How to start a running routine

Ready to move beyond walking? This simple 8-week walk-to-run plan will help you step up your game safely.
Published December 5, 2015

Playing tag, racing to the best swing on the playground, chasing the family dog… If you’ve watched kids play outdoors lately or recall from your own childhood, you know that running can be fun and freeing. Luckily, that feeling isn’t limited to the under-18 set. A running plan can help you reap the health benefits of this activity and deliver genuine enjoyment. Read on for an 8-week plan that will get you up and, well, running, along with expert advice on everything from warmup exercises to choosing the perfect pair of sneakers.

Benefits of running

While pretty much any form of activity can impart health benefits, running may offer some unique advantages. Runners of all speeds live three years longer on average than non-runners, found a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiologyand that longevity effect was seen with as little as 5 minutes of running per day. One possible reason, the researchers say, is that running is a vigorous, high-intensity exercise that improves cardio fitness more efficiently than more moderate activity. (Just note that it's best to check with your doctor before dramatically ramping up your fitness regimen.) 

For people hoping to lose weight, running may offer an edge over walking, according to a long-term analysis of more than 47,000 men and women in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Minute for minute, running generally torches more calories. Runners also tend to experience a bigger jump in metabolic rate after their sessions, the study found, along with more pronounced post-workout appetite suppression. 

Running tips for beginners

Running is all about building success. With every step you take—even if you're moving forward slowly—you’ll be getting fitter and making future runs that much easier. Here’s how to set yourself up for long-term running without pushing yourself too hard.

Choose shoes wisely

While running generally doesn't require a ton of fancy gear (ratty old T-shirts encouraged), your footwear does deserve some consideration. “You want a running shoe, not a walking one or cross-trainer,” notes Bryan Heiderscheit, PT, PhD, professor and director of the University of Wisconsin Health Sports Medicine Runners Clinic. Running shoes are designed to take more impact and to help you move faster. Make comfort your top priority. Find a brand that fits you well, then sample a variety of styles to get a feel for each as you run around the store (yup, we’re serious). “Run for a minute or two and notice if there’s any abnormal pressure on your feet,” says Heiderscheit. “The best shoe is the one that feels like you have to work the least in it.” And wear seamless socks so that your foot rests comfortably (without rubbing against the interior) to prevent any foot wounds.

Help prevent running pain

  • Start slow. As you're settling into a running routine, “don’t run any faster than you can fast-walk. Speed is the last thing you should worry about when you’re starting out,” says running coach Budd Coates, co-author of Runner’s World Running on Air. You’ll slowly condition yourself as you gain more endurance.
  • Be light on your feet. When you run, land gently, with your foot underneath you to minimize impact and prevent overstriding, says Heiderscheit.
  • Consider surface hardness. In terms of impact, concrete sidewalks and asphalt surfaces such as roads are among the least forgiving. If other options are available to you, you may find that softer, springier surfaces such as an outdoor track, dirt path, or landscaped playing field are more comfortable for running.
  • Learn to belly breathe. Belly breathing can help fend off muscle fatigue by allowing the body to take in more oxygen than chest breathing would allow, Coates says. Here's a daily exercise to practice belly breathing: Lie on your back and rest your hands on your abdomen. Inhale slowly, contracting the diaphragm by pushing air downward toward your belly. (Your hands should rise as your midsection expands.) Exhale, relaxing your belly and pushing the air up and out so your hands lower. Repeat to complete 10 cycles. Then, try this techniques during your runs—especially if you find yourself panting or notice your shoulders and chest moving up and down.
  • Try the "3-2" breathing pattern. Notice a trend here? Breathing can make a big difference in your running experience! For many beginners, exhaling can be a pain trigger—that's the moment your diaphragm relaxes and the body's core becomes unstable, Coates says. Most people inhale and exhale on an even beat every two or four steps, which can lead to repetitive stress on one side of the body whenever that foot strikes the ground. To evenly distribute the physical demand, alternate your breathing by inhaling for three steps and exhaling for two, Coates suggests. This way, you’ll land on an alternating foot each time you breathe out.
  • Know when to ease up. A little discomfort at first is normal. If you develop a side stitch or your knees feel achy during a run, try slowing down and walking for a few minutes. If the pain subsides, try resuming at a lower intensity. If pain persists for more than few days after a run—or recurs on subsequent runs—chat with your doctor, Heiderscheit says.

Motivate yourself to run

“If you can’t convince your mind to be a runner, you’ll never get your body to become one,” says Julie Creffield, author of Getting Past the First 30 Seconds. Use these tips to psych yourself up for your run.

  • Focus on you. Odds are, no one is staring. Really. “Most people are so wrapped up in their own lives, they don’t have the time or desire to worry about you when you’re running in the park,” Creffield says. “Block everyone else out. Remember that the only opinion that counts is your own.”
  • Give yourself a pep talk. Skip the “I can’t do this” inner monologue. Instead, tell yourself that you’re “feeling good.” Positive talk could help make your workouts feel easier, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
  • Bring a buddy. “Your workout will double as a social hour,” says Jen Van Allen, co-author of The Runner’s World Big Book of Running for Beginners. Plus, you'll know if you're going too fast; if you are huffing and puffing or finding it tough to hold a conversation, slow down.
  • Record your runs. Research shows that tracking workouts can help people stick to their fitness intentions. Give yourself a gold star on your wall calendar, or try an app to track your progress. Some runner faves: Strava, Endomondo, Runtastic, Runkeeper and MapMyRun.
  • Sign up for a race. This may sound daunting, but for most people, running events aren't about competing for the gold; it's more about pushing for your personal best. “Committing to a race even before going out for your first run can be a great way of motivating yourself to train,” says Creffield. Lots of beginners have had success training for 5Ks, a distance of just over 3 miles.

Your 8-week walk-to-run plan

This training plan, developed by running coach Jenny Hadfield, co-author of Running for Mortals, will gradually introduce you to running. By the end of eight weeks, you’ll be doing an equal amount of running and walking. Do the workouts below on three nonconsecutive days each week. On off days, you can walk, strength train, practice yoga or do other moderate-intensity activities. (Rest one or two days each week.) If you find a progression too challenging, repeat the previous week’s routine for another week or two, to give your body time to adjust. 

WeeksRun intervalWalk intervalTimes to repeatTotal time*
1 & 230 sec2.5 min832 min
3 & 41 min3 min736 min
5 & 61.5 min2.5 min736 min
7 & 82 min2 min736 min

3 warmup exercises for runners

The more muscle you have—and the stronger those muscles are—the easier it will be to push your body off the ground with every step. Try these exercises two or three days a week.

  • Side steps (targets hips, glutes). Tie an elastic exercise band in a loop and slip around toes and balls of feet. Sit back slightly into partial squat. Take 5 steps to right, then to left (band around feet will add resistance for deeper stretch). Repeat for 30 to 60 seconds.
  • One-leg heel raises (targets calves). Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Lifting left leg one inch from floor, rise up onto balls and toes of right foot, then slowly lower heel. Do two sets of 15 reps, then switch legs.
  • Plank leg lifts (targets core, legs). Lie facedown with elbows under shoulders, forearms and palms flat on floor and toes tucked. Lift body off floor, balancing on forearms and toes. With abs tight, squeeze glutes and slowly lift and lower right leg. Do 8 to 10 reps with each leg. Too hard? Hold plank position, working up to 1 minute.

3 cool-down exercises for runners 

Cool down by walking (or jogging slowly) at the end of your run, then stretch. Do the following stretches two or three times, holding each for 30 seconds.

  • Hamstring stretch. Place right heel on curb or low bench, keeping leg straight (not locked). With head and chest lifted, slowly lean forward from hips, feeling stretch in back of right thigh.
  • Hip-flexor stretch. Stand with left leg straight behind you and right knee bent, toes pointing forward with torso upright. Tuck tailbone under, feeling a stretch in the front of left hip at the top of thigh. Switch legs and repeat.
  • Calf stretch. Stand with toes and balls of feet on edge of a step and drop heels, feeling a stretch in calves.


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