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Start Running for Better Health

Sep 3 2021
9 min read
close-up of woman's feet running on red dirt

You’ve probably heard that running is a top calorie burner, stress reliever and health booster.

If you’ve never taken your treadmill routine above a brisk walk or signed up for a weekend 5K, consider giving running a try. You’ll be joining good company: Some 29 million Americans over age 40 pound the pavement at least once a week. Not sure your knees can take it? Contrary to popular belief, all that pounding doesn’t raise your risk of osteoarthritis, and it may even protect the cartilage in your joints, according to Australian researchers who carefully reviewed 28 different studies of physical activity and knee health.

Who is Running Good For

Most people can run, even if walking is the most intense form of exercise you currently do. The key is to start slowly—ideally alternating walking and jogging—and work your way up to longer runs.

Running is a high-impact activity—you absorb your body’s weight with each step as you propel yourself forward—which means it can aggravate aches, strains and sprains; it can also put a great deal of strain on joints if you are carrying extra body weight. If you have an injury or you are carrying a lot of weight, talk to your doctor, trainer or exercise physiologist about a running plan that makes sense for you.

Outfit Yourself for Success

Perhaps the single greatest attraction of running is its simplicity. There’s nothing you truly need beyond a comfortable and supportive pair of running shoes. Still, having the right gear, from your socks to your t-shirt, can enhance the experience.

Socks: Few things can put a halt to a running routine faster than a painful blister. Unlike old-school cotton, which can become soggy—creating friction, and, eventually, blisters—the best athletic socks are made of special wicking fabrics designed to pull sweat away from your skin where it can dry more quickly. While many athletic socks are made of synthetic fabrics, natural fibers like wool also have moisture-wicking properties, as well as built-in antimicrobial (read: anti-stink) features.

Shoes: Running shoes have come under fire recently with the rise of the barefoot-running bandwagon, but for most of us, a well-fitting pair of sneakers for your gait needs is still the way to go. There’s no need to break the bank: A British study measured both comfort and shock absorption of shoes at three different price points and found no significant differences among the various brands or shoes tested.

Finding the best pair of shoes for your unique foot is highly individual so, if possible, shop at a running store where experienced clerks can make recommendations based on things like the shape of your foot and your gait pattern.

Technical Fabrics: Leave the cotton tee in your drawer and instead opt for fabrics with wicking capabilities. Then, note the seams. Any areas of stitching can become friction hot spots, so look for flat or soft seams, especially in areas prone to rubbing, like under the arms and between the legs.

Sports Bra: For women, the up-and-down movement of running is too much for your everyday underwire bra to handle (not to mention that few traditional bras come with the type of moisture-wicking fabric you’ll need to stay comfortable through the miles). Researchers who study breast movement during exercise recommend looking for a sports bra that features “encapsulation,” meaning each breast is supported individually, for maximum motion control.

Extras: For outdoor running, a few key pieces can help you go the distance in a range of climates.

  • A brimmed baseball-style cap is as effective for keeping the sun out of your eyes on bright days as it is for shielding snow or rain on less sunny ones.

  • A lightweight, water-resistant jacket (more breathable than most waterproof types) can be layered with different pieces underneath to keep you comfortable in anything from a spring shower to winter flurries.

  • And don’t forget sunscreen year round. Try a stick variety, especially around your eyes, since it will be less likely than a lotion to run when you sweat, which can cause painful eye stinging. Experts recommend applying about 15 minutes before you head out the door.

How to Get Started

Running is as easy to do on a treadmill at the gym as it is right out your door. Outdoor running options give you the opportunity to take in the sights and sounds of nature at a local park, jogging path or trail. These beginner strategies will make your transformation from non-runner to runner safe and fun.

Start with Walking: Chances are you won’t be able to run very far your first time out on the road. That’s OK! Rather than running until you’re spent, and then dragging yourself home after five minutes, alternate a few minutes of running with a few minutes of walking to catch your breath. Your heart and lungs will gradually grow stronger and more efficient, and you’ll be able to extend your stretches of running and shorten your walking. You never need to run full-time to benefit from the activity, unless you want to.

Go Easy: The simple act of running—by definition, propelling yourself off the ground with every step—requires more of your muscles and joints than they may be used to. To help ease any early discomforts, seek out soft surfaces, such as dirt trails, as much as possible. Also, stick to flat routes since hills are extra taxing. In time, your body will adapt, becoming stronger than before. But rest and recovery are essential. Start by running no more than three days a week, alternating with gentler forms of exercise like swimming or yoga.

Follow the Rule of 10: When you do too much too soon, you set yourself for injury, aches and pains. So it’s important to rein in your enthusiasm and increase the amount you run by no more than 10 percent a week. For example, if you ran for a total of 30 minutes last week, increase to no more than 33 minutes of running this week.

Common Mistakes Newbies Make

Start—and keep—running strong by avoiding these pitfalls.

Stretch After, Not Before: The best time to stretch is when your muscles are warm, like after a run. If you still want to stretch before your run, jog for at least a few minutes first to get your blood flowing to your muscles, which will make stretching both safer and more effective.

Don’t Skip Strength: A review of studies in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that runners who added two to three days of resistance training exercises to their weekly cardio regimen increased their leg strength and enhanced their endurance, which make running easier. And resistance exercise helps keep you injury-free: A study in the journal Clinical Biomechanics found that women runners who did six weeks of lower-body-focused resistance exercise, such as squats and lunges, improved their leg strength, particularly in the hips—a common source of pain and injury in runners.

Pace Yourself: Faster isn’t always better—especially when you’re starting out. Go at a conversational pace and stop for walking breaks as needed: This will help you increase your endurance and make running more enjoyable—which is a key to sticking with it.

Put Safety First: Always be aware of your surroundings when running outdoors. That may mean skipping headphones, especially when running in unfamiliar areas or after dark. At the very least, keep the volume low enough that you’re aware of what’s going on around you.

When sidewalks aren’t available, always run on the left-hand side of the road, where you can see oncoming traffic. And speaking of staying visible: Don’t count on a tiny logo on the back of your shirt to alert others of your presence. In the fall and winter months, when daylight hours are short, wear reflective pieces (that will shout your presence to cars from at least 300 feet away, giving them time to slow down or stop if necessary.