The Beginner-Friendly Guide to Running

Running is a natural human movement. So then why does it seem like such a complicated sport? (Image: Morsa Images/iStock/GettyImages)

Lace up. Hit the sidewalk. Go. In some respects, running represents the simplest possible sport or workout.

But all it takes is a quick scroll through Instagram or a stroll through a running store to feel a bit overwhelmed and intimidated. How do you choose the right shoes? How far and how fast should you train? And how will you stay injury-free?

Don't let these questions stand in the way of getting started. With a bit of basic knowledge, you can go from running newbie to surefooted pro in just a few weeks or months. Here are the basics to keep in mind as you take your first few strides.

First, Set a Running Goal

Ask yourself: Why do I want to start running? Whether it's to lose weight, improve your health or make active friends, you probably have a reason (or a few) in mind. But most runners — whatever their experience level — do better if they have a race on the calendar, says Lucas Larson, general manager and coach at Heartbreak Hill Running Company in Chicago.

Races can be as short as a mile, as long as a marathon (26.2 miles) or even longer. Most race goals are achievable if you allow yourself ample time to train. Even brand new runners can tackle a marathon if they want, says Denise Sauriol, a coach at Run for Change in Chicago and author of Me, You & 26.2 - Coach Denise's Guide to Get YOU to YOUR First Marathon.

While a marathon can be an impressive item on your bucket list, the longer the race, the more time you'll need to train for it. Starting with a shorter distance like a 5K (3.1 miles) still represents a significant accomplishment and also reduces the risk you'll get burned out or injured. "I would prefer people fall in love with the sport, have some time to enjoy it, then start incrementally challenging themselves with distance," Larson says.

Next, Pick a Training Plan

Once you've set your sights on a goal, you can consult a coach or pick an online training plan that will help you from where you are to the finish line. This plan will lay out the basics — how often you'll run, how far and how to progress over time, says Geoff Tripp, a marathoner, ultramarathoner and head trainer of the fitness app Trainiac.

Before you start running, you should be able to walk briskly for 30 minutes, three to four times per week. From there, the wisest way to build up is to add running intervals into your walking.

This holds true even if you have a strong background in a different sport. "If someone has a ton of cardio experience but it's all cycling or swimming, you could have the lungs to run a marathon today, but your joints aren't ready for the pounding," Larson says.

If you're brand-new to running, Sauriol recommends breaking up 10-minute segments into nine minutes of fast walking and one minute of jogging — or eight and two or seven and three — whatever feels "challenging but not overwhelming." Repeat until you reach 40 minutes; do this three times per week. Walk with oomph, she says, like you have to pee and can't find the bathroom. But jog slowly enough that you could carry on a conversation.

From there, gradually increase the length of your jogging intervals and the total duration of your workouts. Don't bump things up by more than about 10 percent per week, Sauriol says. Doing too much, too soon can increase your risk of injury.

Gear Up for Success

You don't need an expensive GPS watch or designer sport sunglasses, but investing in a few essential pieces of gear can go a long way in improving your running experience. Running shoes are perhaps the most critical. Your best bet: Go to a local running specialty shop and let a trained salesperson fit you for shoes that match your feet and your running program, Sauriol says.

While you're there, pick up a few pairs of moisture-wicking socks, which keep your feet dry and prevent blisters. Running-specific clothing made of similar materials — shorts or pants, shirts and a sports bra — keep sweat away from your skin and reduce chafing, Tripp says.

Larson also recommends buying a water bottle you're comfortable carrying with you, whether it's in tucked into a belt, secured in an armband or held in your hand. That way, you'll never have to hunt for a water fountain or worry about getting dehydrated.

Focus on Proper Running Form

Few topics create as much confusion as running form. Go to race or watch a few runners pass in a park and you'll see that each individual's stride looks a little bit different. That's even true for elite and pro runners at the front of the pack.

However, keeping a few simple cues in mind can help you run smoother and more efficiently, potentially boosting your speed and decreasing your risk of getting hurt, Sauriol says.

For one thing, think about your body posture. "Pretend you've tied a string to the top of your head and someone is pulling it up," Larson says. "Keep your head neutral, your shoulders back and your eyes and chest up." This keeps your airways open so you can take in enough oxygen to support your workout.

From there, lean forward slightly, starting at your ankles. "Running is really falling forward and catching yourself," Larson says. If you're starting from a perfectly straight position or even leaning back, it takes far more energy to move forward.

Sauriol tells her runners to think "hip to nips" and "potato chips." Swing your arms at a 90-degree angle next to your body, rising up to your nipples then down to your hips. Avoid letting your arms swing across your midline, which impedes your momentum. And don't clench your fists; tension that would crush potato chips in your hands also drives up to your neck and back, tightening up your entire body.

Stay Smart to Prevent Running Injuries

Thanks to the high impact and repetitive nature of the sport, running injuries are common. In a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, two-thirds of runners developed at least one injury during a two-year period. But that doesn't mean there's nothing you can do to ward them off.

"The top cause of running injury that I have seen is runners trying to ramp up training volume too much and too soon," Tripp says. Setting reasonable goals and following a smart training plan that increases by no more than 10 percent each week reduces your odds of damaging your joints, muscles, tendons or bones.

Before each run, perform a dynamic warm-up moves like lunges, skips and kicks that prepare your muscles for the intense motion of running, Larson says. Save static stretches (say, the quad or hamstring pulls you learned in P.E. class) for after the run, when your muscles are warm, loose and limber.

Getting the right pair of shoes also helps. So does replacing them frequently — every 300 to 500 miles, or year, whichever comes first, Sauriol says. After a while, the cushioning that absorbs the impact from each stride breaks down. Many runners notice new small aches and pains when it's time for a new pair.

If your body throws you a penalty flag — an ache or pain that alters your gait, doesn't go away with new shoes, or lingers or worsens after a short break — it's better to take time off and seek treatment from a sports medicine physician, chiropractor, physical therapist or podiatrist. Continuing to run without treatment can lead to a more severe injury that keeps you off the path or trail for even longer, Sauriol says.

Master Running Nutrition and Hydration

Even if you started running to lose or maintain your weight, running — especially long distances — requires a significant amount of energy. If you don't provide your body enough fuel to handle the mileage you're logging, you could wind up injured or ill, Larson says.

A healthy runner's diet starts with whole foods — plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean protein and dairy. Carbohydrates make up the bulk of the energy your body needs to run well, but protein and healthy fats from foods like avocado and fatty fish are important, too.

Runs that last an hour or less don't require any specific nutritional strategy, so what and when you eat beforehand are matters of personal preference. And you only need water en route. For runs that last longer than 90 minutes, consume about 150 to 200 calories of a carbohydrate-based food that works with your stomach, Tripp says. That can be a gel, sports drink or piece of fruit.

Staying hydrated is also critical to your health and performance. For the most part, drinking water when you're thirsty works well. If you're running in hot temperatures for long distances, you'll also want to replenish your electrolytes — minerals like sodium and potassium that ensure proper fluid balance. You can get them through foods like potassium-rich bananas or through sports drinks and similar products, Sauriol says.

Tap Into Your Tunes

Music can prove powerfully motivating. In a 2018 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, runners rated their workouts as less taxing when they jammed to a favorite song. Exactly what tunes move you is a matter of personal preference. You can build a playlist of your own or turn to a service like Spotify for curated options, Larson says.

However, If you're running outside, make sure your music doesn't interfere with your safety. Run with only one earbud or with open-ear headphones. "Being aware of your surroundings is key, so don't bump your tunes too much," Tripp says. If a cyclist, car or another runner approaches, you'll want to know.

Stay Motivated

All the benefits of running — from a stronger body to a healthier heart to finisher's medals — accrue with time. But nearly every runner has days when they'd rather hit the snooze button than head out for that morning three-miler.

To keep running fun, switch up your routes, combining running with neighborhood exploration. Or consider joining a running club. Many running stores like Heartbreak Hill host them, or you can look for a coach like Sauriol, who organizes group training sessions in Chicago.

Don't get discouraged if your pace feels slow or you don't feel like you "fit in" with the crew you find at a group workout. "Instead, compare yourself to the 99 percent of the population that doesn't even lace up and get out the door," Sauriol says. Give yourself a pat on the back — then keep running.

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