At any given moment, runners in the making lace up their shoes for the first time or are getting back to the once-regular routine of logging miles. When it comes to starting a running habit, there are the usual “don’ts,” like doing too much too soon, not hydrating adequately and skipping that pre- or post-run snack. Besides the common pitfalls you’ve probably already heard about, there are less obvious mistakes newer runners tend to make that can be avoided.
Here’s what expert run coaches wish novice runners would avoid, plus what to do instead.
Running marathons is awesome, but you don’t have to hit double digits — or even run more than 1 mile, really — to be considered a runner. “You are a runner the moment you decide to be one,” says Dorothy Beal, a Road Runners Club of America running coach and USA Track & Field certified coach.
“Yet because so much of running is tied to numbers, it’s often hard to separate your self worth as a runner if you feel you are slower, running shorter distances or are running lower weekly mileage than someone else,” Beal says. Running can be competitive — both with yourself and others — so it’s not always easy to avoid the comparison game. The solution? Patience, Beal says. “Running rewards those with patience. Injuries are not an inevitable part of the process. Take an appropriate amount of time to build up to the race distance you would like to complete. And remind yourself just because you can run that far, doesn’t mean you should run that far based on where you are at in your personal journey.”
“Often, new runners will throw on their shoes and immediately start their run or workout,” notes Tiffany England, a USA Track & Field certified coach and running coach with the Run S.M.A.R.T. Project. But just like any other physical activity, your body needs a little prep work before you set out on the open road. “If you start out too fast, you risk injury by pulling a muscle or starting at a pace you can’t sustain. A good warmup allows your muscles and joints to operate at optimal flexibility and efficiency,” she explains. “I advocate dynamic stretching and 5–10 minutes of easy walking or slow running to start each workout.” Not only will incorporating this practice enhance your performance, but it will also help you avoid injury.
You may have heard you need to run a certain way to avoid injury, but experts say your natural instincts are usually better than you think. “Studies on novice runners show that most of them will naturally adopt the most efficient gait pattern for their current fitness, flexibility and strength and that this running form may evolve over time as the athlete gains strength and stamina,” explains Janet Hamilton, certified strength and conditioning specialist, a registered clinical exercise physiologist and owner of Running Strong Professional Coaching.
In other words, the way you naturally run is, in most cases, totally fine — especially when you’re a beginner. “Overthinking it by trying to force yourself to land a certain way or swing your arms a certain way often pulls your attention to one small element of what is arguably a very complex and interconnected movement, so you end up ‘fixing’ one problem while simultaneously ‘throwing off’ several other aspects in the process,” Hamilton says. Her advice: “Relax, keep your pace conversational, keep your stride relaxed and ‘collected,’ and periodically check in to see if you are clenching your fists or if you have tension in your shoulders. That’s about all the guidance I’ll give a new runner when it comes to ‘how’ they should run.”
Whether fast or slow, many new runners pick a pace and stick with it. “If you’re new to running, and you are looking to improve your speed, distance or generally get more in shape, make sure to include some variety in your training,” recommends Amanda Nurse, an elite marathoner and Boston Marathon run coach. “Find a hill and do a few 1-minute hill climbs (increasing your heart rate) or do some Fartlek workouts where you run fast for 30 seconds, then recover for 1 minute at an easy jog or walk.”
In terms of distance, it’s important to switch things up from day to day, as well. “It’s better to follow an ‘overload/recovery’ pattern where you run a little longer one day and shorter the next or run a course with some hills one day and stick to flat terrain the next,” Hamilton says. “The trick is to provide a stimulus for improvement (the overload) and then allow a chance for the body to adapt (recovery).” By using this pattern, you’ll be able to get faster and stronger more quickly.
Don’t get us wrong, random internet and running influencers can be great resources for much-needed running inspiration but when you’re first starting out, copying an accomplished athlete’s training schedule isn’t the best idea. “Just because someone runs does not mean they are qualified to tell you what you should or shouldn’t be doing,” Beal explains. “If you don’t have any formal knowledge in building a training plan or have a coach, it’s best to find a free training plan from a qualified source or purchase a book that can teach you the basics as well as give you an example training plan,” she says. “Copying what others are doing without the knowledge and understanding of why they are doing it can be a recipe for disaster and can lead to injury.”
Many people have the instinct to attack a hill, but this isn’t the best approach for beginners, according to Hamilton. “Most newbies would be wise to run hills with a focus on keeping their perceived effort the same as what they were experiencing on level ground,” she says. To preserve stamina for the rest of your run, you’ll need to accept that your hill-running pace is going to be slower than your usual pace, and you may even need to walk for some of it. “Usually, attacking a hill isn’t the best idea; the hill always comes out of the attack totally unscathed, but the runner may not be that lucky.”
“As a new runner, training for your first race or a new distance can be a daunting task,” England points out. “Every athlete has ups and downs throughout training, and it’s too easy for new runners to view their progress in negative terms.” If you’ve ever had a frustrating running outing, you know what she’s talking about.
When things get tough, finding the silver lining is key. “Even if you didn’t feel your best, find one thing that you did well,” she suggests. “It could be as simple as maintaining good running form or an even pace. Maintaining a positive outlook leads to more rewarding training and contributes to running success.”