Want to learn to love running? Start a routine safely by beginning gradually, to reduce the risks of injuries and burnout. Here’s how.
It’s one of the most accessible fitness options available, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of questions about how to start running. If you want to stick to it and ultimately enjoy it, running also requires patience and a plan to safely increase the minutes and mileage.
When you get a good start in your running life, it pays dividends later. It’s a proven mental-health booster, immunity helper, and adds immensely to quality-of-life. Fresh air, nature, and a well-earned sweat are all good for the soul. We want more people to run, so Women’s Running is here to help you ease into a new running program. Read on for advice on how to get a healthy, happy start.
How to Start Running: Your Top Questions, Answered
What equipment do I need to start running?
If you want to make an up-front investment in any piece of gear, we recommend going to your local running shop and getting fitted for a pair of shoes that match your biomechanics, the terrain you’re most likely to run on, and your foot strike. Experts at local shops will watch you walk or run and recommend shoes that will best support your endeavors—you’ll also get to try them on and choose what feels most comfortable. (Note: During the COVID-19 quarantine, many running stores are still answering their phones, so give a call, explain you’re a new runner and they’ll do whatever they can to help. Some are offering delivery or curb-side pickup.)
Beyond a trustworthy and comfy pair of running shoes, a simple watch is also a tool you’ll need to keep track of run/walk intervals. Watches can be as simple or as high-tech as you want—but to start, you just need a timer function. You can even use your phone.
As you progress in your running, you’ll find that tech apparel, made of material that wicks sweat away from your body, will also add to your enjoyment. But in the beginning, just wear whatever you have. Dress in layers when the weather is chilly so you can shed them as you warm up.
You may want a water bottle at some point—you can use any sports bottle, but as you progress, you may also consider a running-specific hydration device, whether it’s hand-held or a pack. But again, for now, you may not need one while you’re running for shorter periods of time.
Where should I run?
When you’re starting, choosing a place to run where you feel safe and comfortable is important, whether it’s in your neighborhood, a local park, a school track (where you have access), or on a trail. Pick terrain (road, dirt, etc.) that you enjoy and somewhere that’s not too hilly as you ease into the routine. Scour some of your local running club website to look for suggestions or call your local running shop to find out where people run.
What should I eat and when?
Fueling is important not only to keep your energy levels up, but also for recovery purposes between your workouts. It becomes increasingly critical over the long haul, when your mileage and intensity may increase.
It takes some experimentation to figure out what settles well in your stomach before a run, but generally speaking it’s good to eat a small, healthy snack about 90 minutes beforehand—maybe a piece of whole wheat bread with a bit of peanut butter, or a banana, or a granola bar of some kind.
You’ll feel hungrier as your body adjusts to the activity. Keep snacks and meals healthy, focus on eating lots of whole foods with plenty of vegetables and lean protein. Your muscles will thank you and pay you back with lots of healthy miles.
How should I hydrate?
Sipping water continuously throughout the day should keep you well hydrated for your workouts. Don’t gulp down a lot of fluid right before a run—it’ll just end up sloshing around in your stomach and making you feel lousy.
Make sure to continue drinking plenty of water post-run, too. You likely don’t need to take in much sports drink at this point—those types of beverages are recommended after intense runs of an hour or more.
Should I cross-train? When?
Cross-training is recommended in our beginner running plan a couple times each week. It helps in a variety of ways to add to your consistency, use different muscle groups, strengthen all those supporting tendons that are working hard to stabilize your body when you’re running, and eventually cross-training can help make running feel easier, too.
The cross-training days included on the schedule should include at least 30 minutes of an activity that you enjoy, like yoga, cycling, hiking, swimming, or even brisk walking. If there’s a class you like to take at the gym or a standing tennis match with your buddy, it counts. Whatever gets you going is a great activity to help increase your overall fitness level.
What pace should I run?
Throw the words “fast” and “slow” right out the window. Ban them from your vocabulary right now. Pace isn’t what any new runner should focus on—instead, focus on consistency (getting your sessions done each day). All “run” intervals should be completed at what we call “conversational pace.” That means that if you are running with a friend, you could comfortably speak in complete sentences while you’re running. If you can’t answer a question, back off a little bit. The “walk” intervals serve as recovery but they are also part of your workout, so try to keep the walks at a good clip that keeps your heart rate up a little bit.
While it’s tempting to try to run faster than conversational pace, we don’t recommend it for the first six weeks of running. You put yourself at risk of injury if you run too far or fast when you’re beginning a running routine.
When does it start to feel good? Is the “runner’s high” a myth?
We’re not going to lie—running is hard and it doesn’t feel particularly good at first (or all the time). The more consistently you run, however, the easier it becomes. Most people give up before they get to the point of enjoying it, unfortunately. After it becomes part of your regular routine, it gradually feels like the best part of the day. You won’t notice it happening at first, but one day you’ll be out there during a run and suddenly realize that it feels better than it ever did. That’s when you’ll also be hooked. Give it a chance, though—not every run will go well. Sometimes it will feel terrible. Sometimes it will feel like you can run forever. It’s all part of the process. Gradually building that consistency will help it stick.
Should I set a goal or register for a race?
Your first goal should focus on completing this six-week plan. And if six weeks is too much to think about, then break it down into smaller bites, aiming to complete the first day, the first week, and so on. But before you even begin, you should write down the reasons why you want to start running. It takes a lot of courage to try something new (and hard) as an adult—so congratulations for making that decision. But when it starts to feel difficult, it will help you to revisit why you started in the first place. So, write down your “why” somewhere you can see it every day. And remember that your reasons are personal—everybody has a different motivation for running.
After you complete the first six weeks, some people are inspired to try a local race. We encourage that if it’s your jam. If you can’t go to an event, you can also look for a virtual race, where you run it wherever you are, by yourself, then log your results with the event organizers.
How do I know if I’m injured or just sore?
Any time you start a new physical activity, you can expect to feel a little muscle soreness. That’s normal and nothing to worry about—and remember that it shouldn’t stop you from continuing with the plan. Remaining active will decrease that muscle soreness over time, as your body adapts.
However, if you start feeling acute or sharp pain anywhere, like your shin, knee, or hip, for example, you may need to take some time off. It’s best to rest before a small niggle becomes a big injury that requires a significant recovery period. If the pain persists, seek advice from a medical professional.
When should I take an extra day off?
If you’re ever feeling an illness coming on, like the beginning of a cold, take a day off. Or, again, if you’re feeling sharp or acute pain anywhere, it’s best to rest. Depending on how many days you skip, you can either pick up where you left off or if it was just one day, move forward with the schedule and don’t try to make up what you missed.
You’ll also have days when your life takes over and you don’t have time to run. It will happen once in a while and that’s okay. Take a look at the schedule and rearrange it if you need to (we don’t recommend back-to-back running workouts at this point, so try to space those out), but make your workouts a priority as much as you can by planning ahead. You’ll miss a day or two sometimes. Don’t beat yourself up or give up completely—just get back into it and carry on.
And you’ll also have times when the stress of life, whether it’s family or work obligations, feel heavy. Sometimes a run will help alleviate that stress. Sometimes the thought of running will add to the stress. Our recommendation is to give your scheduled workout a shot if you have the time. If you feel too overwhelmed after five minutes, give yourself permission to stop. Tomorrow is a new day. Begin again.
Erin Strout is Women’s Running senior writer and also directs Team Run Flagstaff, which has offered its “Step Into Running” program for new adult runners for 10 years.