6 Things I Wish I’d Known When I First Started Running

I still remember those early runs. I would leave my apartment, walk to the path along the canal, and shuffle my uncoordinated body as far as I could before nearly collapsing in a sweaty, red-faced, breathless mess.

How far was that? In the beginning, about one mile.

For the first six months, all I could think about while running was how much I hated running. Gradually I extended my distance to two miles, even three or four, but I still hated almost every step.

Why did I keep going? Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe masochism, maybe stubbornness, or maybe the subconscious intuition that things would eventually get better.

Whatever the reason, I’m so glad I stuck with it. Since then I have fallen in love with trail running, finished a dozen ultramarathons, transformed my newfound physical and mental confidence into months of challenging solo travel, and taken up bicycle touring and bikepacking as new ways to see beautiful places by human-powered motion. It all started with running!

First though, I went through a couple infuriating years of overuse injuries and frustration and almost gave up running altogether. 🙁 Along the way I learned the virtues of patience, moderation, and weight lifting. If I could go back and talk to myself in my early days of running, I know exactly what I would say.

So if you are just getting into running, or even just thinking about getting into running, let me help you fast-forward through the “I hate running” phase, and the “why am I injured again?” phase, so you can get to the fun part.

Here are six tips for beginning runners that I wish someone had told me when I first started running.

Train Like An Athlete

When we first start running, many of us don’t think of ourselves as athletes. But this is my number one most important tip for new runners: you ARE an athlete, and you need to train like an athlete.

This isn’t just feel-good empowerment talk. Training like an athlete is absolutely critical for preventing the aches, pains, injuries and setbacks that far too many new runners end up fighting through. I know, I’ve been there, and it took me years to fix it. Please, learn from my mistakes.

What does it mean to train like an athlete? It means you can’t just run. Paradoxically, running alone doesn’t give us all the skills we need to be good at running. If we start out running with weak glutes, lazy hamstrings, and atrocious biomechanics, we reinforce those patterns. And then, a few months later, our knees / feet / hips / everything will start to hurt.

So, what are the skills that athletes train?

1. Strength

Athletes need to have strong glutes, hamstrings, and core muscles. Not only do these muscles make us fast, they play a critical role in stabilizing us against the forces of running. Without this stabilization, joints move in ways they aren’t supposed to, and this causes pain and injury.

Runners: the barbell is our friend!

The internet is full of strength training tutorials, some better than others. To get started on the right track, look for strength routines targeting these areas:

  • Gluteus maximus, or butt muscles. Resistance band exercises are great for this.
  • Gluteus medius, the smaller muscles on the outsides of your hips that help us stay stable in one-legged stance. Those resistance band exercises are helpful here too.
  • Core muscles, especially deep muscles like the transverse abdominus (stay away from workouts that claim to be all about the “abs” as this is typically an oversimplification)

If you’re running 3 times per week (an appropriate amount for a new runner), I highly, highly recommend mixing in strength work at least 2-3 times per week as well. It could be before or after your runs, or on the non-running days, or a mix. But I promise you, those strength sessions are just as important to your future as a runner as running is, if not more.

I’ve written more about strength training for hikers in this post on knee pain, and the same principles apply for runners too. In general I’m a fan of learning to lift heavy – like barbell deadlifts heavy – with proper coaching. But if you can’t get to a gym right now or can’t get ensure you’re learning proper form, resistance bands and a few dumbbells can go a long way.

2. Range of Motion

Some people are more naturally flexible than others, but we all need a certain minimum amount of flexibility in order to run with proper form. If important muscles like our hip flexors, quads, or calves are too tight, our bodies will move in potentially harmful ways to work around the restriction.

Proper range of motion supports a relaxed and healthy running stride. Whenever I get serious about working on my flexibility, my running gets faster! Good range of motion means our bodies aren’t working against themselves, slowing us down.

Stretching is one way of working on flexibility, and a simple post-run stretching routine is important. But if you’re starting from a fairly sedentary, desk-job-working kind of place, this may not be enough. Personally I’ve had the most success with yoga, especially the deeper, slower poses of yin yoga. A couple sessions per week, especially targeting hips and hamstrings, can work wonders.

Yoga feels soooo good after a long run.

3. Control, Power, and Agility

Strength and range of motion are necessary, but not sufficient, for good running form. In order to transfer them to running, we also need to train in ways that specifically teach the body how to apply them while running.

For new runners, a little goes a long way here. There’s no need to over-complicate things. Mix in a few balance exercises and running form drills a couple times per week, ideally before your run, so your body will be primed and ready to practice these new skills.

Slow Down

It makes sense that we think running is supposed to be fast. Isn’t that usually the point? If your picture of running comes entirely from professional races and middle school PE, you might think fast is the only way to run.

The reality is that most runners, even the really speedy ones, spend a lot of time training by running slowly (for them at least). Slower running – slow enough that you can have a conversation out loud with a running partner without gasping for breath – trains the body’s aerobic system to work more efficiently, burns more fat (helpful for fueling longer runs, not just for looks), and allows for faster recovery.

Another important benefit of running slower, when you’re new to running: you can run farther! You might think you can only run a mile before you’re too tired to continue, but if you just slowed down to a nice easy jog, you could probably run two miles or even more.

This extra work will help you progress faster as a runner, and let’s face it, it’s also more pleasant. You’ll be more likely to get out for that run if it’s not a miserable, exhausting experience. How nice that it also happens to be the smartest way to train!

For most beginning runners, “slow” is somewhere between 10 to 12 minutes per mile. The most important part is that it feels easy, too easy in fact. You can breathe, you can talk, you feel like you could keep going for a while.

But Sometimes Speed Up

I did just say that most of your running should be slow, but the key word is MOST. It’s also very useful, from a training perspective, to spend a small amount of your training time running very fast.

Serious runners training for speed get quite scientific about “speed work,” with a wide variety of different track workouts and speed drills tailored to their specific distance specialty. For a new runner, I think the most important part is to just spend a little bit of time running fast each week.

This could eventually be something structured, like a beginner-level track workout. But if you’re just getting started, I suggest something as simple as “run to that next tree or intersection as fast as possible” and then walk until you can breathe easily again.

When running fast, try to stay as relaxed as possible. Avoid reaching out in front with your feet (let them flow behind your body instead), and focus on driving back with your glutes and hamstrings.

Why is faster running important? Running fast uses different physiological systems and will train them to be more efficient, helping you run faster with less effort. Just as importantly for new runners, it also forces our bodies to learn correct running form.

It’s all too easy to get stuck in the uninspired shuffle of slow running, which never challenges our glutes and hamstrings (which we’ve been strength training, right?) to kick into high gear. When we run fast, we it’s easier to find the correct movement patterns.

This kind of propulsive running form is impossible to learn by running slowly all the time.

One big word of caution: don’t overdo this. Faster running also puts more strain on the body. Too much speedy enthusiasm has landed far too many runners on the couch with a bad case of Achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, and other fun ailments.

If you’re brand new to running, don’t even worry about faster running for a few months. Once you feel ready, start incorporating just a few short strides (maybe 10-20 seconds) of faster running into each workout. After 6 months or so of running, you might be ready for something a bit more structured. If little aches and pains start to sneak up on you, dial back and take it easy for a while.

Play in the Dirt

Lots of people love road (or sidewalk, as the case may be) running, but personally, I fell in love with dirt the first time I tried it. Now I still do mid-week training runs on the neighborhood sidewalks, but whenever possible I get myself to a nearby park and go trail running.

Once you’re a few months into your running journey, you might want to try a bit of easy trail running. There’s a chance you’ll find it more peaceful, or fun, or challenging, or whatever it is that helps you stay motivated. But there’s also a good chance it’ll be good for your body.

When we run on trails, the greater variation in surface and incline challenges our bodies in different ways. Learning how to run uphill properly makes us stronger, navigating switchback bends makes us more agile, and picking up our feet to skim over rocks and roots helps train good running form.

Plus, the trail running culture and community are fun, supportive, and very outdoor focused. You never know, you might get sucked in and end up loving it.

Trail running can be a ton of fun and can bring you to some beautiful places.

Mix It Up

When I first started running, all I wanted to do was run. Only after several mandatory breaks due to overuse injuries did I discover I liked other outdoor sports too. Now I use a well-rounded combination of running, hiking, and biking to get my outdoor fix.

If you can realize this sooner than I did, you’ll be less at risk for injury. The variety of movement will help keep your body balanced and adaptable, and the extra outlet for your energy will help you resist the temptation to run too much, too soon. If you wanted to run today but your body feels a little heavy or stiff, maybe go for a hike or a bike ride instead.

What other types of movement do you enjoy? It could be anything from indoor rock climbing to swimming, cycling to zumba, kickboxing to ballet. It seems counter-intuitive, but most beginner runners will actually get better at running faster if they do something besides running from time to time.

Be Patient

No doubt about it, running can be addictive, especially in the early stages. The fast progress, the newfound sense of fitness and freedom, the abundance of online training advice, and the lure of races… It’s easy to feel like any progress worth making must be made NOW.

I’m here to tell you though, patience is key. Running will be there for you for a long time, IF you take it slow and care for your body. Here are some key ways to practice patience as a new runner:

  • Increase weekly mileage conservatively and safely
  • If you feel a new niggle, ache, or pain, back way off. Redirect your running energy to rehab and strength training. One skipped run now can save you weeks of downtime later.
  • Races are fun, but don’t go overboard. Running a race every weekend is a sure way to get injured. Pick one that’s several months in the future, train intentionally, and then take time after to recover and choose your next focus.

Be Open To Where Running Takes You

I don’t mean down the street or to the next town, though it’s good to be open to that too. I mean be open to new activities and ideas that enter your life because of running. Perhaps running is not the end-all-be-all activity for you, but a gateway into other sports and activities.

This very site that you are reading right now is a case study. After I got into running, and then trail running, and then ultrarunning… something about me changed. I started to feel more confident, more capable of dealing with unpleasant situations, more interested in exploring both myself and the world.

It was only a matter of time before that itch led to a lot of challenging solo travel, and eventually to travel by bicycle, which is currently my favorite thing ever. I still enjoy running, but I also appreciate all the other activities running has led me to. Where might it lead you?

Enjoy the Journey

We all have our reasons for running. Some are positive: it makes us feel good, we like being outdoors, we enjoy the sense of accomplishment from steady improvement.

Some reasons, let’s be honest, are not always as positive: we want a different type of body, we want to prove something to ourselves or others, we’re afraid of poor health.

All these reasons are ok, in my opinion, even the less positive ones. Running can be a path of self-exploration, learning, and ultimately self acceptance, if we’re open to it.

At the end of the day, running is something we choose to do, and it’s up to us to make sure it serves us in a positive way. If you’re serious about maximizing both your progress and your fun factor, I hope these tips will help you on your journey.

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About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa, founder of Exploring Wild. I’ve had the pleasure of hiking the Arizona Trail, Colorado Trail, John Muir Trail, Tahoe Rim Trail, and countless shorter amazing trails throughout the US and abroad. I love solitude, big views, and a good lightweight gear setup. Learn more here.

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