Get started right and you will avoid SO many problems later! These 4 steps are based on my nearly two decades of experience helping runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to feel better and perform better.
The internet abounds with advice, but this isn’t the usual set of tips for new runners–and it applies to experienced runners too.
1. Start with the Right Picture in Mind
What do you think running is? What do you picture when you picture someone running? What have you read or been told about good running form (i.e. the way you move your body when you run)?
Some of that may be absolutely right, some may be iffy or work in some situations but not others, and some of it is likely dead wrong.
Here are the essential elements of good running form that I’ve discovered through a careful process of research, testing and feedback with thousands of runners. They help every runner feel better and run faster without trying harder. They keep you from fighting your body because they’re based on your actual anatomy and the physical forces that make running work.
IMPORTANT: Don’t try to actively do these things! They can be overdone, and I don’t want you to fall into that trap. But do make sure you’re not trying to prevent these things from happening, which some runners do based on other, faulty advice they’ve been given.
Just use the graphic above to help you have a clearer and more accurate understanding of what running actually is, and to help you recognize the right movements when they naturally start to happen.
If you’d like more help, I strongly recommend you sign up for my free one-week Mind Your Running Challenge. The daily 10-minute lessons guide you through the key elements of form so you can safely feel what to do instead of just knowing it intellectually. Sign up here.
2. Warm Up Your Calves
Having your ankles and calves ready to go is the most critical thing for healthy running. Nothing else will work right if your calves are tight or if you’re not sure how to extend your ankles to toe off from the ground.
Years ago I made this calf warmup video. In it I demonstrate the exercise one foot at a time, but you should stand on both feet and do them together. It’s quicker and less fatiguing but it works just as well.
Do this before every run, followed by 10 minutes of walking. Don’t do a deep stretch, just go to the point of a mild stretch each time. It’s the repetition that warms, lengthens, and activates your calves.
You can even do it before you go out walking or hiking and you’ll feel the benefit! Everything will feel easier.
3. Start Gradually
If you’re new to running, I recommend a run-walk program and a “why push it?” attitude. I realize you may be excited about the feeling of speed–aren’t we all?–but the biggest mistakes that new runners make are running too often and too hard. Then they end up getting injured fairly quickly and giving up.
Your body doesn’t get stronger from exercise. It gets stronger from recovering and rebuilding after you exercise. For most adults this takes more than a day. So if you’re new to running, run no more than 3 days a week, and make sure you skip days in between so you have a minimum of 48 hours to recover after each run.
Sleep is your most important form of recovery, so if you’re going to run, you need to prioritize getting 8 hours a night. 7 hours or less correlates to an elevated injury risk.
The good news is that running will help you sleep better, since exercise in general improves sleep quality. Just don’t run right before bed–try to finish your run at least 3 hours before bedtime.
A run/walk program will help you keep from overdoing it when you go out on runs, and help you build your fitness gradually and safely. Remember the fable of the tortoise and the hare? It’s true in real life and it’s especially true for taking up running. Setbacks are very time-consuming; it’s better to build slowly and avoid injuring yourself. Here’s my favorite resource for run/walk plans.
4. Breathe Through Your Nose
As I said above, the biggest mistake new runners make is running too often too hard. That’s also the biggest mistake experienced runners make.
The fact is, running injuries usually come from an imbalance of stress and recovery–too much stress, too little recovery. When I look at someone running, I can tell them why they got injured in a specific body part because of how they’re moving. But that’s a completely different question from why they got an injury at all–too much stress, too little recovery.
Breathing through your nose helps with this in so many ways. First, it simply keeps you from running too fast. If you’re breathing too hard to keep your mouth closed, you’re running too hard and need to slow down or take a walk break.
For experienced runners it’s fine to do an occasional workout at an intensity that demands mouth breathing, but if you’re running that fast for every run, you’re running too hard.
Second, breathing through your nose helps you get more oxygen to your muscles. Counterintuitive but true! Taking big breaths through your mouth puts so much oxygen into your bloodstream that it doesn’t release very easily from your blood to your muscles. Having less oxygen and more carbon dioxide actually causes more oxygen to be released into your muscles, and that’s obviously what you need.
For the myriad other health and athletic benefits of breathing through your nose, I recommend Patrick McKeown’s book The Oxygen Advantage. But for now, to get you started, stick to nasal breathing when you run (and the rest of the time too!).
Well Begun is Half Done…
Following these four guidelines will get you started well, and will be a great reboot for experienced runners.
You probably have more questions (or will soon), so I recommend you listen to my interview on the Life Lessons Podcast, where I expand on these guidelines, talk about footwear, and explain much more about the actual movements involved in running so you can learn how to run comfortably and beautifully.
Running is a fundamental human gait, and being not only able to do it, but actually having it feel great is your birthright as a human being. If you want to develop and own that ability, you’re going to want to go beyond these basic tips, and I recommend you sign up for The Balanced Runner System™ Online Camp. Learn more about that here!
Here’s my YouTube livestream about the advice in this blog post: