Whether you’re a total newcomer or a just a bit rusty, it’s almost never too late to try your hand at running and regain your fitness and energy. Maybe you once had a terrific exercise regime, but circumstances changed and you lost your momentum. Perhaps running has always seemed too daunting for your fitness levels, but you’d be willing to give it a go. The good news is that as long as your knees and ankles are in decent working order, running is a challenging but highly rewarding activity to incorporate into your healthy lifestyle. You can pick your time, your scenery, your running partner, your pace and your distance. There is no-one timing you and no sponsorship required – just some quality footwear and somewhere to hit the ground running.
How do you get started? We’ve got a whole bunch of user-friendly ideas to get you on track and keep you going.
The most important thing is your time. You need to devote some and be willing to stick to it. It’s important to plan in advance rather than waiting for the mood to strike, otherwise it’s too easy to become engrossed in other, less challenging activities. Start off lightly, dedicating just 20 minutes of your time, 3 times per week. For the first week, don’t leave it too long between your first and second run – you might be a little achy after round one, but you don’t want those muscles to stiffen and turn you off the activity altogether.
The most important investment you’ll make is a good quality pair of running shoes. It’s worth visiting a good athletic shoe store where expert fitters will put you on a treadmill to assess your gait and the way you move, and figure out whether you need a little more support in your arch, for example. Running shoes should offer more cushioning and shock absorption compared with cross-training, tennis or walking shoes.
Wearing the wrong shoes can lead to leg and back pain, so it’s worth paying a bit extra up front. A better quality shoe will last you much longer than their department store counterparts, so you will get plenty of bang for your buck.
This is especially important for women who need good support in the bust. A sports bra can increase your comfort levels dramatically, particularly if you choose a light, highly breathable material that discourages sweating. Aside from good support, your running gear should be weather dependent. Mild to warm weather only requires shorts and a t-shirt, but sometimes good quality, well-fitting specialist running gear can really help you focus on your goals and keep you motivated, the same way wearing a suit makes us feel professional, and a comfy pair of jeans makes us feel relaxed. Getting your gear on, you’ll find, is half the challenge! Just ensure that in bitterly cold weather, protect your muscles from strains and tears by keeping them a little warmer. Tracksuits or full-length lycra or cotton will help keep your accumulated body heat close to your skin.
This is optional, of course, but a great way to monitor your progress. A digital sports watch allows you to track how you’re improving time-wise over the same stretch of track or road. You’ll be impressed with yourself when the path that used to take you twenty minutes is now trodden in fifteen. As you become more comfortable in your routine, you may be interested in a heart-rate monitor (a great measurement of fitness, especially when you come to a halt). A pedometer is also a nifty device if you want to calculate the distance travelled and the estimation of calories burned through exercise. If you’re a tech-savvy kind of runner, see our list of popular apps a little further down.
If you already have some kind of exercise routine happening, a session of huffing and puffing probably isn’t a big deal for you. For others, the idea of running can be horrifying and invoke flashbacks of jogging around the high school oval under the orders of some awful task-master. If that scenario sounds familiar, then starting off slowly and gradually is the key. A running partner to motivate you is also a good way of holding yourself accountable.
Even if you feel good on your first run, you mustn’t overdo it. Going too fast from the outset is the quickest way to send you gasping and spluttering as you try and reset a sustainable pace. Slow and steady may not win the race, but it will keep you going – and that’s what you need right now. Expect to be a little sore when you stop, and a little more sore the following day. This is perfectly normal, and will diminish with each run. After a couple of weeks, your muscles should be used to the repetitive motions and won’t punish you at all for your efforts.
Your legs will suffer most initially, with your calves and large thigh muscles objecting the loudest. You might also experience shin splints, but this can also be an early sign that you’re wearing the wrong type of shoes. As soon as any muscle pain eases, it’s important to jump straight back on that horse (figuratively speaking) and hit the track once more. Don’t let all of those aches and pains off so easily!
While a bit of muscle tenderness is normal early on, acute pain is not. If you feel new pain in your ankles or knees, or any pinching sensations in your lower back, buttocks or behind your thighs, you should probably stop running, reassess the sensations as you ease into a walk, and report your findings to a physiotherapist or sports physician before pushing yourself again. If you are already aware of an injury, get the tick of approval to start a running program from your treating specialist before you get out there and potentially make it worse.
How do you know when you’re going the right pace for the right amount of time? Don’t worry, your body will tell you. While those early days can be tricky, we can expect to breathe heavily and feel and for our lungs to really work hard. What we don’t want is tightness in the throat or pain in the chest. If you’re really struggling for each breath, you’re probably going too hard. Pull back to a slow jog, or if you really need to, walk through it. In fact, alternating between walking and running is still a terrific exercise. You can still apply discipline to yourself by timing the walking breaks – if your fitness level isn’t great, start with two minutes on and two minutes off, and tip the balance away from walking as you increase your fitness and endurance. If you’re doing four minutes of running to every one minute of walking after a month, you’ve made incredible progress. With dedication, you will reach a point when you can eliminate walking breaks altogether.
For moderately fit to very fit people, running is an adjustment from the normal routine, and fitness will increase sooner – your challenge is about endurance and pace. The same principal applies for all beginners, though – it’s the time you put in, not the distance you cover. As you hit your stride, you’ll cover the same amount of ground in less time, so the focus will be on increasing the distance you cover. Just remember that even if you’re in great shape already, pushing yourself too hard too early can lead to injuries and set you back. Play the long game instead.
For people over the age of 40 who are more than 10 kilograms above their ideal weight range, book in an appointment with your GP before you begin. Your doctor can assess your lungs, your blood pressure and your heart just to make sure that running is the right exercise for you.
It’s easy to get bored with your running regime and forget why you started in the first place. A written plan with a mission statement will help keep you motivated and remind you of what you’re trying to achieve. A mission statement is the WHY of your choices. It may read something like this: ‘I want to lower my blood pressure and lose the excess weight around my middle. It’s important that I achieve this so that I can take charge of my health, and increase my chances of leading a long and healthy life for the sake of my family. My family is my priority and they need me to be fit and well’. Of course, everyone has a different reason for setting fitness goals (vanity is a perfectly valid reason!), and each story is unique, but reminding yourself why you shouldn’t give up when it all seems too hard can be quite powerful.
The other objective, below your mission statement, is goal setting. Doing the same thing over and over can be dull and uninspiring, so mix it up. While your schedule should be regular, everything else can be mixed up to keep it interesting. Goals should be reassessed as you approach them, to ensure your current fitness level is appropriate for the goals – you might want to extend the time you focus on your current goal or even move through the goals a little quicker if you’re finding them manageable. Goals can be set by distance, pace, incline or even by introducing sprints. Whatever challenges you and keeps you interested is the right goal for you.
Your mission statement and goal schedule shouldn’t be tucked away. Keep it on your fridge, a pinboard, in your office or by your bed. Out of sight is out of mind, so put as many reminders around you as possible. Set calendar reminders, and set up notifications in your smartphone. If you run at night, prepare your running gear in the morning and leave it out in full sight. Remember – getting dressed for the part is half the challenge. Also, expect bad days when your body is in disagreement with your goals. It happens to everyone, and you shouldn’t let it get the better of you. If you really can’t push through, go back to your walking/running plan and try again next time. If you become sick or really run down, try not to see this as a failure. It’s okay to nurture yourself through a heavy cold or a bad headache. It’s better to be kind to yourself for a few days and regain your strength than to resent the very idea of running itself.
Run in places that make you feel calm. Beautiful parks, a tree-lined suburb, by a river, or on an ocean boulevard. Not only are they great places to be, but the visual offerings offer a great distraction from how hard you’re really working! Running away from busy roads, if you have the luxury to do so, can also be easier on the lungs, particularly for those prone to allergies and asthma.
Trees and other greenery help to filter pollutants from traffic and industrial waste, and that filtered, crisp, clean air will feel a million times better as you draw it into your lungs. Just remember to choose somewhere that is well-lit, for safety, and not paved in concrete, which can wear down your joints quickly if you’re not careful.
On your scheduled running days, think about how you’re preparing your body with your nutrition and hydration. Have a snack with quality carbohydrates about two hours prior to your run. This might be a piece of fruit, a small bowl of low-GI cereal (think oats or bran) or a small wholemeal sandwich with some salmon, or cheese and tomato. If you run later in the evening, keep your main meal nutritious and fairly light, and wait a good two hours before lacing up your shoes.
You want to stay well-hydrated through the day, so monitor your water intake through a jug or recycled bottle, and aim for two litres, and more in warm weather. If you’re eating a lot of fruit and veg, you can afford to bring this amount down a little, particularly in winter. Just remember not to eat or drink immediately before your run, because you may increase your chance of developing a stitch. You should also incorporate milk or other high-calcium drinks into your diet. Your bones and your muscles rely on calcium, but this is especially so when you’re building and strengthening them. A tall glass of low fat milk, a cup of plain yoghurt or cottage cheese or a pile of green, leafy vegetables will ensure you have adequate amounts of calcium available for a changing body.
If you’ve decided to run first thing in the morning, focus your preparation on the evening prior. Drink well before bed (but not so well that you need the bathroom at 4am) and don’t sleep on a completely empty stomach. Excessive hunger can disrupt your sleep, and you’ll want a bit of fuel available for the morning. A good sleep of at least seven hours’ duration will make all the difference, so wind down at a sensible time and practice relaxation techniques if you have trouble drifting off.
Start with a quick 2-3 minute walk before your running begins. This will wake your muscles up without over-working them too quickly. There’s no need to stretch beforehand unless you’ve been advised to by a treating specialist. Save stretching for when you get home, and keep it gentle.
When you start running, hold your upper arms comfortably by your side and bend at the elbows from 45 to 90 degrees – whichever angle feels more natural to you. Try to keep the swing lower to the waist rather than at your ribcage, because the higher you swing, the greater the chance that you are tensing your shoulder muscles and creating a potential for neck pain. Although the swing will come from the shoulders, it should be a loose, fluid movement. The swing of your hands should not cross the middle of your body. Be mindful of your fingers as well. A relaxed grasp or an open cup is okay, but resist the urge to squeeze. There’s no reason to use the muscles in that area – focus on your legs and your midsection.
Breathing patterns are something a lot of beginners struggle with. Because we are taught to breathe through our noses, many people try to carry this mantra into their exercise regimes, which isn’t strictly necessary outside of a yoga class. Mouth breathing can be necessary for even advanced runners, and the point is to get as much oxygen as you need into the lungs. Trying to nose-breathe through a run might just leave you dizzy and weak. As your fitness improves, try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Focus on the smoothness and evenness of the breath, and let yourself be hypnotised by it. When you’re at this stage, you’ve already kicked a few goals.
Of course you can. Treadmills are popular during uncomfortable or extreme weather, for people who already have a gym membership, and for those who are not yet ready to exercise in public, and prefer to get their bearings in a private location. Others might choose a treadmill because they enjoy the constant monitoring or the flexibility to look at a screen as they run.
Though getting out of the house and into the fresh air has its own benefits, running on a treadmill is hardly cheating! It is slightly different, though. A treadmill will pull the ground from under you, and there will be an absence of wind resistance. Both of these things can make running slightly easier, but you can still set challenges around distance, pace and incline. Padded treadmills are also great shock absorbers, which make them a sensible choice for larger people and those with compromised joints.
Modern life has brought us a whole new kit of useful tools that you can carry with you in a smartphone, phablet or tablet. Granted, you probably don’t want to run with a bulky device, but you can still track your progress in multiple ways. Most of the following apps will want to track your progress using GPS technology, so you’ll want to have a good, secure pocket in your running gear. The available apps offer a variety of features – explore what each of them offers and figure which might suit you best. For the most active of minds, Zombies, Run! will hilariously place you at the scene of a zombie apocalypse, with an audio track to guide you on your path to survival. For more conventional runners, there are dozens of options available, but we’ve isolated some of the most popular: Runkeeper, Runtastic, Endomondo, Strava Run, Nike+ Running, Adidas MiCoach, Runmeter Pro, Map My Run, and Couch to 5K, which is aimed at people who have no exercise regime. For the un-app-clined, there are plenty of online forums and supports for those seeking reassurance, advice and continued motivation. Let Google do the walking.
Show kindness to your body by seeking help when those niggling injuries get in your way. Anyone who places themselves under regular physical strain should consider a health insurance cover that benefits them. The biggest risks to your muscles are strain and overuse, and this is precisely when you might seek the help of a physio, a podiatrist, a chiropractor or a remedial massage therapist. The right extras cover will take the sting out of these appointments, but remember to compare providers to choose the best deal for you. Injuries can slow you down or hold you back altogether, so have them seen to early and don’t push through them unless you get the okay from a professional. Your new fitness plan will change your lifestyle and hopefully change your life, so good luck and enjoy all those wonderful benefits that running will bring you.