Running is among the oldest and most popular of aerobic exercises. From our bushmen ancestors to the current marathon craze, humans have been running—whether by necessity or for recreation—for 150,000 years. Dedicated runners might debate why they do it: for the calorie burn (about 300 calories per 30 minutes), for toned legs and buttocks, for heart health, or for energy. But they’d all likely agree that running makes them feel good. Running can be an easy, natural mood lifter for people who enjoy it, and it’s the simplest of exercises: Just lace up your running shoes and go.
If you’ve never been a runner, getting started can seem overwhelming, especially if running for the bus leaves you exhausted. But it’s not difficult to begin a running habit, provided you ramp up slowly and follow certain precautions.
Your five-step running plan
1. Get a good pair of running shoes. Runners used to focus on heavy, cushioned shoes that stabilized the foot to prevent it from pronating (rolling in) or supinating (rolling out). Then the trend shifted to "minimalist" shoes that mimicked barefoot running, and then, most recently, to "maximalist" running shoes—a sort of hybrid that has lots of cushioning yet is very lightweight. Overwhelmed? Don't be. Because the biomechanics of running are complex and people vary so much in their running styles, the best running shoe is the one that feels good to you. Indeed, a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that a “runner intuitively selects” comfortable shoes that help them move the way they like when they run. Most fitness stores will allow you to try on several pairs and run around the block. They’ll also analyze your feet with an electronic foot scanner to determine if you need any corrective inserts.
2. Dress to sweat. After ten minutes of running, your body temperature and heart rate increase. If you're running on a treadmill or on an indoor track, shorts and a t-shirt are fine. If you’re outside in cool temperatures, dress in layers that you can easily peel off as you heat up. Choose moisture wicking clothing, which won't get soggy and uncomfortable as you sweat.
3. Start with a walk-run regimen. After a 5 to 10 minute easy walking warm-up, alternate walking and running or jogging for several minutes each. Try to get in 20 minutes of walk-run three days a week. If that feels like too much at first, simply walk briskly for 20 minutes, until you feel ready to add a few minutes of light jogging. Speed distinguishes jogging from running. The average walking speed is 3.1 miles per hour (mph), while jogging is defined as 4 mph or faster, and running as at least 6 mph.
As you commit to the habit, you’ll find it easy to increase the time and intensity of your running interval. Soon you’ll have eliminated the walking portions altogether. The Couch-to-5k ® Running Plan and myrunningmate.com, available free online or as a mobile phone app, use this approach. It may seem slow at first, but with consistency and persistence you’ll soon be able to log a couple of consecutive miles.
4. Stretch after each run. It will improve your flexibility, which allows you to move your joints through their full range of motion and, in turn, can enhance physical performance and relieve muscle tension and stiffness. In particular, focus on your thighs, calves, and hip flexors. For more stretching ideas and advice, see 7 Smart Stretching Tips and Stretching: Better with a Buddy.
5. Cross-train. On your non-run days, do strength training to build your core and lower body strength. This will help you to improve your performance and prevent injuries, as your muscles need to catch up to what you’re asking of them. If you’re over 40, it’s particularly important to strengthen your calves and ankles. A study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that lower legs tend to lose muscle mass disproportionately to the hip muscles with age.
A word of caution: If you are out of shape or have risk factors for cardiovascular disease (or have existing cardiovascular disease), talk with your doctor before starting a running regimen or any other exercise program. For tips to keep you from getting sidelined by a running injury, see Get Fit Without Getting Hurt.
Also see How to Choose a Running Shoe.