How to start running can seem like an overwhelming or intimidating question, especially if you’ve never tried it before, or if your experience with it begins and ends with laps doled out by a middle-school P.E. coach. When you’re new to running, every minute can feel like an hour, and the thought of moving a whole mile without stopping can seem daunting.
But as the weather warms up and pandemic restrictions still limit some other fitness options, you might find the siren song of the pavement calling you. Chicago-based certified running coach Denise Sauriol has a name for anyone who’s interested in trying the sport, even if the idea simultaneously scares them: “future runners.”
“Running doesn’t have to be like gym class, that one-mile time trial,” she tells SELF—you know, where your legs burn and you can’t breathe. Instead, she and other running coaches advise a more gradual, personalized approach. Start where you are, even if that’s a brisk walk. Make progress at your own pace. And celebrate every step of the journey.
“Each day, each mini-accomplishment is a building block toward the greater accomplishment of becoming a consistent runner—where you get out the door, and you enjoy it, and it becomes a habit,” Julie Sapper, a Maryland–based running coach at Run Farther and Faster, tells SELF. And once that happens, you can reap a whole array of running benefits, from stress relief to better heart health to a whole new community.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to start running on your own terms. Not everyone winds up loving it—and if you don’t, that’s okay. But for those who feel it click, “running is going to give back way more than you ever asked it,” Sauriol says.
1. Don’t stress too much about gear at first.
Morgan Jaldon didn’t grow up an athlete. In fact, she used to skip Wednesday gym class just so she wouldn’t have to run that mile. But when she expressed a desire to take better care of herself after college, her dad—who typically ran an hour a day after work—encouraged her to try again. She started with a run-walk.
The first few times out, she didn’t worry about her footwear. “I had no idea; I ran in basketball shoes,” Jaldon tells SELF. So, she doesn’t think the lack of running kicks—or an expensive watch, or any other piece of gear—should hold you back from giving running a chance. “Just start, and then you’ll learn what you want and what you need,” she says.
Once you’ve decided running is going to be a regular part of your routine, a pair of shoes made specifically for the sport can ease the pounding of your feet against the pavement and potentially reduce your risk of injury, says Jaldon, who’s now a certified running coach in Seattle with more than 20 marathons under her belt. (If you have a history of injuries or pain to your feet, ankles, or knees, it might be best to try actual running shoes upon starting, though.)
As SELF previously reported, running shoes can quickly get complicated, but comfort can guide you to the pair that’s right for you. The best way to find it? Head to a running specialty store, where staff members are trained to fit you with a pair that match your gait and anatomy, recommends Lisa Levin, who also coaches at Run Farther and Faster. Try on several pairs, and go with the one that feels best to you. If you’re not up for doing that in person yet, many running stores, including Fleet Feet locations nationwide, are offering virtual fittings.
Check return policies too—many running stores allow a home try-on period, Jaldon points out. So if what seems like a perfect fit in the store causes you problems on the road, you can swap them out for something that might work better for you.
The high impact of running can lead to some significant breast bouncing, so a well-fitting sports bra goes a long way to making your run more comfortable too. (Check out some of our favorites here.) And while any comfortable clothing works for starting out, you’ll likely soon notice how quickly baggy cotton T-shirts become sweat soaked and heavy. Tops and bottoms made of moisture-wicking blended fabrics or merino wool channel moisture away from your skin, regulating your temperature and preventing chafing.
2. Figure out your logistics.
Running can literally be as simple as lacing up and heading out your front door, Jaldon says. But taking a few minutes to think through exactly when and where you’ll do it increases your odds of following through—and enjoying it.
If the sidewalks in your neighborhood are pedestrian friendly, it’s simplest to start there. That way, you’re never too far from a water source or a bathroom should you need it, Jaldon says.
If you’re feeling more adventurous, try a park or trail. On a recent extended stay in Arizona, Sauriol found a few by driving around, scouting the courses of local races, and doing plain old Google searches. You can also use the heatmap feature on the Strava app to find areas that are popularly used for routes, or ask other local runners, who might have a favorite spot.
Finally, keep safety in mind. Everyone should have the freedom to run without danger, but unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Women and people of color especially may face harassment or attacks on the run. All of this can be even more intense for people of multiple marginalized identities. And like any pedestrian, runners often have to keep aware of cyclists and car traffic.
While it sucks to have to think about, there are steps you can take to try to protect yourself. Bright colors and reflective gear can make you more visible to vehicles at dusk, dawn, or night, Rachel Torrano, a running coach in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, tells SELF. If you’re heading out alone, Jaldon recommends taking your phone and telling someone else—a partner or a friend—where you’re headed and how long you’ll be gone. There are also high-tech solutions. If you have a Garmin GPS watch, you can turn on LiveTrack to share your location with trusted others in real time; Strava has a similar feature called Beacon.
3. Find your baseline.
“Future runners” span the gamut, says Sauriol, who’s also the author of Me, You & 26.2: Coach Denise’s Guide to Get You to Your First Marathon. Those who are brand-new to exercise might not be able to run continually for a minute. Others may already have a fitness routine and want to challenge themselves in a new way. Either way, recognize that running is a new and different stress on your body; even if your heart and lungs are in shape—say, from cycling or swimming—your musculoskeletal system needs time to catch up, Sapper says.
And if you are starting from the very beginning? Don’t stress about it. “Everyone was a beginner at one time, whether they started running when they were little or in their 70s,” Sauriol says.
To assess your cardio endurance baseline, she recommends heading out for a 20- to 30-minute walk. This isn’t a casual stroll: “Walk with oomph,” she says, “like you gotta pee and you can’t find the bathroom, or you’re late for your flight and you have all your luggage, trying to get to the gate.”
Try to do that three times the first week. If 30 minutes feels challenging, repeat it three times a week until you have the endurance to comfortably walk that long at a brisk pace. Once it seems easy, you’re good to start adding in running intervals (more on how to determine your pace below!). You can begin with walking for about nine and a half minutes and running 30 seconds. (A watch or your phone can help you keep track.)
4. Progress at your own rate.
As your body adapts to the effort, add 30 seconds to a minute to your running intervals. Do that again each time when what was once a little bit hard starts to feel easy, Sauriol says. Soon, you might be running for three one-minute intervals with nine minutes of walking in between; eventually, you might work your way up to running nine minutes and walking one minute at a time, for a total of 27 minutes of running and three minutes of walking.
Despite what some prepackaged, generic online plans will tell you, there’s no specific rate at which you need to do more, and no set number of weeks it will take you to get to a mile or beyond. Just go at the rate that feels right to you. “Our body is so smart; it adapts to the stress we put it under,” Sauriol says. Eventually, as your body acclimates and you keep adding challenge, you’ll keep increasing distance.
The key is finding the sweet spot. “It should be challenging, but not overwhelming,” Sauriol says. “If it’s overwhelming, we’re going to hate it and get discouraged—but if it’s not challenging, we will get bored.” Experiment until you reach an interval that’s doable, but still gives you a small surge of victory afterward. (And if you are following a general plan, you can modify it by repeating weeks as needed.)
Levin and Sapper agree. “Our tagline is, Do a little more each day than you think you possibly can,” Levin says. “If you’re seeing progress, whether that’s over two weeks, or two months, or four months, or six months or a year, then that’s progress.”
5. Keep an easy pace.
Now, about those running intervals: Don’t take them at a sprint. The goal isn’t to turn your run-walk into a high-intensity interval session, Torrano says. (Yes, running can eventually be part of that type of workout, but wait until you’ve built up some endurance first.)
Many new runners feel like they can’t breathe at all. That’s because if you’re going fast, your body crosses what’s called the ventilatory threshold—the rate at which your blood chemistry changes, and you begin gasping for air.
If you reach it—or if your heart’s pounding out of your chest—simply slow down, Torrano says. In fact, when you’re new to running and are trying to build endurance, you should keep your rate of perceived exertion low enough for your running segments that you can still have a conversation with a friend. That means full sentences, not gasping out one or two words.
In fact, even after you get familiar with running, most of your time pounding the pavement still should be in that “easy” category—that’s what best builds your aerobic system, which fuels longer efforts. Going too fast can feel overwhelming and discouraging, leaving you sore, exhausted, and injury-prone, Levin says. You might start to think you hate running, when what you really despise is running yourself into the ground by training too hard.
Over time, you may find yourself naturally getting faster at an “easy” effort level. But at first, pace should be the outcome, not the goal, Sapper says.
6. Take days off—and switch things up.
For all its benefits, running is a high-impact sport. Taking rest days in between your walks, walk-runs, or runs—in other words, not doing them on back-to-back days—will allow your muscles, tendons, and other tissues time to grow stronger and soak up more of that force, Sapper says.
If you want to work out more, add in cross-training workouts—aerobic efforts that will challenge your heart and lungs with less pounding, such as cycling, swimming, or the elliptical. Mixing in yoga improves your mobility and flexibility, as well as strengthens your muscles in a different way, Torrano says.
Sapper and Levin have all their coaching clients start strength training right from the beginning. Bodyweight moves that work your core, glutes, hips, and single-leg stability—like this 15-minute bodyweight routine—strengthen muscles that can keep you running strong and reduce your risk of injury.
Just remember, if you are adding in cross-training days and strength days, it’s still important to take a rest day, not just a running rest day. This gives your muscles the time they need to rest and repair—and your mind the time to take a breather so it can look forward to your next run.
7. Track your progress.
You don’t need a GPS running watch or a detailed digital log. However, making basic notes about when and for how long you went out, what run/walk intervals you used, and how you felt during and after can help you see how far you’ve come, Sauriol says—and know when to progress.
You can use an app on your phone—popular options include Strava, Runkeeper, MapMyRun, and Nike Run Club—or even just write it down on paper. Note: Some of these apps involve friends or followers, which can help with connection and encouragement. But you don’t have to make your workouts public if you don’t want to.
8. Add a soundtrack.
A motivating playlist can go a long way in taking your mind off the effort of running. You can also treat yourself by saving a favorite podcast or audio book just for your workouts.
You can also make it a motivational one: Sauriol, for instance, has been listening on the run to The Extra Mile, a memoir by Pam Reed, an ultrarunner who twice won the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon. She also knows runners who listen to novels, and one who pipes audio from her favorite movies through her earbuds.
9. Expect some discomfort—but pay close attention to your body’s signals.
When you challenge your body in a new way, chances are you’re going to get a little bit uncomfortable both during the activity and after it’s done. The first few times you run, your quads, calves, and other muscles in your lower body may ache afterward.
It’s called delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS. And it’s totally normal, Torrano says, as long as it gets better over time. Sharp pains during or after your run, however, are more likely to be signs to stop or slow down, Jaldon says.
Of course, sometimes it can be tough to tell the difference. In an article in the journal Current Sports Medicine Reports, sports-injury experts at the University of Florida recommend backing off or seeking treatment if you have:
- Pain that gets worse while running, or changes from dull to sharp or achy
- Joint pain that lingers or increases for a day or more after you run
- Pain that causes you to limp or otherwise changes your gait
Depending on the severity, you might just need a few days off. But if you have aches that linger for 10 days or two weeks, it might be time to seek treatment from a sports medicine professional, Sauriol says.
10. Realize that even your “bad” runs serve a purpose.
Not every run is going to be a great one. Even long-time runners feel dips in motivation. “It’s not like every day I spring out of bed saying, ‘I can’t wait to run,’” says Sauriol, who’s run more than 100 marathons. “Just know that’s a normal feeling.” To get through it, she remembers how she’ll feel afterward: strong, proud, and accomplished.
Torrano keeps her mindset positive by tapping into the beautify of the scenery around her and appreciating the clarity and peace that come mid-stride. “You can just go out there and take this body you’ve been given and move,” she says.
11. And allow yourself to have a good time.
Jaldon reminds both the grown-ups she guides and the young runners she coaches through the volunteer nonprofit Girls on the Run, “It’s okay to smile.” Running can feel intense at times, but you can lighten the mood if you let yourself.
“You’re doing something good for yourself,” she says. “And if you’re smiling and putting yourself in a good mindset, it’ll become even more enjoyable.”
After all, while there are lots of ways to measure your progress as a runner, it’s okay if you never race or push yourself to go faster. In fact, you don’t really have to feel pressured to get “better” at all. Just getting out there on a given day—moving your body, clearing your mind, and just generally feeling good—can be reward enough.
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