Running is the purest form of exercise. No gym fees to pay, fancy equipment to master, or off-seasons to slog through. It's just you, your kicks, and the open road, anytime, anywhere. As for weight loss, running delivers fast results — about 115 (for a 170 lb person) calories for every mile logged, on average.
It cuts down on stress, too. "After a day at the office, a good, long run is better than a glass of wine," promises Beth Onines, executive director of the Illinois Runs Training Program, a chapter of the Road Runners Club of America.
Now for the bad news: Hit the ground running too hard, and you'll have a tough time walking to the water cooler, let alone training for your first 10K. So before you lace 'em up, take five minutes reading through the following step-by-step primer. You'll thank us in the morning.
Step one: Get cleared
Not to open on a down note, but running - like any form of strenuous exercise - can lead to serious (and by that we mean serious) injury if your body's not up to the challenge. A basic check-up will allow your doctor to give you medical clearance when you tell them that you plan to increase your activity.
Step two: Get equipped
Running is affordable, but you'll have to cough up some cash for a quality pair of shoes, "anywhere from $80 to $120," estimates Onine. Go to a store that specializes in running shoes. Its staff will measure your foot correctly (checking to see if you're over-pronate, for example, or if you have high arches) and find a shoe that fits accordingly. Shop at the end of that day when the feet are most swollen and bring along an old sneaker so that the sales person can assess its wear patterns. Take a test run, either on the store's treadmill or on the sidewalk outside, to ensure that there's no pinching or rubbing.
If you've suffered from serious joint injuries in the past, you might consider having a "gait analysis". These tests are typically done by physical therapists for about $125. Using computers and video cameras, the therapist will study your stride to determine which type of shoe is best for you.
Good trainers and an excellent sports bra are the only must-have equipment, but you should really invest in a pair of wick-away socks as well. They'll prevent blisters better than cotton tube socks, which trap sweat against the skin. Wick-away shirts/tanks and pants (or whatever length) are also recommended if you'll be running more than four miles, the point at which chafing tends to occur.
Stretching and strengthening are as important as proper shoes to avoiding injuries when running.
Step three: Get with a program
If you're in very poor shape, a week of brisk walking (about 4.5 mph) may be in order. Otherwise, most starter regimens span eight to 10 weeks and call for a combination of walking and running, three to four times a week. The one Onine uses looks like this:
WEEK 1: Walk 5 minutes. Run 2 minutes. (Repeat 2 more times.) Walk 5 minutes.
Total 26 minutes
WEEK 2: Walk 5 minutes. Run 4 minutes. (Repeat 2 more times.) Walk 5 minutes.
Total 32 minutes
WEEK 3: Walk 4 minutes. Run 6 minutes. (Repeat 2 more times.) Walk 5 minutes.
Total 35 minutes
WEEK 4: Walk 3 minutes. Run 8 minute. (Repeat 2 more times.) Walk 5 minutes.
Total 36 minutes
WEEK 5: Walk 2 minutes. Run 10 minutes. (Repeat 2 more times.) Walk 5 minutes.
Total 35 minutes
WEEK 6: Walk 1 minute. Run 12 minutes. (Repeat 2 more times.) Walk 5 minutes.
Total 44 minutes
WEEK 7: Walk 1 minute. Run 20 minutes. (Repeat 1 more times.) Walk 5 minutes.
Total 47 minutes
WEEK 8: Walk 1 minute. Run 30 minutes. Walk 5 minutes.
Total 36 minutes
In the beginning, you should be running on a flat, forgiving surface. Rubberized tracks provide excellent shock absorption, though circling around them can be a little monotonous. Wooded trails are both soft underfoot and inspiring. Just look out for roots, stones, and other hazards of the trail.
Step Four: Get limber and strong
Stretching and strengthening are as important as proper shoes to avoiding injuries. It's best to stretch after the run - a light jog is an adequate warm up - when the muscles are loose. Onine's regimen focuses on five major muscle groups: The calf/Achilles heel (especially important for preventing shin splints, maybe the most common runner's woe); the hamstring; the quadrecep; the ITB (the band between the hip and knee); and the abductor (located in the buttocks region). She recommends three 30-second reps per stretch, and no bouncing.
Strength-building exercises should target core muscles (abdominal crunches and ball balancing exercises are both great) and the muscles around the knee (try leg presses, hamstring curls, and toe raises). Two 30-minute workouts on non-running days will get you the desired results.
Step five: Get better
After running your first 5K, you can increase your mileage by 10 percent each week. Make the 10K your next goal, then the 10-mile, then the half marathon, and finally the marathon. It's tough hitting those marks on your own, which is where running clubs come in. The structure and camaraderie are great motivators. If you decide to go it alone, make sure you vary workouts regularly. Mix up the play list on your iPod, too (see the suggested tunes below). Doing the same 5-mile course each week will run you right into the wall - that mental block that causes many ill-advised runners to hang them up. But if you've read this far, that's no longer you.
SONGS TO HELP YOU LOSE THOSE EXTRA POUNDS
From THE POCKET DJ by Sarah Lewitinn, Simon Spotlight Entertainment, $9.95
- Led Zeppelin - Immigrant Song
- AC/DC - Highway to Hell
- Fugazi - Waiting Room
- Blur - Song 2
- The Alarm - The Stand
- The Rolling Stones - Street Fighting Man
- Sex Pistols - Anarchy in the U.K.
- Van Halen - Jump
- Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch - Good Vibrations
- Björk - Army Of Me
- C+C Music Factory - Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)
- APB - Shoot You Down
- Death Cab for Cutie - Army Corps of Architects
- Dead Kennedys - Riot
- t.A.T.u. - Not Gonna Get Us
- Muse - Hysteria
- Survivor - Eye of the Tiger
- Steppenwolf - Born to Be Wild
- Soul Asylum - Somebody to Shove
- Linkin Park - One Step Closer
- The Walkmen - The Rat
- Hole - Asking for It
- Billy Idol - Mony Mony
- The Vines - Outtathaway!
- Adam and the Ants - Stand and Deliver
- Republica - Ready to Go
- Courtney Love - Mono