How To Start A Running Program For Beginners

Preparing for short runs, long runs and everything in between
Woman stretching before beginning her run

You’ve finally committed to running a 10K this year. Or maybe you’re just aiming to run twice a week for now. Either way, you’re ready to hit the running trails and join the millions who make running a part of a daily exercise routine.

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Whatever your running goal is, it’s best to speak with your doctor first, according to Monica Betchker, PT, DPT, AT. He or she can make sure you’re physically capable of beginning a running program and can help identify potential road blocks.

Here’s how to get started and what you need to know when it comes to running.

Pick the right shoes

Shoes are the most crucial piece of equipment for runners. Picking the correct type of running shoe will make your runs much more pleasant as well as help injury prevention. Go to a sporting good or running shoe store and work with a shoe expert to find the right pair for your feet.

Your shoe type should complement the way your foot strikes the ground. These experts will often have you run on a treadmill or on a small track for a few minutes to analyze your gait. Running shoes are specific as well. No hikers, cross trainers or walking shoes. Taking the time to get the right shoe is an important step.

If you wear orthotics or shoe inserts, you should try the shoes on with the insert. Other inserts are also available to help absorb impact on various parts of your body, like your knees and hips. And a reminder: shoes should be replaced every four to six months or every 300-500 miles depending on how much you run.

Dress for success with the right clothing

Choosing the right clothes is important for runners for several reasons, from making you comfortable to making sure you can regulate your body temperature based on the weather. If it is hot and humid, wear lighter-colored clothes with less weight and moisture-wicking ability. This keeps you cooler. If it is colder, particularly cold and wet, wear three layers.

The clothing closest to your skin should be able to wick moisture away from your body so you don’t feel your sweat. Your middle layer should include insulation, whether wool, down or fleece. The third, and final outer layer should be clothing that is water- and wind-resistant.

In general, choose light-colored clothes, preferably reflective. Drivers, especially people behind the wheels of SUVs or large trucks, may have difficulty seeing you at all hours. Pedestrians are most often hit when cars turn corners or a traffic light changes.

And while some may consider this a given, a supportive sports bra will also make running a more pleasant experience for women.

Track with tech

The beauty of running is that you can open your door and hit the road. However, many people like to keep track of their progress with a fitness tracker of some sort, using your smart phone with an app or maybe, as you get deeper in your training, a heart rate monitor to have real time feedback.

Sports health expert Dr. Anne Rex, DO, FAOASM, suggests some runners may find it useful. “While not necessary, it can be nice to see that your body adapts to a running routine and what used to seem hard becomes much easier over time,” she says.

Create a stretching routine

Warming up is essential to avoiding injuries when running and preparing your body for the workout ahead. One of the best ways to do this is through dynamic stretching

Dynamic stretching focuses on actively moving the joints and muscles (usually 10 to 12 repetitions for any given dynamic stretch) with sport-specific motions targeting necessary muscle groups to increase the power, flexibility and range of motion needed for enhanced performance. 

These stretching exercises increase body heat and blood flow, which  loosens muscles and tendons. They also improve the flexibility needed for the specific sport by increasing the range of motion around the joints and prepare the muscles by practicing the movements that will be required of them. 

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Not only will dynamic stretching keep you limber and help curb injury threats, but it can even help your overall performance once you take off on your run.

And don’t forget to slowly cool down with some stretches after you’ve completed your activity as well.

Try the walk-run program first

Most people do well with a run-walk program. If you’re totally new to running, start with a routine of walking, gradually pick up the pace to brisk walking to increase your tolerance to the activity.  Start by using minutes in length versus miles of walking or running.

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 concept can be adjusted, depending on one’s overall health and fitness level. Even someone who is aerobically fit should start gradually, so your body can adjust to the impact of running.

The run program should not be painful

Plan on working out three to four days per week, but not consecutively. When 10 minutes of running has been achieved and your walking stages are no longer needed, increase the running distance by several minutes each week. Do this until you reach your desired goal or distance.

Your runs do not have to be the same length of time either. Alternate between shorter and longer runs and incorporate cross training to reduce your risk of injury.

Properly fuel and hydrate during runs

Keeping hydrated during runs is another key to making sure your runs go smoothly. Be sure to drink water before, during and after your workout. Even in cooler temperatures, it’s possible to get dehydrated.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine, to avoid dehydration, active people should drink at least 16- 20 ounces of fluid one to two hours before an outdoor activity. After that, you should consume 6 to 12 ounces of fluid every 10 to 15 minutes that you’er outside. When you are finished with the activity, you should drink more. How much more? To replace what you have lost: at least another 16 to 24 ounces (2- 3 cups).

While water is best, some sports drinks can replace not only fluid, but also electrolytes like sodium and potassium, which are lost through sweat. Too much or too little sodium and potassium in the body can cause trouble. Muscle cramping may be due to a deficiency of electrolytes.

But alcoholic and caffeinated beverages, such as coffee, teas and colas, are not recommended for optimal hydration. These fluids tend to pull water from the body and promote dehydration. Fruit juice and fruit drinks may have too many carbohydrates, too little sodium and may upset the stomach.

Log your miles

Whether you’re running just to get in shape or have a goal of doing a 5k or local race, keep track of how many miles you are going and how you feel. If you are training for a longer distance race (think: half-marathon or marathon) you will need to establish your weekly base mileage and build weekly off of that.

A log recording your time or miles and how you feel during and after each run is very useful in identifying problems and motivating you to get better, especially for beginners. When you first start, avoid running on consecutive days. The days of rest from running allow your body to recover.

Rest is a crucial element of running

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 also take an extra day off if you’re sick, have muscle soreness or are overly tired. And don’t run an extra day because of an unscheduled day off!

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Plan on a very easy day or a day off following workouts of greater intensity (like a longer run). If you’re training for a marathon or longer race, your last long run should be about three weeks before the race. Some studies have shown muscle damage following a long run that can last almost three weeks.

Goals and principles of running

Running can be a fun and satisfying way to stay active.  If you’re new to it, take it slow and, as with any new activity, it can take some time to improve and become proficient. Practice makes perfect and who doesn’t want to experience that runner’s high?

For anyone new to running, first and foremost be kind to yourself. “Mindset is powerful,” says Dr. Rex. “Anyone can become a runner and with some careful planning, avoid injuries along the way. Build your confidence and create a new habit of running by following a routine.  Set goals and have rewards to remain motivated and cheer yourself on.”

Keep in mind your starting level of fitness and consider signing up for a race to have something to shoot for.  Depending on the mileage of your race, it’s critical to give yourself enough time to prepare. Not everyone has the same goals.  

“Completion of a 5K for someone who is new to running may be as rewarding as a marathon to someone seasoned in the sport, maybe moreso,” Dr. Rex says. “Within Sports Medicine we subscribe to the 10% rule to prevent injuries.  As you increase your training, do not add more than 10% (mileage, minutes, intensity) weekly. Set your schedule accordingly and be sure to listen to your body every step of the way.”  

The number one cause of injury is trying to go too far or too fast too quickly. There are many training programs and apps online available to help prepare you for whatever race you’ve committed to. Even if you have to repeat weeks of training (within your chosen program or app) because they seem to accelerate beyond your capacity.

“It’s okay to do that — I’ve done that — especially if you are recovering from an injury or new to running. You do you!” Dr. Rex says.

For experienced runners and those training for longer races, 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.

Whether you’re a beginner or veteran, keep these running principles in mind:

  • Rest and recovery are important.
  • The 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.

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.

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.

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