It only takes one step. And yet, whether you’re starting to run or attempting to fall in love with it again, that first step is often the most difficult. For many, it’s the simple act of putting on your sneakers. “The most difficult part of starting a run is actually starting it,” says recently retired GB Olympic 400m runner Andrew Steele. “Even for the professionals, the thought of going out for a run can be daunting, and it’s our job.”
When you do commit, running reveals both extensive physical and mental benefits. Research from Stanford University suggests regular running can extend your lifespan, preventing osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. It can also improve brain function: a study at the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in verbal memory and learning. So here’s how to get going…
Where do I begin?
The best way to begin running is to walk. “Walking strengthens the muscles and tendons so that they can handle the impact of running,” explains Steele. Don’t rush this: start by gradually building up to 30 minutes of brisk walking two to four times a week – this should take about two weeks. Next, switch to a run-walk, alternating between five minutes of running and one minute of walking. Maintain the cycle for 30 minutes up to four times a week for three weeks. Then, if you’re feeling good, shift to 30 minutes of continuous running.
“But remember,” says Steele, “patience is a new runner’s best trait. Increasing time or speed too quickly can lead to frustration or injury [fast running puts added stress on the musculoskeletal system – ligaments, tendons and other connective tissue] – so you want to develop your endurance before you work on your speed.”
How do I stay motivated?
“To start out, keep it super-simple,” advises Olympic trainer Tim Weeks. “And set an achievable target that you know you can’t fail at. Choose a realistic number of times you think you can do a week, then keep going for four weeks so the body can ease in and adapt. For example, three times a week for four weeks is 12 runs.” And don’t underestimate the power of a visual motivator. “Sketch a grid on a piece of paper with 12 boxes on it, and hang it somewhere you will see every day,” says Weeks. “When you have 12 ticks, reward yourself with a physical item – it will remind you of what you’ve just achieved.”
Is there a correct way to run?
“Watch a race of amateur runners, and everyone runs in a very different way. But watch the Olympic Final and everyone runs in a similar style,” says Steele. “Your running form is like your fingerprint – it’s unique to you and, while running styles differ from person to person, there are fail-safe-form rules.”
The key is to stay relaxed and run tall. Good posture puts less stress and impact on joints, reducing injury risk and increasing efficiency – meaning you run longer with less exertion. While running, keep your chest up and your shoulders down. Your feet should land underneath your hips, positioning your body in a straight line from your head to your toes. Avoid leaning forward from the waist, which can tax your lower back, and keep your hands unclenched to prevent unnecessary tension. Because running is forward motion, energy is wasted if your arms swing across your body, so tuck your elbows into your waist and your arms will naturally move forward and back. Finally, listen for your footfalls: if they sound heavy, try landing more softly.
How can I avoid running injuries?
Complement your running with other exercises. “As a rule, Pilates builds core strength, spinning is great for stamina, and swimming helps to stretch overworked muscles,” says Weeks. “To keep running pain-free, focus on the glutes and lower abs,” says Steele. “Both of these muscles control your running position. When you have the glute muscles working at their best, they will make you run faster and keep your lower limbs moving efficiently and safely. The lower abs hold your hips and pelvis in the correct position to avoid putting too much stress on your lower back.” To avoid ankle problems and knee pain, which are often caused by weak glutes, build up your strength with squats.