The best way to start running is to just get up and go, right? Not so fast. If you haven’t been exercising on a regular basis—30 minutes a day, five times a week for at least six weeks—walking at a moderate intensity is the best first step you can take.

“If you haven’t been exercising for a while, I wouldn’t recommend starting with running,” says Steven N. Blair, professor of exercise science and epidemiology and biostatistics at the Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina. “First you have to get into the regular habit of exercising.”

This will help you develop the fitness you need to start running comfortably—and get your bones, muscles, and tendons the foundation they need to become a runner without getting hurt.

Many aspiring runners dismiss “walk” as a four-letter word, as if it’s cheating, quitting, or not really exercising. But walking is actually the ideal form of exercise for most people who are starting out. It’s free, and you can do it anytime in any place; no special skill, pricey membership, or equipment (except good shoes!) is required. It is the best way to build strong bones, muscles, and ten- dons without getting hurt.

And contrary to what you might think, it’s the walk breaks that are going to allow you to exercise for longer and boost your calorie burn. 

“Taking a walk break might make the difference between being able to work out for 20 minutes and exercising for 60 minutes,” says Jeff Gaudette, who is the founder of RunnersConnect, an online training service, “and the cardiovascular benefits and all the things people get into running for, that’s huge.”

Plus, it’s the easiest way to develop the fitness you need to run down the road. Ready? Here’s how to start:

Hit The Hills, The Stairs And The Trails

As with running, the more varied your walking route, the better workout you’ll get, and walking will help your running in the long run. Hills can help you build leg and lung strength. If weather permits, walk a few hills (or walk the same hill a few times) or do several repeats of stairs at stadiums, campuses, or parks or even in your own office building. Go to a park where you can get some varied terrain.

Build Your Own Support System

Enlist a buddy for your first outing to the gym or trail or try a group workout or a class. Research shows that connecting with others—whether it’s a person, an online forum, or a workout group—increases your chances of sticking with an exercise routine. And remember that everyone feels self-conscious at first.

“We get so caught up in the anxiety and fear of being negatively evaluated by others,” says Christy Greenleaf, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Wisconsin. “But the reality is that most of the time, other people are way more concerned about themselves.”

Start Running

If you’re already in the habit of regularly working out, then you’re ready to start running and move into a run/walk routine. And here’s the good news: Because you’ll be moving faster, you’ll be able to cover longer distances without adding any more workout time to your schedule. After seven weeks, you’ll be able to complete 175 minutes of workouts per week, running for about twice the amount of time that you spend walking. 

Are you ready? If you have spent at least two weeks walking or doing some other form of exercise (like using a stationary bike or an elliptical trainer) for at least 150 minutes per week (roughly 30 minutes, five days per week), you’re ready.

Plan length: 7 weeks
Workouts per week: 4-5
First workout: 20-minute workout with run/walk ratio of 1:4
Goal workout: 1-hour workout with run/walk ratio of 2:1
Room to maneuver: Want more of a challenge? Work out for the same amount of time, but build up to a run/walk ratio of 4:2 then 6:3.

Start With Run/Walks

While it’s tempting to just go out and run as fast as you can for as long as you can, you’ll ultimately run longer, feel stronger, and stay injury free if you start by adding short bouts of running to your regular walks and gradually increasing the amount of time that you spend running.

Start by adding one minute of running for every four minutes of walking and gradually increase your running time so that eventually you’ll be running for twice the amount of time that you spend walking. Even short, 30-minute power walks can help blast fat and help your running. 

Beware Of The Terrible Toos

Your main goal is to get fit without getting hurt. Going too far too fast before your body is ready is one of the most common causes of injuries like shin splints, IT band syndrome, and runner’s knee, which sideline many people. You can stay injury free by gradually building up the time you spend walking and running, increasing the time by no more than 10 percent from week to week.

Let The Body Be The Boss

Some muscle aches and soreness—especially in the quadriceps and calves—are to be expected anytime you are pushing your body farther or faster than it’s accustomed to going. But there are some pains that you shouldn’t ignore.

Any sharp pains or pains that persist or worsen as you walk, run, or go about your daily activities are signals to rest for at least three days and see a doctor. Also beware of any pains that are on one side of the body but not the other.

You may need to start with your general practitioner, but it’s best to see a sports medicine doctor or orthopedist if it persists.

Practice Patience

Many of the positive changes that are happening when you start exercising won’t be visible in the mirror or on the scale.

“Everyone expects to lose the weight in an instant and go longer and faster right away,” says Paul. “The weight loss will come if you’re consistent, but it takes time to condition your muscles, ligaments, and tendons so you can run faster and further.”

The body makes more capillaries (tiny blood vessels that transfer oxygen and waste products into and out of cells), more mitochondria (the energy-producing structures in cells), and more enzymes that help the body use fat as fuel, Paul explains. Plus, every time the foot strikes the ground, it stimulates bone growth, so your bones get stronger and denser.

“When you’re not patient,” says Paul, “you make all the mistakes of doing too much too soon and too fast and getting overuse injuries and thinking, ‘Oh, running is bad for you.'”

Log Your Kms

It can be as simple as a notebook and a pencil or as state-of-the-art as a GPS that delivers morale boosts at timed intervals. Any way you log your miles, you’ll draw confidence from watching the miles pile up; the next day’s workout won’t seem so daunting when you see how far you’ve already come.

Train Your Brain

After a few weeks, you’ll begin to believe that the whole idea of an exercise high is not a myth. But it can be hard to get out the door at first. And relying on willpower alone just won’t work.

Make a plan. Listen to motivational music, choose the most convenient time to work out, and pick some rewards that will motivate you to just get up and go. Write out a plan and place it where you can see it, like the bathroom mirror. If the best time to run is in the morning, make sure you’ve got an energising music mix to listen to and a relaxing hot shower to look forward to after you’re done.

Create a prerun routine to cue your body and mind that it’s time to go, and repeat it every time you go. Try to get out at the same time of day. Put your workout clothes next to your bed. Play the same workout music before you go out. Right after your workout, treat yourself to something you genuinely enjoy—like a hot shower or a smoothie—so your brain associates exercise with an immediate reward.

Relax And Run Tall

You don’t have to worry too much about proper running form at this point, but a few adjustments can make the running feel more comfortable, says running coach and exercise physiologist Janet Hamilton.

Take short strides. Keep your elbows flexed at about 90 degrees and keep your hands relaxed, as if you were holding a piece of paper between your thumb and pointer finger. Envision yourself walking tall, looking straight ahead at the horizon; avoid looking down at your feet. 

Take Breaks Before You Need To

Once you’re running, you may feel comfortable enough to skip the walk breaks. But it’s important to take walk breaks before you feel like you need them. This will help fend off fatigue and prevent you from doing too much too soon. By taking walk breaks at the regular intervals that are scheduled for the day, you can ensure that you’ll finish each workout feeling strong.

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