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Essential Primer for Beginning Runners

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When I was a kid, the only running that interested me was how fast I can run compared to my friends at school.  Speed was all that mattered.  As kids, we didn’t have any concept of endurance.  We ran when we felt like and stopped when we felt like.

When an adult is considering a regimented running program, the goal is building endurance.  Since you are not used to running regularly, then chances are you will find it difficult to sustain an effort for a prolonged period.  But don’t despair!  Everyone can develop their endurance.  It’s how you do it that matters.

Important Matters First

First and foremost, get a checkup from your physician and clearance that it is safe to begin an exercise program.  It does not matter what your age is or if you believe you are healthy.  Play it safe in case you have a hidden medical issue.  Any advice offered here assumes you have clearance from your doctor to exercise.  If you have any medical conditions that require medical monitoring, follow your doctor’s advice.

Your Most Important Attributes

Quite simply, there are a couple of things you need to succeed—patience and discipline.

Don’t worry about how fast you are running.  Don’t worry if people are walking faster than you.  Don’t worry about strangers passing judgment (because it’s all in your head unless you’re dealing with immature teenagers).

Just have the discipline to stick with your plan.  Before you know it, you will have gradually attained your intermediate goals and can look back at how far you’ve come.

Fastest and Easiest Way to Get Fit

Running is one of the easiest and fastest ways to get fit.

Minimal Equipment

The main thing you need is a good pair of running shoes.  When I say a good pair, I don’t necessarily mean an expensive one.  The most expensive shoes are not necessarily the best ones for you individually.

What matters is that the shoe is right for your gait, your running style, and your weight.  I will leave purpose out of this because beginners are not thinking about speed training or trail running.  The main concern is how the shoes will make your feet feel as you reliably build up your mileage over time.

For more information on how to choose the right running shoes, click on this article.

Other than shoes, running attire may come into consideration, but more so under less than ideal conditions.  Otherwise, a tee-shirt, shorts, and a good pair of socks is good enough on any nice day.  It’s best to choose clothing with wicking properties that “breathe”, so you won’t be soaked in sweat.  This is even more important in cold weather because wet clothes magnify wind chill.

For inclement weather, use layering.  In precipitation, use a water-resistant shell as the top layer.  In very cold weather, use a windbreaker as the top layer.  Although these top layers are not breathable, their function under these conditions are more important, especially the windbreaker to prevent chills.  You can always unzip during a run to allow perspiration to evaporate to remain dry.

You don’t have to join a gym and pay membership fees.  You don’t necessarily have to buy expensive specialized equipment.

Most Efficient Use of Your Time

At the same intensity, running burns the most calories per unit of time than any other form of exercise.  As you build your endurance, you’re devoting more time to each session.  The total calories burned per session will increase. This gives a multiplier effect to reducing your weight.

One of the beauties of running is that it can start the second you leave your residence and stop the second you return.  No time is wasted traveling to a destination before starting your exercise session.  Prep time is minimal, too.  Just change clothes, stretch, and head out.  It’s not a big production.

Food and Drink

 A good rule-of-thumb is waiting 2 hours after a heavy meal before engaging in sustained or intense physical activity, running or otherwise.  This is to make sure food is completely digested to prevent discomfort.  Lighter snacks won’t cause problems.

Another good rule-of-thumb is to drink at a least a glass of water or more before heading out.  If it is hot, drink 2 glasses or more, whatever you can handle without feeling too bloated.  Once you are fully warmed up and begin to sweat, this will keep you well-hydrated for the run.

Warming Up

I cannot stress this enough.  It is very important to warm up before jogging or running.  Not only does it prevent injuries, but also gradually adapts you into a good mental state.  Think about how out-of-breath you feel when you suddenly exert yourself and how unsustainable it is.  If you slowly work yourself into the pace, I guarantee you will feel much more comfortable.  Look forward to the warmup as a process to gradually bring yourself into workout mode.

I know that there are many so-called experts who parrot studies showing that stretching beforehand is not valuable.  But I will firmly disagree and here is the reason why.

The studies that reach such a conclusion measure the value of stretching by whether flexibility has been increased.  They observe subjects can reach further after exercise than before.  That is because your body is hot after exercise.  Heat makes your muscles more pliable.  Their conclusion is purely focused on whether stretching increases your flexibility.  And I agree it is useful after exercise.  But stretching before movement is not for increasing flexibility.  It serves a different purpose.

Have you ever sat for a long period of time and had to gingerly stand up and walk slowly?  What would happen if you suddenly jumped up?  Think of an even more severe example like sitting or kneeling on the floor for some time.  When your joints and muscled are stiff from being in one position for a long time, sudden forceful movement may result in an injury.  You may hear someone describe it as a “pop” somewhere in their joints.

This is why you need to slowly stretch before running.  The goal is to get your muscles and joints gradually moving to full range of motion.  It also releases some tension in certain muscles that may be holding their grip from certain prolonged positions.  It also gets the blood circulating, sort of waking up your muscles, ligaments, and tendons for the physical work to come.

What about those who advocate jogging lightly first to bring up your body temperature, then stretch?  Again, this recommendation is misplaced.  It is still predicated on the belief that the only value of stretching is to increase your flexibility.  If you jump right into the activity even if it’s slow, you still have not eliminated the need to move your joints through their full range of motion first to avoid injury.

The bottom line is you never know which muscles or joints are tight, so it is safest to move them all through their full range of motion before any exertion at any level.  Warming up has nothing to do with improving how far you can stretch.

After slowing stretching out, begin your run by jogging slowly.  Use 10 minutes to gradually bring your pace up to a sustainable aerobic pace.  Start a slow as you need.  By the 5-minute mark, your pulse should be around 120 beats per minute.  By the 10-minute mark, you should be at your aerobic pace.


What is your aerobic pace?  Basically, it is a pace where you are breathing deeply and rhythmically but can comfortably carry a conversation.  You should feel like you can carry this pace for some time.  You’re not laboring nor hyperventilating.  You’re working, but you can sustain the workload.

Remember, you are not training to run faster.  You are training to run farther at a comfortable pace.  And you will extend that distance over time.  This should be your primary goal as a beginning runner.  It’s about finishing, not finishing fast.


 Most beginning runners overstride.  Make a conscious effort to land your foot under your hips, not in front of them.  When done properly, you’ll notice that either the balls of your feet touch the ground first with the heel touching down afterwards or your feet land somewhat flat to the ground.  Beginning runners who overstride tend to land on their heels.

But it’s alright if you can’t help but land on your heels.  It takes time to adapt.  And this is the reason why some shoes are designed for heel-strikers.  They usually have more padding under the heels.  Usually, the heels are higher than the mid-soles.  Even if you are striking the ground mid-foot first if you were barefoot, the thicker heels will touch the ground at the same time or first.  As you progress in your running, you’ll naturally start to consider different shoe designs when the time comes.

When you shorten your stride and have your feet land under your hips, you’ll notice it’s easier and more efficient.  Your turnover is smoother and quicker.  You’re not lumbering.  It feels like downshifting to a right gear.

Imagine running light.  I see some people stomping the ground and lumbering along.  Usually, it’s a heavier runner with overpronation.  It’s very inefficient and a recipe for injury.  But if you happen to be a heavier runner, don’t despair.  Do the best you can to correct your technique and choose shoes with the right support.  It will eventually improve as you become fitter and more efficient, but it will take time.  Don’t give up!

Arm carriage is a personal preference.  Don’t be afraid to experiment or switch positions for several minutes.  You may find more comfort with a higher arm carriage or a lower arm carriage or something in-between.  Just don’t swing them excessively sideways which dissipates energy that can be used to propel you forward instead.


Breathe through both your nose and mouth and from the diaphragm.  This means fill your lungs from the bottom up.  Let it happen naturally.  Don’t force it.  Your belly expands from inhalation, not your chest.  Observe the way you breathe when you are relaxing in a chair.  It’s a deep breath while your belly expands.  This helps you relax while you are running.  It takes practice because most people will expand their chest by reflex when they need more air.  But that tightens your neck, chest, and shoulder muscles and creates discomfort.

Side Stitches

When you begin running, you may experience side stitches.  It takes some time and gradual adaptation to rid yourself of them.

There are two main reasons why we get side stitches.  The first is our diaphragm which is our breathing muscle is not accustomed to operating under constant abdominal stress.  The second is it needs to be trained to relax under stress so it can do its job effectively.

A surefire way to reduce and end side stitches is to strengthen the abdominals.  Regular ab work including the side abs will strengthen the muscles that support the diaphragm.

And using the correct belly breathing technique while running, as described above, will help you relax your diaphragm, preventing side stitches.

How Far?

If you are in good health already, you should be able to run for 20 minutes at your aerobic pace without stopping, after a 10-minute gradual warmup jog-to-run.

But everyone is different.  You may find that you can only run 10 minutes without stopping.  That’s alright!  It’s not a contest.  Be patient and disciplined.

What if You Can’t Even Run a Mile?

If you can’t even run a mile, here is a plan to help you run a mile without stopping.

If you can’t measure out a mile, don’t worry.  Approximate with time.  Roughly 10 minutes is a good start.  Go through your warmup routine.  Then alternate walking a minute and jogging a minute at your aerobic pace.  Repeat 5 times for a total of 10 minutes.  Finally, finish with the cool down process explained later in this article.  Do this 3 times a week.

The next week, perform the same routine, but shorten the walking periods by 15 seconds and extend the jogging periods by 15 seconds.  The next week, shorten and lengthen by another 15 seconds.  In 2 more weeks, you’ll be running 10 minutes without stopping.

From here, to build up to 20 minutes without stopping, run the first 10 minutes and walk/run the second the same way as above.  Reduce the walk and expand the run by 15 seconds each week for the second 10 minutes until continuous running.

Distance or Time?

Most people default to distance, but I advocate using time instead.  Here’s why?  Different variables can affect your effort.  You may have a bad day.  You may be stressed out.  You may be tired from other commitments.  The weather may be factor.

Consistency in your effort is what counts.  If you ran 20 minutes at your prescribed aerobic pace, you did exactly this.  If you used 2 miles instead of 20 minutes as your measurement, what if it was cold and windy during a workout and it took you longer than 20 minutes at the same effort?  Well, you have effectively placed more volume onto your total workout time.  And if you were feeling great, then you’ve short-changed your total workout time by finishing 2 miles in less than 20 minutes.  This unpredictability affects your steady progression.  You may overtrain or undertrain at certain times.

If you use time as a measurement, your workload is more controlled for steady progress.  Eventually, when you get in better shape, you’ll notice you’re covering more mileage in the same time.  By then, knowing your average pace per mile, you will have an accurate estimate of how far you are running.

So don’t worry about how far you are running.  Trust the process and it will take care of itself.

How Do You Increase Your Volume?

From your starting point, I recommend running 3 times per week.  Increase your time by 10% each week.  So if you are starting at 20 minutes (after a 10 minute warmup), increase it to 22 minutes.

Repeat this 10% increase for 2 weeks which would make take you to week 3—20 minutes for week 1, 22 minutes for week 2, and 24.2 minutes (well, I’ll round it to 24) for week 3.  For week 4, go back to the same time as week 1.

Week 4 is an active recovery week.  It gives you a physical and mental break, something to look forward to.  You’ll feel like you are just going through the motions that week because you’re confident that you can easily take on these 3 sessions.

Now, in the next 4 weeks, you will repeat the climb, but you’re starting from 22 minutes for week 1, 24 minutes for week 2, and 26.6 minutes (well, I’ll round it to 27 minutes) for week 3.  And for week 4, go back down to 22 minutes as in week1.

This gradual progression helps your body to slowly acclimate to running on a regular basis.  Over time, the distance or time covered will also sneak up on you.  Before you know it, you’re so used to the routine that you will be amazed how comfortable you feel running longer distances.

How far do you take this volume?  It depends on your goals.  For most people, an hour is enough.  Remember, we’re just trying to build the base level of aerobic fitness.  After that, you should be fit enough to mix in some variety with shorter, higher intensity workouts if you want.  Running up to 2 hours takes a lot out of you and saps your carbohydrate stores.  It takes time to recover from such efforts.  Unless you are trying to run a marathon, it’s not necessary to take your long runs that far on a regular basis.

If you do the math, you’ll see that going through the 4-week cycles will take some time to progress to a level of consistent endurance.  Remember the most important attributes?  Patience and discipline.  If you stick to the regimen, you can get there.  None of your runs are painful in nature where you are mentally wondering when will the pain stop?  You may end up looking forward to them as time to clear your mind.

What If You Have a Setback?

What if you get sick during training?  What if you have little sleep due to other commitments?

Don’t sweat it!  Take the time off that you need.

Don’t work out if you are sick.  Instead, take the time to recover faster.  When you return to your training, drop it down to the prior 4-week cycle to work your way back and regain your strength.

If you lack sleep, it depends on how much and how long.  If it’s short-term, flex your running schedule.  If it’s cumulative, get the rest you need first, then drop down to the prior 4-week cycle to regain your strength.  The longer the gap, the further back you need to drop to prior cycles.

If you took several months off, you may find you need to start all over again.  But that’s alright!  The goal is to get your fitness to a new steady state.  This means accepting there will always be ups and downs.  It would be pointless to rush back to where you were every time there’s a setback.  Once you accept they will happen, you’ll realize there’s no rush to return to form.  It will eventually return.

Cooling Down

Finally, always leave time for a slow cool down jog of 5 minutes.  Use this to bring your heart rate down to 120 beats per minute.  At an aerobic intensity level, 5 minutes is usually enough.

After this, put on some warm clothes.  Stretch your muscles out.  Now is the time to improve flexibility since your muscles are warm.  Use a wall to elevate your feet for a couple of minutes.


It’s also a good time for an immediate healthy recovery snack with some protein and carbohydrates.  Immediately after a workout is the best time for your muscles to replenish their carbohydrate stores.  Eat a meal within 2 hours.  Keep it healthy though.  That’ll help you feel better for future workouts.

This fueling process helps your muscles recover faster and be ready for the next workout.  With endurance training over time, your muscles and liver will be conditioned to store more of the carbs you eat as glycogen in anticipation of the next workload from training.  They will also spare these carbs knowing that you will need to dose them over the entire length of your workout.  Although the more fit you are, the more carbs can be stored, there is still a finite limit.  Your body will learn how to increase fat burning for fuel to offset.

The human body burns carbs and fat for fuel simultaneously.  The more the aerobic system is trained for endurance, the more fat is used in this mixture and the less carbs.  The carbohydrate sparing is to prevent the “bonk”, a state where carbs are depleted and the body shuts down.  Energy levels decrease dramatically and you start to get the chills.


So, this is how you build endurance.  Train to increase your aerobic endurance, so your body learns to recalibrate its fat/carb fuel mixture.  This is your body’s way to prevent you from “bonking” and ensure you can go the distance.  As you can see, this is not something that can happen overnight.  It takes time and acclimation to reach this new steady state of conditioning.  Patience and discipline.  You’ll be there before you know it.  Enjoy the journey!

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