How to get safely started with running: A reality check

Why are you really running? Photo: Getty

Why are you really running? Photo: Getty Photo: Getty

Spring has sprung and suddenly you get the urge to go outside and start running. Why the hell not?

Two minutes later you’re limping back inside, huffing and puffing, falling into the recliner and swearing never to think about running again.

Running is the kind of thing you did as a kid – and unless you fell in a hole or head-first into a wall, all that running you did was pain-free.

It didn’t take days to recover, let alone a visit to the physiotherapist.

That was years ago

This isn’t, by the way, a crank’s way of telling you to give up all thoughts of running.

The message here is: start out slow and, especially if it has been many years, keep expectations and goals modest.

There’s growing evidence that running just five to 10 minutes a day – at a moderate pace of just under 10 kilometres per hour – reduces the risk of death from heart attack or stroke, and lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease, developing cancer and developing neurological diseases such Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Runners live three to five years longer than non-runners, generally speaking.

And those benefits are to be had, on the face of it, for relatively small effort.

But for someone starting from scratch, getting to the point where you can manage five to 10 minutes running every day, or just five days a week, is no small thing.

Your most useful goals at this stage are to avoid injury, and to aim for your running to be sustainable.

In fact, the first step you take when starting to run … isn’t running at all.

It’s walking

Walking is an important warm-up even for experienced runners.

For people who have done little to no exercise for some years, getting to the point where you can walk at a brisk pace – about a hundred steps a minute – could take up to two months or more.

Runner’s World has a conservative seven-week plan to get you there, noting that people who are overweight or over 60, or who just want a more gradual approach, should adapt this plan to eight to 12 weeks.

Walking gets your body prepared for running, but most importantly it gets you in the habit of moving. And, some good news, 15 minutes of brisk walking roughly delivers the same health benefits of about five minutes running.

So, by the time you’ve conditioned your body to keep marching for an hour, your fitness has taken a significant upward swing from where it was sitting (with you on the recliner).

Mixing it up

Once you’ve achieved your brisk hour, you then start to integrate some running.

To warm up, walk for 15 or 20 minutes, then alternate a minute of walking with a minute of running, which in its early manifestation might be more of a shuffle that graduates to a jog before taking flight.

Conservatively, to begin with, you might just do five rounds of walking/running – with another 10 minutes or so of cool-down walking –  but look at it this way: you’ve managed your first five minutes of running.

The trick here, is to build up your pace and your running time slowly.

How to run faster and longer

There’s an old rule that you should increase your running time by no more than 10 per cent a week. Government health sites give this advice.

And at this early stage, it isn’t much of an increase.

However, in the last decade or so, the validity of the 10 per cent rule has come into question. Experienced runners were reporting that it wasn’t preparing them properly for marathons.

Sports scientists were asking: Where’s the research? Where did the rule come from?

This week, The New York Times published an interesting piece by sports medicine physician and marathon runner Dr Jordan Metzl who reported that “an estimated 30 per cent of runners training for a marathon suffer some kind of injury, and roughly 15 per cent will never make it to the starting line because of it”.

Dr Metzi is the co-author of a new study that “evaluated the risk factors for injury in 735 runners training for the New York City Marathon”.

The authors found that “of all the modifiable factors, like body weight or number of marathons completed, the strongest predictor of injury was rapidly increasing training miles”.

He said this was true for all levels, “from novices to experienced runners”.

In other words, take it slowly and carefully.

Let’s be frank: Relatively few of us will ever run a marathon.

Maybe the mixing it up between running and walking is as far as you’ll ever get. And good for you for getting that far.

If you can run, as you did as a kid, for a minute at a time, you won’t be just living longer, you’ll be living with a touch of that long ago exhilaration.

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