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Beginner’s Guide to Running

Post written by Leo Babauta.

Are you just starting out as a runner, or is it something you’d like to do? From experience, I know that a beginner runner has a million questions and never enough answers. I won’t be able to answer every question here, but this should be a good starting point for anyone who wants to hit the roads.

Disclaimer: I am not a certified trainer, coach or running expert. I consider myself an intermediate runner (on the lower levels of intermediate), having spent all last year running, doing a marathon, some half marathons, 20Ks, 10Ks and 5Ks. But what I have to share is what I’ve learned along the way. Also, see a doctor before starting a new running program — I don’t want to be responsible for any heart attacks!

Most Important Advice
Many people, when the begin running, shoot for the stars. I was one of those. Let me tell you right now: hold yourself back, and start out slowly. Progress gradually. It takes some patience, but this is the best advice I can give you, and I know that it’s important because of experience.

It’s best to start out very easy, at a slow jog, and focus not on intensity but on how long you’re on the road. Start out with a small amount of time — 10 minutes or 20 minutes, depending on where you are — and run or walk/run comfortably the entire time. Do this for the entire first week, and even two weeks if you can stand it. Gradually increase your time until you can run 30 minutes.

From there, you can stay at 30 minutes or increase the amount of time you run gradually, every two weeks. But do not overdo it in the beginning!

Walk and Run Plan
If you are a true beginner, and cannot run for 10 minutes, you should start out with a walk/run plan. Here’s a good one to start with (do each one three times a week):

  1. Week 1: Walk for 10 minutes. Jog slowly for 1 minute, and then walk for 1 minute. Repeat these 1/1 intervals for 10 minutes, or until you become uncomfortable. Walk for 5 minutes to cool down.
  2. Week 2: Walk for 10 minutes. Jog slowly for 2 minutes, and then walk for 2 minutes. Repeat these 2/2 intervals for 10 minutes, or until you become uncomfortable. Walk for 5 minutes to cool down.
  3. Week 3: Walk for 10 minutes. Jog slowly for 3 minutes, and then walk for 2 minutes. Repeat these 3/2 intervals for 15 minutes, or until you become uncomfortable. Walk for 5 minutes to cool down.
  4. Week 4: Walk for 10 minutes. Jog slowly for 5 minutes, and then walk for 2 minutes. Repeat these 5/2 intervals for 20 minutes, or until you become uncomfortable. Walk for 5 minutes to cool down.

You get the picture. The idea is to gradually increase your running time until you can do 10 minutes straight. Then increase the 10 minutes to 12, and so on, each week, until you can eventually run for 30 minutes. Now you’re a runner!
Online forums
In the beginning, you’ll have a lot of questions and want to share your progress with others. An online forum is perfect for that. Join a forum or two, read as much as you can, introduce yourself, post your questions, post your weekly progress, and gain from the experience of others.

A few good forums to start with:

Make it a habit
If you struggle with making running a regular habit, try doing it every single day at the same time. Habits are easiest to form if you do them consistently. This may sound contradictory to some of the advice above about starting slowly, but the key is to go very easy in the beginning — nothing that will stress your body out or make you sore the next day. Also, instead of running every day, you could swim or bike or do strength training, so that your running muscles are given a rest while you continue to form your exercise habit. See How to Make Exercise a Daily Habit for more.

Most important advice: just lace up your shoes, and get out the door. After that, it’s cake.

The importance of rest
Some runners try to go hard every single day. They are ignoring the truth about muscles — your muscles grow by giving them stress, and allowing them to rest after the stress so that they can grow. If you run hard every day, you will just continually break your muscles down, and improvement will be slow and difficult — and it could lead to burnout or injury.

It’s best to rest the day after a tough run, to allow your body to recover. Does this mean you should rest completely, with no running or exercise at all? Not necessarily. The important thing is that you don’t run hard two days in a row. But you can do a very easy, short run (or other type of easy exercise) in between harder runs and still allow your muscles to recover.

First 5K
One of the most motivating things in running is an upcoming race. I suggest you sign up for a 5K after a month or two of running, even if you don’t think you’re ready. Why? It will motivate you to keep running, so that you’re prepared to do the 5K.

Now, some people have a nervousness about signing up for a running race, because the other runners are so much better than them. Relax. There are plenty of very good runners in every race, but there are also many beginners. Don’t worry about the other runners. There’s usually so many people at a 5K that you won’t be noticed. And don’t be afraid to walk or run/walk. Many, many other people do. Just run your own race, and most importantly, have fun! It’s a blast.

On manners: do not start out a race in the front, unless you think you can win it. Slower runners should start in the back, or they get in everyone’s way. Also, stay to the right, so people can pass you. Try to be courteous, and not push or cut someone off. Watch out when you spit — you might hit someone behind you. Same thing with snotrockets. And when you beat that little 11-year-old girl at the finish line, it’s best not to point at her and yell “Loser!” repeatedly. Trust me. I speak from experience.

Once you do your first 5K, you’ll be hooked. That’s a warning.

Equipment
So what do you need to run? Well, running shorts, shirt and shoes, basically. Women will need a sports bra (get a good one, trust me). Should you go out and buy the best running clothes and shoes possible, even before your first run? No, it’s not really necessary. You can get started running with any pair of comfortable sneakers and any shorts and T-shirt.

But once you really get into it, you’ll want to buy some real running clothes — breathable fibers, with some comfortable underwear built in (not cotton!) so you don’t chafe. A running shirt is also good. If you live in cold weather, you’ll need some breathable clothes to put over your shorts and shirt. I live in the tropics, so I can’t advise you here.

Most important: good running shoes. This is the most important running equipment, because it can not only make running more comfortable, but also prevent injury. My advice is to go to an actual running store, where there will be knowledgeable people who can watch you run and tell you what kind of shoe you need (overpronator, supinator, neutral, etc.). If they don’t watch you run, they don’t know what they’re doing. Get out and find a better store. Or do your own research online and learn all about it.

Other things that you might consider, but that aren’t completely necessary:

Mechanics
I can’t advise you here, as I’m not a trainer. But most of the time, you don’t have to worry about this. Just try not to fall down. One thing to watch out for is how tense your upper body is — try to relax your shoulders, relax your hands, relax everything but the muscles needed to propel your body forward. The reason is that you may be using extra energy (and tire yourself out faster) if you’re running with your fists clenched, for example.

Later, after you get past the beginning stage, you can worry about stride length or turnover rate. But for now, just worry about getting out there.

Pain
I also can’t advise you on injuries. Unless you have sharp pains, or pain in the joints, you should be able to run through minor aches. But if you have anything sharp, or your joints feel injured, stop running. You could make it worse.

The runner’s best friend is ice, and rest. In fact, it’s good to ice your muscles and joints down after every run, if you can. It helps with the healing process. Aspirin or Ibuprofen are also good tools, also to help stop inflammation.

Going beyond beginner
Once you’ve gotten a few 5Ks under your belt, and have been running for a few months, you’ll want to start a real training plan and progress to the next level. Training plans are available online for free (see some of the sites below).

Good articles and sites



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