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How to become a runner and why it's good for your health

Man stretching and preparing to run

Running has physical and mental benefits, no matter what your age. Here’s how to get started.    

Looking for a fun activity that doesn’t require a gym membership? Running is a great way to get some exercise. Plus, it has a lot of wonderful physical and mental health perks. And just like with walking, you can run almost anywhere.

One of the biggest perks of running? It can be good for your heart.1 Running gets your heart rate up and helps strengthen your heart muscle. That makes it easier for your heart to pump blood into your lungs and the rest of the body.

Running also improves how your lungs work, which can help with breathing. And it’s terrific for your bones.2 That’s because weight-bearing exercises, like running, force you to work against gravity and carry your own weight.3

But that’s only one-half of the equation. Running is also fantastic for your mind. In fact, running can:4

Before you start running, talk to your doctor. They can help you figure out if it’s safe for you. For example, maybe you’ve recently had knee surgery. If so, it’s probably not a good idea to start running right now.5 You may need to modify your running program for other reasons too. For example, if you haven’t worked out in a while, or you have a health condition like heart or lung disease.

If you’re new to running, you may be wondering where to begin. Follow these steps to start off on the right foot.

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Step 1: Start small and work your way up.

When you’re first starting out, the important thing is to start slow, says Billy Ryan. He’s a Chicago-based certified health coach at Real Appeal. Start with walking first. Try walking a mile and timing yourself. Then walk a little bit faster and aim to improve your time.

Ready to step it up and add some running? You can find many starter plans online, but here’s a simple one to try:6

Week 1: Three days this week, alternate between running and walking for 20-30 minutes total. For example, you might run for 2 minutes, then walk for 1 minute. Then run for 2 minutes again, then walk for 1 minute. Choose the ratio that feels comfortable for you. Do this until you reach 20-30 minutes.

On the other days, go for a walk, ride your bike, or swim. You might set aside one day to rest (meaning not do any exercise at all).

Week 2: Three days this week, alternate between running and walking for 20-30 minutes total. But run more and walk less. For example, you might run for 3 minutes, then walk for 1 minute. Then run for 3 minutes again, then walk for 1 minute. Do this until you reach 20-30 minutes.

Week 3 and beyond: Repeat Week 2, increasing your running time. You can continue to run/walk. Or you can work your way up to running the full 20-30 minutes. You can add on speed and distance from there.

As you increase your running, listen to your body. If your muscles feel too sore to run one of those days, walk or take a rest day. A bit of muscle soreness is normal.6

But if you run too hard and too much, it could lead more serious issues. One to be aware of: plantar fasciitis. That’s when the thick tissue that connects your heel bone to your toes becomes inflamed, causing sharp pain in your heel area.7 You might also get runner’s knee. That happens when you put too much pressure on your knees, and it causes pain around your kneecap.8 And shin splints are common in runners too. This is pain along the inner edge of your shinbone caused by inflammation of the tissues surrounding the shinbone.9

Step 3: Find fun places to run.

The good news is that you can run just about anywhere, depending on the season and where you live. In warm weather, you could run on the sidewalks around your neighborhood or on a paved path at a local park. Or you can run on an outdoor track at your local high school. In colder weather, you can run on an indoor track or a treadmill.

Be aware of the surface you’re running on. When you are outdoors, smooth, flat surfaces are easier on your body. Hills can put more stress on your feet and ankles.10 Be aware of changing surfaces, like curbs, gravel paths or muddy spots.

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Step 4: Run safe.

When you’re out for a run, safety is a big deal. Be aware of your surroundings. For example, if you’re running on the side of a road, you want to run against traffic, so you can see what’s coming at you. Here are some other helpful tips:11

  1. Before you run, warm up for 5 or 10 minutes, says Brian Metzler. He is a long-distance runner and the author of Trail Running Illustrated: The Art of Running Free. Do some brisk walking, and do warm-up movements such as arm circles, leg swings, skipping and torso twisting.
     
  2. Make sure to wear broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Wear sunglasses and a hat to protect your face and eyes from the sun.
     
  3. Run in the morning during the hottest months. That’s when it’s coolest outside. If you run when it’s hottest, that can lead to heat exhaustion. That’s when your body loses too much water and salt from too much sweating.12
     
  4. Be aware and alert. Pay attention to traffic when you’re crossing the street. You may want to turn down your music, so you can hear if cars are coming. Watch out for other people. And be aware of anything else that you could run into or that could hit you.
     
  5. Bring your ID with you or write your medical information on a card or the inside of your shoe. Also make sure that your emergency contact information is accessible on your phone. Contact your provider for instructions.
     
  6. After you run, plan to spend five minutes doing some stretches. Hamstring stretches, quad stretches and calf stretches are all helpful, advises Metzler. And drink enough water to stay well-hydrated.

Step 5: Dress for running success.

It’s important to have the right pair of running shoes, says Ryan. They’ll need to be:

  • Breathable, to keep your feet from feeling hot and sweaty
  • Comfortable, so you feel good while you’re running
  • Lightweight, to help you keep moving
  • Supportive, to help lower stress on your ankles, heels and toes and lower your chance of getting hurt7

If this is your first time buying running shoes, you may want to shop in person at a running shop or sporting goods store. The people who work there can help match the shoe to the shape of your foot and how you actually run.

Running isn’t only about the shoes. When you run, you’ll want to wear comfortable, lightweight clothes, such as running shorts and a T-shirt. And you can wear layers, depending on the season.

That same store where you bought your running shoes will likely have a great selection of running clothes. All you need to do is ask the person who helped you with the shoes about them.

Step 6: Stay motivated.

Some people just get up and go every day. Others may need motivation. Here are some ways to keep yourself on track:

Track your progress. Both Ryan and Metzler suggest tracking your runs with your smartphone, smartwatch or fitness tracker. You can even use a special running app. Or you can do it in a running journal on paper or a tablet.

Listen to music. Music may help your mood or motivation while you work out.11 It can also make your run go by faster. You can make your own “running playlist” or listen to music on a streaming service.

You can also check out your favorite podcast. (Check out Optum’s podcast, Until It’s Fixed.)

Find a friend. Running with a friend isn’t just safe. It’s also good for motivation. And it’s even better if you have the same running goals.

If you enjoy running, you may want to join a running club. Other people can give you motivation and support. Ask your neighborhood sports store or gym about local running clubs.

Sound fun? You probably didn’t know it, but you had running in you all along.

You can buy a fitness tracker and other workout gear in the Optum Store. Start exploring.

Sources

  1. American Heart Association. Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids. N.d. Accessed April 10, 2023.
  2. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. Exercise for your bone health. Last reviewed October 2018. Accessed March 14, 2023.
  3. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Exercise and Bone Health. Last reviewed July 2020. Accessed April 11, 2023.
  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Published 2018. Accessed March 7, 2023.
  5. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Knee arthroscopy exercise guide. Last revised October 2022. Accessed March 9, 2023.
  6. New York Road Runners. How to Get Started Running. Published December 28, 2020. Accessed April 13, 2023.
  7. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Plantar Fasciitis and Bone Spurs. Last reviewed August 2022. Accessed April 12, 2023.
  8. American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome. Update October 2020. Accessed April 20, 2023.
  9. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Shin splints. Last reviewed August 2019. Accessed April 12, 2023.
  10. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Tips for a Safe Running Program. Accessed April 12, 2023.
  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heat Stress – Heat Related Illness. Last reviewed May 13, 2022. Accessed April 12, 2023.
  12. Journal of Morphology and Kinesiology. The influence of music preference on exercise responses and performance: a review. Published June 2021. Accessed March 9, 2023.

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