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Running for Beginners

Everyone knows how to run. In fact, we usually learn how to run before we learn how to walk. With our first steps, we fall forward and eventually figure out that if we put one foot in front of the other, we can stop ourselves from falling flat on our faces. When we continuously repeat this motion, we’re running!

Okay, maybe we’re “toddling”. Nobody ever refers to their three children as “a teenager, an infant and a runner”, but the toddler rarely sets a slow pace to the destination of choice. After all, if you want to go somewhere, why not get there as fast as you can? The destination, at that age, is far more enticing than the journey. Sadly, it’s just not considered “polite” to run everywhere, and, over time, our parents manage to slow us down by teaching us that walking is the more acceptable mode of transportation.

Years later, we’re left staring at an electronic device, trying to figure out how to be a runner. The simple answer, of course, is to run. There’s no degree to earn or certification exam to pass. You don’t have to join the local runner’s union or even be hired to be a runner. If you have two legs, you can be a runner – and even that is not a strict requirement.

Of course, everyone who starts running again has questions that never came up as a toddler:

It’s worth reiterating that you were born a runner. It requires no secret genetic code, no super powers and no complex machinery or contraptions. To be a runner, you are simply required to run. There really is no wrong or right way to do it – “stupid” and “slow” are subjective terms anyway. There are, however, some pitfalls to avoid when starting a consistent running program. If you follow these steps, you’ll be well on your way to a successful running experience.

Step 1: Get motivated

Most people start running for a specific reason, and goals are a great way to stay motivated. Do you want to lose weight? Feel better? Stay healthy? Tone your muscles? Compete? Set a specific goal for the next 6 months. Here are some examples:

    1. Lose 15 lbs.
      Reduce blood pressure 10 points.
      Lower cholesterol by 20 points.
      Slim waistline by 3 inches
      Complete a 5K race.

It helps if you promise yourself a reward for achieving specific goals. These rewards can range from dinner at a trendy new restaurant to a new pair of shoes, or even a destination race. Be careful, though. One of the biggest factors in the failure of running programs is unrealistic expectations, so divide your large, long term goals into short term goals that are challenging, but achievable.

When we start working hard at something, we expect results. We want continued progress, but the reality of improvement is not linear. You might lose 2 pounds one week, but gain a pound back the next week. Running a 10 minute mile might feel easy one day, but an 11 minute mile can (and often will) feel difficult the very next day. This doesn’t mean you need to push yourself harder. In fact, a lack of improvement is often due to a lack of rest. Pushing yourself too hard can lead to frustration, injury and ultimately to quitting.

When you start a running program, the adjustment period is difficult. There will be good days and bad days (and this pattern will continue even after many years of running).  Some days, you’ll crave a run. Other days, you’ll have to force yourself out the door.  This happens to everyone – even Olympians! Some say that the first two weeks are the hardest, but the next six weeks are actually harder. After two weeks, the novelty of starting the new exercise program wears off and it becomes easy to skip runs when it’s too cold, too hot, too rainy, you’re too busy or when any other little excuse makes itself available.

The key is to be patient. After 6-8 weeks, of consistent, regular aerobic exercise, your body will adapt. New capillaries will develop, surrounding your skeletal and cardiac muscles and supplying those muscle tissues with a growing flow of oxygen fuel. If you make it this far, you’ll be well on your way to developing a sort of addiction that makes running a self sustaining activity.

Step 2: Start Running (or walking)

Your starting point is largely a factor of your current ability. Don’t overestimate your current ability. If you could easily knock down 6 minute miles in high school, that’s not your starting point now (unless you just graduated). Start by planning your workouts on the basis of time rather than distance. That way you can get a feel for your comfortable pace. If you can’t run the whole time, then walk. Either way, you should be breathing heavier than normal, but should also be able to hold a conversation with running partners, strangers, dogs, trees, or whoever else happens to be within earshot.

30 minutes is a good amount of time for a beginner. If you can’t run a whole 30 minutes, try to run for 5 minutes, then walk for a minute and repeat that pattern 5 times. Adjust the running/walking pattern to what fits you. It might be 1 minute running followed by 5 minutes of walking. You might have to walk the whole 30 minutes when you start – whatever works for you! Just make sure you’re breathing heavier than normal, but can still hold a conversation.

Step 3: Rest

“30 minutes a day” has a nice ring to it. You hear it used in infomercials all the time.  That’s because 30 minutes doesn’t seem like a lot of time to be doing something – even something you might hate! Heck, it’s easy to blow 30 minutes just watching that infomercial. For this reason, many people make a solemn vow to work out 30 minutes a day, believing that it’s the path to looking like Carmen Electra or Chuck Norris. It usually doesn’t happen.

That’s partly because of mental burn out, but it’s also because exercise stresses muscles. Muscle stress is good because it stimulates muscles to grow stronger, but the ensuing gains in strength and fitness can only occur during rest. Rest, of course is different for different people. To a professional marathon runner, rest might mean running only once during the day, instead of twice. To an experienced amateur, it might mean going out for a relatively slow 3 mile run to recover from the previous day’s hard 10 miles. To someone who hasn’t been very active in the recent past, it means not exercising at all.

When you’re just getting started, don’t work out on consecutive days. That may seem like an easy rule to follow, but it’s not. When you start seeing results from your new running regimen, your first thought will be that running more will produce better or faster results. It’s not true! Fitness is not gained during hard workouts; it’s gained while resting after hard workouts. Without rest, there will be injury and injury leads to quitting. There are no shortcuts to fitness. Those who can run on consecutive days or multiple times per day have built up their fitness gradually over the course of many years to the point where their bodies use short, easy runs as recovery. You may get there one day, but you’re not there yet.

Step 4: Breathe

While breathing comes naturally to most of us during our day-to-day activities, it’s often a source of stress during runs. Many people aren’t sure whether they should breathe through their nose, their mouth, or some combination of the two. The answer to this dilemma was summed up best by New Zealand coaching great, Arthur Lydiard:

“Breathe through your mouth.  Breathe through your nose.  Breathe through your ears if you can figure out how to do it.  Suck the air in any way possible”.

It sounds simple, and it’s true. Fill your lungs any way you can. The more air you can breathe in, the more oxygen you can deliver to your bloodstream to supply your hard working muscles. To this end, it helps to breathe with your belly. When you use your abdominal muscles to breathe, your diaphragm is drawn deeply downward, helping you use more of your lung capacity. This will also help you avoid one of the most common enemies of the runner: the “cramp” or “side stitch”.

Side stitches often occur when breathing becomes irregular – like when you’re frantically gasping for air during a run. Belly breathing with a regular pattern helps alleviate this problem. Most experienced runners find it easiest to time their breathing with their footsteps. For instance, when running at a relatively easy pace, you can use a “3-3″ breathing pattern. That is, you’ll breathe in when your left foot hits the ground and continue breathing in while your right foot hits and left foot again (3 steps). Then, begin breathing out when your right foot hits the ground and continue breathing out as your left foot and right foot hit again (3 steps). As you speed up, you’ll likely have to adjust to a “3-2″ or “2-2″ pattern.

Step 5: Get some running shoes

Once you’ve committed to running for a couple of months, it’s a good idea to get some running shoes. Running shoes are designed specifically for the “straight ahead” action of running and differ significantly from tennis or basketball shoes, which are designed to handle rapid side to side motions required for those sports. The best way to get your first pair of running shoes is to go to a specialty store (a running specialty store), tell them you’re looking for your first pair of running shoes and follow their instructions. If it’s a reputable store, they’ll look at your feet (and maybe your current shoes) and help you get the right pair. You should expect to pay between $80 and $150.

There are generally three basic types of running shoes – motion control, stability, and neutral. Motion control shoes are for people who “overpronate”.  That means their feet roll inward when they run. Overpronators typically have very low arches and motion control shoes contain elements that help guide their feet and prevent them from pronating too much. Stability shoes are for mild pronators. These runners typically have “normal” arches and stability shoes are the most common shoes sold by running stores. Neutral shoes are for “supinators” – people who typically run on the outsides of their feet and have high arches.

Recently, due largely to the popularity of the book, Born to Run, there has been a movement toward minimalist running, or running barefoot. There is currently a huge debate in the running community about whether running barefoot is better than running with shoes. Paradoxically, many shoe companies have started offering less padded, “minimalist” shoes, so compromises certainly can be made. There are pros and cons on both sides of the argument, but if you’re going to run barefoot, doing so from the beginning of your running career is probably the easiest way to go. Those who’ve been running for years in shoes often have difficulty reducing their weekly mileage enough to gradually strengthen their feet when switching to barefoot or minimalist running. This often leads to the same injuries an overzealous inexperienced runner might face.

Step 6: Get Dressed

While you likely haven’t been running naked thus far (that would truly be minimalist running), you may be wondering if there is something better than the standard “cotton t-shirt and gym shorts” combination. Cotton fabrics absorb moisture and keep it close to your body. In the summer, a cotton shirt quickly becomes a heavy, wet chafing machine. In the winter, a wet cotton shirt can rob your body of valuable heat.

In contrast, microfiber “tech” fabric wicks sweat away from your body. When it’s hot outside, this fabric facilitates the evaporation of sweat, cooling you down. When it’s cold outside, the fabric facilitates the transfer of sweat away from your body and into the next layer of clothing, keeping you warm and dry. Technical wicking fabrics go by different trademarked names like “Coolmax”, “DRYROAD”, and “Climalite”. They are all proprietary artificial fibers that do basically the same thing. A wide variety of garments constructed from these fibers can be found online, at running specialty shops and at local sporting goods stores.

When running in very hot conditions, it’s nice to wear as little clothing as possible. Ideally you would run before sunrise or after sundown to avoid overexposure to the sun’s rays that can cause skin cancer. If you must run in the sunlight, it’s smart to opt for lightweight tech fabric that has built in SPF protection.  Where your skin is exposed, wear sunscreen.

When running in very cold conditions, your best bet is to wear several lightweight layers. Your upper body base layer should be a lightweight technical fabric that will wick sweat away from your body. Choose the thickness of your middle layer based on the temperature. Top it off with a zippered wind breaker that will allow you to control the amount of air you let in. On your legs, you may be able to get away with just a pair of specialized running tights. On frigid days, add some lightweight running pants over the tights.

As a final note on running clothes, don’t forget your socks (unless you’re running barefoot). Cotton socks can quickly become soaked and rub blisters on your feet. Replace cotton socks with microfiber alternatives and your blister woes may be a thing of the past.

Step 7: Tweak your form

Once you’ve gotten comfortable running consistently for a few months, it’s beneficial to start thinking about your form. There’s really no such thing as perfect running form, but certain adjustments can lead to greater running economy and that usually results in improvement and more enjoyment in the activity of running.

Many runners believe that a long stride is a key to success in running. While that may be true in certain sprinting events, a shorter, more rapid stride is actually more efficient. With heavily padded heels in most running shoes, it’s easy for runners to over stride, striking the ground with their heels and rolling forward onto their toes. The most efficient place to land while running is actually in the mid foot area, with the foot striking directly below the body’s center of gravity. Ideally, a runner’s foot should strike the ground near the ball of the foot, with the heel striking a split second later and then the toe after that, just before pushing off. To the outside observer, it will appear that the runner is swiping the ground.  This foot strike directs most of the force backward, propelling the body efficiently forward.

Many runners also believe that leaning their upper body forward helps pull the rest of their body forward. In fact, it’s more efficient to run straight up, or with a very slight forward lean. When the body is perpendicular to the ground and the hips are aligned with the head and shoulders, and the foot strike occurs directly below the body, the runner wastes no energy trying to keep her body upright. A runner who is slouching or leaning forward or backward must engage his abdominal, back, and shoulder muscles to a much greater extent in order to fight gravity and keep from falling over. As it turns out, falling forward isn’t the most efficient away to run.

While running, the main function of your arms is to counter balance your legs. Since your legs are not supposed to be moving side to side, your arms should not be either. Keep them relaxed, close to your body and let them move forward and backward as required to counterbalance your legs. Keep your hands loose and your wrists floppy.  If you feel yourself clenching your fists, it may help to gently press your thumb to your forefinger and keep your hands cupped.

All of this can seem to be a lot to take in during a run. It is. You should be comfortable with running in general before you get too involved in trying to change your form and you shouldn’t try to work on every aspect at the same time. Think about one piece of your form or your breathing until it becomes automatic and then move on to other aspects of your running experience. Finally, remember that perfection is rarely attained and in the end, what’s comfortable may be the best way to go. There are plenty of slow people with excellent form and more than a few Olympic champions with very ugly running posture!

There comes a time for every beginner to stop researching and start doing. That time has come for you. Remember, you’re already a runner. As you continue to run, your thirst for the knowledge gained by other runners will grow. For now, it’s time to set a goal, put one foot in front of the other, breathe deeply and put some distance between you and your non-running life.

Written by

Brian Darrow is a running coach in St. Petersburg, FL who specializes in online coaching for beginners. Follow him at

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2 Responses to "Running for Beginners"

  1. Samantha says:

    Nice article!

  2. Mujerista says:

    Thank you for the comprehensive overview – looking forward to getting started!

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