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New to running? An 8-step plan to get you started

Many beginners make the mistake of jumping into running without any preparation.
Beginners should start with a walking program, which will help prepare muscles and tissues for the stress of running.
Beginners should start with a walking program, which will help prepare muscles and tissues for the stress of running.LeoPatrizi / Getty Images

When it comes to starting a running program, there’s one thing Dr. Paul Ochoa, a physical therapist and owner of F Squared Physical Therapy in New York City, wants beginners to know: Running is a sport. And just like any sport, you need to take the time to progress and expect some pain and discomfort along the way.

“All of that stuff comes along with any sport that you’re going to start that’s physical,” Ochoa told TODAY Health. “Why? Because it’s placing extra stress on your body that you’re not accustomed to doing.”

However, if you are experiencing pain that “stops you in your tracks” or is “really consistent” and “doesn’t quite go away,” even if it seems tolerable, you should seek help from a physical therapist, Ochoa advised.

Many new runners make the mistake of jumping into running without any preparation, he said, though how much preparation they need depends on their unique athletic and medical history. But generally, new runners need to give themselves time to progress or risk increasing their chances for developing injuries that can hinder their progress. 

“It’s all about habit forming,” Ochoa said. “That’s what I try to tell my patients. It’s best to create a habit of timely kinds of exercises that you’re doing on a frequent basis.”

If you’re new to running, you might be unsure about how to develop an effective running habit. After all, the internet is filled with all kinds of advice, and not all of it good. But generally, you should look for a plan that avoids doing too much too soon, and if you can, get a running coach. If you're a beginner and wondering where to start, follow these tips.

Start with a walking program

Beginners should start with a fitness walking program, which will help prepare their muscles and tissues for the stress of running, according to Chris Johnson, physical therapist, endurance coach and owner of Zeren PT LLC in Seattle. “And when I say walking, I’m talking about what I call fitness walking, which is brisk walking with the arms pumping 3 to 3.5 miles per hour,” he said. 

Generally, your walking program should consist of about 2-3 weeks of fitness walking for 30-45 minutes a day, with slightly longer walks on the weekends, he said. “That would slowly morph into a walk-run,” said Johnson, “and then eventually continuous running.”

Ease into a walk-run program

According to Johnson, your walk-run program should begin with short intervals of running followed by short intervals of walking. From there, slowly progress into longer intervals of running and shorter intervals of walking. A good guide for getting started, he added, is the “rule of two”: 2 minutes of running followed by 2 minutes of walking, 6-7 times, for about 30 minutes. 

As you grow accustomed to this, dial up the ratio to 3 minutes of running and 1 minute of walking. When that starts to feel easy, increase your running to 4 minutes followed by 1 minute of walking. “You’re just gently nudging in,” explained Johnson. “You’re allowing the body time to adapt.”

Shorten your stride

The longer your stride, the more cumulative load you put on your legs, since you are covering more distance between steps. As a result, long strides are less efficient and can increase your chances of developing injuries that will impede your progress. According to Johnson, taking shorter, quicker steps per minute is “more forgiving on the body.” There are a number of running apps that can help you keep track of your steps per minute, also known as cadence. 

Give your body a chance to adapt and recover

To condition your body to running and limit potential injuries, Johnson advises running three to four times a week on nonconsecutive days. This will help you progress with regular training while also giving you enough time to properly recover. You should also stick to a slower pace for a majority of your runs to prevent overtraining. “No high-intensity intervals, no hills, no strides,” Johnson said. “Because if you’re going to run faster, you have to hit the ground harder, and that’s simple physics.”

Develop a rhythm, then layer in the intensity

Once you’ve built up a good tolerance for running, you can start building up the intensity. “My goal is to get someone up to running four days a week, every other day, and from there to work them up to perhaps an hour of continuous running, if that’s consistent with their goals,” Johnson said. 

From there, you can start layering in the intensity. Begin with a simple negative split in which the second half of your run is slightly faster than the first. For example, let’s say you begin with a 45-minute run. The first 30 of those minutes would be at conversation pace (in which you are running slow enough that you can speak comfortably in full sentences), and the last 15 minutes you would run about 10-15 seconds faster per mile, followed by a five-minute walk and cool down, he said.

Warm up before you run

While stretching does have some benefits for runners, such as increasing your blood flow and helping you relax and cool down after a run, it hasn’t been proven by research to prevent injuries, according to both Ochoa and Johnson.

A better way to reduce your risk for injury is to warm up before your runs. An example of a warmup for a beginner could consist of a fast-paced walk for 5-10 minutes at a low to moderate level of difficulty where you are “building up a nice little sweat” before you run, Ochoa said.

Invest in a comfortable pair of running sneakers

A good pair of sneakers will also help you reduce injuries. While there is no perfect sneaker for every runner, footwear should be comfortable, not feel too heavy on your feet, and allow your foot to move fairly freely, according to Ochoa. He said it should also have a medium-level cushion.

When shopping for sneakers, Johnson advises pulling out the inner liner (if possible) and stepping onto it. “If your foot is expanding over that inner liner, the shoe is probably not going to work,” he said. “That inner should capture your foot.”

Strength train, especially below the knee

Both Ochoa and Johnson said strength training is a great way to reduce injuries. While strengthening muscles above the knee is important, including the hips, quads and glutes, be sure not to neglect your calves, which take on a disproportionate load during running, according to Johnson. 

“Below the knee is key when it comes to conditioning or running musculature,” he said, noting that calf raises can strengthen these muscles.

While a strength-training program will look different for everyone, Johnson said most people should train about 2-3 times a week at about 70% of their maximum effort.