You think running is straightforward. Just put one foot in front of the other, then repeat quickly -- right? Not so fast. As anyone who's laced up can attest, running is simple only until you actually start doing it. Once you hit the road or hop on a treadmill, questions begin to pop up: How long should I go? Is walking OK? Am I even wearing the right shoes?
The answers matter. Running torches calories, strengthens your heart and lungs, and releases feel-good endorphins. But it can also take a toll on your body and lead to injury if you don't follow the rules. Here's the right way to get started.
Patience is a new runner's best trait.
Andrew Kastor, head coach of the High Sierra Striders in Mammoth Lakes, California
If you've never run before, don't worry, because the best way to begin running is to walk. "Walking strengthens the muscles and tendons so your body can handle running's impact," said Andrew Kastor, head coach of the High Sierra Striders in Mammoth Lakes, California.
Don't rush this adjustment phase. One of the biggest mistakes new runners make is thinking that all cardio is the same, and if you've strengthened your heart and lungs with one activity, you'll be fit enough to jump right in to another.
Unfortunately, your body doesn't work that way. Even if you're a pro on the bike or have logged long hours on the elliptical, you should still ease into running. "You need to give your joints and ligaments time to catch up to your heart and lungs or you risk injury," said Kastor.
Your best bet is to gradually build up to 30 minutes of brisk walking two to four times a week. Regardless of your starting point, you should be able to reach this goal in two weeks. Then you can try "run-walking," where you alternate between five minutes of running and one minute of walking. Keep up that cycle for 30 minutes, and perform the workout up to four times a week for three weeks.
If you're feeling good by the last week, bump up the run segment to nine minutes. You can keep the one-minute walk break indefinitely (many runners do), or shift to 30 minutes of continuous running.
Some runners obsess over distance and brag about how many miles they cover. But if you want to build endurance, it's actually easier to work with time. Generally speaking, you can safely increase your total running time by 10 minutes each week -- divided across all of your workouts or added on to one long weekend run.
Another way to make sure you're not running too much too soon is to use the 10 percent rule. Multiply your total weekly running time by .10 to determine how many additional minutes you can add the next week. So if you're running 30 minutes three times a week and logging 45 minutes on the weekend (a total of 135 minutes), you can increase your exercise time by 13 to 14 minutes total the following week.
Ramping up the time or your speed too quickly can lead to frustration, bruised egos or worse, injury, so keep these runs at an easy, conversational pace. Faster running puts added stress on the musculoskeletal system (your ligaments, tendons and other connective tissue), so you want to develop endurance before you work on your speed. Building up slowly at a manageable pace allows your body to acclimate to the activity. "Patience is a new runner's best trait," said Kastor.
Your running form is like your fingerprint: It's going to be different from everyone else's. But even though each person's running style is unique, there are general rules that most experts agree on. They can be summed up by two simple cues: run tall, run relaxed.
Running with good posture puts less stress and impact on the joints, which reduces injury risk and increases efficiency, meaning you can run longer with less exertion. While running, keep your chest up and your shoulders down. Your feet should land underneath your hips, positioning your body in a straight line from your head to your toes. Avoid leaning forward from the waist, which can tax the lower back.
Keep your hand unclenched to prevent unnecessary tension. Because running is forward motion, if your arms swing across your body, energy is wasted; so tuck your elbows into your waist and your arms will naturally move forward and back. Finally, listen for the sound of your footfalls; if they register heavy, try landing more softly.
Sticking With It
After you become comfortable running, you'll want to find new ways to keep your workouts fresh and interesting. Try exploring new routes (locate one near you at livestrong.com/loops), climbing hills (a 4 percent incline on the treadmill works, too) or interspersing short bursts of faster running into your 30-minute routine.
Joining a running group is also a strong motivator -- one that comes with huge side benefits. You'll have other runners to commiserate and celebrate with, no shortage of training advice, and people available to answer questions you might otherwise be afraid to ask ("What do I do if my nipples bleed?"). They'll also have the skinny on local races. Find a group at rrca.org, search meetup.com or ask at your local running shoe store.
Whether you're running in a pack or on your own, be sure to take care of your body after your runs. Some new runners stretch their hamstrings then call it day. This is a mistake, says Kastor. Our quads and hip flexors -- the muscles along the front of the hip -- tend to be tight as well, especially for those of us who spend most of our nonrunning hours sitting at work. Keep those muscles loose, and you'll run more efficiently and more comfortably.
Running in your cross-trainers is like pounding in a nail with a screwdriver: You'll probably get the job done, but there's a much better tool available. Running shoes are specifically designed to handle the impact forces produced when you run. What type of shoe is right for you will depend on various factors, including your body weight, how often you run and the height of your arch.
New runners should head to a specialty running store and ask the staff for an evaluation. An experienced shoe salesperson will evaluate your needs and make footwear recommendations for you. The best shoe is the one that fits well and feels good.