Thinking about running, but not sure how to start? Like most things, mustering up the motivation to begin training is the hardest part of the whole process. That’s not to say there won’t be other “hurdles” along the way, but once you’ve caught the bug, you’ve got it for good.

How to Start Running: Set Your Intention

First thing’s first. Why are you running in the first place? Are you looking to lose weight, boost endurance, or train for a race to indulge in a little healthy competition? There is no right or wrong answer to this question, although your specific goals will determine how you go about training. For the sake of this article, we’ll be walking you through some tips to establishing a sustainable running program, and training for the ultimate beginner runner’s test: the 5K.

Training Starts With Your Mindset

There are a million different training manuals, programs, and how-tos that break down the best workout to optimize performance, but none of this means anything without the right mindset. 

Take it from someone who has competed in several marathons, running never really gets “easy.” Improvements in performance, distance, and endurance can absolutely be made, but this is a sport that puts some necessary wear and tear on your body, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t get off to a super-strong start. Instead, go into your training program knowing that you have some serious work to do—but make sure to reward yourself every step of the way!

Start Easy: Walk, Then Run

If you’re starting from scratch as it were, it’s highly beneficial to begin with some brisk walks and slow jogs before integrating a weekly running program into your schedule. Since most beginner running schedules aim to get you out on the track, trail, or sidewalk three days a week, this program can be tailored to the complete novice in a similar way. 

To begin, choose three days throughout the week to train, with some rest days in between. If your goal is to run Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, start out by walking the distance you plan to run first. If you feel capable of doing this right off the bat, try a walk-jog of the distance to see how you fare. From here, you can move on to running, with some walking where necessary, to get you on the path to a solid routine.

How Many Miles to Start?

In our scenario, which is quite common among those just starting out, we’re basing our training on the famous 5K race. By the time your race comes around, you should be able to not only run the full distance of the race, but an extra mile too. This will only make your performance in the event that much better. Although your goal may not be to win the race, it’s a great way to engage in some healthy competition with yourself. It’s important to give yourself at least 7 weeks to train before your race, as you need sufficient time to build up endurance.

All of this is to say—the first few weeks of training will have you running no more than 1–2 miles per training day, max. Moving forward, you’ll eventually work your way up to 3 miles, and hopefully 4 before your race date.

However, for the very beginner, it’s often advised to first plan your runs based on time, rather than mileage. So instead of running a mile, you’d run for, say, 20 minutes, and then build up from there. Not only is this easier to keep track of, but it focuses on what’s most important: just getting out there!

Nutrition and Hydration Are Essential

This can’t be stressed enough; proper nutrition and hydration are key. Not only to ensure you have enough energy, but to keep your body functioning properly, to boost recovery, and to prevent the onset of muscle damage. While specific dietary requirements will vary based on the individual, it’s generally recommended to eat a small, carbohydrate-rich meal up to an hour before running, and then a protein- and potassium-rich meal following exercise. 

As for hydration, you should be drinking water before, after, and likely during your run. Don’t lean on sports drinks, but feel free to use them after running on a very hot day or when doing high-intensity interval training. After all, healthy levels of electrolytes equate to better performance and recovery. 

Don’t Stress Form

Visit any runner’s forum and you’ll be bombarded by a flurry of debates over “proper” running form. Should you heel strike, toe strike, mid-foot strike? Ultimately, studies have shown that there is no one particular form that is “correct,” with Director of Clinical Education at Columbia University RunLab Dr. Colleen M. Brough going so far as to say, “perfect running form is theoretical.” Moreover, your unique stride will be the result of your unique physiology, so there’s no use forcing yourself to run a certain way, especially as a beginner. This is more a recipe for injury than it is an asset to your race time.

Don’t Overstretch!

Stretching is essential for maintaining flexibility into our later years, but too much stretching before and after running is actually more detrimental than the alternative. Furthermore, static stretches—those where you hold the same stretch in the same position for an extended period—are thought to do more harm than good. On the other hand, dynamic stretches like lunges and squats are likely more advantageous to helping you achieve your goals. 

It’s Time to Create Your Running Program

Now that you have a better idea of what it takes to get started and keep consistent with a running program, it’s time to make one of your very own. This can be as simple as starting with a 20-minute run three days per week, then adding an extra 3–5 minutes to each run with every passing week. By the end of a 7-week training program, you’ll be well-prepared and confident to tackle your 5K—and then some!