How To Start (or Restart) RunningMay 15, 2023 - Kim Rivera Huston-Weber
Running is a popular form of exercise since it can be as easy as putting on running shoes and going outside. But life can get in the way — juggling work, family or other responsibilities can make finding time to run hard. If you've run before and fallen out of the habit, you might wonder how to start running again. Or maybe you're an absolute beginner looking to run your first race.
Either way, this is your guide to help you start a running practice. While it can be intimidating to start — or restart — you'll find that consistent training can be a fun self-care activity that can ease stress, build friendships and provide for better health.
Running, like most exercise, offers a host of health benefits. People who run can achieve better sleep, heart health, energy levels, mood and even memory. Running also can help lower your risk for arthritis as you age and even help boost your immune system.
Running can be a social activity, too. Running clubs and training programs can be a way to meet new friends and build social connections. Loneliness and isolation are tied to higher levels of anxiety and depression, as well as heart disease, stroke and even dementia. So you don't have to go it alone if you start running — there are in-person and online running communities that can help cheer you on.
How to start running
Make sure you're ready to run
Whether you're an absolute beginner or an experienced runner, it's important to check in with yourself — and potentially your primary care doctor — before you start.
"Anyone desiring to start a running program should be able to walk on a flat or inclined surface pain-free and without a limp," says Dr. Gillian Wooldridge, a sports medicine specialist at Houston Methodist. "They should be able to climb a few flights of stairs without getting very short of breath."
If you have any concerns before getting started, see a doctor. Dr. Wooldridge recommends speaking with your primary-care physician if you have conditions such as diabetes or heart disease, or if you're over age 45.
"Anyone that has been cleared by a physician physically can start running and learn/appreciate it as a workout," says Dawn Stuckey, a licensed athletic trainer with Houston Methodist. "Running is a great way to get healthier, get outside and enjoy our great city and take a mental break from everyday stressors."
Commit to a race (and yourself)
Whether you've been on a break from running or this is your first try, the process is the same: Sign up for a race. This means putting a race on your calendar and paying the entry fee before lacing up your shoes for your first run.
"Signing up for a race holds you accountable to start training and to stick with it," Stuckey says.
It's OK to dream big and commit to a longer-distance race as a goal, even as a beginner. But you'll want to start slow to give yourself adequate time to train and progress in mileage and to help prevent injury. Start with training for a 5K race, then progress to training for a 10K, 15K, half-marathon and marathon.
"You'll appreciate the experience that you get through those first races," Stuckey says. "You'll practice your nutrition and running in the time of year, with the heat or the cold and things like that. Every race will give you more experience to get you confident for the starting line of your big race."
Get the gear (if you need to)
Running doesn't require a lot of gear to get going, but you will want to focus on your footwear. You'll want to pay attention to something a lot less exciting than the colors and fashion of running shoes: fit and comfort. Choosing the wrong shoes can set you up for issues such as blisters, bruising and sliding, and put extra stress on your feet. If you're a beginner, it's worth investing in a pair before starting.
(Related: 3 Missteps to Avoid When It Comes to Your Running Shoes)
"You can go to one of our great local running stores and get fitted for a pair specifically for you so that you are comfortable and can avoid injury," Stuckey says.
If you've found a pair of running shoes in your closet and want to get going again, don't just dust them off.
"Look at the tread on the bottom of your shoe," Stuckey says. "If there is no tread left, then they definitely need to be replaced. If there's normal wear and tear and the tread is starting to disappear, you could consider getting new shoes."
Another trick to test your older shoes is to bend your shoe in the middle. If the shoe is flexible enough to bend all the way, there's not enough support for you to run on it. According to Stuckey, running shoes can last for about 300 miles, depending on your fitness level and how much you run. So if you're training for a longer-distance race, you'll have to replace your shoes more often.
Find a training plan (and stick to it)
There's no shortage of apps, books and programs dedicated to race training. Be wary of plans that ask you to do too much too fast. Starting a running program should not start with daily running, according to Dr. Wooldridge. Mileage should increase by no more than about 10% per week. Look for plans that take a slow and steady approach to build up miles, such as the "Couch to 5K."
"Overall, we don't want you running every day, as it can be hard on your body and could cause injury," Stuckey says. "Avoid plans that require you to start with more miles than you are ready for."
On non-running days, focus on movement that can help you be a better runner and prevent injury. Dr. Wooldridge recommends strength training, and Stuckey suggests movement such as yoga, elliptical or bike rides.
If this isn't your first rodeo (or 5K), you might feel like you can go farther faster. If you want to jump ahead in your training, pay close attention to your body and what it's telling you. Increasing your mileage or pace before your body's ready can lead to a running overuse injury. There's no shame in taking it slow.
"If your body is tired or really achy or starting to get really tight, then maybe think about a recovery session instead of a run that day to loosen up your muscles or try to figure out why you might be hurting," Stuckey says.
Focus on form to prevent injury
While it might be tempting to put one foot forward and go, focusing on form can help keep you injury-free. When you're running, you should:
- Slightly lean forward from your waist while engaging your core.
- Lift your chest, soften your shoulders, and draw them away from your ears.
- Use short, fast strides to conserve energy.
- Land softly and quietly with minimal impact.
"Also, remind yourself to relax," Stuckey says. "Shake out your arms and shoulders. As we get tired on runs, we often tense up in our shoulders and arms."
Fuel and hydrate for better runs
You'll want to focus on getting enough water before, during and after your runs.
"You should probably have 80 to 100 ounces of water a day," Stuckey says. "You want to keep it consistent throughout the day and not just drink 50 ounces an hour before you go run."
The best way to tell if you're not drinking enough water is to check your urine color. You're hydrated if your urine is light yellow (think the color of a light lemonade). If your urine is darker, you're dehydrated and need to drink some water.
To prevent dehydration on runs, plan to have water available, whether it's carrying a water bottle or making sure there are water fountains available on your route.
"If you're thirsty, that means you're starting to become dehydrated," Stuckey says. "If you get cold and clammy, stop sweating or start cramping in your muscles, you're dehydrated and should get some water or a sports drink."
(Related: Sports Drinks Vs. Water: When Is One a Better Option Over the Other?)
Drinking water after runs is important to replenish the water lost in your sweat and helps regulate your body temperature after exercise.
In terms of nutrition, having a meal three to four hours before can help keep you from feeling hungry and keep your blood sugar stable during your run. This is especially important if you're running a long distance or for longer than an hour. Additionally, you could opt for a pre-run snack about 30 to 60 minutes before your run. Snacks should be light, such as a banana, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or granola bar.
"Something that won't hurt your stomach while you're running, and that will benefit you tremendously," Stuckey says.
As you build up mileage and have longer runs, you'll want to carry some mid-run nutrition. A mid-run snack should be around 200 calories. You can try an energy gel, bananas, trail mix. For running on hot and humid days, consider frozen grapes or pretzels.
"Add some salt to your food during the hot months that you're training," Stuckey says. "The salt in a snack like pretzels will go a long way and help you not cramp and get dehydrated."
Work through the (metaphorical) bumps in the road
An insane work schedule. A family vacation. Sickness. These are just a few examples of things that could get in the way of your training and race goal.
"Missing a few training runs, especially a long run, will not demolish your entire training if you are consistent," Stuckey says. "Sometimes your body needs a break. Listen to your body if you are hurting or really sore, and that will benefit you way more than pushing through a long run. The most important thing is to try and be consistent with your workouts."
However, Stuckey notes that if you start to fall off the running path, it's important to not beat yourself up about it. She suggests focusing on the reason you decided to start running and regrouping with that goal in mind.
"Tell yourself to get up and train today and see how it goes," Stuckey says. "Then do the same thing the next day until you get back into a pattern again. If you are still struggling, grab a friend for accountability."
When getting started with a new healthy habit, the first two to three weeks are the hardest.
"Push through those weeks mentally, and you will soon find yourself in a routine and your body will feel better, you will have more energy and your mood will soften/improve," Stuckey says. "I love running."