I first started running over ten years ago, and to say I was a complete beginner would be an understatement!
Whilst I’d love to say that ten years later I’m running half-marathons, or even 10ks, the truth is that between life in general, two kids and starting my own business… my running habit has been pretty inconsistent over the last decade.
The upside to this is that I have plenty of experience of restarting running after a long break, with a base of zero fitness.
What I have found is, once you understand how to start a running habit, what distance to attempt, and how to pace yourself – starting again is always doable. A huge chunk of what you need is in your head, not your muscles or cardiovascular system!
What I love about running is its simplicity – you don’t need to learn any complicated moves or techniques. You just… run! Yes, it takes a while to figure out your pacing but even then, if you overdo it, you can walk for a while.
(If you could be a fly on the wall watching me in a Zumba class, utterly confused and unable to compute what on earth the instructor is doing let alone how to replicate it – you would understand why the simplicity of running appeals to me!)
It’s also a way of getting outdoors, enjoying fresh air, greenery and sunlight. Running can be sociable if you run with other people, or it can give you some much-needed alone time. The runner’s buzz you get afterwards, and the satisfaction of beating your own time, makes it quite addictive.
You burn calories and increase your cardiovascular fitness, and you build and strengthen muscles in your legs if you go far enough. There are also mental health benefits: Regular aerobic exercise (such as running) has been shown to be as effective as antidepressants in reducing symptoms of mild to moderate depression.
From personal experience, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend running if you are suffering from severe stress, or depression. It was something I tried, and I found that I completely lacked the energy (it was not a lack of motivation as I was desperately looking for a drug-free solution, and actually quite motivated. Instead, it was a physical inability to sustain the effort). Also, running is a stressor and causes your body to release cortisol.
If you have doubts as to whether running is right for you but no specific medical reason not to, the best way to know is to try it and see how you feel.
If you’re in a stressed or depressed state and running doesn’t feel good, start with walking. Whilst you won’t make the same fitness gains as quickly, you will absolutely get mental health benefits from walking. And when the time is right, you will already have a great walking habit in place which you can switch for running.
But if you are keen to give running a try, where do you start? The first thing you need is an attitude that everything is progress. Running your first mile is cause for celebration. The first time you do it without a walk-break, the first time you run two miles, these are all major milestones.
If you’ve got that, here’s what else you need.
What you need to get started
For women, in my opinion you only need two things to get started with running: A good running bra and running trainers.
A good running bra
Even back in my size 32B pre-kids days, I considered a good running bra to be essential! You need the kind of bra that will strap everything down and minimise bounce. Running is just not going to be comfortable otherwise! I bought a Shock Absorber bra and would highly recommend this brand.
When I first started running, I researched my choice of trainers deeply. I looked at whether I was an underpronator or an overpronator (I’m not sure I could coherently explain what this means any more!) I did wet footprint tests to determine the height of my foot arches, and chose a pair of running trainers accordingly.
You can even go to a specialist running shop and have someone watch you run on a treadmill for ten minutes to observe your gait.
Since then, I have read that none of this matters in the way it was thought to! And that the most important thing for running trainers is that they are comfortable. My research these days involves lazer-focussed shortcuts, so I googled something along the lines of ‘best cheap running trainers’ and came across this Runner’s World article on the best last-season running shoes under £100.
I spent about £80 on the Adidas Adizero Adios 3 [in 2019], which I consider to be a lot, and I don’t think it’s necessary to spend that much. But I am hoping to get back into running in a big way and I felt it was worth it. You could go into a sports shop with £40 in your pocket and I’m sure you’d get a pair of running trainers plenty good enough to get started with.
Leggings and a t-shirt
As long as you have a decent running bra and trainers, you can get by with any old leggings and t-shirts. I wear running-specific leggings and t-shirts bought affordably from Sports Direct, which are breathable and waterproof, and I do find my light and high-vis running jacket useful. But I’d say wait until you’ve got into the running habit, and treat yourself at that point. Think of it as a reward!
A water bottle
For relatively short runs (1-3 miles) technically it’s not necessary to take water with you, but I always feel that I need it. You can get a specific shape of running bottle with a gap in the middle for your fingers, which I find really handy.
How to work out a running route
I would recommend figuring out a one-mile, two-mile and three-mile route to start with.
When I first started running ten years ago, I was confused by Map My Run (erm, I may still be a little confused by Map My Run!) Fitbits weren’t even a thing back then, or at least they weren’t on my radar, and I didn’t have a smartphone with GPS (I’m not a tech early adopter!) I needed to figure out a local route, so I set my car’s odometer to zero and drove around.
A better way would be to use Map My Run. This involves sticking pins in a map to figure out a route, and I’m sure it’s very straightforward… in fact, I nearly managed it on one occasion!
My husband uses Strava for mountain bike routes, and you can also use it for running. It’s an app which allows you to use other users’ data to build a route based on the most well-used paths.
Psychologically I prefer a circular route, because on an out-and-back route you can become fixated with how far along you are and it feels harder. But in practical terms, an out-and-back route and a circular route are both fine.
One thing I don’t recommend is planning to run ten times around a park. It’s just soul-destroying! But I don’t enjoy running on a treadmill either, and it’s possible I just have a low boredom threshold.
How to track your progress
If you own a Fitbit or similar device, or you’ve always had a burning desire to buy one – great! But if you know the distance you’re going to run and you time yourself, you can track your progress without any additional tech. I used to time my runs based on the start/finish time on the digital clock on my oven, before I had a Fitbit!
You will need to write down the distance you run, and how long it takes you. Divide the number of minutes by your distance, and you have your pace. For example if you run three miles and it takes 36 minutes, that’s a 12-minute mile. If the same three miles takes 33 minutes, it’s an 11-minute mile.
To give you a rough idea of what pace to expect, back when I was fitter and running three miles with ease, on a hilly route I would run an 11-minute mile. And I’m sure I would have managed a flat route in a 10-minute mile.
If you start out running a 13-minute or 14-minute mile on a hilly route, don’t be disheartened. You’re not out to impress anyone, you’re here to get fit and feel good! Bear in mind that the less fit you are, the more benefit you’re gaining from your runs.
Also, bear in mind that you can run a single mile at a faster pace than you can sustain for three miles. I reckon I could probably run a mile in 10 minutes now, but there’s no way I could run three miles in 30 minutes.
When you first start running and you have walk-breaks, tracking your pace is not entirely accurate as you’re combining a mixture of running and walking. You won’t know exactly how fast you ran. It doesn’t really matter at this stage, as what you’re tracking is your own progress.
How to get from zero to 3 miles (5k)
There are two main approaches to getting started.
- Build up mile by mile – aiming to run a mile, then two, then three, phasing out walk-breaks before moving up to the next distance.
- Combine running and walking for a set period of time – I’d suggest half an hour. Over time, you increase the time you spend running, and decrease the time you spend walking. Eventually, you phase out walk breaks altogether and ta-da, you’re running 3 miles in your half-hour!
I’d argue that the second approach is better for fitness, as you’re getting 30 minutes of exercise right from the start, at the highest intensity you can manage. You could join a Parkrun which will always be 3 miles (5k) and increase the amount of running (versus walking) that you do over time – an approach that has worked well for my running buddy’s sister.
Personally, I find it more motivating to focus on how far I can run without a walk-break. In truth, it doesn’t matter whether you run continuously or take breaks. It really doesn’t. But I find it hugely motivating to know that I can run a mile, or two, or three, without stopping. It’s a good approach for impatient people like me, as you get wins early on to spur you on.
So for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going with the first approach.
I would recommend going out running 2-3 times a week, building up to around 30 minutes at a time. If you only go once a week, progress could be be too slow to motivate you – but you probably don’t need to go more than three times a week.
If you’re doing other forms of exercise too, your fitness gains will transfer across in which case a weekly run should be just fine.
The instructions below are based on how I personally went from having never run (outside of school PE) to running 3 hilly miles without stopping. It’s what worked for me!
You can also access specific training plans such as NHS Couch to 5k. This is a series of podcasts you listen to when you’re running, and they tell you exactly when to run and walk. The idea is a bit prescriptive for me (I don’t really like being told what to do!) and I prefer to listen to my body and adjust as needed. But I suspect you either love or hate this approach, so do have a look if you like the sound of someone coaching you through step by step.
In the meantime, here is my approach to running 3 miles!
- See if you can run a mile in one go. For most people, this should be possible. If you can’t run a mile, it may simply be that you’re going too fast. If you need to stop, do so, but make sure you complete your mile.
- Keep going out for your one-mile runs until you get fitter and/or learn how to pace yourself, and can do it without a break. It doesn’t matter how long this takes you, just keep going out – if you can manage three times a week, you’ll be surprised by your progress. Before you know it, you will be able to run a mile without stopping.
- Celebrate! You have just run your first mile. Don’t let anyone tell you this is not a great achievement!
- Increase your running route to two miles. You may find that you need two walk-breaks, because running your second mile will feel harder than the first. That’s absolutely fine.
- Continue with your two-mile running route, but phase out walk-breaks until you only have one.
- Continue with your two-mile running route, but instead of a walk-break just stop briefly to get your breath back.
- You will find that your pause for breath occurs later and later in your run, until it almost feels pointless. One day, you will find yourself back at your front door and YOU HAVEN’T STOPPED!
- Celebrate! You can now run two miles without stopping. At the time of writing, this is the next milestone I have my eye on.
- Increase your running route to three miles. If you can already run two miles continuously, you will probably find that you only need one walk-break a couple of miles in. You should then be able to finish the run without any further breaks.
- Continue with your three-mile running route, but instead of a walk-break, just stop briefly to get your breath back.
- As before, you will find that your pause for breath occurs later and later in your run, until it feels almost pointless. And at some point, you will find that you can run three miles without a break!
- Celebrate! Seriously, you can now run for 30+ minutes straight without a break. If your route is hilly, it might take you 33-36 minutes. We’re splitting hairs. YOU CAN RUN THREE MILES!
After that, you have so many direction you can go in.
- Keep running for a duration of 30 minutes but increase your speed until you eventually cover more distance in the same time (a good option if you’re busy, and if you have no burning desire to run a marathon!)
- Set your sights on the next distance, which is 10k. This would involve running for an hour or more (a good option if you want to keep up the momentum, set yourself new challenges, and you have the time)
- Start interval training. This is seriously good for fitness, and involves a combination of sprinting, jogging and walking. You could add in hill sprints if you really want to push yourself
- Look for opportunities to go off-road, and trail running. I find this type of running more enjoyable and it challenges your core stability more. It’s also better for your feet
Personally I prefer to keep running as a short, high-intensity activity so I plan to focus on increasing my speed, interval training and off-road running. Long-duration cardio can put a lot of stress on your body, and I don’t want to give up that amount of time. I would rather go for a long walk with my family (with a picnic, pub lunch or café along the way), and keep my runs short and tough!
How to keep on running
It’s a really good idea to embed running into your life, so that it becomes habitual. That way if you get a cold, you sustain an injury, go on holiday, have a baby, work gets really busy or you stop for any other reason – there are habits in place that will pull you back to running.
Here are a few ideas.
Join Parkrun. These are free, weekly timed 5k runs and you may find there’s one in your area. This is definitely something I am planning to do. You can start running Parkruns even as a total beginner, because you can walk as much of the route as you like. There’s a really friendly atmosphere and all levels of ability are welcomed. All you need to do is sign up in advance and print out your card, which has a running number you present at the start/finish of each run to get your official time.
Sign up for a sponsored race such as Race For Life. You can get fit, get yourself sponsored and raise money for cancer research. I did this when I first started running and it was a fantastic motivator, although I was robbed of my moment of glory when I caught a cold the week of the race. Years later, I did finally complete Race for Life together with my son, who was about seven at the time and seemed to find the three miles a breeze!
Join a running group. I was fortunate enough to have a free running group at my last workplace. A running coach (with a day job in Marketing) took people out most days, just for the love of it. I had no idea that most running groups charge you for the privilege, so I didn’t realise quite how lucky I was to have this for free! I have since tried out a local running group, but as the slowest runner there, the 5-mile route was a bit long for me and it was bloody freezing in the depths of winter!
My personal choice – get a running buddy! I can’t tell you the difference it makes when cancelling would involve texting another person and letting them down. You end up treating your run like an appointment, rather than just an idea of something you *might* do on Sunday morning. Plus the prospect of meeting up and having a chat as you go can be much more appealing!
Saying that, I really enjoy solo running too because I can experiment more easily with intervals and pacing, and running quietly on your own becomes almost meditative. But having a running buddy and a weekly run scheduled in is such a great way of embedding it into your life, and you can fit in your own solo runs in-between.