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From Start to Finish: The Beginner Runner’s Welcome Package

Starting a training program for the first time can be overwhelming, but we've got you covered.

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Lacing up your shoes as a new runner and training for your first race is an exciting, rewarding experience. You’ll have the chance to get in the best shape of your life, but more than that you’ll experience new things and expand your athletic horizons. You’re joining an inclusive and supportive community of motivated people on a journey of self-discovery. You’ll tackle new challenges and likely learn more about yourself in the next few months than you have in the past few years.

But you probably have some questions:

• How much should I run per week?
• How can I get faster?
• Should I run races for time or just to finish?
• How do I stay healthy and prevent injuries?

Starting a training program for the first time can be an overwhelming endeavor, but below we’ll provide the answers to these questions to ensure you enjoy your new sport, have a great race experience and a long, rewarding career as a runner.

How much should I run per week?

New runners are most limited by a lack of endurance, or an underdeveloped aerobic capacity. Therefore, increasing endurance should be your top goal. Developing your aerobic capacity will help you race faster by boosting stamina and improving your ability to hold a pace for a longer period of time.

By running more, your body will experience significant adaptations, including improved efficiency and running economy, increased mitochondria levels in the muscles and a higher aerobic capacity.

You may have heard of the 10 percent rule, which states that you can increase your weekly mileage by 10 percent each week. This is a good general guideline, but it has its limitations. More conservative increases in running volume can help new runners limit the risk of injury. This cautious approach will pay off long-term as consistency and injury prevention are prioritized over big jumps in mileage.

Most new runners typically run two to four days per week totaling 10 to 20 miles. These runners are best served adding one to two miles every other week, with an emphasis on increasing a once-a-week long run.

For example, if you’re running 11 miles per week in three runs (3, 3, and 5 miles), add one mile to your long run every other week. You can also add a mile to one of the midweek runs every other week. In a matter of weeks, your overall mileage will double and your risk of getting injured will be kept to a minimum. But what if you can’t run the entire distance? It’s OK—take walking breaks if necessary. The primary goal is to complete the distance; the secondary goal is to run the full distance.

Related: 9 Essential Tips For New Runners

How can I get faster?

Most new runners—or novice runners who haven’t trained with a group or followed a plan—typically go out and run the same pace all the time. The way to improve your fitness and become a faster runner is to mix up the types of training runs you do each week.

Like any other aspect of training, it’s best to start gradually when mixing in elements of speed. Strides and hill sprints will help lay a foundation that prepares the body for longer, more challenging workouts in the future. Strides are roughly 100-meter accelerations that build to about 95 percent of maximum speed. Hill sprints are eight- to 10-second maximum-intensity sprints up a moderately steep hill. Both require full recoveries between repetitions.

New runners can implement strides or hill sprints into their training program after one to two weeks of consistent easy running. After three or four weeks of strides and hill sprints once or twice a week, you’ll be ready to attempt your first speed workout.

A fartlek session (Swedish for “speed play”) is a great introductory workout that mixes intervals of faster and slower running. For example, after 5 to 10 minutes of warm-up jogging, alternate running 1-minute faster segments at a comfortably hard pace and 2 minutes of easy running as recovery until you’ve done six of each, then cool down with 5 to 10 minutes of easy jogging. Fartlek workouts are versatile and can be run almost anywhere.

New runners who start with strides or hill sprints for a few weeks and gradually progress to fartlek workouts are taking a systematic, logical approach to introducing speed workouts into their training, which helps reduce the risk of injury while prioritizing consistent improvement.

Should I run races for time or just to finish?

Setting a goal finishing time is often thought of as an advanced runner’s concept, but even new runners can aim to finish their first race under a certain time.

Since the first several months of your running career are focused on establishing consistency, gradually building mileage and increasing fitness, it’s best to set goal times for shorter races that you know you can finish. Once you know you can finish a race, the next step is to run it faster.

So if the race is less than 10K in distance, set a goal time based on marks you’ve set in training. For example, if 9 minutes per mile is a comfortable training pace for you, you may try to finish your first 10K at 8:45 per mile or your first 5K at 8:30 per mile.

Longer races like the marathon or half marathon require more advanced training, maturity as an athlete and dealing with complex logistics. Until you have years of experience before your first long race, it’s best to set a goal of just finishing it. The personal bests will come later!

Related: Beginner Run/Walk Half Marathon Training Plan

How do I stay healthy and prevent injuries?

Running can lead to a variety of overuse injuries and muscular strains, but training with a preventive mindset and additional strength workouts can help keep you healthy.

Preventing injuries should be a top priority for every new runner. “Sandwiching” each run between a dynamic warm-up and a core or strength workout can dramatically reduce your risk of injuries.

A dynamic warm-up includes exaggerated movements that mimic running, like leg swings, donkey kicks, lunges, hurdle drills and skips. Perform four to six exercises for 5 to 10 minutes in total before starting your run to increase your heart rate, improve circulation and prime the body to run.

A post-run strength workout can include squats, planks, bridges, lunges, push-ups, pull-ups and leg raises. These basic exercises train movements, not muscles, and are more running-specific than bodybuilding-oriented exercises such as bicep curls or bench presses. Improving mobility, along with strength, will help keep your risk of injury minimal.