When you think of a runner, chances are you picture someone with tiny shorts, bad feet, and a borderline obsession with how many miles she’s logged since breakfast. That same person in your life has spent countless hours over post-long-run brunch trying to convince you to embark on your own journey with the sufferfest sport, and you’re finally considering it.
Thankfully, there’s a long way to go between lacing up for the first time and counting lost toenails like race medals (you’ll learn to love them). But you can benefit from a few beginner tips to get the most out of your runs, prevent injury, and actually enjoy it right from the start.
Pick Roads or Trails
Factor in what’s more convenient to determine whether you’ll be a pavement pounder or a trail junkie. You’re far more likely to stick with running if it’s easy to fit into your daily life.
In general, road running is great for those who crave a little more speed and prefer predictable paved routes to rugged singletrack. Trail running, on the other hand, usually includes hills and uneven terrain, both of which force you to clock a slower pace.
Bear in mind that you’re just picking a starting point. You don’t have to choose one and stick to it forever. You can switch it up as time goes on or try your hand at, say, trails once you feel proficient at roads. Ultimately, mastering both disciplines will make you a stronger athlete overall as each tests unique abilities, works different muscles, and calls on your body to perform very distinctly.
On the road
Overuse injuries are the curse of the new runner. The sport’s accessibility—the lack of required gear, the fact that it doesn’t require learning a new skill, and the idea that you can simply step outside your door and hit double-digit miles—often prompts beginners to do too much, too fast. Without prepping your body for high-impact hammering on concrete, you may end up with injuries. Easing into running is your best defense from injury, says Tara Taylor, owner of G3 Health and Wellness Solutions and running coach with Thumbtack.
Start each run with a warm-up consisting of dynamic stretches like butt kicks, knee hugs, and walking lunges, and then begin running at a pace at which you can still carry a conversation, says Taylor. Build a foundation at that speed before you start going faster, then use three-week cycles with defined goals to continue improving. “Each cycle will allow your body to adapt to the training stimulus and then move on to increase intensity,” she says. For mileage, increasing by around 10 percent each week is a good marker to keep advancing your distance. A solid training schedule might consist of three to four nonconsecutive days of running each week, plus a strength, yoga, or core workout twice a week.
On the trail
Trail running is definitely a little more complicated than its road counterpart. Planning ahead becomes essential, because it’s easy to get turned around in unmarked woods, where there is often no cell service. “Bring a map, or, better yet, program a GPX file into your phone or watch,” says David Roche, ultrarunner and co-founder of SWAP Running, a coaching service based in Palo Alto, California. Review your planned route before you get to the trail or park so you have general directional awareness.
Unlike road running, where your focus is typically at eye level, you have to watch where you’re going on the trail, says Roche. Etiquette also plays a bigger role out here: Some trails might be narrow, so listen for other runners or hikers calling out their position as they pass, and use verbal cues to warn someone when you’re about to pass as well.
Your focus on the trail can shift from pace and speed to distance and strength, says Roche. The changing terrain requires your body to constantly readjust, engaging a wide range of muscles and building up stability in areas that are hard to reach with traditional strength exercises. There is some evidence that these changing movement patterns prevent overuse injuries, says Roche. Having that extra muscle will allow you take on these obstacles faster and with more ease as you progress.
Pick the Right Footwear
While we recommend you invest in a short list of key items before diving into this sport, technically all you need is the proper pair of sneakers. Running is incredibly high-impact, so a shoe specifically made to lessen the wear and tear on your joints—as opposed to an old trainer—is essential, says Jena Winger, footwear product line manager for Brooks.
It also matters whether you’re running on road or trails. “For trail running shoes, we want extra tread on the sole for durability and grip, and the mesh parts of the shoe should have some reinforcement in key areas that are particularly likely to get muddy so they can easily drain after wet runs,” says Winger. Additional features like a rock plate or rock shield on the bottom of the shoe protect against surface hazards, she says. Road running shoes, on the other hand, are usually more lightweight, with a smaller (or zero) drop and less traction on the soles.
For the best fit, go to a specialty running store and have a staff member examine how you run and make a recommendation, says Winger. Once you start putting your new shoes to use, keep track of mileage and replace them every 300 to 400 miles. Apps like MapMyRun, Garmin Connect, and Strava all have gear-tracking features to assist.
Learn the Lingo
After you go through your first few weeks of base building, avoid boredom and challenge your fitness by switching up the type of runs you do. At least 80 percent of your running should be easy, says Roche. Try different types of training runs for the other 20 percent. But learning the jargon can be a little tricky. Here’s your cheat sheet:
Strides: These are 20-to-30-second accelerations focused on relaxed speed. Throw them into any run to improve your running economy, a measure of how much energy it takes for you to go faster, says Roche.
Hill intervals: Short sprints up an incline, followed with a recovery jog back down. You only need 10 to 20 minutes for this workout to be effective, says Roche. Hill sprints improve your aerobic capacity, and they’re great to squeeze in when you’re short on time.
Tempo runs: Aim to maintain your 10K race pace—a split too fast to maintain a casual conversation as you would on your other runs, but not so fast that you could only manage it for a mile—for anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes.
Fartlek runs: Endurance-based runs that incorporate faster intervals throughout. These don’t have to be super scientific. It can be as simple as telling yourself to run fast to the stop sign, recover, run fast to the next house, recover, and repeat, says Taylor.
Long runs: If you want to race a half or full marathon, the only thing that will truly prepare you are efforts of 90 minutes or more at an easy, conversational pace, says Taylor.
Get Your Mind Right
“When most runners start out, they come from the mindset of other sports or the gym, where you need to feel the burn for it to count,” says Roche. “But in running, it should be mostly magically mundane miles, with some bouts of speed thrown in with moderation.” For some runners, that quiet, uninterrupted time is what they love so much about the sport. For others, the repetition can get boring—if you’re in this camp, work some mental coping strategies into your training.
First, make a sweet playlist. Listening to music keeps your brain engaged and could boost your speed. One study found that the most important thing when choosing music for your running playlist is that you find it motivational, not that the song’s tempo hits a certain speed or beat.
Second, turn your long runs into a game, with each segment posing a new challenge you have to overcome or a goal you’d like to meet. “I break up my run by focusing on different aspects of my running,” says Taylor. “For the first couple miles, I focus on relaxing, then my stride, then my form.”
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