Getting started

The author, among meskal flowers in Ethiopia; photo by Grethe Petersen

The author, among meskal flowers in Ethiopia

Every runner was once a beginner.  Don’t feel that the rest of us were born with running shoes on, and that you have missed your chance. There is no “too late” to start running, and many regular runners take it up in their forties or later.  Running is simple, cheap and easy, while at the same time being one of the best ways yet invented to get fit, lose weight, improve your self-confidence and meet new friends.

One of the great advantages of running as a sport is that you don’t need much to get started.  There is no significant equipment to buy (in Chapter 3 we will look at buying running shoes and a sports bra).  Nor is there a difficult technique to master.  You don’t have to find a group of people to run with (though you may want to do this later on) and you can run at any time of day that suits you.  The only thing you need to start running is to decide that it is what you want to do.

“The miracle isn’t that I finished . . . The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”

John Bingham – “The Penguin”

You may meet runners from time to time who began running at school, and perhaps were track stars or cross-country champions, and who have kept it up ever since.  But the majority of the runners have taken it up later in life, often in their thirties or forties.  Some runners begin when they retire from work.  They universally find that running gives them a new hobby, new friends and a whole new outlook on life.

Running is a great way to get to know a city!  Not only do you get to meet some of the locals but by running through the streets, you learn your way around and even find some cool places you never knew existed!  Both of these aspects of help to make you feel part of the city!

Kathleen Broekhof, 28, from Toronto

Seeking medical advice

In my view, you should also see a doctor in advance of running if you are significantly overweight (that is, if you have a Body Mass Index over 30 – see Chapter 6), or if you might be pregnant.  Use your common sense; and if you are in doubt, go to your doctor.

See your doctor if any of these apply to you:

  • Your doctor said you have a heart condition and recommended only medically supervised physical activity.
  • During or right after you exercise, you frequently have pains or pressure in the left or mid-chest area, left neck, shoulder or arm.
  • You have developed chest pain within the last month.
  • You tend to lose consciousness or fall over due to dizziness.
  • You feel extremely breathless after mild exertion.
  • Your doctor recommended you take medicine for your blood pressure or a heart condition.
  • Your doctor said you have bone or joint problems that could be made worse by the proposed physical activity.
  • You have a medical condition or other physical reason not mentioned here which might need special attention in an exercise programme (for example, insulin-dependent diabetes).
  • You are middle-aged or older, have not been physically active, and plan a relatively vigorous exercise programme.
  • If none of these is true for you, you can start on a gradual, sensible programme of increased activity tailored to your needs. If you feel any of the physical symptoms listed above when you start your exercise programme, contact your doctor right away. If one or more of the above is true for you, an exercise-stress test may be used to help plan an exercise programme.

American Heart Association Exercise (Physical Activity) AHA Scientific Position, 1999

Do I need to see a physiotherapist?

Less obvious than seeing a doctor, you might also consider seeing a sports physiotherapist before beginning a running programme.  A physio can help to identify features of your running style and which could, if you run regularly, eventually lead to an injury.  For more information about physiotherapy, see Chapter 8.

Starting out

So you’ve decided to start running, and you’ve taken medical advice if you need it.  You’ve jumped ahead to Chapter 3 and bought yourself running shoes and a sports bra.  Now what?

If you are completely new to running, you should not try to do too much at first.  A common error is to think that you should run flat out. As we’ll see in the training plan later in this chapter, you should begin by walking, in order to get used to being on your feet.  You should build up to running over several weeks, and then only for a few minutes at a time.

At this stage in your running, you should stick rigorously to the talk test: if you cannot talk in complete sentences during your training runs, you are running too fast.

Avoiding injury when you start running

Experience shows that many people who are new to running end up with minor injuries in the first six months of running.  These injuries are frequently related trying to do too much, or having the wrong shoes. For many runners, injury comes just at the time when they are beginning to love their new sport, and it can be very frustrating to have to ease off or stop completely.

  • walk for the first month;
  • build up slowly; never increase your weekly mileage by more than 2 miles or 10%, whichever is greater;
  • get proper running shoes from a specialist running shop;
  • run on grass or trails rather than roads and pavements;
  • get advice from experienced runners;
  • ignore the feeling in your first three months that you could be doing more;

It is sensible to start running for short times and distances at first, and then gradually build up.  The reason for this is that your body takes time to adapt to running.  When you start to run, your cardiovascular fitness increases, your muscles become stronger, and your joints and ligaments adapt to the impact of daily running. But your overall fitness level and energy can increase faster than your joints have adapted. If you get carried away, you may start to run longer and faster before your joints and ligaments are really ready, with the result that you may injure yourself.  In one study of reasonably fit people who started to run almost all of them became injured at some time in the third month of training.[i] These problems are entirely avoidable, with just a little patience and willingness to learn from experience.

In order to avoid injury, you need to hold back from running too much at first even if you feel ready to go further and faster.  In particular, it is a good idea to start off with a month of brisk walking, rather than running.  This helps your body to adapt to the effect of regular impact of your feet on the ground, before you start to increase your running mileage.

One perennial problem is the runners who decide (often as a New Year’s resolution) that they are going to run a marathon. At my running club, we get a huge influx of runners every January who have decided to train for the London Marathon, which is in April.  By March, many of them have dropped out through injury. Four months is simply too short to build up to the distances needed to train for a marathon.  First-timers would be much better off building up more slowly, perhaps running half marathon later in the year, and aiming for a marathon the following year.

At the end of this chapter, we’ll have a look at a training programme to get you started safely from scratch.


[i] Tim Noakes, ‘The Lore of Running’, Oxford University Press, 2001, p423.

2 Responses to Getting started

  • katherine janes:

    thanks for your advice I ran when I was younger but have totally forgotten everything and am very overweight .

    I need to be patient, thanks

  • Kim:

    Thanks for this section. Too many running books/sites assume that we are all ‘runners.’ A few years back, when I turned 50, I decided to run in a local half-marathon. Of course I should train, so I threw on some tennis shoes and decided to start slow — just a couple of miles. Out of shape and overweight, I was still shocked when I was gasping and staggering after I had only gone about 20 feet. I was even more shocked when I decided to find guidance on the Internet; even sites that advertised ‘beginner’ or ‘couch potato’ training plans assumed I could run a continuous mile! That’s not my definition of a couch potato! So many sites don’t seem to be able to imagine that someone 60 pounds overweight, or who spent the previous 50 years NOT running, or BOTH, could ever aspire to run.

    I eventually discovered John “The Penguin” Bingham and Jeff Gallowary, built a walking base, and then started adding some running. The day I ran a continuous quarter mile is still a favorite memory, as well as crossing the finish line of the half-marathon. Thanks for recognizing that not all of us are ready-made athletes and that we can start small and still achieve our goals.

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