Hitting the track or jumping on the treadmill is a great way to get in shape. If you’re not already a runner, however, starting to run may seem intimidating.
“People tend to want things to happen right away,” says John “Ed” Fellow, MD, a sports medicine physician at Scripps Clinic. “Like most things, running is a process that you need to build up to, especially if your plan is to run regularly and prevent running injuries.”
Instead of racing a 5K, which is 3.1 miles, for your first run, Dr. Fellow recommends starting out slow and light or easy — perhaps at 10 percent of your capacity for 10 minutes — to prevent injury and excessive soreness. Every 10 days or so, increase the distance and/or speed you run by 10 percent. Run only one to three days per week to start out, and increase your distance over time.
Perhaps your goal is to finish a 5K. You'd be in good company since that is the most popular distance for running races in the United States. In 2016, 8.2 million people finished a 5K races in the US, according to Runner's World.
Remember the goal is to keep running, and not just completing one race, which is why where you train is so important.
Starting out on softer surfaces, such as a treadmill or track, instead of hard pavement can help prevent strains and other injuries to new runners.
“You may run differently than you walk or stand,” notes Dr. Fellow. “One of the best ways to see what your feet are doing is to have someone record you running from the front, sides and back. Take time to really look at your posture, alignment and what your feet and body are doing during your stride.”
Some running stores offer running shoe evaluations, although you may not be able to rely on this with 100 percent accuracy. Different shoes are designed to provide different kinds of support for people with strides that land on the inside, outside, front or back of the foot — and that can make a difference in comfort and the potential for injury.
Once you know how your foot is striking the ground, you can get the right shoes to meet your stride. Change running shoes every three months or 300 miles; the cushioning breaks down over time.
“One of the biggest mistakes people make is that they don’t stretch or vary their workouts,” says Dr. Fellow.
“I recommend a balanced approach and low-impact activities, such as cross training, biking, elliptical training or swimming. Runners, like all athletes, need to customize their stretches,” he adds. “Think in terms of twos, such as: front and back, right and left or top and bottom. The body is circular in shape, and muscles are made to be balanced. Muscles work in tandem.”
Soreness can accompany any physical activity, but think twice if it persists or worsens for more than a couple of days or limits your activities. To reduce pain or soreness, stretch before, during and after a run. Ice your muscles after strenuous activities and/or try applying heat even before running.
Warm up and cool down your pace as well. Taking an anti-inflammatory, like naproxen or ibuprofen, can also help reduce pain and minor swelling. Although these medications are available over-the-counter, you need to be aware that all drugs have risks — and may have specific risks for you. Consult your physician to understand how and when to use them safely.
If pain goes beyond typical post-workout soreness, causes dysfunction, limping or causes other pains, it is time to call your doctor.