Fitness Basics: Running for Your Life

Experts offer advice to get you started.

From the WebMD Archives

You don't have to be an athlete -- or even aspire to be one -- to start running.

Just look at Jim Scott. In January 2003, a month after he turned 60, Scott began running. That November, he finished the New York City Marathon (it took him six hours).

Scott, a radio-talk show host in Cincinnati, Ohio, didn't do much in the way of exercise before then. He played golf as often as he could but never found the time for regular workouts.

"When I turned 60, I thought it was a good time to reassess things," says Scott. "I started thinking, 'These 36-inch (waist) pants I've worn all my life are getting a bit tighter.'"

Scott decided he wanted to get in better shape, feel comfortable in his pants again, and improve his golf game. Oh, and there was one more impetus to try running: "I'm married to a marathon runner," he says.

Scott himself never intended to run a marathon. He simply wanted to go on Sunday morning runs with his wife, Donna Hartman, and keep up, he says. But sometimes running can surprise you.

Maybe you just want to run around your neighborhood, or explore a new one. Maybe you want to challenge your body in a different way, to tone up, or lose weight. Whatever your goals, says Scott's coach, Julie Isphording, running is an excellent exercise for a beginner to try.

"It's cheap, easy, and the perfect thing to do with a friend," says Isphording, a former marathoner and host of two health and fitness radio shows in Cincinnati.

Running's benefits include improved cardiovascular hearth, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, a revved-up metabolism, and a sense of self-esteem, says Isphording.

"You can go for a run in the morning and finish at your driveway with your hands in the air and you've had success before 7 a.m.," she says. "This is a gift from you to you."

Getting in Gear

Before you take your first step, get yourself a good pair of running shoes.

"It's the most important investment you'll make," says Isphording. She suggests going to a store specializing in running gear, where the staff tends to be knowledgeable about the products, and trying on as many pairs as necessary to find the right ones for you. A good fit is essential; blisters and shin splints are not going to inspire you to run.

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And don't even think about running in your regular cross-trainers, tennis shoes, or regular sneakers.

"Running is very traumatic," says Forrest Dolgener, exercise physiologist and professor of exercise science at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. "The mechanics of running creates specific kinds of forces on the body. Running shoes are designed to absorb and minimize those kinds of forces."

But don't get too attached to your favorite pair. Running shoes have a limited lifespan, says Dolgener, co-author of The Non-Runner's Marathon Trainer.

"Generally speaking, running shoes have 500 miles of life," he says. "Even though they make look good, shock absorption diminishes after 500 miles."

Start Gradually

Before you start any new fitness program, it's wise to consult with your physician -- especially if you're a man 45 or older or a woman 50 or older, the experts say.

"I always want anyone who's getting started to know their life digits -- blood pressure, BMI (body mass index), cholesterol, blood sugar," says Isphording.

Running is not the best exercise for everyone, Dolgener says. So listen to your doctor and your body.

"The worst thing you can do is start running, get injured, then stop exercising altogether," says Dolgener.

Once you get a green flag from the doctor, don those new running shoes and start out with a combination of walking and jogging. For example, you might alternate walking for five minutes and jogging for two minutes.

Over time, steadily increase the amount of time you spend running until you're able to jog for 20 minutes at a time, suggests Isphording. Once you achieve that, start increasing your distance.

For someone who has been sedentary, Dolgener recommends starting only with walking, then progressing to brisk walking before adding any jogging.

"Progression is the key element for someone who hasn't done this," says Dolgener.

Your cardiovascular system will adapt more easily than your musculoskeletal system, says Dolgener. People don't usually give up running because their hearts can't adapt but because of injury. Gradually conditioning yourself with a combination of walking and running gives your body time to adapt to the new stress on the joints and muscles.

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"When I first started," recalls Scott, "Julie said, 'Do you think you can run for 15 minutes?' I said, 'Are you kidding me?'

"I ran about 45 seconds. I was amazed at how little I could do." But he plugged through it.

"The first two weeks are difficult," Isphording warns. "Getting out the door is the hardest thing ever. Once you get past that, then you get it, your body starts feeling good and wants to go out and play."

To keep your body feeling good during your runs, our experts offer these tips:

  • While you're running, be sure you can pass the "talk test": You should still be able to carry on a conversation. Keep your pace comfortable so you won't burn out too quickly. "It's much better to run too slow than too fast," Isphording says.
  • Instead of tracking the miles you run, count time. "Don't get caught up in measuring distance, and that you ran faster than yesterday. Go for time," Isphording says.
  • As you build up past 20 minutes, be sure to stay hydrated. This is especially important during the warm-weather months. "Know where the water is, where the park is, where the gas station is -- or you can stash water along your route ahead of time," Isphording says.
  • In addition to running, do strength training to build muscle and bone density and protect against injury. A 20-minute strength workout a couple of times a week is all you need. To get started, get a personal trainer to write out a program you can do at home -- or get a video.
  • Save stretching for after your run, when your muscles are warm. Stretching cold muscles increases the risk for injury.

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Sticking With It

To stay consistent with your running program, keep a running journal or log, the experts suggest. At the beginning of the week, plot out when you plan to run and for how long, and commit it to paper. "Write down something on a piece of paper and put it in your sock drawer," says Isphording.

Setting specific goals -- whether it's time, distance, weight loss or cholesterol -- will also inspire you to stay on track.

Another thing that helps: finding a friend to run with. Having a partner to meet you at the mailbox will keep you honest, says Isphording.

"Ninety percent of running is just showing up, getting in the game, getting off the sidelines," she says.

Inside or Out?

Is it better to run on a treadmill or outside? You can get a great cardiovascular workout either way, and there are benefits to both, the experts say

With a treadmill, you're never too far from home, says Isphording. It's a good choice if you're injured or rehabbing an injury -- or just feeling a little intimidated about running outdoors.

"There are no stoplights, no dogs, no cars, no pollution," she says. And, of course, bad weather isn't an issue. Treadmill running can be lower-impact too, as well. Dolgener equates it to running on grass.

But a treadmill doesn't quite simulate the outdoors.

"When you're outdoors, you're getting fresh air," Isphording says. "Running during the sunlight you get vitamin D, which women really need to absorb calcium. You have the scenery -- you can discover parts of your city or town, or if you're traveling, it's a great way to see a city. It's better with a group of people, and easier to do with a family."

When Not to Run

Running is not for everyone, say the experts. If you have an injury or disability, or if running is painful for you, try cycling, cross-country skiing, swimming. They all work.

"The advantage to running is it doesn't take any equipment except shoes, you can do it anywhere, and it's convenient," says Dolgener. "It's one of the best cardio-respiratory activities you can do. The bad news is, it is very traumatic, and the trauma is more prevalent the longer and harder you go."

But if you can run, why not go ahead and get out there?

"I can promise you this," says Isphording, "you will never regret a run. There's hardly anything in life you can say that about. You'll regret a chocolate sundae."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on May 19, 2006

Sources

SOURCES: Jim Scott, talk-show host, 700 WLW, Cincinnati, Ohio. Julie Isphording, running coach; host and producer, FIT: Fitness Information Talk and On Your Feet radio programs, Cincinnati, Ohio. Forrest Dolgener, exercise physiologist, author, The Non-Runner's Marathon Trainer; professor of exercise science, University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa.

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