Megan is a writer and mom of two. She enjoys cooking, running, and gardening.
From the ages of 11 to about 23, when anyone asked me to tell them about myself, my answer would always include “runner.” I ran cross country from 4th grade all the way through high school, and then was the manager of the cross country and track teams at Marquette University where I went to college. In a certain way, my life outside of work revolved around running. I would spend the weekends doing long runs on trails, running road races, or cross-training.
At 23, however, I had my first child. At 27, I had my second. I tried to get back into running a few times since having kids, but I would always either start off with too much too soon and get hurt, or lose motivation because of the difficulty of finding time to run (I hate running with running strollers!). Over those years, though, I felt that running was definitely missing from my life. After hearing from my twin sister, who also has two young children, that she was going to be running a 30-mile race (30 miles!!) I vowed to “make it happen” and to make running a part of my life again. My six-year-old daughter also is expressing interest in running after talking to her aunt, which is another motivating factor!
In the years that I was running and competing, I did tend to get injured somewhat frequently. In high school, I had several stress fractures as a result of overtraining. I also suffered from an eating disorder during my first few years of college, which, when combined with high mileage, contributed to a string of overuse injuries. In general, I think I am more injury-prone than other distance runners I know. For this reason, it was important for me to consider how to get back into running in a safe way that would not quickly end in injury once again.
Perhaps other aspiring runners out there face a similar problem—they want to start running for the first time, or after a long break, and are not sure how to get started. This article should answer some key questions about how fast, how far, how often, and some other factors to consider when beginning running.
Before You Begin Running
So you’ve decided you really want to start running. Can you just go out the door and start jogging away? Yes and no. Before you start to run, you will need to make sure you have appropriate running shoes for your foot and gait type. Proper running shoes are essential for avoiding many injuries. If you have a pair of running shoes already from your earlier running days, you may be able to use them if they are not too worn out—running shoes should be good until you’ve run between 300-500 miles in them. The cushioning in shoes breaks down over time, and there is conflicting data on whether or not the lack of cushioning in old shoes could cause injury. To be safe, if your shoes are within that range and looking pretty worn out, you may want to purchase a new pair. If you have used that same model before WITHOUT becoming injured, your safest bet is to purchase the same model, since you know they work.
If you are starting from scratch because you’ve never run before, or don’t have any running shoes, you’ll want to go to a running store to be fitted for proper shoes. With two small children, I am all about online shopping from everything like groceries to furniture, but for running shoes, it is definitely better to at least go to the store to try on the physical product before purchasing.
When you do go to try on shoes, make sure they are not too snug or loose. Your heel should be secure but should be able to slide out with the laces of the shoe undone. When your foot is flat on the ground, you should be able to fit a thumb’s width between your big toe and the edge of the shoe in the front. Our feet swell throughout the day and also as we run. To make sure you’re finding the correct size, you are better off going shoe shopping in the evening. When trying on the shoe, ask to run on the sidewalk or around the store to get a feel for how the shoe will function when you are actually running. If anything feels uncomfortable in the store, it will only get worse when you are running considerable distances. Move on to try another shoe when you notice discomfort in one.
As for the brand and model, there are TONS of different ones to choose from. Many runners will swear by the type of running shoes they’ve worn for ages. When I was shopping for running shoes, I did a quick Facebook poll to see what my running friends were wearing. The top models I heard were Brooks PureGrit (from my trail-running sister), ASICS Gel Kayano, ASICS Dynaflyte 2, and Nike Pegasus. In my personal running history, I had the least injuries when wearing Brooks shoes, and the most when wearing Nike. This is not to say that either is better than the other, but rather that everyone is different so it is important to find a good shoe for you to avoid injury.
How Often Should You Run?
This is where I have always failed when trying to get back into running—with anything, not just running, I tend to jump in head first when my interest is sparked. It is important to ease back in to exercise to make sure you don’t get hurt. Doing too much too soon almost always results in an injury, which will mean time off and having to start all over again.
As a rule of thumb, new runners should NOT run every day of the week, but rather two to four times per week. It may be frustrating when you want to really get going and you have to take days off in between, but you need those days off for your body to recover and get used to your new activity. Even if you only run for 5-10 minutes on your first run, unless you are already very active you will most likely be sore the next day. You want to wait these days in between so you don’t feel sore, but rather well rested and ready to go.
Obviously, there are distance runners who only take one day off (or not even that) or who do two-a-days. If that is your aspiration, you can get there, but only if you take the time to slowly build up to it. Fitness and our bodies’ ability to maintain that level of activity cannot happen overnight. Many coaches advise that you maintain a running routine for two weeks before attempting to add time and/or frequency to it.
How Far Should You Go on Each Run?
This answer may be different for everybody. For myself, to be extra cautious due to my history of running injuries, I started off with a half mile on my very first run. I did just that, every 2 days, for the first week. Imagine—I used to be running 15 miles on weekends, and now just running a half mile! I did this to absolutely avoid any risk of injury. If you are less injury prone, you are can do up to 20-30 minutes per each run, remembering to only go two to four times each week.
When you have done this for two weeks and feel you are ready to move on (you are not sore and are not experiencing any pain whatsoever), you can add time to ONE of your weekly runs. Adding 5 to 10 minutes to that run (about half mil-mile more) every two weeks can help you avoid injury while also building endurance and fitness.
Building Mileage Safely
Your body will be the best guide as you get further into your running routine and want to add more. If after adding 5-10 minutes to just one run over the course of a few months, you may be to the point where you are running quite far on one run—up to an hour or more. Again, do not attempt to increase mileage if you have any pain, or feel exceptionally tired from the miles you are already running.
A basic rule familiar to many in any aerobic or endurance sport is the “Ten Percent Rule.” This rule states that you shouldn’t add more than 10 percent more mileage at a time to your routine. This is just a rule of thumb, however, as some runners may be able to add more, and some less. Regardless of the goal you want to get up to, you should take “breaks” every 1 to 2 months where you run less mileage than usual to give your body a chance to recover. You should also in general stick to a “baseline mileage,” a mileage load that you feel comfortable with that is not too little or too much.
Nutrition and its Correlation to Running Injuries
As I mentioned previously, I suffered from an eating disorder while in college. At this time, I was also attempting to run more miles than I ever had before. I was able to sustain this for a few months, but eventually crashed and ended up with another stress fracture and a severe electrolyte imbalance that I was hospitalized for. I also frequently had injuries like plantar fasciitis and knee pain. As I have learned, proper nutrition is essential for runners, even beginning runners, in order to avoid injury and make running a sustainable activity.
When considering nutrition and exercise, the most important factor is that you are getting enough calories. Starting a weight loss diet at the same time as beginning to run is a bad, bad idea. If weight loss is your goal, simply by starting to exercise you should see some progress. You can still eat the same amount of calories as before (within reason), but make sure you are making healthy choices. Calorie restriction is not the answer—this will quickly lead to injury. When you don’t consume enough calories, your muscle tissue will begin to break down, and your body won’t be able to recover after each run.
Eat a balanced diet while running to make sure your body is getting all the nutrients it needs. Nutrients are like tiny building blocks that help our bodies repair themselves and get ready for the next workout. Make sure you are eating colorful fruits and vegetables. Also, be sure to get enough fat (30% of calorie consumption) and protein. Eat as soon as possible after running, especially after a long run, for maximum recovery and injury prevention. A good post workout meal is something with both protein and carbs—chocolate milk, a banana with peanut butter, or a turkey sandwich are all good choices.
Other Injury Prevention Tips for New Runners
As evident in this article, moderation is key when getting into running. When in doubt, start off slow and with very low mileage. Make sure you have good running shoes and are eating a balanced diet. What else can you do to give yourself the best chance of remaining injury-free? Below are a few more tips for beginning runners to stay healthy:
Warm Up and Cool Down
When you are just starting out, a warm up and cool down could be a short walk. When you get further along in your fitness journey, it could mean a 5-10 minute jog pre- and post-workout. Always ease into your workout, and give your body a chance to wind down afterward.
Consider Running Surface
I have always had the best luck keeping injuries away when I did most of my running on trails. The cushioning of trails is more forgiving than asphalt or concrete. Of course, this is not always possible considering your time and where you live. If you have to run on sidewalks or roads, try to run on the grass immediately next to it while you can, being sure to switch sides of the road periodically to account for the slight sideways slope.
Strength Training and Cross Training
Core training and upper body weight training can improve posture and running economy. When weight lifting, opt for less weight and more reps—you don’t want to add too much bulk. On off days, try cross-training—swimming, biking, or an elliptical trainer are all good low-impact options that will help you build aerobic capacity while avoiding the pounding of running.
Get Enough Sleep
Just like with getting enough to eat, getting enough sleep allows our bodies to recover properly. If you’ve ever tried running on very little sleep, or while very hungry, you’ll quickly see why both are essential to good running.
Stretching before a run can limber up your muscles so they are more flexible while running and less at risk for injury. Adding activities like yoga or Pilates can improve flexibility and help ward off injury, also.
Tips for Beginning Runners
Running is very rewarding. It offers great health benefits, and has been shown to increase overall happiness. In order to make running a long-term pastime and to avoid injury, be sure to ease into it a little at a time. Take care of your body so you can enjoy the maximum benefits that running has to offer.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Megan Machucho
Melanie from Wisconsin on March 26, 2020:
Thank you so much for this article! I really appreciate all the advice. I can definitely agree that rest days are imperative. Last week I was struggling to do 1 mile, but I think I was overdoing it and not using the 10% rule like you said. On my first run of this week, I felt so good that I was able to run 4 miles no problem - and that was after taking 2 days rest. Excellent article Megan, I'll definitely be back for more!