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home > training > c25k: couch to 5k > first steps

First Steps
A patient and conservative approach to your new running routine will make your workouts easier, safer and, yes, even enjoyable.

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By Josh Clark
Posted Friday, 24 October, 1997

The cardinal rule of the new runner is Be Patient. Your body needs time to adapt to this new activity you're asking of it. It may be uncomfortable at first, but you'll begin to see results fairly quickly. All the same, it's important to build gradually. Newcomers should follow these three rules:

  • Run more slowly than you think you should.
  • Don't run as far as you think you should.
  • Run more often than you think you should.

We know, we know: you're brimming with enthusiasm about your new running career. You're even surfing the Web looking for tips. You probably can't wait to start seeing the results, to start pushing your limits for maximum improvement in the minimum time. Be patient.

Before you sprint out the door...>

A standard precaution is that anyone over the age of 35 should have a stress test and a full medical examination before running. Request an electrocardiogram recorded before, during and after exercise. Those under 35 who have risk factors for heart disease should also be tested (this means people with high blood pressure, a history of smoking, or a family history of heart disease). You should also consult a doctor before beginning an exercise program if you meet any of the following conditions:

  • You have pains or pressure in the left of midchest area, left neck, shoulder or arm during or immediately after exercise.
  • You often feel faint or have spells of severe dizziness after mild exertion.
  • Your doctor has said that you have bone or joint problems, such as arthritis.

The bottom line is to use common sense and be careful. You don't have to be in perfect shape to start running; that's probably the reason you've picked it up. All the same, get your doctor's go-ahead if you have any doubts about your health.

Ease into running>

If you start by running too far, too fast, you'll wind up burned out at best, injured at worst. Possibly both. Take it easy, and give yourself time to learn to love to run. It doesn't happen immediately, and you'll probably experience a few aches and pains starting out. This is natural, and it will pass. It takes your body time to get used to what you're doing. Give it the time it needs. Like so many other things in life, running can be difficult and discouraging if not undertaken properly.

Use the "talk test" to figure out if your pace is appropriate. You should be able to talk comfortably while running; slow it down if you're running out of breath. Don't hesitate to alternate running and walking; if you feel lousy, take a breather and walk for a while. It's not a sign of weakness, just common sense.

The aim is to "train, not strain." If you are already fit from another sport, such as cycling or swimming, it is still important to go a little easier at first than you might want to. It is too easy to push yourself past what your muscles and joints can stand at first.

How much is the right amount? Try our nine-week beginner program to build up to 3-mile runs.

The basics of good form>

As a beginner, you don't need to get too preoccupied with the finer details of form, but here are some general pointers. Most distance runners land on their heels or midfoot and roll forward to the toe. Running up on the toes, by contrast, tends to be the form of sprinters. You'll find that if you try to run on your toes for too far that your shins will probably start hurting and your calves will get tight. Never fear, it shouldn't take much concentration for you to stick with the heelstrike, since most find it the most natural stride when running at an easy pace. Likewise, when you sprint, you'll likely find yourself up on your toes without even thinking about it. Our bodies typically handle this naturally without much conscious attention.

As you run, try to keep your hands at waist level, right about where they might lightly brush your hip bones. It's not uncommon to see beginners, especially as they get tired, holding their hands way up by their chest. Trouble is, this posture tends to create tension in your arms which travels up through your shoulders. You actually get more tired holding your arms that way.

Keep your hands relaxed. You might try touching your thumb and fingers lightly together, as if holding a pencil. The idea is to keep your arms and hands as relaxed and comfortable as possible while on the run.

Keep your posture straight and erect. Head up, back straight, shoulders level. Check your posture once in a while. As you get tired toward the end of the run, it's common to slouch a little, which can be a minor contributor to shin splints and lower-back pain.

Avoid bouncing. Too much up-and-down movement is wasted energy and can be hard on your feet and legs. Try to land softly on your feet, almost as if running on eggshells. The idea is to maintain an economy of motion, with every action dedicated to keeping you moving forward. That goes for your arms, too: no need for exaggerated arm-pumping (except for on the occasional hill). While some side-to-side arm swinging is natural, try to limit it -- there's no reason for your hands to cross your navel on the run, for example.

How do I breathe?>

Many new runners are preoccupied with their breathing as they run their first few miles. We get questions about whether it's best to breathe in through the mouth or through the nose, about how quickly a runner should breathe, about the proper shape of the mouth when exhaling.

Don't worry about it. As a new runner, there's no need to concern yourself with the modest performance benefits to be gained from subtle breathing patterns. You've been breathing all your life, and your body will figure out the best way to get the air it needs. Just breathe as naturally as possible and put it out of your mind.

If you're running in cold weather, though, you may experience a kind of burning sensation from the cold air. Breathing through the nose can help compensate for this, as can breathing through a scarf or turtleneck.

Make it a habit>

The important thing in the first few weeks is to get in the habit of exercise. Develop a training routine and make it part of your schedule. It doesn't matter where or when, but try to be consistent. Find a training partner if possible; on days when motivation is low, a commitment to meet your partner will help keep you going. If you do run with a partner it should be someone of similar fitness. Joining a club that caters to beginners can help with motivation and be a good source of advice and coaching.


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