How to start running as a beginner

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Just about 18 years ago, I embarked on what would become the longest relationship of my life — with running. The early days of our love affair were far from blissful, though. An angsty pre-teen who enrolled in my town’s youth track and field program, I was initially unaware of what a running routine might look like in practice. (Consistency would be the key word.) Despite many threats to quit, over time I noticed improvements to my endurance, speed, and overall mood. Nearly two decades later, I’m the stereotypical freak who runs a 5K on holidays and encourages friends to consider an easy jog a few times a week.

The beauty of the sport is its relatively low barrier to entry. From 12-year-old suburban kids trying a new activity to retirees looking for a change of pace, vast populations of people have the ability to lace up a pair of shoes and move their body — and reap the benefits. (Of course, those with specific health conditions and disabilities may not be able to partake.) Just a few minutes of running a day substantially reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, and improves mental health, mood, and sleep quality. “I think that’s a great thing about running: It doesn’t have a prerequisite,” says Jasmine Nesi, co-founder of RUNGRL, a community for Black women distance runners.

Before you hit the streets, the trails, the track, or the treadmill, there are a few things you should keep in mind to ensure you’re staying safe and prepared, mentally and physically.

Before you start

Prior to your first run, take stock of where you are health-wise. Jill Angie, a running coach, the founder of Not Your Average Runner, and the host of the podcast of the same name, suggests her coaching clients build a base of comfortably walking for two to three miles before any running is introduced. If you experience any pain in your knees, hips, shins, or feet while walking, running will likely exacerbate the issues, Angie says, so first get checked out by a physical therapist or sports medicine specialist.

Getting clearance from your primary care doctor to run is a good idea in theory, Angie says, but can sometimes backfire for fat people. “With the women that I work with — usually fat women over 40 — it’s very common that the doctor will say, ‘Well, you need to lose weight before you start running,’” she says. “That’s actually not a thing. You can run. I’ve been a fat runner for 25 years. I’m doing great.”

Start with a sports doctor first if you’re experiencing any pain while walking, but if not, you should be good to start adding some running into the mix.

What you’ll need

Running is relatively low maintenance in terms of gear. Sure, there are tons of pricey accessories runners can splurge on, but beginners can (and probably should) do without the bells and whistles. One piece of equipment deserving of time and attention, though, is your shoes. “It’s always appealing to go with the sexy Nike shoes,” Nesi says. “But sometimes it’s not the right shoe for you.”

While this seems like extra credit, experts are unanimous in their advice to visit a specialty running store to have your gait — how your legs move while running — evaluated and to try shoes recommended based on your body and support needs. For instance, if you overpronate — your ankle rolls down and inward when you take a step — specialists at the store will be able to identify that while watching you walk and recommend a shoe with more stability and support.

A good pair of shoes can be the difference between a successful start to the sport and suffering with shin splints. Most stores will allow you to run in each pair of shoes for a few minutes either on a treadmill in the store or on the street or in the parking lot before you purchase them, and many have a generous return policy if you decide they’re not for you. So take your time, choose the shoe based on how it feels and not how it looks or the size (sizing differs from brand to brand and some might run smaller than others). If you don’t live near a running store, Angie suggests scheduling a virtual fitting so professionals can walk through the process with you and make footwear recommendations.

Another non-negotiable for runners with breasts is a sports bra. It’s important to support breasts while exercising since the ligaments connecting the breast tissue to the chest stretch over time. Breasts have little support on their own and can move around during exercise, which can be extremely uncomfortable. “If you’re an A or a B cup you can probably get away with the ones that don’t have hooks,” Angie says. “If you’re a C or a D cup or higher, you need a high-impact, motion control-rated bra.”

As far as attire goes, try to avoid cotton when you can, Nesi says, since it’ll soak up sweat as you run and weigh you down. Otherwise, don’t break the bank on workout attire or high-end watches. You likely have everything you need already, including a phone where you can download free apps like Strava, MapMyRun, and Runkeeper to track your time and mileage.

Denis Novikov/Getty Images

Set some goals

Aiming for certain achievements or milestones can help you stay motivated by giving you something to work toward. Before you rush out and register for a 5K, Emily Bennewies, a running coach for Wellness in Motion, says goals can range from running a certain distance to jogging for a specific amount of time without taking a break.

Liz Coda, another Wellness in Motion running coach (full disclosure: Coda is a friend of my boyfriend), says it can be helpful to set both “process goals” and “outcome goals.” Outcome goals are big picture: “I’d like to complete a Kk” or “I want to run a mile in 10 minutes.” Process goals focus on the experience of running. What are you trying to get out of your runs? This can be as simple as “I’m really stressed out from work and I need something that I can blow off steam” or “I find on the days that I go for a run I sleep better at night.” “Focusing on really tiny short-term goals where you actually do feel the effects,” Coda says, “is what’s going to allow you to stay in it long enough that you will achieve the longer-term goal.”

Getting going

A common misconception among new runners is the notion that in order to successfully run, you must hoof it as fast as you can for as long as you can, Angie says. Not so fast — literally. Coaches are huge proponents of a run-walk plan to start where you jog comfortably (not a sprint!) for 30 seconds, then walk for a minute, then repeat for 20 minutes or so. You can play with the duration of the running and walking segments based on how you feel. Maybe you can run for three minutes and walk for one and then bump up to five minutes of running. “Running a mile if you’ve never run a mile before in your life is not an easy thing to do,” Coda says. “And it’s not something that we just expect you to all of a sudden be able to do.”

Instead of focusing on distance and speed, start by being intentional about how many days you’d like to run, Bennewies says, and homing in on how you feel. Running based on effort instead of time can help you determine what feels manageable for your body. Then, once you feel strong after a few weeks of, say, three run-walks a week, you can start to slightly increase the distance of those runs. After that, you can consider upping your pace if getting faster is one of your goals. “It’s more about focusing on one thing at a time so you don’t hurt yourself or overwhelm yourself,” Bennewies says.

When you want to quit

Even the most experienced athletes struggle with dips in motivation and progress. To help get through those mornings when you’d rather be sleeping than working out, Angie recommends paying attention to how you feel when you’re done running. Let the sense of accomplishment fuel you.

Acknowledging the physically demanding aspects of running is natural — running requires effort, after all! But when “This is hard” morphs into defeating self-talk, it’s time to reframe your inner monologue. Be your own hype person, Angie says, and focus on how far you’ve come and how amazing your body is for doing this. Coda and Bennewies like repeating a mantra during a workout or a race to stay mentally grounded: “I belong” or “I know this is going to be hard but I can do this. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again.” (One of my mantras is “Make it count.”)

There will be days when you miss a run or don’t hit a goal, which can be a blow to your confidence. Life happens: Days are busy, the weather can be less than hospitable, or you might not be in the mood. That’s fine. Remember, rest days are essential, as is not getting down on yourself if progress comes more slowly than you hoped. Deviation from a plan or preconceived notion of what a runner “should” be is not admitting defeat. “The whole point is to try something new and get better,” Nesi says.

You may feel compelled to compare yourself to other runners, curious how your times, distances, and body stack up to others (or even yourself from 10 years ago). The false narratives created when equating yourself to other athletes — I’m not fast enough, I don’t have a “runner’s body” — can lead you to think you’re not worthy of considering yourself a runner. Nip these unhelpful thoughts in the bud and remember you’re running for you and not for anyone else. “If you run, you are a runner,” Coda says. “And if you are a runner who has a body, that is a runner’s body.”

Similarly, runners of all levels, especially women, may experience external concerns in the form of harassment. When someone makes an inappropriate comment about your body or appearance, “it’s very easy to make it mean something about yourself,” Angie says. “I shouldn’t be out here, I look terrible in my running clothes, I’m so slow.” Easier in concept than in practice, remember that you can’t control others’ opinions or actions, only your own reaction. “I don’t let any of that kind of stuff interfere with my running,” Angie says.

If you choose to run outside, there are a few things to consider to stay physically safe. Experts advise remaining aware of your surroundings, avoiding running in the dark, texting a friend telling them you’re going for a run before you depart, having your phone on you, avoiding wearing headphones if running alone on trails, switching up your running routes so potential bad actors won’t know where you’ll be each day, and running with a group or in a highly visible and trafficked area. If you use a run tracker like Strava, make sure to update your privacy settings so you’re not broadcasting your route home.

Hacks to help make a habit

Having a support system can make a solitary sport more communal. Local running stores often host group runs; if they don’t, you can ask the associate who helped fit you for shoes if they know of any groups. Many running groups have a social media presence, so do a little sleuthing on Instagram or Facebook by searching for “running clubs” and your city or town.

Adding a social component to your runs helps you meet others in your community and provides validation and solidarity when your motivation is lagging: people to complain with, people to rejoice with, people to get a pizza with after a tough workout. “Maybe you’re not super excited about going out and running three or four miles,” Coda says, “but you’re excited about the people that you’ve been becoming friends with.”

When you’re first embarking on a running practice, it’s easy to feel like your goals are unreachable. Process goals give you periodic reminders to celebrate the progress you’ve made. Run a mile for the first time? Jogged for 15 minutes straight without walking? “Do something nice for yourself!” Nesi says. “Find those small wins because running is so temperamental. There could be a good day, then there’s a bad day right after it, then you’re back to a good day. So I think you’ve got to find the reasons to celebrate.”

Sometimes even the biggest wins, the most supportive crews, or the best-fitting shoes don’t make running fun. That’s fine. If you’re actively dreading your runs and genuinely feel like the sport isn’t for you, it’s okay to move on. But, if you’re frustrated you aren’t reaching your goals as quickly as you’d like, Nesi and Angie suggest reconsidering. “Running rewards consistency,” Nesi says. “So if you want to become a better runner, know that it’s available for you with some patience, with some grace, with consistency, and hard work.”

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