As simple as a sport as running is – quite literally putting one foot in front of the other – it isn’t always easy to start running. Even for a borderline crazy runner like myself, I did not automatically love the sport. Many people begin running and stop after a few weeks because they do not enjoy it. Part of this lack of enjoyment comes from doing too much too soon. If you try to run three miles three times a week right away, you are setting your body up for soreness or injury (like Barney Stinson’s plan for how run a marathon). Rather, you want to start small and build your way from there. What I want to talk about today, then, is how to start running in a way that makes running an enjoyable and sustainable part of your life.
Your body needs a significant amount of time to adapt to the physical demands of running. Even if you have a strong cardiovascular system, your joints, ligaments, bones, and muscles are not used to the physiological stress they receive from running. Tim Noakes, author of the definitive guide The Lore of Running, states that new runners should adopt a gradual and gentle training load for the first three to six months of running so that the body can adapt to the mechanical loading and stress of running. Noakes also believes that it takes three months for a new runner to make running into a habit.
So how do you begin turn running into a habit? Yes, you can just go out there and run, but you want to begin running in a sustainable way – meaning a way that won’t leave you injured or mentally burnt out, but in a manner that encourages you to keep running.
First, you want to have a strong understanding of why you want to start running. Goals will help you stay motivated when running gets tough or when you would rather sleep in than get out the door. You may want to lose weight, become healthier, run in a local race, or have a hobby that you can share with your friends.
There are so many reasons to start running. I started running for exercise at the start of college, and I found that running provided a reliable source of stress relief for me. Running also is shown to improve cognitive function, memory, and creativity, so you may want to begin if you feel you can use a boost in school or at work. If you suffer from migraines, low energy, or insomnia, the chemicals released in the central nervous system and pituitary gland (most notably, endorphins) can decrease pain, increase energy, and aid in sleep. Running can prevent several diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, and cancer. Overall, running will improve your health and quality of life and provide you with a life-long hobby.
Once you have clearly defined your motivation for running, you want to create a clear and specific plan for how to incorporate running into your life. Commit to running a certain number of days a week – three days is an excellent goal for beginners. Schedule these days in your calendar like you would for any other appointment or meeting so you are sure to fit them in. Saturdays and Sundays work well for many people since most people do not work on those days, but you do not want to do two out of your three runs on consecutive days, since your body will not be able to recover sufficiently. Try running on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, for example, or Monday, Wednesday, Friday if you want to have the weekend completely off.
In addition to planning which days of the week you will run, choose a certain time of day to run. Exercising at the same time of day will help habituate you to running regularly. If you only have available time during your lunch break, then commit to 15-20 minutes of running during that time. You may want to set your alarm earlier to fit in a 20-30 minute run before work. What matters is that you pick a time that works for you, a time of day that you can commit to no matter what else comes up.
While there are many success stories about people who started just running a block and increased the distance each time, I advocate a different method for beginning to run. The problem with starting with a very short distance is that you are not introducing enough stimulus to your body and not training yourself mentally for running. Especially if you are starting running to lose weight, a quarter of a mile a couple times a week will not create enough of a calorie deficient. Additionally, this method creates the desire to try to do more with each and every run, thus putting the body at risk for overtraining and injury.
Instead, I’m a big fan of the run-walk method. Popularized by the famous running coach Jeff Galloway, the run-walk method divides your workout into running intervals and walking intervals. If you are just starting out, for example, you would run one minute and walk one minute for a few intervals. This method allows beginners to spend enough time exercising (30 minutes three to four times a week) to see gains in their fitness and losses in their weight – since you are adding walk intervals, you can start out with 30 minute workouts and not worry about injury.
Walking helps your body – especially your knees, feet, and hips – make small adaptations that will prepare it for the demands of running. When you take walk breaks during a run, your body is still adapting while receiving a bit of a break, since the stress of walking on your joints is less than the stress of running. Walk breaks also allow you to slow your heart rate and steady your breathing. Also, walk breaks are mentally helpful for new runners – 30 minutes of intervals of running for two minutes, walking for two minutes is a lot less daunting than running for thirty minutes straight.
Once you have chosen a plan (and I will share some more plans in my next Beginner’s Guide post!), you need to reinforce the behavior of running. Rewards can help encourage consistent behavior. You want to avoid rewarding yourself with an unhealthy treat that undoes your hard work. Try treating yourself to a hot shower after your run, a healthy and delicious breakfast, a manicure, a new pair of running shoes, or watching your favorite TV show. I personally love to stretch out and have a hot cup of coffee after a hard run.
Finally, as you start running, take pride in your accomplishments! You are doing a great thing for your physical and mental well-being. If sharing your workout on social media encourages you to stick at it, then tell all your Facebook friends about the two miles you just conquered. Keep a log of your miles, whether in a notebook or on an app such as Garmin Connect, Map My Run, or Strava. These will provide you with motivation when you can track how much progress you have made. Most of all, do not compare yourself to other runners. It can be tempting to compare yourself to your friends who run, but you don’t know how long they have been practicing the sport or how they train. Focus on you and what you have done, will do, can are capable of – you will find that you surprise yourself.
Over the next several weeks I want to provide new runners with lots of useful information on running, from training plans of how to start with run-walk intervals to tips on nutrition, motivation, and injury prevention. Remember every runner – myself, the people at your local running club, even the elites – was once in your shoes of starting to run. So join us on the journey!
Come back next week for the Beginner’s Guide discussion on finding a plan to start running!