How To Start Running

Growing up, I played volleyball so I wouldn’t have to run more than 30 feet at a time. I tried running on the treadmill a few times in college, and almost fell off. I stuck to the elliptical for a while. But then one day I was stranded in a store while my friend (who drove) bickered on the phone with her boyfriend. Thank goodness for annoying significant others, because I saw Born to Run at the end of an aisle and read it for the better part of an hour. It convinced me that:

  1. All humans are physiologically capable of running moderate distances.
  2. Running outdoors is a way of connecting with nature and an altogether primordial experience that everyone should tap into.
  3. “Supportive” shoes are bullshit.

I went for my first-ever outdoor run the very next morning.

It was hard, because, well, running is hard. But I also realized how fun it was! It forced me to intentionally set aside some time for myself (instead of working around the clock, which is my default setting). It got me to visit the local nature preserve, which I rarely went to even though it was a short 10-min drive away. And I felt accomplished and energized the rest of the day.

Here are some tips to start your own running regimen to make physical gains, avoid injury, and, above all, create a healthy mindset that spills over to other aspects of your life.

  • Go outside, not on the treadmill.
    • Treadmills originated in Victorian prisons. Really, they did. Go read G.W.M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London and you’ll find all the criminals complaining about them. Treadmills are boring and don’t adequately stimulate your body the way running on the ground does.
  • So, instead, you should locate a pleasant running route.
    • I like the convenience of just putting on my shoes and running from my door around the neighborhood, but it’s also nice to get a change of scenery and go somewhere with more natural beauty.
    • Look on GoogleMaps for a nearby park or golf course. Both usually have a trail along the perimeter that’s ideal for runners.
    • You can also check out apps like Strava or MapMyRun to see where others in your area tend to run.
  • Go by time, not distance.
    • Healthy running is about listening to your body, not forcing yourself to meet an arbitrary goal. Time is a much safer measure because “3 miles” can take 45 minutes or 20 minutes depending on your fitness level. It’s also mentally easier to say, “I’ll do this for 20 minutes, and then I’m done (no matter what!”
  • What kind of shoes should I wear?
    • Don’t be fooled by marketing… there is an abundance of research that proves more minimalist footwear is significantly better for your run form and builds healthier musculature and bone density.
      • Check out Dr. Emily Splichal’s book Barefoot Strong on how to start running the correct way with minimalist shoes!
    • My favorite shoes are:
  • Protocol for your first run:
    • Run on an empty stomach. That means either in the morning before breakfast or at least 2 hours after your last meal. Any runs under 30 minutes do not require food beforehand. It’s not only difficult to digest solids, but also eating beforehand decreases some of the health benefits (fat burning) of running.
    • 5-minute brisk walking warmup.
    • 5-10 minute very slow jog getting progressively faster until you’re at a comfortable pace.
      • What is comfortable?
        • You are able to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
        • Alternately, if you’re wearing a heart rate monitor, keep your heart rate below 180 minus your age (this is called the MAF method).
      • If you’re able to hold that comfortable pace (and keep it comfortable), continue running steadily for 10-20 minutes. Don’t go over 30 minutes on your first run.
      • If it doesn’t feel comfortable, start off with the run/walk method:
        • 3 minutes running then 2 minutes walking, four times through (for a total of 20 minutes).
        • Over time you can diminish the walking interval (4 minutes running, 1 minute walking).
        • Eventually, you can start cutting out walking intervals (10 minutes running steady, followed by run/walk).
      • A 5-minute walking cooldown is always recommended, but, let’s be honest, there’s not always time for that.
      • There’s no need to scarf down a giant meal after 30-minutes of running. Once you build up to over an hour, then, yes, bring on the protein shakes. But, after this session just eat as normal. Let hunger be your guide.
  • How often should you run?
    • First, a note about pace. Always, always, always run at your comfortable pace until you have a year of experience under your belt. Only then you can start incorporating some speedwork with more advanced coaching principles.
      • Seriously, don’t push it! Rather than getting your heart rate higher, you can add more time to your runs to increase your fitness. We call this adding “volume” rather than adding “intensity.”
    • Begin with 3x a week for 3 weeks with at least one rest day in between each run.
    • Go 4x in week 4; this will mean 2 days of running in a row.
      • For example, run Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday.
    • Keep going 4x a week until you feel ready for 5x (this might be in 2 weeks or it might be in 10… listen to your intuition).
    • 5x a week is plenty to stay healthy and make gains in running. 6x a week is appropriate for some more experienced athletes, especially if they are training for an endurance race (marathon and above).
    • NEVER run 7 days in a row. The likelihood of injury and negative thoughts (i.e. an unhealthy obsession with running) drastically increase when you don’t take a day off.
  • Should I run with others?
    • It can be motivating to have a running partner who will keep you accountable, and someone you can look forward to chatting with during your run.
    • But, do not run with someone who is significantly above your level of fitness. You need to listen to your own body and respect where it’s at. Don’t push yourself out of fear of looking inadequate.
    • Alternatively, don’t run harder to seem impressive. Running, in its most philosophically profound manifestation, is about setting ego aside.
  • What about days when you’re not running?
    • Keep up with your movement routine! It’s helpful to allot a fixed time spot for exercise in your schedule every day.
    • Other activities to try:
      • 30 min to an hour of walking/hiking.
      • 30 min of easy swimming.
      • 30 min to an hour of easy biking (NOT a high intensity spin class; let your body adjust to running first before incorporating other intense cardio sessions).
      • 30 min to an hour of vinyasa (flow), bikram, or yin (reparative). Try to avoid “power” classes that leave you depleted and/or move too quickly for you to really master the poses.
      • 30 min of functional strength training.
  • What kind of technology should I use?
    • Pure running without a watch or heart rate monitor can be a truly beautiful and liberating experience. On the other hand, seeing your pace/heart rate improve and tracking your distance is also very rewarding.
    • Checking on your heart rate can also help ensure you’re running at a “comfortable” pace—essential for longevity as a runner!
    • I personally love my Garmin Vivoactive Watch, which has a heart rate monitor built in to the wristband. It’s a fully functional smartwatch, like Apple’s, but far less expensive, more stylish (in my opinion), and certainly more functional with better activity tracking, plus it’s waterproof.
    • My first running watch was a basic Timex with a chest strap heart rate monitor, and that worked great too.
  • Should I sign up for a race?
    • Pros
      • Motivation: I find it incredibly meaningful to train for a specific event. It gives me purpose and pride to make daily/weekly progress toward race day.
      • Fun: Races are often set in beautiful or exciting destinations. It can be a great excuse to travel, or to experience your own city/neighborhood in a new way.
      • Social: Signing up for a race with a group of friends or colleagues is a great bonding experience. You support each other through the ups and downs of training and celebrate together at the finish line.
    • Cons
      • You might put unnecessary pressure on yourself to perform a certain way at the race. This can be psychologically stressful, or…
      • You might not listen to your body and over-train, because you’re worried about the race.
      • Popular/large races can be expensive. Avoid higher costs by registering early (6+ months in advance) or selecting smaller/lesser known races that aren’t “brand names,” like the Rock N Roll series.
        • Side note: The benefit of “brand name” races is that they have excellent race support (i.e. water/volunteers on the course), safety (clearly marked and safe routes), and swag (come on, the medal and t-shirt at the end ARE important).
    • Where to find races:
      • Most races are posted here.
      • Also, consider joining your local running club (if you can’t find one online, ask at a running store). Local clubs often get discounts to races.

Now hit the ground running!

Posted by

PhD Candidate in English at UCLA, Ironman athlete, outdoor enthusiast, and hammock extraordinaire with a guilty penchant for over-priced health foods.

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