As a long-distance runner for almost 15 years, the most common comments I get from nonrunner friends are “I wish I could do that” or “I can’t even run a mile.” But the truth is, that’s actually normal when you’re starting to run. In fact, most seasoned runners also didn’t knock out a quick mile on their very first go.
I first started running as a high school sophomore, slowly building up a few laps on the track at a time. The next semester, I joined the track and cross-country teams. I kept up with consistent shorter runs through college before eventually running my first half marathon when I was 21 and my first full marathon when I was 23, eight years after I got started. I credit my very gradual buildup with helping me stay injury-free and letting me ease into the sport so I could actually enjoy it (instead of end up resenting it).
When you’re excited about starting a new activity, like running, it’s easy to get ahead of yourself and pile on too much too soon. After all, it seems logical that pushing yourself hard will help you jump right into it and get better faster. But when it comes to running, that’s definitely not the best approach—in fact, this mind-set is a big reason why many optimistic beginners ultimately end up not sticking with a running routine. If you set your expectations high and then fail to meet them, it’s easy to think “I’m just not a runner”—when really, you just needed to start a little slower and expect to get better gradually.
Here are a few tips from professional coaches on how to approach running as a first-timer without ending up intimidated or discouraged by the sport. I promise, once you feel comfortable doing it, running is a lot of fun.
1. Alternate between running and walking your first few weeks.
One of the biggest things coaches stress to brand-new runners is to simply focus on spending time on your feet and not get caught up in the numbers. Most would agree that you shouldn’t start out running more than a few minutes at a time, with walk breaks in between.
Jimmy Balmer, a certified running coach with Strait Speed in the Philadelphia area, recommends beginner runners start with a run/walk three times a week, in which they run for one minute and walk for 90 seconds for a total of 20 minutes per session.
Many long-term training plans aim to have runners increase their total mileage by 10 percent each week, but Balmer maintains that this doesn’t pertain to runners starting from scratch. “I recommend these runners stay at the same volume for three weeks before beginning to gradually increase the volume and duration of their runs every fourth week,” he says. “Realistically, you should expect to still be doing walking intervals for the first six weeks of this routine.”
Another approach: “A simple and attainable goal is to just add a minute per week to each run segment,” adds Rebekah Mayer, a USATF Level 1 coach and national training manager at Life Time Run in Minneapolis. “If you were already very active, you will find you can increase your mileage more quickly.”
If you are already cross-training with another activity such as cycling or swimming, you already have a base level of cardio conditioning, which will give you a leg up when you start running. “Cardiovascular activities like indoor cycling or Step aerobics classes can help to get the heart and lungs ready to take the next step and add running, while having a foundation of muscle strength can help with injury prevention,” Mayer says. “But if you’ve just been doing strength work, it’s not wise to be overconfident and attempt to knock out an hour-long run right from the start.”
Strength training experience is still helpful, though. Having a foundation of strength will help you to take on additional activity with less aggravation and soreness. You are in a better position than being totally sedentary in that you are less likely to get injured, Balmer says. “Either way, I would still recommend new runners start with the run/walk routine instead of just running in the beginning,” he says.
2. Choose a realistic first training goal.
Building up to a 5K with little to no stopping within about eight weeks after beginning to run is a realistic time frame, Mayer says. She recommends waiting about two years before considering training for a longer race like a half marathon.
Another key in tackling a longer distance—regardless of how long you’ve been running—is to make sure you’re running enough of a base before your new training plan starts, Mayer says. This means, for example, you should be able to run an easy 6 miles before beginning a training plan for a half marathon, and an easy 8 to 10 miles before beginning a 16-week training plan for a marathon.
“One of the most frustrating things as a coach is to get a call from someone wanting to start training for a marathon 12 weeks out, yet they are only currently running 3 to 4 miles max,” Mayer says. “That is the type of coaching request I would decline, as it’s too risky. I would rather protect a runner from getting injured by helping them reframe their goals to run something shorter along the way to the eventual bigger goal.”
3. Consider joining a social running club for one of your weekly sessions.
These days, it’s not hard to find a free group running option in just about any city or town, whether it’s hosted by a gym, running store, running club, or even a local pub. The beauty of these runs is that they attract runners of all levels because they are more focused on enjoying the sport rather than grinding out the speed. If you’re feeling insecure about how far you have or haven’t run, a social run is a great place to start because you’ll find many people in the same boat as you, making it easier to relax and feel confident.
“Social runs are very beginner-friendly and are a great way to meet people to build your motivation and chase your goals with,” Mayer says. You might just walk out of there with a new running buddy who can help keep you motivated and excited about logging miles.
4. Be patient when it comes to noticing progress.
It’s important for new runners to remember that it can take weeks before they’re running without needing walk breaks and before running actually feels more comfortable.
“There are always going to be plateaus, peaks, and valleys with starting a new program,” Balmer says. “Don’t get discouraged if you feel like you’re not seeing immediate results while you adapt to those first few weeks of stress on the body.” If you keep at it, you’ll start to notice your body adapting eventually, meaning that running will feel easier and you’ll be able to run faster or longer than you did at first.
It’s also important to remember that while consistency is key, occasionally missing a planned session because life or bad weather gets in the way won’t make or break your progress, Balmer says. (This is true for both beginners and for seasoned runners.) “It’s also key to prioritize rest and recovery and enjoy days off both physically and mentally.”
And if you ever feel discouraged, remember this: Just getting out there and starting to run is a huge success in itself. Being patient with yourself, and giving your body the time it needs to get used to this new sport, will pay off down the road. Just think about how great it will feel to look back in a few months and see how far you’ve come.