Running can sometimes seem like both the simplest and most complicated thing. You feel like you should just be able to tie up your shoes and sprint out the door. But too many beginner runners do just that — and then they can’t figure out how to keep up the pace or why they get injured. Pretty soon they’re stuck and discouraged.
Going from running 100 yards to running a 5K can quickly feel overwhelming: What about running gear and shoes, how long do I run as a beginner, how many days and miles, how do I get started running? Is sprinting out the door really the best approach?
First off: No, it’s not. For someone looking to start running, a Usain Bolt-style dash isn’t going to take you the distance. Take a big breath and stick with the plan. Slow, steady, consistent progression from walking to run-walk to running will keep beginner runners from getting injured or stalled.
“If you do too much too soon, you set yourself up for overtraining or getting injured,” says Chelsea Denlinger, MS, former track and cross country runner and certified personal trainer who trains clients through Kickoff.
And if you get injured, are too sore from overtraining, or too exhausted, you’ll stop and won’t progress. Studies show you’re more likely to stick with exercise if you actually enjoy it and if you have a specific plan for what you’re going to do (even down to planning an enjoyable nature-friendly route and what music you’ll listen to on your run).
To get started running, you should follow a specific plan — like the one we have for you below. It progresses from four to six weeks of a run-walk plan to gradually adding more running without walk breaks. It also incorporates core and leg strength so you can avoid injury and build muscular strength and endurance.
Remember: It was the turtle, not the hare who won the race.
How to Start Running as a Beginner
It may sound counterintuitive to start running by walking, but the run-walk method, popularized by Olympian Jeff Galloway, is proven effective. One study found that while marathoners who used a run-walk method finished just 7 minutes slower on average than runners who ran the entire time (4:07 v. 4:14 for 26.2 miles), the run-walkers reported less muscle pain and fatigue.
The reason that’s important for how you start running — even if you’re not about to do a marathon — is because less pain and fatigue means you’ll be able to keep building up your running and are more likely to stick with it. There’s lots of evidence that how you feel at the end of your run will affect how you feel about that run, and make you more apt to keep at it when it makes you feel good.
Even experienced runners utilize the run-walk for a number of reasons: It helps load your tendons, muscles, and joints without putting too much extra stress on them. This allows you to build up the training load gradually and lets your feet, ankles, and legs adapt to the impact of running without causing injury. Run-walk also keeps your overall heart rate and effort levels manageable, which means you can do more to build fitness. Just sprinting for 15 seconds and then being done for the day isn’t going to help you build up fitness.
Run-walk is fairly simple: It means you alternate a few minutes of walking with a couple minutes of running, and repeat for your entire workout. As you progress your training over four to six weeks, you increase the amount of time you’re running and decrease the amount of time you’re walking.
Denlinger will have athletes who have some background in running but are coming back after a long break or those who have more overall fitness start with one or two minutes of walking and one minute of running, repeated. If you’re a brand new runner or don’t have as much of a fitness background, then she starts with three minutes of walking and one minute of running, repeated.
The important thing is to keep the running portions very easy — this is not sprinting — and not to increase too much each week, or else you can overload the muscles as they’re adjusting to the new stress and could get injured. A general rule of thumb, says Denlinger, is to increase the total amount of work by just 10% per week.
How to Prevent Injuries as You Start Running
One of the main reasons many coaches utilize a run-walk method for beginner runners (or runners returning to running) is because it helps prevent injuries. Studies show that new or beginner runners get injured at more than twice the rate of experienced runners. To avoid injury, build up gradually and integrate strength and recovery into your training.
Once a runner is injured, says Denlinger, they have a tendency to change how they run in order to avoid what hurts. This is called compensating, and it can cause additional injuries.
This is also where strength work comes in handy. “Running alone doesn’t give you strength or range of motion,” says Nate Helming, a former running coach and head of content and engagement for Fleet Feet, a running retail store.
New runners need to build up strength in their calves and feet, and develop glute and postural strength to maintain their form as they run more. Helming recommends exercises like squats, lunges, clamshells, push-ups, planks, and burpees. (Find more below in our training plan.)
The most common new runner ailments tend to be calf soreness, plantar fasciitis, IT band issues, runner’s knee, and shin splints. Many of these can be alleviated by:
getting fit with appropriate-for-you running shoes and a possible gait analysis done by an experienced salesperson at a running shoe store
keeping track of the number of miles you put in while wearing your running shoes, and getting new ones every 400–500 miles
strength and mobility work
building up repetitive stress on your joints
allowing your body to recover
A good get-started running plan includes workouts designed to progress your fitness incrementally and time for your body to recover and adapt to those workouts.
“Learn how to do self-care,” says Mike Olzinski, a fitness and running coach. He means light stretching after your workouts, rolling out your legs and back with a foam roller, and integrating mobility exercises like yoga or Pilates into your routine.
It’s also important to take rest days to let your body recover and adapt. It takes multiple weeks of training and rest cycles to allow the key physical adaptations in your body to happen. Your muscles actually repair and grow stronger during rest, after the work is done.
What Does Good Running Form Mean?
Running form refers to your body’s biomechanics — the coordinated motions involved in running: how your arms move, how your quads (the muscles on the front of your thighs) propel the lower leg forward before it strikes the ground, how each foot falls when you make contact with the ground, and so on.
Another plug for run-walk for beginners: Short periods of running (one to two minutes at a time) allow you to focus on using good running form. This helps prevent injury and helps you go farther, faster as you build up. While everyone’s running form is slightly different — don’t worry about trying to look like someone else! — there are a few general running cues that Denlinger has her runners focus on:
Don’t let your arms cross your body; they should just go up and down from chin to hip.
Don’t hunch over when you run. A good test is to lean slightly forward from the ankles, not the hips.
If you’re struggling with breathing and huffing and puffing, practice breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.
Don’t have your foot fall too far out in front of you. Try to keep your feet more under your body.
Olzinski uses a few short running drills at the end of run-walk workouts to help beginner runners learn how to run with good form:
Note: These are not things you should do while you’re actually running. You don’t want to run around skipping! They’re drills that can be done once or twice a week at the end of a workout. They’ll help your body and muscles engage different aspects of the run motion, and practice them in a magnified way. Don’t worry about doing them if you’re having a hard time getting started. But as you progress and want to work on getting the running motion down, do 10 seconds of each drill, twice through.
Our Beginner ‘How to Start Running’ Training Plan
As you start this beginner running plan, it’s important to keep the running easy. One of the most common issues new runners face is struggling to run slow enough so they’re able to maintain the effort.
Denlinger also likes to mix up workouts throughout the week to include a longer run, an easy day, and a hillier or speedier day. Then, as you progress, you can keep the basic training structure from week to week.
Spend the first four to six weeks building up your run-walk before you include one day of short running per week (just 10 minutes of running). And then progress over another four to six weeks. It’ll take about eight to 12 weeks total to build from just starting running to either a 5K or 30 minutes of running nonstop.
Here’s an overview of what each week will look like in our beginner run-walk training plan:
Day 1: Easy run/walk
Day 2: Recovery: easy cross-training (like spin class, biking, swimming) or OFF
Day 3: Strength
Day 4: Hilly or faster run/walk
Day 5: Pilates, yoga, or OFF
Day 6: Longer run/walk
Day 7: Strength
Repeat this pattern each week, but progress the runs per the weekly instructions.
Easy run, Day 1: Start with 10 minutes of walking to warm up. Build up the effort to a brisk walk, then 16 minutes of 3 minutes walk/1 minute run, then a few drills, an easy walk cooldown and light stretching.
Hilly or faster run, Day 4: Pick a hilly route. Start with a walking warm-up, and then include 5 repeats (or 5x) of 30 seconds running up a gradual hill, with 60–90 seconds walking recovery. Finish with an easy walk cooldown and light stretching.
Longer run/walk, Day 6: 30 minutes total with a 10-minute walking warm-up and then alternating 3 minutes walk/1 minute run.
For week 1 on Day 3 and Day 7, do 2–3 sets of 10 of each exercise with 30–60 seconds rest with no weights:
Easy run, Day 1: 10 minutes of walking to warm up. Build up the effort to a brisk walk, then 20 minutes of 3 minutes walk/1 minute run, then a few drills, easy walking cooldown and light stretching.
Hilly or faster run, Day 4: 10-minute walking warm-up, 3x 1 minute run/2 minute walk, then 3x 15–30 seconds of slightly faster running with good running form, 60 seconds of easy walking to recover, walk cooldown and light stretching.
Long run, Day 6: 33 minutes total with a 10-minute walking warm-up and then alternating 3 minutes walk/1 minute run.
For week 2 on Day 3 and Day 7, do 2–3 sets of 10 of each exercise with 30–60 seconds rest with no weights:
Deadlifts (with just a light bar, no weights on it)
Easy run, Day 1: 10 minutes of walking to warm up. Build up the effort to a brisk walk, then 18 minutes of 2 minutes walk/1 minute run, then a few drills, easy walking cooldown and light stretching.
Hilly or faster run, Day 4: Pick a hilly route. Start with a walking warm-up, then include 5x 30 seconds running up a gradual hill with 60–90 seconds walking recovery, walk cooldown and light stretching.
Long run, Day 6: 36 minutes total with a 10-minute walking warm-up and then alternating 3 minutes walk/1 minute run.
For weeks 3 & 4 on Day 3 and Day 7, do 2–3 sets of 10 of each exercise with 30–60 seconds rest:
Deadlifts (with just a light bar, no weights on it)
Pull-ups, modified pull-ups, or rowing for postural strength
You can add dynamic movements and light weights in weeks three and four. This means holding 5–10 lb. dumbbells in both hands while squatting or lunging, or including a small jump at the end of your burpees.
Easy run, Day 1: 10 minutes of walking to warm up. Build up the effort to a brisk walk, then 21 minutes of 2 minutes walk/1 minute run, then a few drills, an easy walking cooldown and light stretching.
Hilly or faster run, Day 4: 10-minute walking warm-up, 3x 1 minute run/2 minute walk, then 4x 15–30 seconds of slightly faster running with good running form and 60 seconds of easy walking to recover, walk cooldown and light stretching.
Long run, Day 6: 40 minutes total with a 10-minute walking warm-up and then alternating 3 minutes walk/1 minute run.
Follow the same strength training plan as outlined above for week 3.
Why You Need Strength Training to Start Running
In addition to strengthening your calves, ankles, and feet, you also need to strengthen your core and upper body. This might seem odd, but: “When people get tired, their core weakens,” says Denlinger, which causes them to overextend their backs, hunch their shoulders, or run in other ways with poor form. This can cause injuries.
Weak outer thighs, for instance, are correlated with a higher rate of injury. By strengthening your core, back, hips, and shoulder muscles, you’ll build the overall resiliency you need to transition from run-walk to running.
What You Need to Start Running
Make sure you have a good pair of shoes. If you have a local running store — not a big box sporting goods store — then visit it. Staff at the local running store can help watch your running form, even put you through a gait analysis, and recommend shoes. It’s up to you, then, to test out those shoes and see what fits your feet best.
A good shoe, says Helming, should be almost unnoticeable, and there should be no pressure spots or hot spots. It’s a myth, he says, that running shoes need time to break in; a good shoe should not need time to break in. If it hurts or pinches, “that’s usually a sign that it’s probably not the right shoe for you,” he says.
Proper running clothes — an athletic wicking material shirt and shorts or tights —have been associated with sticking with a running plan because they’re more comfortable and make you feel like a real runner. A good pair of socks, Helming says, are also key to keeping your feet (and you!) happy. And, if you’re happy, then you’ll keep running. Body glide or vaseline can help prevent chafing (when clothing rubs your skin and creates irritation that hurts). And if you’re worried about the cold or dark, there’s gear for that, too.
But don’t get too overwhelmed with all the fancy watches, trackers, and heart rate monitors — at least not yet. There are lots of pieces of gear you can add to a run checklist, but: “don’t feel like you need that stuff to start,” says Olzinski.
Most importantly, you’ll need friends and rewards. Studies show you’re more likely to stick with a training plan if you have other friends or a beginner running group doing it with you. And small immediate rewards are key to building up a successful start to running. Pat yourself on the back, celebrate the victories along the way, or give yourself a reward at the end of the week.
Runners stick with running because they enjoy it. How do you start running if you’ve never started before? You have fun doing it.