I was at the gym the other day doing a hard HIIT workout on a spin bike. It was hot, stuffy, and so crowded that when I arrived, I had to wait for a bike to free up. Plus, after a long day of work inside, I felt like a cooped-up kid, itching to go out for recess. On my drive home, I couldn’t help but notice every runner cruising down the sidewalk, bounding along with a seemingly great deal of joy and energy. I felt envious. Why was I opting for stifling gym workouts every day when I could be outside running in the glorious fresh air?
To actually answer that question, I had to be honest with myself and examine my insecurities and relationship with running. While I used to run all the time and even ran the NYC marathon, life happened and I fell out of my routine. In fact, it’s been so long since I’ve gone for a run that I don’t even own running shoes anymore. Perhaps you’re like me and have abandoned your training plan for one reason or another, or perhaps your experience with running can be boiled down to bad memories of running the mile in PE class or suffering through laps as “punishment” at practice for your sport. Regardless of the genesis, many of us fear running, think we hate it, or feel we aren’t “fit” enough to run in the first place. But, ultimately, running can be totally approachable, healthy, and yes, actually enjoyable, for nearly everyone when a few smart training principles are applied. So, to learn how to best establish (or rekindle) a positive relationship with running, we turned to a former professional distance runner who built and now leads a virtual running community with this very objective, and a running coach who specializes in training beginning runners.
Keep scrolling to see what our experts recommend for safely beginning your own running journey, and more importantly, enjoying the process.
Meet the Expert
The Benefits of Running
Running may not be easy, but the numerous benefits usually make it well worth the effort.
Improves Cardiovascular Health
Your heart rate increases as you run to pump more blood (and thus oxygen and nutrients) to your working muscles. “By beating faster to keep your muscles moving, your heart becomes stronger, more powerful, and more capable of pumping blood around your body,” explains Muir. After you’ve been running regularly for some time, your heart and lungs will adapt and get stronger. “With every beat, your heart is able to pump more blood around your body, making it more efficient,” says Muir.
Increases Bone Density
“Our bones actually get stronger and more resilient through exercise, especially when combined with strength training,” notes Muir. It is well documented that high-impact activities, like running, place stresses on bones that stimulate them to adapt by laying down more minerals within the boney matrix to strengthen the structure. And, research indicates that running increases the production of bone-building hormones in the body, stimulating the body to make more bone cells.
"There is no doubt this past year has been stressful, and running has become a companion to many for good reason," notes Muir, who adds that running provides an outlet to diffuse anxiety. "We can work through problems, enjoy much-needed quiet time by ourselves, or even just ride that ‘runner’s high’ everyone talks about."
Builds Muscular Strength and Definition.
At some point in our lives, most of us have walked behind a runner and envied their muscular, defined calves. One of the perks of logging so many miles is that it helps tone your arms, core, and legs and increases your strength. But, in order to reap these benefits to your physique, you must fuel your body properly and consume enough calories and protein.
Muir notes that "body confidence is at an all-time low in our society today" due to things like carefully-curated social media pages displaying just the highlights of our lives and flawless media images. "It is easy to judge our own bodies as not enough, but running is a great avenue to build confidence in your body," she says. "Not only from the increased muscle tone in your arms and legs, but just the confidence that comes from knowing you are able to do hard things—that your body is accomplishing something to be proud of."
Gets You Out Into Nature
There are numerous mental, emotional, and physiological benefits of exercising outdoors, from boosting your mood to getting vitamin D. "Being outside calms us, relieves stress, grounds us, and helps us to break away from the monotony of being inside," says Muir. "It is almost impossible to go out into nature, and away from human development, and not come back feeling better than before.”
No Equipment Necessary
“While purchasing a pair of running shoes and entering races are privileges that not everyone can afford, compared with other sports or activities that require memberships, equipment, and fees, running has a lower barrier to entry in terms of investment required,” notes Muir. “Most runners can also step outside their door and begin from home, making it accessible and easy to do anywhere.”
Elevates Your Mood
Muir says the "runner’s high" is real. "That endorphin rush that floods the body towards the end of a run can be addicting and powerful, and the feeling of accomplishment upon completion can put someone in a good mood for the rest of the day," she says. "Running can give a sense of satisfaction, so even if nothing else goes to plan or goes well [in your day], at least you have finished a run, [which is] something to be proud of."
Boosts Your Social Life
Whether you're just starting out or have been running for years, the running community will embrace you with open arms, pats on the back, and company for your daily miles. From Meetup groups to clubs, competitive teams and races to community fun runs, there are many ways to have running take on a social component in your life. And Muir has some advice: "Before you think you are ‘too slow,’ these running groups have people at every speed, so you will easily meet new people to run with. Most groups stay after to chat, and it is a great way to meet people."
There are also many groups online, such as Muir's Superstars community, where you can get to know other runners virtually and find support.
How to Get Started Safely
Because running is a high-impact activity, you need to build up and progress slowly. If you’re not currently running, or are just starting out, there are a few guiding principles that our experts recommend.
Start With Walking
“Walking is a great place to start as a beginner runner and gradually build in periods of running,” says Simmons, “Over time, the walking periods will become shorter as the running periods become longer.” Walking breaks give you a chance to catch your breath and slow your heart rate, and because walking is a lower-impact activity, your joints and muscles also get a break. Jumping into a running program can lead to injury if you increase your volume and intensity too quickly because running places a lot of stress on your bones, joints, muscles, and tendons, so your tissues need time to adapt. “A good place to start may be alternating a minute of walking with a minute of running for 10 minutes and build on that,” advises Simmons. You may even consider eventually working up to a 5k race.
Consider the Galloway method or Couch to 5k for beginning run/walk program.
Don’t Push Yourself Too Hard
Simmons encourages all runners—new and experienced alike—to focus on their own journey in the sport and avoid the comparison trap. “So often, we look at social media and want to be as fast or able to go as far as what you may perceive to be a ‘good runner,’ but remember, every runner has had a starting point,” reminds Simmons. “Some of these ‘better runners’ have been training for many years, and you can’t compare yourself to anyone.” Instead, listen to your body, respect your own process of improvement, and celebrate your personal accomplishments.
Make a Plan
Simmons says that it’s very important to have an appropriate training plan. “There are several beginning runner plans out there, although you may find working with a coach better helps tailor a plan exactly for your ability and needs and provides accountability,” she says. Expert-made training plans can help prevent injury and progress you safely without overdoing things too quickly. They also ensure your training is well-rounded, focusing on all the important factors of a healthy runner, such as endurance development, strength building, core strength, and speed. There are mental benefits as well. “With a plan, you can check the days off as you complete them,” notes Simmons, who adds that the visual of checking days off can be motivating.
Set Goals for Yourself
Simmons says to set small, attainable goals. “If you have never run before, a goal of a half marathon would be extremely overwhelming,” she says. “Start slow. Encourage yourself to run 15 seconds longer next time than the time before, or maybe you have landmarks and that next driveway on your route is your goal!”
Tips for Staying Consistent
The best way to safely progress your training and see improvements is to be consistent. Not every mile will be easy or enjoyable, but the following tips can make your runs more fun and successful.
Pre-Plan Your Routes
Some runners really enjoy variety in the routes they cover to keep things fresh. Other runners prefer a small handful of routes or a track or treadmill. Don’t be afraid to try new routes because if your routine gets too repetitive, you may get bored or feel unchallenged. However, it’s always best to heed Simmons’ advice: “Always choose a route you feel safe running, and let someone know your plans.”
Invite a Friend
Running buddies offer a lot of perks, from added safety, to accountability, to companionship. After all, if it’s pouring rain on Tuesday morning when you wake up at 6am and you’re supposed to go run, you’re less likely to hit snooze again if you have a friend scheduled to pound the pavement with you. “Some runners like the group run feel, and others prefer solo runs so they don’t feel pressured. Know what you prefer—either way is fine,” says Simmons. “You may find that an accountability partner—even if that partner is virtual—is what you need.” She says this can be as simple as someone you can text to say, “Hey, I got my run done, how about you?”
Get the Proper Equipment
“There are many things that runners use, from music, to GPS watches, to fancy clothes, but the most important thing is a pair of shoes meant for running,” notes Simmons, who says the best way to find properly-fitting shoes is to visit a local running store where experts can assist you. “As far as clothes, something that wicks moisture away from your body will be the most comfortable,” shares Simmons. “It’s not something you need to spend a lot of money on—even places like Walmart and Target have a nice line of workout gear. Women, of course, will also need a supportive sports bra,” she adds.
Lastly, don’t get too hung up on technology when you’re just starting out. “GPS watches are not something you need. They are fun, but to run, you just need a road and a good pair of shoes,” says Simmons, “Once you get into your running journey, this may be a reward for meeting a goal, as they are pricey. There are tons of free apps to track distance while running.”
Set a Schedule that Works for You
“Pick the time of day that fits best into your schedule [because] you’ll find it easier to stick with it,” advises Simmons. “Some runners prefer directly after work to unwind from a busy day, while others go first thing in the morning to be ready to tackle the day. Then there’s also the ones who take ‘runch’ breaks and run at lunch time! Just remember, the running journey is YOURS. Make it work for you!”
Use Your Progress for Motivation
“At the start, you will likely be shocked with just how quickly you have to walk, or how short of a distance you make it,” says Muir, who urges new runners to stick with it. “Your fitness will come to you quicker than you think, and the pride that will come from seeing yourself improve will motivate you to keep going.”
Don’t Feel Self-Conscious
Especially when you’re just starting out—perhaps slowly slogging along and walking every 30 seconds or so—it can be intimidating to run out in public where others may see you. But fear not: “Remind yourself that no one is watching you, waiting for you to fail, or driving past laughing. It is only that inner critic inside you who thinks that, and by running, you will strengthen the voice that can talk back to that inner critic,” shares Muir. “So keep being kind to yourself, and remember, it doesn’t matter what speed or pace [you run]. You are getting out there to do something you swore you couldn’t. Be proud of that.”
Lee JH. The effect of long-distance running on bone strength and bone biochemical markers. J Exerc Rehabil. 2019 Feb 25;15(1):26-30. doi: 10.12965/jer.1836564.282