How to Start Running (Even If You’re 'So' Not a Runner)

If the fastest you’ve moved lately is to grab another cookie during TV commercials, you’re not alone — but with the weather warming up (and many gyms still closed), it’s time to learn to love running

woman on treadmill
Photo: Getty

If you think marathon runners are incredible — but the idea of lacing up sneakers yourself makes you dread a workout like it's the Presidential Fitness Test in fourth grade — it's time to reframe that narrative.

After all, with most gyms closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic and Zoom fatigue being completely real, getting out for some fresh air might be the perfect antidote for your housebound muscles (and mood).

And since all you need for a great run are your sneakers and yourself, it's quite possibly the easiest way to squeeze in some exercise in the middle of a busy day.

Still, for many, running can feel intimidating. Do you have the stamina? How do you start? How do you train to get better? According to fitness experts, pretty much anybody can start right away — and make it a habit they actually look forward too.

Below, check out their top tips, and get ready to sign up for the next marathon. (OK, one step at a time.) And of course, please check with your doctor before you start training.

1. Just start.

The first steps can cause the most anxiety, according to Rumble trainer Andy Stern, but the key is to start small and take it easy on yourself. "Be generous with your expectations and just start," he says. "There will never be 'enough time in the day' for you to magically have the free time to run, so it's up to you to create that pocket of time."

If you're new to running, Stern suggests to slowly work up to 20 minutes—basically, start with a walk, then a jog, and then a run so that you never feel overwhelmed by how daunting the workout can be. You should do this all in one workout, forgetting about distance for the time being, until you're comfortable running the whole time. "Jog for a short amount of time, then walk until you're ready to jog again," he says. "Consistent intervals will help you to build endurance."

He also recommends maximizing the mental benefits of a running workout by clearing your brain and focusing on the moment.

"When you do find that time, be there mentally as much as you are physically. Don't run through your to-do list or put all of your attention to your distance or pace—just start!" adds Stern. "Find some good music: There are plenty of amazing running playlists on every music streaming platform. Lastly, just run for the feeling, rather than metrics or time."

Jogging with a social distancing

2. Switch between styles and see which one works best for you.

There are two main styles of running— steady state (running at the same pace for a consistent period of time) and interval runs (running at varying paces, getting your heart rate up to the maximum and then having recovery periods of less intense exercise). Both have their benefits: The first works to increase endurance, while the second is generally used for cardiovascular health and fat loss. While most people find one type that works the best for them, Stern likes changing them up based on availability, time, and physical goals.

"I am a big fan of a 20-minute run at a steady pace that's challenging enough to maintain a good for that long without feeling impossible," he says. "Having that consistent, duration-based run allows me to have a benchmark for each basic run. If I am consistently finishing two miles inside that 20 minute run, can I challenge myself to [run a little farther] next time?"

For the interval run, Stern suggests keeping it at three paces—walk, jog, and run. The brisk walk should feel comfortable—you should be able to maintain this pace for a long duration. The jog pace is challenging but doable. According to Stern, you should be able to maintain a conversation at this pace, which should have a suggested speed of 5 to 7 mph. The run pace should be uncomfortable and you should physically need a walking recovery after a long run, at approximately 7 mph.

Here's Stern's 20-minute sample plan:

  • 2-min. jog (warm up)
  • 1-min. run
  • 90-sec. jog
  • 90-sec. run
  • 1-min. jog
  • 2-min. run
  • 1-min. walk
  • 2-min. jog
  • 90-sec. jog
  • 90-sec. run
  • 1-min. jog
  • 2-min. run
  • 1-min. walk (cool down)

If you're eventually running for 30 minutes or more, Stern advises finding a speed you can stick to and be prepared with enough audio material to keep you motivated. "For these longer runs, I slow down the pace tremendously, and either listen to a long podcast or a solid playlist that keeps me going," he adds.

Woman eating carrots

3. Make sure you're fueling yourself adequately.

Once you start running consistently, you're likely going to be burning more calories and have to change your diet, especially if you were fairly sedentary before. If you don't eat enough of the right nutrients, you may start feeling exhausted and unable to push yourself in your workouts, which may make you feel like giving up on running altogether.

CPT and sports nutritionist Jennifer Jacobs recommends upping your intake of nutrient-dense foods, timing meals correctly, and making sure to stay hydrated.

"The key is to eat balanced meals four times a day (breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner) to give you the energy needed for your runs, and try to run somewhere between a full stomach and an empty one," she says. "With not enough fuel in the tank, you may run out of energy, and too much fuel could lead to cramping."

As a general rule of thumb, eat a light meal about one-and-a-half to two hours before you start running, or a small snack 30 minutes to an hour before running. If you run first thing in the morning or right before a full meal, grabbing some nuts or a boiled egg right before you head out will fuel you enough so you don't cramp or go too hungry. If you go after work, time a snack to about an hour before your workday ends.

Foods that are good to help fuel your new workout routine include fatty fish, whole grains like brown rice and quinoa, and leafy greens, Jacobs says. Avoid foods like sugary desserts, processed foods, and white flour because they lack the nutrients needed to give you the energy to fuel you through your workouts. (Also, if you're running for weight loss, keep an eye on calorie count a recent study shows that increasing activity also increases appetite, so focusing on those nutrient-dense but healthy foods is key to reaching your goals.)

Jacobs says about 80 ounces of water should be consumed evenly throughout the day to keep fluid levels up and your body hydrated. The more you sweat, the more water you will likely need, so don't forget to bring a bottle with you every time you run—you can use a waist pack to attach one to so you don't have to carry it the whole time.

Man stretching

4. Don't overdo it.

"I encourage all my new runners to take it slowly," says Peloton Tread instructor Becs Gentry. "I ask them to plan on running and walking small distances, without worrying about pace or time." She recommends people start by running three times per week, and gently increase their distance by 10 percent each week if they feel comfortable, or even every two weeks.

"For example, if you start out covering 10 miles in your first week, you should only go for 11 miles the following week," she says. "Most training plans for races—from 5Ks to marathons spanning over 16 to 18 weeks—follow this principle." Listening to your body first is of the utmost importance, so that you push yourself in a healthy way.

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