Bone, Muscle & Joint Health | Family Health | Fitness
woman standing on race track thinking

When and How to Start a Running Program

Preparing for short and long runs

Contributor: Susan Joy, MD

It’s that time of year again when people are ready to get out and start moving. As with all exercise programs, speak with your physician first to make sure you are physically capable of beginning a running program. If you have osteoarthritis, you may need to follow certain precautions and your doctor can advise you.

Try the walk-run program

Most people do well with a run-walk program. Start with one minute of running alternating with two minutes of walking for a total of 20 to 30 minutes. Then increase running by 30 seconds each week until you reach 10 minutes of running. This can be adjusted, depending on one’s overall health and level of fitness. Even someone who is aerobically fit should start gradually, so the musculoskeletal system can adjust to the impact stress of running.

The program should not be painful

Plan on working out three to four days (not consecutive) per week. When 10 minutes of running has been achieved, walking stages are no longer necessary (other than a warm-up and cool-down). Increase the running distance by several minutes each week, until the desired goal is achieved.

Runs do not have to be the same length of time every day; alternating shorter and longer runs or incorporating cross training into the routine lowers the risk of injury.

Preparing for your first marathon

Before training for a marathon you should be running for about one year. Most programs build from a base of 20 to 25 miles per week. This type of foundation lowers your risk of injury.

If you have a good running base, plan on an 18-week training program. Your longest run leading into this schedule should be at least five miles.

The most important aspect of training is the long run. This will train your muscles, heart and lungs to work for progressively longer periods of time.

Rest: the second most crucial element

The second most important aspect is rest. You should take time off from running each week. This will help you avoid injuries and fatigue that can occur with the increasing mileage. You should take an extra day off if you are ill, have muscle soreness or are overly tired.

Don’t run an extra day because of an unscheduled day off. Plan on a very easy day or a day off following workouts of greater intensity (long run). Your last long run should be about three weeks before the marathon, since studies of muscle biopsies have shown muscle damage following a long run that can last almost three weeks.

Gradually increase your long runs with intermittent shorter runs. Pick a day for your long run. You may fill in the mileage for the remainder of each week dependent upon your usual weekly mileage, history of injuries and running experience.

A beginning marathoner should plan to run a total of about 20 to 25 miles during the early weeks of the program and up to 40 miles when the long runs are the greatest distance.

Goals and principles of running for all ages

Running can be a fun and satisfying way to stay active. If you are new to it, take it slowly, be consistent and don’t worry about what others think. For experienced runners, remember to periodize your program. The goal is to peak at certain times of the year (depending upon your race schedule). In order to peak, you need to plan for recovery.

  • At any age, rest and recovery are important
  • Level of training should be increased gradually; do not increase distance and intensity during the same week
  • The risk of injury increases most significantly with high intensity workouts — but, in order to run faster, you must train faster
  • Never run hard workouts on consecutive days
  • Keep a training log to learn what works and what doesn’t work in your running program

During the competition phase, speed work is intensified, but adequate rest is also stressed. Weekly mileage is significantly reduced. The rest phase completes the cycle; this may include easy running or cross-training, instead of running.

Susan Joy, MD, is a primary care sports medicine physician with Cleveland Clinic Sports Health and is the director of Women’s Sports Health. She specializes in runners, stress fractures, knee osteoarthritis, medical problems in athletes and pediatric/adolescent sports injuries. She sees patients at Cleveland Clinic’s Sports Health Center, Lutheran Hospital and Independence Family Health Center. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Joy or any of our primary care sports medicine physicians, please call 440.312.6242.

Tags: exercise, inmotion, marathon, running, strength training
Cleveland Clinic now offers same-day appointments. Get the care you need, right away at 888.223.CARE.

We welcome your comments. However, we cannot provide a medical opinion without an in-person consultation. To learn about Cleveland Clinic services available to you, please fill out our WebMail form.
  • Bob Spencer

    Treat your joints nice and go to a park or another non hard surface. If you have the cash, get a bike and at least mix it with running. If you want to run, try to find somebody that knows about form and relaxation during the run. Those two issues are important even for a beginner.