What You Need to Know to Start Running

There is so much information out there about running that it can be overwhelming. Here are the basics of what you need to know to get started.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted January 08, 2016 in Blog (Last Updated April 06, 2016)


1.1 Running Shoes
1.2 Select for Comfort
2Understand How Adaptation Works
2.1 Stress Response
2.2 Stronger, More Resilient
2.3 Moderation and Recovery
2.4 Muscle vs. Connective Tissue
3Ten Percent Rule
3.1 Example Running Program
3.2 Rest Days
3.3 Ten Percent is a Maximum
4.1 General Strength
4.2 Focus on the Feet
4.3 Cross-Training
4.4 Get in Shape to Run

A staggeringly large amount of information is available to runners and would-be runners today - possibly too much, given the potential to feel overwhelmed by it all. There is information you need to get started, and there is information you don't need until you encounter specific issues, and it's not always clear which is which.

So without any claim whatsoever to expertise - I'm just a middle-aged duffer who started running two and a half years ago and has had to learn lots of things along the way - here's my take on what you need to get started running.

1 Equipment

There is an embarrassment of apparel, gear, equipment and assorted accoutrements available for running, but when you're just getting started you can safely ignore most of it. Given the short distances and low speeds you'll be running for at least the first two or three months, it really doesn't matter what clothes you wear. Regular clothes will be just fine at the beginning.

(Later, when you've gotten established and are running longer distances, you can go to the running store and start your collection of synthetic, stretchy, moisture-wicking, water bottle-holding, fluorescent-glowing, heart rate-monitoring running stuff.)

1.1 Running Shoes

On day one, the only equipment you really need is a good pair of running shoes.

Here's the secret of how to pick a good pair of running shoes: go to a running shoe store and try on a variety of different pairs of shoes from various brands and types. Choose the pair that feels the most comfortable. That's all there is to it.

1.2 Select for Comfort

The salesperson might try to do a gait analysis and tell you that you should be wearing this or that particular type of shoe (arch support! stability! motion control!), but the evidence indicates that comfort, not some set of technical criteria, should be the deciding factor.

Perhaps most unexpected, running shoes designed to somehow "fix" someone's running form turned out often to be ineffective and even counter-productive. In a series of studies, when military recruits were assigned running shoes meant to control their particular level of pronation, those soldiers were as likely, or even more so, to sustain running-related injuries than soldiers given shoes at random. [...]

What matters, the researchers conclude in their review, is comfort. In one study from 2001 (overseen by Dr. Nigg), researchers asked soldiers to try six shoe inserts, which varied in terms of cushioning, arch height, heel shape, thickness and other variables. The soldiers were asked to pick the one insert that felt the most comfortable to them and wear that insert inside their shoes during their subsequent military training. A separate group of soldiers wore standard footwear as controls.

After four months, the soldiers wearing the shoes fitted with inserts that felt comfortable to them had a much lower incidence of injury than those wearing standard shoes.

This finding makes scientific and common sense, Dr. Nigg said. Our bodies are actually "very good judges" of how each of us should move and run, he said. When we ignore or fight our bodies' natural movement pattern, he said, such as by trying to control pronation, the risk of injury rises.

So don't overthink it and don't let someone pressure you into a particular type of shoe that doesn't feel comfortable.

2 Understand How Adaptation Works

Your body is capable of astonishing physical accomplishments, but it takes time and patience. It really helps to understand how your body gets from here to there.

2.1 Stress Response

When you begin a new program of exercise like running, what you are really doing is subjecting your various body systems to physical stress.

That stress damages your muscles, connective tissues, bones and so on. Your body responds, not surprisingly, with the biological stress response: your hypothalamus signals your pituitary gland, which dispatches chemical messengers throughout your body.

The result is increased heart rate, faster breathing, glucose released into bloodstream, elevated levels of cortisol and other stress markers, increased blood flow to stressed body systems, and so on.

2.2 Stronger, More Resilient

When your body repairs the damage of moderate exercise, the repaired body systems are left slightly stronger and more resilient than before they were exposed to stress. This is called adaptation - your body responds to moderate stress by adapting to it.

Over a period of weeks and months, the following adaptive changes will progressively take place:

(Along the way, your body generally becomes more effective at responding to other stressors, an ancillary benefit that can really improve your quality of life when things go wrong.)

2.3 Moderation and Recovery

The key here is that the stress must be moderate. Too little stress and your body is not motivated to undergo adaptation. Too much stress and you get a more serious injury that requires several days, weeks or even months to heal.

You want a level of stress that your body can recover from in a day or two.

As a corollary to this, your recovery time is every bit as essential to increasing fitness as your exercise.

Fitness = exercise + recovery

If you skip the recovery time, your body just breaks down instead of building up.

2.4 Muscle vs. Connective Tissue

The other important thing to understand here is that some body systems adapt more quickly than others. Your respiratory and circulatory systems and muscles adapt very quickly - within a few weeks, you'll be amazed at how much farther you can go before getting out of breath - but your bones and connective tissues take a lot longer to adapt.

All of the most common running injuries - shin splints, tendonitis, fasciitis, IT band syndrome, runner's knee, stress fractures (yikes!) - are injuries of connective tissues or bones that result from doing too much too soon instead of giving these slow-changing systems enough time to adapt.

The good news is that these injuries are more or less preventable.

3 Ten Percent Rule

If Running has a Golden Rule, it's the Ten Percent Rule: never increase your total week-over-week distance by more than a maximum of ten percent. This is a universal, rock-solid principle of safe running proven by decades of research and experience. Ignore it at your peril!

After a few weeks of progress, you will feel like you can go farther faster, because your heart, lungs and muscles are telling you they're up for it. This is a recipe for injury when your tendons, ligaments, fascia and bones can't keep up with the pace of change.

Not only do those systems take longer to adapt, but if you do get injured, they also take longer - a lot longer - to recover. In this case, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. Follow the Ten Percent Rule and avoid getting sidelined for weeks or even months.

3.1 Example Running Program

Here's how a running program that follows the Ten Percent Rule might look:

When you start out, don't expect to be able to run the whole distance. In fact, if you are new to running, I recommend against running the whole way even if you feel that you can.

Instead, start with a brisk walk to warm up, then run for, say 30-60 seconds, followed by 30-60 seconds of walking. Alternate walking and running for the full distance so that your body gets the benefit of micro-rest between bouts of running.

3.2 Rest Days

Avoid running on successive days. Instead, make sure to give your body a day off between runs. On your rest day, go for a nice walk instead - the motion helps reduce stiffness and soreness.

In general, walking is almost magical in its ability to heal your body and make you feel better. Walking is the most fundamental human movement and it's probably not overstating the case to call it the foundation for all of the higher-intensity exercises that build strength and endurance.

Never underestimate the physical, mental and emotional value of a good walk.

3.3 Ten Percent is a Maximum

And remember: the Ten Percent Rule is a maximum weekly increase. If your shins flare up, or you feel an unpleasant twinge in your heel or an ache in your knee or anything else other than the general muscle soreness that can be expected with a new physical activity, back off right away.

Apply ice to the affected area, rest, stretch, give yourself an extra day off before the next run, reduce your distance and speed and reassess whether it still hurts.

If you are running properly and your body is adapting well, you will not feel pain other than muscle soreness. The saying, "No Pain, No Gain" is dangerous nonsense. If you do feel pain, it means something is wrong! Listen to your body.

4 Exercise

While we're on the subject of injury prevention, it is not enough to just run. If you don't also do other exercises to support your running, your body will become unbalanced and you will get hurt.

4.1 General Strength

Here is a basic set of exercises you should do to keep your body balanced and fit and avoid injury:

4.2 Focus on the Feet

There are also several great exercises that specifically strengthen the feet:

Here's a great exercise that only takes a minute, so try to do it every day:

This exercise strengthens the stabilizing muscles in your feet and ankles and reduces your risk of injuries on uneven ground.

4.3 Cross-Training

I also strongly recommend that you incorporate some cross-training with another cardio exercise that works different muscle groups and is lower impact than running: cycling, swimming, rowing, stair climbing, etc.

Doing this will reduce any development imbalances you have. It also provides a built-in way to maintain cardio fitness if you do get injured, so that you don't become discouraged and give up.

4.4 Get in Shape to Run

You may be groaning right now. I certainly did when I was advised to do these things by my running coach. Ugh, I just want to run!

A couple of years ago, a friend told me: "I don't run to get in shape, I get in shape to run." I didn't understand this statement at the time, but I have come to understand it after dealing with a succession of foot injuries that resulted from a combination of violating the Ten Percent Rule and not doing enough ancillary strength exercises.

The exercises you need to do to recover from the various -itises happen to be the same exercises you need to do to prevent them in the first place. Don't wait until you've already gotten injured to start doing them!