Health & Wellness

Never run before? Here’s how to get started

On “Today Runs a Marathon,” we take a look at how you can start running or even training for a marathon. Kathrine Switzer, who won the New York City Marathon in 1974, was invited on “Today” to discuss her experiences encouraging women to run. She even worked to include the women’s marathon as an official sport in the Olympic Games. Switzer, who is co-author of “26.2 Marathon Stories” with Roger Robinson, shares her tips for beginners.

Thirty-nine years ago a director of the Boston Marathon physically attacked me mid-race and tried to eject me from the competition simply because I was a woman. The marathon was a man’s race then, and women were considered too fragile to run it. That sure was news to me! I finished the 26 mile, 385 yard course anyway. It created a worldwide uproar, because “women were just not supposed to do these things.”

So who ever would have believed then that this obscure and controversial sport of women’s marathon running is now the fastest-growing segment of our sport, involves millions of women who outnumber men in many marathons and almost all other American road races, has become a glamour event in the Olympics and on the streets of our major cities, and has transformed globally society’s view of women’s physical capability? All in my lifetime. Wow! Are you ready to sign up yet?

Running appeals to women because it gives the best return on fitness for the time invested, and it gives us all an enduring, even magical sense of accomplishment. If you train for and complete a marathon — and I won’t kid you, it’s not easy — you will have a victory in life that nobody can ever take away from you. Women especially live fragmented, busy lives that don’t leave much room for the heroic; running a marathon shows you can do anything. For most of us, this is a life-transforming experience.

Even after running for 47 years and 35 marathons, I still find my run is the best, most creative part of my day. It is a chance to gather my thoughts and keep fit all at once. Here are my tips for getting out the door and keeping on the road for many years to come:

Just start: You are probably the worst judge of your capabilities. You can accomplish the unimaginable! People run — and even run marathons — who are blind, legless, have heart transplants, have lost 100 pounds … all you have to do is put on your shoes and get moving.

No excuse: You’re never too old or too heavy to start. Exercise is the best thing you can do for yourself. As long as you are alive, the body can grow stronger at any age.

Why: Running is wonderful because it is totally accessible and utilizes every second of time — you put your sneakers on and go out the door. All the time you spend driving to the gym, you can spend running.

How: Time constraint, especially for women, is the most limiting aspect of running, so get creative and multi-task. Run in the morning before the kids are up, run while they are at soccer practice, run home from work rather than commute, put the kids in a baby-jogger and take the dog along too. As you make room for running, you will become more efficient and eliminate junk time from your life.

Why me: Women are great at running because they have natural attributes of endurance. Men have power, speed and strength, but women are more patient and can go all day. (Bet you already knew that!)

Weight loss, of course: Women especially like running because it burns more calories than any other exercise for the alloted time — about 100 calories a mile, whether you walk or run. But running also raises your metabolism and tones your muscles, so you keep burning more calories over the rest of the day too. Obesity brings on many serious health woes and diets alone don’t work; exercise does. Plus, you’ll be a good example to your kids and set them on a healthy lifetime pattern.

Best fitness tip: Find a buddy.A training partner is your number one fitness tool. You won’t keep your buddy waiting, and you won’t chicken out if it’s dark or raining. Make a time and stick with it — don’t call each other or you’ll come up with an excuse.

Keep honest: Put a calendar on the refrigerator where you can’t miss it and mark the days you run. Otherwise you’ll think you run more than you do. But when you see your good days, you’ll delight in your accomplishment!

Minimal equipment: Get a good pair of running shoes, not tennis or aerobic shoes, and get them from a store where the people run themselves and can fit you properly. Fit is more important than brand or price. For many women, you’ll need a sports bra, too — make sure it does not chafe or ride up. A plus is a waterproof watch, so you can time yourself. (It’s easier to run by time rather than distance, since you don’t always know exactly your course's length.)

Start slowly. Walk, if you can’t run in the beginning. Then try walking 10 minutes three times a week. Increase it 10 percent a week. When you get up to 30 minutes, try jogging a part of it. In time, increase the jogging. Eventually, you’ll be running.

Stick with it: Consistency is the single most important thing in success. Try to do something every day; you want to get your body used to moving all the time.

Have goals along the way: Aim for a local 5K in a few weeks, then work toward a 10K. A goal keeps you focused.

If it hurts, stop:  There is a difference between the dull ache of fatigue and the sharper pain of impending injury. The first is normal, the latter means stop. Takes some days off, apply ice and if it’s still hurting, get professional advice. 

Something is better than nothing: Even if you can’t do your regular workout, just try to do something that raises your heart rate for awhile — like a fast spin around the block or jumping rope in your kitchen — then you won’t feel bad about totally missing out.

Don’t beat yourself up: Hey, life happens. If you miss a workout, don’t beat yourself up over it, just start in again. If it’s been awhile, start in again slowly.

Join a group:  A club, a team, or a training group are all motivating tools to make training for a marathon fun and more achievable. After you do your big race, stick with the club and do more races and volunteer. Running gives many other social rewards as well as life-long fitness.

Do it for life: heart disease is the number one killer of women, but much of heart disease can be prevented with regular walking or running. And remember — those who exercise age less quickly, so the more you do, the more you can do. Go for it!Is the marathon for you? It will take time, determination, and more time. Running at least four times a week will have to be a priority, and one of those runs will have to be a long run. Eventually, you will need to be able to run at least 20 miles at one time to be prepared for a marathon. This commitment will take at least a few months, and for many people, maybe a year or more. Don’t say you are going to do it until you are running regularly, as you will just disappoint yourself. But if you want to do it, it is an amazing experience to work steadily for something that is difficult, but achievable. When you do it, you feel like there is nothing in the world that is impossible.

Kathrine Switzer won the 1974 New York City Marathon and helped include the women’s marathon in the Olympic Games. She is also the author of “Running and Walking for Women Over 40” and co-author with Roger Robinson of “26.2 Marathon Stories.” If you’d like more information, you can visit

TOP