any strange pains. Be patient and you will become more robust with time. Being injured will hold you back far more than skipping the odd session or easing back.
Where to Run
Roads, parks, trails, commons, tracks. Vary your running terrain and you'll avoid boredom and become a more well-rounded runner. There are lots of useful web sites that show you routes completed by other runners, such as mapmyrun.
Don't be massively concerned about technique when you first start. After all, running is a natural thing and it's not worth over-complicating matters at such an early stage. The following are some guidelines that should ensure you're on the right track:
Running tall will correct all manner of running errors. It'll open up your chest to make breathing easier, open up your hips to allow a more efficient leg swing and it'll help your whole body relax. Some runners find it helps to imagine a helium balloon attached to their head by a string, pulling them up nice and tall.
Try and keep everything relaxed. Your hands shouldn't be clenched as fists but nice and loose. If they flop around so be it! Relax your shoulders, allowing the arms to swing forwards and backwards (not side to side across the body) freely. Arms will ideally be bent at the elbows at about 90 - 110 degrees.
Step lightly. Aiming to be light on your feet when running can stop you over-striding which is a fairly common problem with new runners. If you're struggling to find that "light" feeling then an approach that works for many people is trying to make as little noise as possible.
We're sure you will, but do ignore any nonsense that some people spout about breathing through your nose and out your mouth. Just get the air in and out. Experiment with different rhythms if you like. E.g. breathing in once for every three steps and out once for every three steps.
Again, we're sure you won't have to much trouble with this, but it's worth occasionally paying attention to the direction in which you're travelling by looking ahead and aiming for a target in the far distance. Looking forwards can help avoid excessive sideways movements and help relax the neck muscles.
It's absolutely essential to recover between periods of exercise. How long you need to recover will vary according to fitness levels, age, exercise history etc. so there is no strict rule that even beginners can follow, but it would be wise to take at least one day's rest between each session in the early days.
Remember that it is during these periods of recovery that your body is adapting as a result of the stress placed on it during work sessions. If you do not take sufficient recovery then you will slow, halt or even reverse progress.
If you're really itching to do something during these periods of rest, then active recovery can prove useful. Self-massage, a gentle walk or stretch and warm baths can all help recovery by promoting blood flow to aching and tired areas.
While it's possible to spend a fortune on running gear and aids, it's actually pretty cheap to get started.
The most important - even essential - item is a pair of running shoes. Running shoes are specifically designed to withstand the stresses that the sport places on them and your feet and lower legs. Everyday sneakers are unlikely to give you the support and comfort you need for running sessions.
All runners will have different biomechanics, foot placement and gait and most stores now offer a free gait analysis (usually on a treadmill, although some examine your form while you run up and down the street, which is a much more suitable method since in most cases this is how you will actually end up doing the vast majority of your running) and can give you advice on the best type of shoes to buy.
Although it's not necessary to get more than one pair of shoes when starting out, as your mileage starts to clock up it can be useful to rotate two pairs of shoes. The main benefit of doing this is that your feet and lower legs will not be subjected to exactly the same stresses each time you run (because of differences in shoe structure). Another benefit of rotating shoes is that they'll get more time to dry out and decompress between runs.
If you're planning on spending a lot of time off-road it might be worth investing in some trail shoes. Trail shoes can offer better traction than road shoes when running on muddy surfaces and tend to be more durable, but also heavier, than road shoes.
Although not as important as having the right shoes, technical t-shirts and shorts which wick away sweat, and therefore provide a much more comfortable running experience than standard cotton clothing, are a useful addition to a runner's wardrobe. Although not particularly cheap these items usually last a fairly long time so are a good investment. Do shop around since prices vary widely and they all perform fairly similarly.
Special running socks are available. They're more expensive than standard sports socks, but tend to be harder-wearing and longer-lasting. If you're prone to blisters then you might like to invest in a pair of double-skinned socks.
One item of clothing that is essential for most women is a decent sports bra. There are many shock absorbing varieties available. Get it fitted properly and stay comfortable.
GPS watches and heart rate monitors can be great fun and really useful for monitoring and analysing your runs. If you're really keen there's no harm investing in one, but it's best to focus on running effort when starting out rather than fretting about the specifics of your performance at each session. If training by heart rate sounds appealing, then at some point you may like to investigate heart rate zone training
Activity trackers are becoming more and more popular and many of these double up as sports watches.
Running bags with special straps to minimise movement when running are available. If you're running as a commute or just need to carry a few bits and pieces (e.g. phone, water, towel) these can be invaluable.
Many of those new to running like to carry a water bottle with them while on a run. This is sometimes necessary on hot days and/or if you're out on a longer run. However, for many runners the bottle becomes a bit of a crutch and they find themselves sipping water unnecessarily just because it's there. Be aware that holding a bottle while running can upset running form somewhat, and it does feel good to run with your hands free.
Carrying a bit of money (which is always sensible anyway) gives you the option of stopping somewhere to buy a cheap drink instead of lugging a bottle around, and provides a nice opportunity for a little break. You can also plan runs that loop past the house or car, or past a water fountain in a park, so you can stop off for a sip or two if you need it.
If you're spending a lot of time in the heat, hydration packs are an option. These are very popular with ultra runners. There are also belts on the market that can accommodate small bottles.
Health & Safety
Keep the following in mind to stay safe and comfortable when running:
- Bright and fluorescent clothing at night is a must. There are also many straps and clips with LED lighting that can be purchased quite cheaply.
- Look twice. Getting in the habit of looking twice before crossing a road is a good idea. It's very easy to miss things when you're moving a bit faster, have sweat in your eyes or are feeling tired.
- Carry some money with you. Useful for getting a drink or should you suffer an injury and need to get public transport back home.
- Carrying a phone is a good idea. There are also several belts and armbands available so you can keep your hands free.
- Don't run on an injury. If something's not feeling right then rest up. When you start running you're bound to experience some muscle soreness, and there's not much harm in running while a little stiff or tender, but you shouldn't be in agonising pain. Pay particular attention to joint complaints. These may just be beginner's niggles that will resolve soon enough, but it's best to avoid running with them. Be patient and you will toughen up. If something's consistenly painful then a visit to a physio may be worthwhile.
- Listen. Many like running with headphones, but it can make you much less aware of what's going on around. Keep the volume low, one ear free, or maybe invest in some bone conduction headphones.
Running in a group can provide motivation and there is often a strong social element to group runs.
The majority of running clubs are happy to accept and cater for all abilities. There are also plenty of running groups (rather than clubs) around and chances are there'll be something to suit your needs.
If you don't want to join an official group then getting a few friends out regularly is a good strategy. You can all motivate (and hassle) each other to stick to the sessions. Be careful with mixed-ability groups though: while it won't hurt faster runners to slow down, running too hard for your ability can seriously impact motivation and progress. See our group sessions for some ideas.
And if you fancy keeping an eye on what your running buddies are up to and letting the world know what you're doing then Strava is a popular social networking site for runners
Setting a goal can be a wonderful way of motivating yourself, but do be careful about setting unrealistic goals. When you're new to running it can be very difficult to gauge what you are capable of achieving and how long it might take to achieve it. Genetics, exercise history, age and a host of other things contribute to what you will be able to accomplish and how quickly you'll get there.
For these reasons, it's best to set process rather than outcome or performance goals when you start out. An outcome goal might be "beat Bob in that race" and a performance goal might be "run a 10k in 45 minutes". In contrast a process goal could look something like "complete three running sessions per week".
They key difference here is that you have control over the process goal. Barring injury, illness or other unforeseen events, you decide how often you can train. You may never be able to beat Bob, and running a certain time within a certain timescale will be determined by a variety of factors that cannot be adjusted according to your desire to achieve them.
Of course, once you've done your first race, there's nothing wrong with entering another straight away (in fact it's very common - runner's high is a real thing) and deciding you're going to beat your previous time. Once you have a better idea of what you can currently achieve you can set realistic goals about what you might achieve in the future.
Planning a race when you haven't even started running yet may seem premature, but having something to aim for can really help motivation.
Most races expect a wide variety of abilities and will advertise cut-off times and you can usually look at the previous year's results to get a feel for where you might place in the field.
A great option for those who fancy running a measured distance with a large group without the pressure of a race situation is parkrun. These are free, volunteer-led 5k time trials that take place every Saturday morning. They are runs rather than races and are very inclusive and friendly events.
Keep a record of what you've done. It's a great way of monitoring your progress. It doesn't need to be anything detailed, and just a few lines to summarise each session can help. The best thing about logging activities is looking back in the future and seeing how far you've come.
What are you waiting for?
Getting out the door can be the hardest bit. You will very rarely regret going for a run, but will very often regret not going. Go on. You'll be hooked before you know it.
» parkrun - Free, weekly 5k Runs
» Strava - Social Network for Runners