You’ve decided to start running, or return to running. Welcome. You’ve made an excellent choice. Running welcomes everyone, provides amazing physical and mental benefits, and offers a lifetime of never-ending goals, a daily escape and comfort in times of stress.
As you set out on this journey, here are nine keys to getting the most out of your running, enjoying it more, staying motivated and avoiding injury.
1. Start Where You Are Today
New runners often have a picture in their mind of what a runner should be. If they can’t live up to that image—run far enough, run fast enough, run smoothly enough, get in a certain amount of miles per week—they get discouraged and give up. The truth is, anyone who runs is a runner, and every runner starts where they are today, every day.
If you get out the door you’re ahead of everyone who didn’t, and you’ve given yourself the chance to enjoy what you’re able do today, celebrate how far you’ve come since last week, and make progress toward being better next week. No matter what your level—from beginner to Olympian—that progress is where the satisfaction and joy comes from. Learning to love progress and embrace the work that produces it as an opportunity rather than an obstacle can keep you happy and motivated from your first day through the end of your life.
Don’t compare with anyone else, don’t get ahead of yourself and decide where you “should be.” Run what you can today. If you’re just starting out, jog—or run/walk—for 15–20 minutes. Give yourself a day off, then do it again. Repeat until it becomes easier, and you can push a little farther, gradually working up to 30–45 minutes for your regular, daily run.
Stretch yourself a little bit, but only a little: When you stop you should feel like you could do more. Take time to recover—when most soreness is gone and you feel ready to go—and run again. Repeat until your body says you can run a bit more or a bit faster. Once you’ve learned your pace of progress, then you can set goals: long term dreams and short-term, realistic milestones that you can celebrate week after week.
2. Run Often
More than anything else you do, running consistently over time is what will make you a stronger, more comfortable, more efficient and healthier runner. Consistency is more important than how hard or how long you run, what speed training or stretches you do, or what shoes you buy. Getting in a run at least three times a week will transform you into a fit athlete who keeps getting better. Daily runs will become easy and you’ll be able to go longer and faster. If you only run now and then, you won’t get better and running will continue to be difficult every time out. Here’s why:
Training works by stressing your body, which knocks it down a bit. Given time to recover, it responds by rebuilding itself stronger so it will be ready for that stress next time. When you run again, it repeats the process, now from its new, higher baseline, raising your fitness in an endless series of upward steps. Wait too long and your body decides adapting to running isn’t important; it shifts resources elsewhere, you lose your fitness gains and you have to start over.
Note: Stacking up runs without enough recovery time won’t lead to progress either, it’s a sure way to get injured. You can’t cram fitness, you have to build it gradually and consistently over time.
The good news is that the more you run, the more you enjoy it. Soon it changes from a chore to a habit, even a gift. You go from “I have to run today” to “I get to run today.”
3. Run Easy Most of the Time
Most runners who quit shortly after starting do so because they’re running too fast every time they lace up. It’s easy to think that harder and faster are always better. It’s baked into our culture that training should hurt. No pain, no gain. What won’t kill me will make me stronger. Pain is weakness leaving your body.
When it comes to running fitness, however, the road to progress is paved with lots of easy to moderate efforts. Even the best runners in the world spend 80 percent of their training going easy (for them). Running easy allows you to run more frequently, racking up more miles, and, over time, transforming your aerobic system and building strong, resilient muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones.
How easy? Easy enough that you can carry on a conversation with full sentences while you are running. If you’re running alone, talk to yourself, or try to sing a few lines of a song. Whenever you start to breathe significantly harder—you’re feeling “out of breath”—you’re pushing too hard for an easy, daily run. Back off and stay at a sustainable, conversational pace.
If you wear a heart rate monitor, this correlates to no higher than 75% of your max heart rate. This may make the run feel too easy and you’ll want to do more, go longer, or go more often. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can make up for fewer miles by running harder: The only way to build running fitness is to spend the time.
4. Run Long Regularly
You can make significant progress by doing one run longer than your normal daily miles about once every week to 10 days. By depleting and fatiguing you for longer than your daily runs, the long run supercharges the benefits. Those include recruiting more muscles fibers when the primary ones get fatigued, improving fat-burning as your readily-available blood sugars get depleted, increasing the efficiency of your stride as your neuromuscular system learns to maximize each movement pattern, and transforms your body on the cellular level, building more capillaries to transport oxygen and mitochondria that produce energy. “The long run is what puts the tiger in the cat,” says legendary coach Bill Squires.
An added benefit: long runs provide an escape in a way shorter runs never quite do. Freed from the barrage of inputs that normally assail you, the rhythm of the run takes over and, combined with the natural drugs flooding your system, a calm, clear perspective takes over which lasts well after the long run ends.
How long should you go? To start, just a few minutes more than you usually go, maybe 10–15 minutes longer. Eventually, you’ll want to work up to 90 minutes, when the full benefits of the long run kick in.
5. Run Fast Briefly
While most of your runs should be easy, every runner, beginner to elite, can benefit—and have fun—by running fast. You just don’t want to do too much. The world’s best runners only do 20% of their training hard, and they’re doing long, complex speed workouts that mimic racing. You don’t need to think about those until you start preparing for races, and when that time comes, you can ease into them gently, as your body feels ready, guided by a coach or training plan.
From the beginning, however, you should get your body moving fast a few times a week. Don’t worry if you’re not going to set any 100 meter records: “Fast” is relative, the key is to hit your own maximum comfortable velocity.
The simplest and safest way is to add some short sprints, or strides, to an easy run. Pick up your turnover rate and drive your arms back quickly until you’re going as fast as you can without straining. You should have a smile on your face, not a grimace—imagine you’re a child running across a playground. When you reach your top speed, shut it down as soon as it starts to feel like work: The whole burst should last no longer than 10 to 12 seconds. If you’re struggling or gritting it out, you’re going too hard or too long.
Slow to an easy walk and rest until you’re fully recovered before sprinting again. Don’t make it into a stamina workout: Your last burst should feel as easy—and be as fast—as the first. When you’re just starting, try one fast effort, maybe two per training session. Do a couple of times per week. As you feel more comfortable, add more, building up to eight to ten bursts. Eventually, you can do sprints up a steep hill to maximize muscle recruitment and effort.
Why should you go fast? “You’re improving your economy,” says elite running coach Brad Hudson. “Going all-out is like turning a fire hose on full. It recruits every nerve and muscle group, including ones that don’t often get used.”
The body engages as few muscles as possible to accomplish any task. Many bundles of nerves and fibers don’t get called up until you either get very fatigued—like at the end of a long run—or you ask your body for everything it’s got—when you’re running fast.
Running fast will make it easier to run slowly by developing all of your muscles and neuromuscular pathways. Plus, you’ll improve your stride by shaking things up and allowing your neuromuscular system to discover the most effective movement patterns for your increasingly fit body.
6. Run Balanced
When it comes to running form, ignore the chatter you may have heard about where your foot should land or how many steps you should take per minute. Experts agree that your mind/body connection will naturally find the most effective way for you to run, given the body you have now. Trying to change specific aspects of that preferred movement pattern without improving your underlying mechanics almost always results in an unnatural, less-efficient stride.
Two general cues can help your posture and balance. They are:
1) Run Tall
Running tall simply means being as upright, stacked and balanced as possible; In other words, stand up straight. One way to feel this tall posture is to reach up as high as you can, like reaching for a top shelf, then lowering your arms without changing the posture of your hips, spine and shoulder. On the run, imagine a line attached to the top of your head pulling you upward.
2) Elbows Back
Many beginning runners keep their arms tightly tucked to their chest, or they reach forward, swinging their hands up in front of their body. Driving your arms back shifts your balance more upright and forward, so that your feet can land closer beneath your body and push backward. Keeping your elbows back also helps ensure that your movement and force all travel in a forward and backward direction, not across your body.
Keep your elbows always behind your body, and focus on driving them back with each stride, letting them come forward simply as the recoil. Your hands should be out of sight for most of the arm swing, brushing your waistband on the way by.
When to Work on Your Stride
If you find running is causing you pain or injury, or if you want to do more to create a faster, powerful stride, you may need to do few key stretches and exercises. Most of us are compromised by years of sitting and slumping, so we have less than the optimum mechanics for our neuromuscular system to work with. The way to a more effective running form—when you’re ready to focus on it—is by improving those mechanics and letting your body restore its own individual best stride, not trying to force a different pattern onto it.
The main focus is in stretching your hip flexors and strengthening your glutes to restore the alignment, balance and power of your hips. A few simple ones are the couch stretch, squats, and bridges. You can easily work these into your daily life and make them habits. Once you’ve restored your mobility and balance, running itself, particularly at different speeds and over different terrains, will improve your mechanics with time and miles.
7. Skip Pre-Run Stretching
One of the more persistent myths of running is that you need to “stretch out” beforehand. Recent research has clearly shown that static stretching before you run may increase your injury risk and decrease performance. So skip it, and banish forever the voice of your junior high basketball coach.
You do, however, need to warm up before you can run effectively.
An easy, effective way to speed up the warm-up and get you ready to run smoothly is to do leg swings. Supporting yourself beside a wall or fence, stand tall and swing one leg as far as it will comfortably go forward and backward 10 times. Focus the movement at your hip, keeping your leg straight through the motion. You want to get a full range of motion and feel it pull slightly at the hip, but don’t force the swing so far that your hips rotate or your back bends. Repeat with the other leg.
Turn to face the support and swing your legs back and forth in front of your body. Again, getting full range of motion but not pushing it so you’re torquing at the hips. Do 10 swings with each leg and you’re ready to roll.
If you prefer more of a warm-up, try a lunge matrix, stepping into forward, side, rotational and reverse lunges.
Once you’re warm, start every run slowly, with small strides, and let blood flow to your muscles and your connective tissue regain its range of motion before you speed up as feels comfortable.
Stretching AFTER a run or at other times in the day may be beneficial to maintain mobility, and it feels good. Just don’t apply the “No Pain, No Gain” mantra when stretching; be gentle and kind to your muscles and joints, stretching only to the point of resistance and gradually increasing range of motion when necessary.
8. Trust Your Senses About Shoes
You’ll want a good pair of running shoes. But don’t let your buddy or an inexperienced salesman tell you what that is—or fall into the trap that only certain brands make good shoes.
If myths persist about stretching, there are even more about running shoes. The word on the street usually says you need to have an expert assess your stride and prescribe the right shoe for you or you’ll get injured.
The truth is, your body knows best what works for its unique stride. Research has shown that using the “comfort filter” is the best way of choosing shoes. The shoe that feels right is right, both for efficiency and injury prevention. That doesn’t mean just the softest, plushest shoe that makes you say, “Ah,” when you step into it.
The best shoe for you is the one that feels just right when you’re running: They match the shape of your foot, holding it throughout the stride in complete comfort and security with no rubbing or hot spots. You land softly and smoothly, just where you expect to land. Your foot rolls as it wants to roll, with nothing altering its path or trying to control its motion—yet the shoe also supports in the right places with just the right level of cushion and stability. The platform underneath responds with the perfect blend of comfort and connected power. It feels like you aren’t wearing a shoe, only better.
Try on and run around a store with multiple, diverse options until you find one that matches your stride and preferences. Don’t settle for less.
9. Experiment, Pay Attention, Adapt
Putting it all together, a weekly schedule might look roughly like this:
Sunday: long run
Monday: easy recovery jog, walk or day off
Tuesday: daily run
Wednesday: daily run with strides
Thursday: easy recovery jog, walk or day off
Friday: daily run with strides
Saturday: easy recovery jog, walk or day off
When it comes to running, however, one size does not fit all. You are unique: your physical characteristics, your health and athletic history, what comes easy and what is hard, how you respond to stress, how you recover from different types of runs, how much volume you can handle, what motivates you. Trust yourself. You know best what goals fit your current ability, drive, lifestyle, schedule and stress.
By all means, read all you can about training methods and theory, follow training plans, learn from others what has worked for them—but then verify it for yourself. You’ll have to experiment, you’ll have to push some boundaries and learn, for example, how different paces should feel, the difference between good soreness and being hurt, the line between feeling more powerful every day and overdoing it. And you will, if you pay attention and be honest with yourself.
Listen to your body. It will tell you what pace is right for you today. If you listen, your body will also tell you when you’re recovered from a longer or harder day and are ready to do it again. As you gain in ability, paying attention to how you feel will let you adapt your pace and schedule to your currently reality. Running by how you feel will enable you to build your running ability—safely and effectively—from where you are today to where you want to be, and help you keep enjoying running for a lifetime.