How to start running for fitness

Everything you need to know before hitting the pavement for your first run.

Amanda Capritto
7 min read
person running on path outside
Stage 7 Photography/Unsplash

So, "start running" is on your list of New Year's resolutions for 2020. As a runner and fitness trainer, I want to give you a big congrats: Running is hard, and starting to run is scary. But if you really do start running this year, you'll be rewarded. 

You'll enjoy a lower resting heart rate, improved body composition, more ease with daily activities (like walking up stairs), more energy, improved moods, better sleep and so much more. The benefits of a running habit are seemingly endless. 

If you're looking to start running for the first time this year, or you're looking to rekindle a good habit you fell out of, these six steps will get you from couch potato to crushing goals by year's end or sooner.

Step 1: Set a goal


First things first: Write down your running resolution.

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If a new healthy habit is going to stick, you need something to work toward. Without a goal, you'll feel like you're spinning your wheels as soon as the sparkly New Year motivation wears off. And once motivation dissipates, if there is no grit and discipline to take its place, your progress will pitter out. 

This goal needs to be something realistic and something measurable. Ideally, it would be something you can see yourself progressing toward every day or week.

My favorite trick is to use small, incremental goals to help me reach an overarching goal. For example, when I wanted to run my first half-marathon, I set a goal to run one mile more each week. I started with three miles -- a distance I knew I could run comfortably -- and the next week I ran four. Then five, then six, and so forth, until 10 weeks later, I ran 13 miles without stopping. 

So, set your goal. Will 2020 be the year you run your first 5K, 10k or marathon? Maybe this is the year you'll push the boundaries of your comfort zone and tackle an obstacle course race. Or maybe, running is the vessel that will help you reach other goals, such as losing a few pounds, improving your heart health or beating diabetes

Step 2: Get the right gear


The right gear can be the difference between a so-so run and a great one.

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Now that you know what you want to achieve, support your efforts by getting the gear that will keep you safe and comfortable on the pavement, trails, treadmill or wherever else you find yourself running. As a runner, there are a few things you'll want to take active efforts to prevent at all times: dehydration, low blood sugar and blisters. 

For the former two, make sure you eat before your run and keep a water bottle handy, especially if you'll be exercising for more than 30 minutes. I've been using the Nathan Speedshot Plus Handheld Flask for about a year, and it provides adequate intra-workout hydration without feeling bulky or annoying. If you plan to run on a track or on a treadmill, a regular water bottle that you can stash somewhere will do. 

For blisters, you'll definitely want to choose the right running shoes: This is not usually the place to enforce a budget, because with running shoes, skimping on quality could mean a lost toenail (speaking from personal experience, that's not fun). You should also keep tabs on your mileage so you know when to replace your running shoes

And then, there are a few things that can make your runs more fun and even more comfortable, but aren't necessities for most people. A few items to consider include a good pair of headphones (bone conduction for extra safety if you're running outside), compression knee sleeves if you have cranky joints and moisture-wicking performance clothes, as opposed to cotton, which soaks up sweat and becomes heavy. 

If you plan to run on a treadmill at home, take a look at the best treadmills for 2020 to find out which one is best for you.

Step 3: Get a coach (and wear it on your wrist)


Use a smartwatch or fitness tracker to record your runs.


One of the best ways to track your running progress is to download a running app that automatically logs your distance, pace, calories burned, elevation and other metrics. A good run-tracking app also has a selection of training plans that you can choose from based on your goals and current fitness level, as well as in-ear coaching to help pace your run and push your limits when it's the last thing you want to do. 

If you haven't yet invested in a fitness tracker, the start of your running journey would be a good time to do so: It's a luxury to have the most important running metrics right on your wrist, rather than whipping your phone out every few minutes. 

You needn't chuck $400 for the Apple Watch Series 5, although it's a great choice if you use an iPhone . The $200 Fitbit Versa 2 has many of the same functionalities. Many cheaper Fitbit models can serve the needs of runners, as can Garmin and Samsung smartwatches. And don't discount the basic, $40 Xioami Mi Band 4 -- it's inexpensive, but it can track steps and your workouts.

If you need a bit more motivation than your robot coach can give you, beat boredom by downloading a fitness podcast or designing a hard-hitting playlist that will push you through the final miles.

Step 4: Research the basics of exercise 


Recovery is just as important as the workout itself.

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In addition to equipping yourself with gear, you should equip yourself with some critical knowledge. 

Part of reaching your running goals is knowing what to do before and after your runs. For example, if you don't warm up properly, you could put yourself at risk for a pulled muscle or a sprain. If you sashay from your run right back into your desk chair, you could end up with limited range of motion due to lack of stretching.  

Workout recovery is as important as the workout itself, and the best recovery techniques vary depending on what type of workout you performed. There are loads of high-tech tools to help you recover from workouts, from the beloved Theragun (and many like it) to whole-body cryotherapy to Tom Brady's far-infrared sleepwear brand.

Often, though, the basics do the trick. You might want to try foam rolling or heat therapy

Also helpful: Get familiar with how delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) works and how to tell the difference between soreness and an injury

Step 5: Get to work!


Time to start crushing goals.

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You've established your goal, stocked up on the right gear, selected your training plan and armed yourself with fitness knowledge. Now it's time to start putting one foot in front of the other. 

Sprint intervals and incline workouts can help you build speed and power, while steady-state runs primarily increase endurance. A good running plan will have a mix of both, as well as dedicated rest days. 

What's most important is to not do too much, too soon. If you're a true beginner to running (or exercising in general), you'll get sore -- there's just no getting around that. If you push too hard on your first workout, you may find yourself stuck on the couch for the next week. Being able to complete three or four moderate workouts per week is far better than completing one workout that prevents you from sticking to your plan. 

This circles back to setting incremental goals. If you've never run 400 meters (a quarter-mile) without stopping, make that your first goal -- and let it be enough. You may know people who can run farther than that, but that's them, not you. Instead of feeling down that you "only ran a quarter-mile," feel ecstatic that you just ran the farthest you've ever run. 

Then go for a half-mile, then three-quarters and then a full mile. Find the balance between pushing yourself and not overdoing it. 

And don't forget to cross-train -- running is one of the best ways to develop a strong heart, but a strong heart is of much more use if your muscles help, too! Try these 20-minute at-home workouts that are just as effective as a gym session, discover the benefits of bodyweight training and learn why there's a place for both heavy lifting and high-volume workouts in any training plan.

Workout subscription apps can help if you're feeling uncreative about programming your own workouts, and there are plenty of ways to work up a sweat without feeling like you're working out -- the most important thing is staying active, whatever that looks like for you. 

Step 6: Forgive yourself for not being perfect


You won't always be able to do what you planned to do -- just get back on track as soon as you can.

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Almost without question, life will get in the way of your training plan at some point this year. And like I mentioned before, your motivation will almost undoubtedly waver. Some days you won't have time to run. Some days you just won't feel like it. Some days it's pouring outside and you'd rather binge-watch Netflix while eating ice cream. All scenarios are totally normal and 100% OK -- what's critical is picking up where you left off. 

To meet your New Year's resolution, you can't let yourself become derailed because of one day, one week or even one month that didn't go how you planned. It's all about doing what you can and not beating yourself up for straying a little bit. 

For example, if you have a 30-minute run planned for Tuesday, but your cross-training workout from Monday really beat up your legs, go for a 30-minute walk instead -- and be proud of it. Or if you meant to do an interval run today but ended up staying late at work and now it's dark, do a quick at-home workout before dinner instead. 

Every effort, no matter how small, pushes you closer and closer to your goals. 

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.