If you're thinking you want to start running, just know you'll be in good company—and a lot of it. It's arguably the most popular form of exercise, with about 13 million women regularly hitting the road, trail, or treadmill, according to a report by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.
Most women get into it as a way to lose weight or shape up, which we totally understand: Running burns about 100 calories per mile, builds strong bones, and—contrary to popular belief about wrecking your knees—can reduce your risk for arthritis. Plus, Danish researchers found that just one and a half to two hours of slow or moderate running per week can add about six years to your life.
According to the Women's National Runner Survey, which polled more than 5,500 women, 66 percent of female runners said their running habit relieves stress, keeps them healthy, and allows them to meet personal goals and overcome challenges. (It's hard to match that "runner's high" effect you feel the first time you run for 30 minutes nonstop or cross the finish line of a race.) "Almost every time you go out there, you can accomplish something new," says Carl Leivers, a running coach in Atlanta—whether that's running an extra minute longer, tackling a hill without stopping, or just having a more positive attitude while you're hoofing it.
Despite this rosy picture, plenty of women can barely tolerate running—let alone find a love for it. Their body aches, their lungs burn, and they spend the entire run cursing each and every step. That's largely because, as accessible and natural as running is, most people never learn how to break down its techniques the way they would for sports like tennis or swimming. Turns out, it's a lot more complicated than just lacing up and putting one foot in front of the other.
So here's what Women's Health did to help: We picked the brains of some of the best coaches and experts nationwide to uncover the keys to successful running. Whether you have never finished a full mile or are looking to jump from 5-Ks to half-marathons, their training, fueling, and injury-prevention tips will make you a better runner than ever—and yes, even help you enjoy every step.
|Use your breath to find your pace|
All of us instinctively know how to run, but most didn't inherit an innate sense of the exact speed we can sustain. Proper pacing depends on factors like how far you're going, how fit you are, and your genetic ability—and it's a skill that takes time to hone. Even Olympic runners spend a lot of time trying to get it just right.
New runners almost always start off too fast (and then burn out). The word running—unlike jogging—is inextricably linked to speed in our head, says Brandon T. Vallair, owner of Run for Speed in Dallas. The "talk test" can help: Stay at a speed at which you can easily chat with a partner.
If you're gasping for breath, slow down. If you can belt out the chorus to a Bruno Mars song on your iPod, pick it up a bit, but err on the side of slowness to avoid running yourself into the ground. "The idea is to finish each run wanting to do a little bit more or go a little bit faster. It makes it easier to get out there the next time, because you feel like there's more to accomplish," says Leivers.
In fact, go ahead and walk if you need to: Newbies should start with three 20-minute run/walks per week. Aim to run more and walk less each week until you can run 20 to 30 minutes without stopping. Then keep using the talk test to guide your efforts over a few weeks and months, and you'll naturally become fitter and speed up without consciously trying to run faster.
Eventually, that steady speed can become a snooze, and pushing harder can up the calorie-burning and fitness-boosting benefits. But it's also extra stressful on your body, so ease into it to avoid injury: Once you've consistently run for 20 to 30 minutes three times a week for at least four weeks (but ideally up to three months), add one of these elements near the end of one (yes, just one) run per week: four 20-second all-out bursts, three 30-second dashes up a hill, or six sprints from driveway to driveway in your neighborhood. Alternate the high-intensity interval with at least two minutes of easy jogging. Every week or two, turn up the burn by adding 10 seconds to your fast intervals.
|Don't run every day|
It's true that practice and reps are two keys to success. Each run stresses your muscles, bones, joints, and ligaments; as you do it more often, they'll adapt by growing stronger and more efficient. But you can do too much of a good thing.
Pounding the pavement is high-impact and repetitive, so doing it too often or too fast can increase your injury risk. The trick is to find the sweet spot in which you run enough to spark changes but also give your body enough time in between to recover. "There is a delicate balance, and you have to find the formula that works for you," says Jennifer Gill, M.P.H.
For new runners, that goal of three runs a week is ideal. "Any less than that and it will be hard to see progress," says Gill. "You'd almost feel as if you were starting over every single time." Any more and your body may not have enough time to recover. One exception: If you haven't exercised for years, try two runs a week, but add one or two walks or bike rides.
If you're already logging three days a week (and have been for at least six weeks), you can add a fourth day, which is probably ideal for most people—especially if you're not training for a race. As a rule, it's better to do four strong runs than to squeeze in a fifth when you're tired.
"The key to improving as a runner long term is to be consistent and stay injury-free," says Leivers. And whenever you step up your running routine, be careful not to increase your total amount of running by more than 10 to 15 percent per week, says Gill. That's not just days, but minutes or miles too.
|You don't have to go long|
Measuring your runs in minutes or miles involves a bit of personal preference. Some beginners may feel "one mile" sounds much more daunting than "a 15-minute run," while a marathoner may prefer to view a long run as an 18-miler, rather than sweat over how many minutes it will take to complete. Either way, picking the right distance or duration based on your goals and fitness level is a crucial step to getting the most from every workout without overdoing it.
Another reason total time is a better clock for new runners: It takes some of the pressure off. If you are having a bad day or aren't feeling as great, you can slow your pace and still get your minutes in; even if it's not pretty, you'll have finished your workout. That's more motivating than having to tack on extra time because you're running slower, or worse, not finishing a set mileage. Plus, you'll skip the hassle of plotting out an exact route online or driving first to map out mile markers.
Here's another thing about mileage and minutes: To get better, you don't have to continually increase them. In fact, if you've hit a happy place of around three to four miles three or four times a week, that's a great range for maintaining fitness. To see even better results, keep the duration the same but increase the intensity (and total calorie burn) by interjecting intervals—such as, say, one minute at an uncomfortably quick pace, followed by one to two minutes at a conversational speed.
If you have your eyes set on a half-or full marathon, of course you'll need to dial up your distance, but make sure you do it slowly. Start by designating just one run each week as your long run, and add a mile or two to it while keeping the rest of your week the same. From there, you can lengthen any or all of your runs, following Leivers's rules: Every other week, increase your total weekly mileage by no more than the number of days per week you run (for instance, three miles a week if you're running three days). And keep your long run to no more than half your weekly total to prevent overdoing it during any one outing.