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Total Beginner’s Guide to Getting Started Running

by Zach Nehr

Blog ▸ Total Beginner’s Guide to Getting Started Running

Zach Nehr

Zach Nehr

Zach has a degree in Exercise Science and Psychology. He is a certified coach, Cat 1 cyclist, and is a freelance writer having been published in many of the worlds largest endurance sports publications.

Running sounds so much easier than it is. Don’t you just put one foot in front of the other? The truth is that running is one of the most challenging, frustrating, and intimidating activities for people to learn. 

As a high-impact sport, running is tough on the body – the repeated pounding of your feet on the pavement, the constant swinging of your arms, and the tightness of your hips, knees, and ankles can show up after less than a mile. This is enough to scare most people away from running, but that’s precisely why we’re here. 

Running is one of the most beautiful, peaceful, and mind-clearing activities that you can do. Most people wish they could run more but don’t know how. 

This blog is your total beginner’s guide to getting started running. We’ll cover everything you need to know about running, from beginner gear to intervals and training plans for 5km races, half marathon races, and more. 

You can start from the top or skip to another part of this guide at any time. Here’s what we’ll cover in our beginner’s guide to running. 

  • Start From Nothing
    • Beginner’s Gear for Running
      • Shoes
      • Heart Rate Monitors
      • GPS Watches and Fitness Trackers
      • Treadmills
  • Running Technique for Beginners
    • Footstrike
    • Ankle lean
    • Balance
    • Drills
  • Run Training for Beginners
    • Run/Walk Program for Beginners
    • Run Intensity
    • HR Training Mistakes
    • Build Up With Two Workouts Per Week
      • Short workouts
      • Long workouts
    • How to Prevent Running Injuries
      • Shin splints
      • Lower back pain
      • Runner’s Knee
      • Foot pain
      • Risk Factors
  • How to Train for Your First Running Race
    • Run Nutrition for Beginners
    • Weight Loss for Beginner Runners

Start Running From Nothing

Forget everything you’ve heard – no one is “built for” or “not built for” running. Some traits help, and some hurt, but anyone can be a successful runner by following these steps. 

  1. Get the right gear
  2. Learn our perfect running technique 

You can learn more about running for beginners on our YouTube channel here

Beginner’s Gear for Running

pair of black-white-and-brown Nike basketball shoes

Beginner running shoes are an essential piece of gear that you’ll need to purchase. Your pair of shoes will help you stay comfortable and injury-free on your running journey. There are a few more pieces of equipment that you might need, but not all are necessary. 

For beginner runner gear, we recommend: 

  • Running shoes
  • Workout clothing (athletic shorts, lightweight shirt)
  • Chest-based heart rate monitor 
  • Fitness watch/GPS tracker/smartphone

Best Running Shoes for Beginners

First, and perhaps most importantly, we recommend that every new runner get a pair of dedicated running shoes. If you started in a couple of old joggers or tennis shoes, you could be at significant risk of injury. 

Beginner running shoes are comfortable, lightweight, and as supportive as they need to be. Specifically, we recommend running shoes for beginners with:

Each bullet point is linked to a study that found these traits to be beneficial for runners.

You can find cheap beginner running shoes for less than $100. There are many options and styles, including Nike Zoom Air, Brooks Ghost 14, New Balance Fresh Foam, or Hoka Clifton. 

We have put together an entire guide to the Best Running Shoes for Beginners.

HR Monitors for Beginner Runners

At the very start of learning to run you don’t need to track every step of your workouts, you just need to worry about gradually running a little more each time you get out the door and run a little more each week.

As a rule of thumb, we recommend using the first 6-8 weeks of running just to zone out – don’t get any devices yet or feel the need to track your training. Once you get past this initial period, you can start thinking about getting some new training devices. 

Once you start thinking about setting goals with your running -like taking on a running event-fitness tracking is a massive tool as you begin to progress. Specifically, heart rate training is the best way to track your run training as a beginner. 

Heart rate training is cheap and straightforward. You only need a chest-based heart rate monitor and a device or app to connect it. We don’t recommend using wrist-based HR monitors because they are much less accurate than chest-based ones. 

Beginner runners should use heart rate to track their training and progress. With a few simple calculations (use our HR training zone calculator here), you can calculate your HR training zones for running. Knowing your zones will help you pace your runs and structure your training to make the most fitness gains and stay injury-free. 

We put together a complete guide to HR training in our blog, Everything You Need to Know About Heart Rate Training Zones.

GPS Watches for Beginner Runners

space gray aluminum case Apple watch

A GPS watch is an appealing do-it-all option for beginner runners since you can track your steps, distance, display your heart rate, and more in one device. For those with the budget, we recommend GPS watches for beginner runners

However, we don’t recommend relying on the HR data from a GPS watch because they are known for being inaccurate for running. They bounce around a lot, and HR readings can be off by as much as 40 beats per minute, especially for budget GPS watches. 

For beginners, we recommend a GPS watch plus a chest-based HR monitor to track your training. There are hundreds of different watches to choose from, including Suunto, Polar, and COROS – our favorites are Garmin, and Wahoo GPS watches. 

Do Beginner Runners Need a Treadmill?

Treadmills are a great place to start for beginner runners because they are entirely controlled and distraction-free. You’ll never need to worry about running up a hill or twisting your ankle on a rock while running on a treadmill. 

However, you should never do all your run workouts on a treadmill. The impact and techniques you develop from running on a treadmill do not exactly translate to outdoor running. If you do all your run workouts on a treadmill, you will have a much greater risk of injury when you try to run outside. 

Even when you are stuck on the treadmill in the winter, trail running once weekly will be great for your technique and injury prevention. Not only will trail running be better than the treadmill, but it will also reactivate your stability and balance.

Running Technique for Beginners

Once you have your gear and are ready to run, it’s time to learn how – or should we say- to re-learn how to run. Our technique is designed for beginners and inexperienced runners, especially those who have previously struggled with running injuries. 

Our running technique is efficient and smooth. It reduces injury and helps you keep a low heart rate. Here’s how: 

The Importance of Footstrike

person running on tracking field

Starting with your footstrike, this is how your foot lands on the ground with each step. Over the years, many coaches and runners have suggested that a mid-or fore-front foot strike is best for running. This has been disproven – see one study here – and shown mid and forefoot striking doesn’t clearly improve running economy or prevent injury. 

One study actually showed heel striking used less energy than midfoot striking in runners. Some argue that humans didn’t evolve this way, but we also didn’t evolve to run on concrete in running shoes. This has changed how humans run, and this is probably 90% of the running you will be doing. 

Many runners have success (and lowest rate of injury) when they land on their rearfoot before rolling onto their midfoot and forefoot. But not everyone’s the same. Above all, do what feels natural to you, and don’t force yourself to change your footstrike just because someone tells you that a midfoot strike is better. 

Above all else, you should land and load your foot directly underneath your body and then gradually increase the load naturally, as opposed to trying to force your run technique in any way. 

Avoid loading your foot altogether when it is out in front of you. If and when your foot strikes in front of your body, you don’t want to load that foot until it is directly under you. Loading your foot in front of your body is like putting on the brakes – not only will it slow you down, but it could lead to injury. 

To Lean or Not to Lean

Many beginner runners make the mistake of leaning forward at their hips. This can stifle your running economy, slow you down, and lead to injury. 

Instead, you should lean forward through your ankles, not your hips. While running, your body should be like a board – solid, locked in a straight line from your hips through your spine and up through your head. 

Balance in Running

The last aspect of running technique for beginners is balance. Your centerline is like an invisible wall between your body’s left and right sides. You may not even notice it, but many beginner runners cross their centerline with their feet or arms while running. 

There should be no buckling, twisting, or other imbalance with each footstrike. You should not run like you are balancing on a tightrope, and your arms should not cross your centerline with each stride. Instead, you should have your knee and ankle tracking in as straight of a line as possible. 

Here’s the tricky part: as Zen Buddhism says, you must try not to try. 

Focusing too much on your lower body will probably mess up your stride or foot strike. There are many moving parts in your running motion, and overthinking will only worsen it. 

Beginner runners should focus on their upper body and arm swing each stride. Keep your elbows bent at 90 degrees, and have your arms swinging at your side in a relaxed position. Don’t let your arms swing across your centerline, and keep your gaze in front of you. 

Summary of beginner running technique: 

  1. Land underneath you – don’t load your foot in front of or behind your body
  2. Lean from your ankles – not your hips
  3. Reduce cross-body motion – don’t punch across your body, and don’t kick across your body. 

Technique Drills for Beginners

person jumping from leaves

Of course, not all of these techniques will come naturally to you. But there are a few easy drills that you can do to teach your body how to run correctly. 

First, try lightly bouncing up and down. Slightly bend your knees at the bottom of each jump, and bounce up and down while staying in place. You will quickly learn to land with your body weight straight over your feet, precisely how you want to load your foot strikes in the running. 

Second, incorporate butt kicks into the same drill. Start by bouncing up and down, then do alternating butt kicks while still bouncing. Now you are teaching yourself how to balance and load each foot independently rather than together. 

The last step is to add a forward lean from the ankles to this drill. As you get your feet under, you will quickly realize that you are running!

We recommend that during the first several weeks of learning how to run, runners stop every 3-5 minutes of their workout to perform this drill. This will help reset your form and reinforce the proper running form in your neuromuscular system. 

Run Training for Beginners

Run/Walk Training Program

Many say beginner runners don’t need a structured program because they’re just starting out – but we believe a structured program is best for beginner runners because it prevents injury and burnout. 

Our run walk method for beginners is perfect for first-time runners training for a race distance up to 5km.

When you start from nothing, your most significant difficulty will be running continuously. At first, you may only be able to run 10 or 20 meters simultaneously. Remember that we all start from somewhere, and you will make progress very quickly.  

In our run/walk program for beginners, we recommend running two or three days a week. Focus on running at a comfortable pace and using proper technique – don’t focus on speed or distance. 

Everyone’s capabilities will be different when they’re starting to learn to run, so rather than prescribe an exact run/walk learn to run program here are the basics you should follow:

  • Run two or three days per week
  • Be out run/walking for a total of 30 minutes
  • WEEK 1: run as long as you can continuously, then take a walk break on a 1:4 run:walk ratio. For example, if you can run for 60 seconds, walk for 4 minutes
  • WEEK 2: run/walk on a 1:2 run:walk ratio. For example, if you can run for 2 minutes seconds, walk for 4 minutes
  • WEEK 3: run/walk on a 1:1 run:walk ratio. For example, if you can run for 3 minutes, walk for 3 minutes
  • WEEK 4: run/walk on a 2:1 run:walk ratio. For example, if you can run for 4 minutes, walk for 2 minutes
  • Keep track of how long you can run continuously every run. Try to push a little longer every single run interval and every single workout. If you can only run 60 seconds in your first run, try to run 75 seconds continuously in your second run
  • Push yourself a tiny little bit each workout and follow the pattern described above, when you get to Week 5 see if you can run without stopping for the entire 30 minutes. I bet if you run at a nice slow pace you’ll be able to surprise yourself and be able to run a 5k race without stopping.

Don’t push yourself too far in the first few days. Even if you are feeling good in your first run, prepare to be sore for the next couple of days. 

Before we get into structured run workouts and a weekly run training plan for beginners, we need to cover a few more basics that will keep you happy and healthy. 

Run Intensity for Beginners

New runners should always start at low intensity. That means Zones 1 and 2 if you are training by heart rate or 1 to 4 out of 10 on the RPE (rate of perceived exertion) scale. This prevents injury and burnout, especially in the early stages of your running journey. 

The most significant gains you will make in your first few weeks of running are neuromuscular connections – these are the mind-to-muscle connections activated when a muscle is flexed. This is why we recommend running drills for beginners, as these activate all the muscle fibers you will use for running. 

If you are like most other people, you spend the majority of the day sitting at a desk. This tightens your hip flexors and makes it harder to open up before a run. That’s why most – if not all – of your training as a beginner runner should be done at a low intensity. In these early stages of the process, you should focus on recruiting your running muscles with perfect form, not running fast. 

Heart Rate Training Mistakes

silver aluminum case Apple Watch with black Nike Fuel Band displaying 20:27

You might notice a few difficulties if you are training by heart rate. Firstly, you might not know your zones or misuse them. You can learn Everything You Need to Know About Heart Rate Training Zones in our blog post here.

There are many more ways that heart rate training can go wrong. Some runners ignore their zone, or they don’t follow a structured training plan. At that point, wearing a heart rate monitor isn’t doing you any good.  

Check out this video on our YouTube channel for 9 Biggest Heart Rate Training Mistakes Triathletes Make

Build Up With Two Workouts Per Week

Once you can run continuously, you can start doing some structured run workouts. You only need two weekly workouts to make some excellent fitness gains: one short and intense workout, and one long and easy workout. 

Short Run Workouts

Your short run workouts should consist of high-intensity intervals separated by short rest periods. There are many different ways that you can structure these workouts. For beginner runners, one of our favorites is a sprint workout consisting of 10-second efforts. 

Here’s what the workout would look like: 

  • 5mins easy warm-up
  • 5x10sec sprints with 5mins easy jogging in between*
  • 5mins cool-down

*Take as much time as you need between sprints to recover fully. Whether it is two minutes or 10 minutes, make sure you’ve entirely caught your breath before starting the next sprint

We recommend short sprints for beginner runners because this unlocks the neuromuscular capabilities of your muscles. When adults are training fast for the first time they’ll often have a difficult time moving quickly, we tend to move very slowly as adults. To combat this, a neuromuscular connection needs to be made between the muscles and your brain. Your muscles won’t get stronger before this connection happens. 

The best way to achieve neuromuscular activation is to stimulate your muscles with short, high-intensity efforts such as sprints. Focus on your form and technique during these sprints to get the most out of each step. 

Low-intensity training is great, but it is limiting if that is the only training you do. Strictly training slow will make you slow – as a beginner runner, primarily training slow is the best way to safely build form and fitness – but you need to pair this slow training with some intense burst in roughly an 80-20 easy-intense distribution.

Long Run Workouts

Your second workout of the week should be a long run done at low intensity. This run should never feel very hard, but you will certainly feel fatigued by the end. The challenge of this workout comes in its distance, not its intensity. 

Aim for Zone 2 if you are using your heart rate training zones. If your heart rate gets too high, take a walking break to bring it back down. Here is protocol for building run endurance highly recommend: 

  • WEEK 1: run continuously for as long as possible at a very low effort (almost a shuffle or walk)
  • WEEK 2: run 8-10% longer than you did in the first week
  • WEEK 3: run 8-10% longer than you did in Week 2
  • WEEK 4: run 60% of the longest distance you previously ran
  • Continue with this pattern to build running stamina safely and predictably

For beginners, we recommend doing two or three runs per week in total. Choosing to do the third run of the week is up to you. The purpose of a third run is to build run durability with a very short 20-45min easy run. 

We recommend taking it easy on your third run of the week. If possible, you can go for a hike instead of a run. This cross training promotes more physiological adaptations than running on concrete only. These runs should be done at a conversational pace, and you can certainly run with friends to keep it fun and stay motivated.

Running is a high-impact sport that takes some getting used to – if you go more than a few days without running, you might lose that familiarity and reactivate that post-run soreness each time you run. 

How to Prevent Running Injuries

2 boys playing basketball on basketball court during daytime

There are three main things that you can do to prevent running injuries:

  • Take it slow
  • Focus on technique
  • Get the right gear

Be patient in your run training and don’t do too much too soon. Your motivation may be at its peak when you start your running journey, but you have to pace yourself in more ways than one. 

You will probably be sore after the first few runs which is a good reminder to give your body a break and time to heal. Aim for two runs per week, three at the most. This is the maximum number of runs that we recommend for beginners.  In between runs, you should have plenty of rest days.

Second, focus on your technique each and every run. This will help keep your body in line and your muscles activated in all the right ways. It is a good rule of thumb to perform our beginner running drills in the first few weeks of running.

Lastly, you need the right gear to avoid injury. Get yourself a pair of dedicated running shoes, and don’t be afraid to try out a few before you get the perfect fit. The right pair of running shoes should be comfortable and supportive, helping you avoid injury as you ramp up your training. 

Common Running Injuries

It is extremely common to get injured when you first start running, and there are a few main things to look out for. In addition to pain and discomfort, there are a few specific injuries that plague most beginner runners:

  • Shins splints
  • Lower back pain
  • Runner’s knee
  • Foot pain

Many of these injuries occur in the first few days or weeks of running, but they are very preventable. 

Shin Splints

To avoid shin splints, you need to loosen up your calves. You can do calf stretches and mobility movements for your lower leg. Strengthening your shin is another way to prevent shin splints, and this can be done with a few simple band exercises. 

Lower Back Pain

Lower back pain occurs because of the twisting and pounding forces of running. Most of us sit at a desk all day, and so our back is not accustomed to these forces – or any forces, to be honest. 

We recommend strength training for beginner runners, specifically kettlebell exercises which help stretch and strengthen your lower back and glutes. Crucially, these exercises will strengthen your side stabilizers and side glutes which help keep you strong and balanced while running. 

Runner’s Knee

Runner’s knee is a sharp pain that occurs on the side of the knee while running, and it can be extremely painful. However, there is a surprisingly simple solution – runner’s knee is most often caused by tight IT bands which are the ligaments that run down the side of your thigh from your hip to your knee. 

Tight IT bands can be loosened up with stretching, foam rolling, and massage. Don’t clench or tense up while performing these stretches – try and relax, releasing the muscle and reducing the tension on the IT bands. Sometimes one session of a few minutes of stretching can completely relieve the pressure on your IT bands. 

Foot Pain

When we run, we push 7-10 times our body weight through our feet with each stride. Of course, our feet will be sore!

A good pair of running shoes will go a long way, but you can also do some basic stretches and exercises to help relieve foot pain. Specifically, go back to the calf stretching and twisting that you used for shin splints. 

We recommend having a trigger point ball that you can roll your foot on top of to help relieve some of that pain. Trigger point balls are also great for rolling your IT band. Lastly, you can do some pronated or supinated walking to help strengthen your ankles and the muscles of your feet. 

Risk Factors for Running Injuries

This study looked at the risk factors for running injuries, and they were able to identify quite a few. Some you would expect, while others are a bit of a surprise. 

These are injury risk factors for runners:

  • Previous use of orthotics
  • Running on concrete
  • Running only once per week
  • Running too much too soon (i.e. overtraining)
  • Primarily participation in non-axial (uni-directional) sports
  • Running 50km or more per week
  • Wearing the same running shoes for longer than four months

What to Do When Your Injury Doesn’t Go Away

If you have pain or an injury that hasn’t gone away for more than three weeks, we recommend seeing a running-specific physiotherapist or certified running coach. 

How to Train for Your First Running Race

people running on gray asphalt road during daytime

When we put it all together, a beginner’s run training plan is going to have two or three key workouts (in endurance athlete lingo not every run is a “workout”, a “workout” is a run that feels like a challenge) per week with the option to do six total sessions (every run is a “session”, but only sessions that are a challenge are “workouts”). If you’re just starting out, focus on completing one short run per week and one long workout per week. 

Here is a week-long snapshot of a beginner runner’s training plan:

  • Run #1: long low intensity run building run endurance
  • Run #2: high intensity run performing intervals of 30 seconds – 8 minutes
  • Run #3: low intensity run of 20 – 45 minutes
  • Run #4: tempo run performing intervals of 8 – 25 minutes

Remember to be patient in your build-up and don’t add on too much running in one week. Focus on completing Runs #1 and #2 as these will give you the biggest fitness gains for running. 

Beginners can slowly ramp up their running volume each week, especially in preparation for their first race. During the jog/walk intervals, you can lengthen the jog intervals and shorten the walk intervals each week. Once you can run for five minutes at a time, then you can try jogging your whole run without walking. 

As for the intervals, you should lengthen their duration each week. First start with 10 seconds, then 20 seconds, building up until you reach one minute. Once you are able to sprint for a minute, you should try doing longer and harder intervals. For example, try doing 6×2 mins all-out. You won’t be able to hold a sprint for two minutes, but you will be able to hit your VO2max and make some serious fitness gains. 

Run Nutrition for Beginners

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to take tons of calories on board during a run. In fact, you probably don’t need to take on any calories at all. 

Most beginner runners are running for 10-30 minutes at a time. It is only when you break past the 75-minute mark that you should think about carrying calories with you on the run. You don’t need to carry an energy bar or sports drink with you for a quick training run.

It is also common for running to upset your stomach, so many beginner runners train fasted but we don’t recommend this. For runs less than 30 minutes, you should never bonk or run out of energy on an easy run. However, studies have shown that there are no significant benefits to fasted training over fueled training. 

This article will help you understand how much nutrition to take during your training runs and on race day.

Weight Loss for Beginner Runners

Running is a great way to lose weight because it is a cardiovascular exercise – it burns fat (and carbohydrates) and you can do it for a long time. However, beginner runners should be cautious in running for the sole goal of weight loss. 

As a beginner runner, you won’t be doing a huge amount of running volume or intensity. Thus, you don’t need to carbo-load before each run or you’ll just be taking on lots of unnecessary fuel. 

Focus on fueling your workouts with healthy carbohydrates, and refueling your efforts with a well-balanced meal. 

Fasted training can be a bit of a trap because runners think they are burning more fat – the reality is that fasted training does not burn more fat than fueled training, and it can actually lead to overeating throughout the day. We recommend using fasted training sparingly in your training, if at all. 

Conclusion

There it is, everything you need to know to get started in running! 

First, make sure you find yourself a good pair of new running shoes. You don’t necessarily need a GPS watch or heart rate monitor to start running, but they will certainly help as you progress in your training. 

Second, perfect your running technique by following our simple tips. Work on the beginner running drills before and during each run, and practice run/walk workouts to help get started. 

Keep your intensity low for the vast majority of your runs. This will help prevent injury and allow you to make steady progress. 

Finally, put these steps together for a few weeks of training before your first running race. Remember to fuel your workouts and avoid using fasted workouts for weight loss. Focus on your technique and pacing and you will crush your first race!

Sources

Zach Nehr

Zach Nehr

Zach has a degree in Exercise Science and Psychology. He is a certified coach, Cat 1 cyclist, and is a freelance writer having been published in many of the worlds largest endurance sports publications.