Running has been increasingly popular for decades. That’s not surprising considering its exercise brags: It requires little equipment, just a pair of running shoes. It’s a workout you can do on your own time and take with you if you’re away from home (no gym or class times to worry about). It’s efficient. And it can be great for boosting cardiovascular fitness.
Whether you’re in it for the heart health benefits, for the convenience, or to one day slay a big 26.2-mile marathon, here’s a guide to get you started.
What Is Running?
Let’s start at the beginning. Running is the action or movement of propelling yourself forward rapidly on foot, according to Amy Morris, a certified running coach and head of personal training at CrossTown Fitness, a Chicago-based gym.
It’s different from walking because when you walk, one foot is always on the ground. But with running, there’s a moment when both feet are off the ground. That’s what makes running a high-impact activity.
Running is aerobic if you’re keeping your pace and energy expenditure fairly consistent. Think distance running and endurance training. The body uses oxygen to create the energy needed to keep you going, Morris explains. These workouts are traditionally long runs, easy pace runs, and recovery runs, and they should make up the majority of a runner’s weekly mileage.
Think of anaerobic running as sprints and other types of speed work. “With anaerobic running, your body is able to perform at high intensity using the stored energy in your muscles without oxygen, and this usually lasts anywhere from less than six seconds to up to two minutes,” Morris says.
Morris suggests that the average adult spends a minimum of 16 to 24 weeks to build a proper base for efficient aerobic running. After that, anaerobic running can help improve performance, she says, especially in terms of speed.
The Health Benefits of Running
Running can deliver a host of both physical and mental health benefits (as can most types of exercise, of course). Here a few to know about that have specific links to running:
- Boosted Mood and Energy Levels A study published in 2018 found that running for as little as 15 minutes can improve mood and energy levels, and it had more of an effect for participants than meditation, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery.
- Boosted Memory, Focus, and Task-Switching Because running causes biochemical substances called endocannabinoids to be released in the bloodstream and into the brain, it optimizes brain function.
- Better Respiratory Function Along with mental health benefits, running is linked to improved cardiovascular and respiratory function because each of those systems is getting more oxygen and better blood flow, says Bryant Walrod, MD, sports medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
- Improved Cardiovascular Health A research review published in 2020 found that increased rates of participation in running, regardless of how frequently you run, show lower risk of cardiovascular-related mortality.
- More Muscle Strength Although running isn’t necessarily considered a strength workout, Morris says muscles in your lower body, like your hamstrings, glutes, and quads, definitely do get stronger with running (given that they have to fire up in order to keep you stabilized).
- Improved Bone Density A study published in 2021 looked at sprinters between ages 40 and 85, assessing their bone density using scans taken at the start of the study and again about 10 years later.Those who ran regularly maintained bone strength, and some even improved their density over time, while those who’d reduced training saw a decline in bone health.
- Lower Risk of Chronic Disease This is thanks to running being linked to more regulated blood pressure, blood sugar, and body weight, Dr. Walrod says. And if it helps you hit the recommended benchmark of 150 minutes of weekly physical activity, you’ll decrease risk of some cancers, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
- Living Longer According to a research review published in 2017, studies suggest runners have a 25 to 40 percent reduced risk of premature mortality and live approximately three years longer than nonrunners.
And you don’t need to run every day to see benefits, Walrod says.
“Just getting started with a 10-minute run a few times a week can lead to health benefits,” he adds. “Increasing that amount slowly, by about 10 percent per week, can help ramp up the advantages in a meaningful way, without increasing injury risk.”
How to Start Running
One of the best approaches get into a running routine and build the endurance to help you follow a training plan is walk-jogging, says Joshua Scott, MD, primary care sports medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles.
That means going on a brisk walk, and when your body feels warmed up — usually after 10 to 15 minutes — try a bit of jogging (which is running at a relaxed pace that requires only a low level of exertion, Dr. Scott says — though it’s worth noting there’s not a clear consensus on the specific differences between running and jogging).
“Start with just five minutes of jogging if that’s comfortable, or even 30 seconds,” he says. Then go back to walking until breathing becomes easy again. Then switch back to jogging for another short stretch of time that is comfortable and return to walking.
The length of these intervals in time and distance will depend on your fitness level, but both should increase gradually over time. The jogging portions will be more challenging than the walking ones, but your pace overall should feel somewhat leisurely, Scott adds. (You don’t want to be pushing yourself so hard you are panting or completely winded.)
The endpoint is to build up to running at a comfortable pace for at least 15 minutes a few times per week. At that point, you can consider following a training program to continue your progress.
Most injuries occur because people do too much, too soon, Scott says. “You want to err on the side of not doing enough versus running too hard right away.”
Also, definitely add in rest days when your body is recovering, even from short runs. He suggests some upper body exercises on those days to give the legs a rest or yoga that can improve your overall mobility.
Following a running training program that fits your goals and fitness level is a good way to increase your running at the right pace.Learn More About Getting Started With Running
Nutrition Tips for Runners
Striking the right balance when it comes to food is important when you start running — eat too few calories, and you’re likely to run out of energy soon into your run, but eat too much (or the wrong types of food), and you may end up dealing with bloating or other stomach trouble, according to Kacie Vavrek, RD, outpatient dietitian at Ohio State University Sports Medicine in Columbus.
Many notice they have more gastrointestinal issues when running compared with other types of exercise. Vavrek says this can come from a number of factors, including the mechanics of running — more blood gets pumping through your cardiovascular system, which can disrupt your digestive system and speed up the process of waste elimination (your need to poop).
For most people, eating foods high in fiber, fat, and protein too close to a run can cause stomach pain or indigestion.
But deciding on what to eat before, during, and after a run is often a highly individual decision and takes time to figure out, Vavrek adds. Many people experiment with different options and keep a log of what they ate and how their run went to narrow down their pre-run and post-run snacks.
A good rule of thumb is to wait at least two to four hours after a large meal to run, or one to two hours after a snack.
In general, a combination that has a blend of lean protein and carbohydrates tends to be best, adds Elizabeth Ray, RDN, a Kentucky-based nutritionist. She recommends these options for eating about an hour before a run:
- A small amount of skinless grilled chicken paired with a serving of sweet potatoes
- Banana or apple and nut butter
- Toast with half an avocado and tablespoon of honey
- Small bowl of oatmeal and berries
- Bagel with nut butter
And before, during, and after your runs, stay hydrated. Drinking water before and during a run helps you replace what you’re losing through sweat. Adding electrolytes — especially on long runs and in hot, humid weather — can make up for the sodium and potassium that also get lost.
There are plenty of electrolyte powders and tablets on the market that dissolve in water, but you can also make your own by combining some sea salt and coconut water and adding those to your water bottle, says Ray.
When navigating snack and meal choices, Vavrek says her biggest tip to runners is to make sure you’re getting enough calories. Skimping not only sabotages your energy, but it also makes it more difficult for your muscles to recover from running, she adds.
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