Running is one of the UK’s most popular sports and one of its most popular leisure activities. Maybe it’s because it’s entertaining to watch, fun to do and very affordable. Maybe it’s because it allows people to cut down on their use of public transport without the need for them to find somewhere to store a bike when they’re not using it. Whatever your reason for wanting to get into running, the good news is, it’s really easy.
Your first decision - indoors, outdoors or both
If you want to race then you will need to do at least some of your training outdoors. If, however, you just want to run, then you can either run outdoors or run indoors on a treadmill. Here is a quick guide to the two different forms.
Running outdoors gets you out into the fresh air and can expose you to different terrains, even in a city, you may be able to run on gravel and grass as well as pavement. Out in the countryside you may have all kinds of options and some great scenery to enjoy. You will, however, have to deal with the weather and you will also have to think about safety.
Running indoors does not offer the same variety as running outdoors, although you can use entertainment to compensate for this. The cushioned running deck of a treadmill, however, is very kind on the joints and you can run in any kind of weather and without having to think about personal safety. You also have total control over the style of your workout, for example, you can add inclines when you want them rather than where they exist naturally.
It’s probably safe to say that all gyms everywhere in the world have at least one treadmill, in our experience, most have several, but if you’re really focussing on running, you may want to invest in a home treadmill. They come at several price points and almost all have a running deck which folds up out of use.
Shoes and Socks
There are two basic features of a good running shoe. One is comfort and the other is grip. When you’re running, comfort basically means good fit and good cushioning. Grip basically relates to the quality of the sole. Unless you already know for sure what sizes of what brands fit you perfectly, it’s probably a good idea to buy your first pair of running trainers in the real world (i.e. try them on properly) and then buy your follow-up ones online if you want.
If you’re worried about being “blinded by science” thrown at you by over-eager sales assistants, we have two pieces of advice. Firstly, go to a proper sports shop with a decent reputation. Secondly, remember that even the scientists say that comfort is the most important factor in a pair of running shoes. So basically the pair of running shoes which feel the best on your feet are the right ones for you.
Socks are as important as shoes and again you probably want to buy your first few pairs of running socks in the real world and then you can stock up online later once you know what works for you.
The obvious point about running socks is that they need to be breathable and ideally they need to wick moisture away from your foot. This not only prevents foot odour, it stops you from getting itchy feet.
The less obvious point about running socks is that they need to stay up. If they start to fall down and wrinkle not only will you be uncomfortable but you will almost certainly wind up with blisters. This means that running socks need to fit snugly without being tight (and cutting off your circulation).
If you have decent shoes and socks then you shouldn’t need these but they’re very affordable and can be easily stuck into the tiniest pocket so you might want to invest.
Weather protection and safety
If you’re running out of doors, you’re going to need to think about weather protection, both in summer (sunscreen and visors) and winter (layers). It’s a good idea to wear high-viz clothing all year round and to carry lights during the hours of darkness (mainly an issue in winter), you have white to the front and red to the back as with cars.
Getting started running
If you want to take running really seriously, then you will probably want to join a club and get a coach. If, however, you just want to run for fun, even if you want to take part in races, then you’ll probably do just fine simply going with your natural stride and letting it improve with practice.
Organizing your run
Runs do take a little bit of organization if you want to get the most out of them. The good news is that it’s all very simple.
Set your goals
This may be the biggest challenge especially for beginners. In the early days, you probably want to think in terms of time, instead of distance and you want to be realistic. If you’re of average fitness then a good weekly goal would be two runs of 20 to 30 minutes plus one run of 30 to 40 minutes, but you can always shade that down if you need to.
These days, many runners like to follow the run-walk method pioneered by the Olympian Jeff Galloway (now one of the world’s top coaches). The idea is to take regular “walk breaks” partly to give your muscles some recovery time and partly so that you never reach a stage where you are too exhausted to go on. Beginners can start with 10-30 seconds of running followed by 1-2 minutes of walking. You can then build this up, slowly, to as much as 6-8 minutes of running followed by 30 seconds to a minute of walking.
Eating and running
You want to have a pre-workout snack about an hour before your run and a post-workout snack about 15-minutes after your run. This is in addition to your usual meals, so if you’re scheduling your running around meal times, then adjust your food intake to reflect this. Your “workout calories” should be based around carbohydrates and protein to get your fuelled/refuelled without weighing you down.
The fuel reference should be taken literally. If you try to exercise without enough food inside you, your body will be too weak to cope with the exertion. Likewise, if you fail to refuel after exercise, your body will struggle to recover properly. In particular, if you lack protein, your muscles may not repair properly after being stretched and strained.
If you’re running for weight loss then, paradoxically, taking in the extra food at the right times will actually help you to burn off fat. Basically, it will give your body confidence to focus on the exercise rather than sending you “feed me” signals and you possibly feeling so hungry you just scoff down food and actually put on weight rather than losing it.
Those exercising for health/weight loss reasons might want to note that the effects of fat loss might be counterbalanced by the effects of muscle gain, which is actually great for health but may not seem that way when you stand on the scales. With that in mind, you might want to take your measurements as well so you have a record that you are slimming down even if your weight is still higher than you think it ought to be for the effort you’re putting in.
Stretching a point
Runners have a very low risk of acute muscle strains, so stretching before a run is, at best of limited benefit. If you enjoy it, do it, but if not, then you can pass on it. What does matter is to warm up the muscles slowly before doing anything strenuous so start at a walk or jog and then build up from there as your muscles become more relaxed and flexible.
Stretching after a run, however, is advisable for everyone as it eases out your muscles, allowing your joints to move more freely, cooling you down gradually and generally decreasing the risk of injury.
The three biggest issues faced by runners (other than blisters, which are largely preventable) are stitches, cramps and plantar fasciitis.
The cause of a stitch is usually poor posture, especially slouching and the solution is usually to straighten up. If, however, the pain persists, then it could be the sign of a heart issue, especially if it is on the left-hand side of your body.
The cause of cramps is usually failure to warm up properly and/or setting off too fast (which is more or less the same thing), especially in a race. The solution is usually to stretch the painful limb(s).
Plantar fasciitis is usually caused by constant pounding on hard surfaces leading to micro-tears in the muscles, especially the ligaments. The way to avoid it is to use really good footwear, but if you do end up suffering from it, there are specific stretches to deal with this condition and it’s easy to look them up online.
Let’s spell this out nice and simply. Hydration means drinking water, not sports drinks water. Drink as much as you feel you need when you’re thirsty and you’ll keep properly hydrated. Never ignore the signs of thirst and never force yourself to drink just because you think you should (overhydration is real and can be dangerous).
Sports drinks are for replacing the electrolytes you lose through sweat. They have their place if you really want to push your running and do longer distances meaning longer running times. If, however, you’re running for less than an hour, then water will usually be just fine and even when/if you do start using sports drinks, remember that a little goes a long way. A few sips may be all you need, more could just be (overpriced) empty calories (often with a lot of sugar).
Tracking your progress
If you get serious about running then a GPS watch is a good investment as they’re an effortless and accurate way to record your progress, but they’re also pretty expensive and so probably a bit much for beginners.
Having said that, there are some decent pedometers at much more affordable prices. You’ll need to look for one with a specific running function and it won’t necessarily be as good as a proper GPS watch, but if you get a good one, it will do a pretty decent job and most of them have watch and/or timer functions as a double-check.
The most budget-friendly option is to buy an entry-level watch or timer. These are cheap and cheerful, but they’re also easy to forget or lose and they rely on you remembering to record everything as you go.
Last but not least, you can always use your phone, which you’ll probably want to carry anyway, but this isn’t necessarily as convenient as it sounds (especially not outdoors in bright sunshine or the wet) and it can drain the battery. Phones are, however, good places to store apps for recording the data from whatever tracking device you’re using.
Remember to rest
Fitness is essentially a process of putting your body under stress and then allowing it to recover before stressing it again. Rest is an important part of your fitness routine. If, however, you still want to exercise on your rest days, then swimming and yoga both work very nicely as alternatives. Both are all-round work-outs for both the muscles and the heart and both are widely available and very affordable. Yoga can even be done at home and the emphasis on stretches can really loosen your muscles.
Running is one of the most basic forms of exercise there is but it can still do wonders for both your physical and mental health. You can do it outdoors or indoors, on your own or in a group and if you want to take it seriously there are plenty of clubs and online hangouts for runners.