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12 Tips for Beginner Runners

Practical tips for those who want to start, or get back into, running.

By: Erin McGrady + Save to a List

I’ve been running most of my life. It’s when I feel the most like myself. In the beginning, I ran as a way to ‘get into shape’ for another sport but as I grew older and stopped putting on jerseys and chasing a ball around a field, I kept running. I’ve done numerous 5k’s, 10k’s, half-marathons, a couple of marathons, and even a few relays. This past summer my wife and I went to the Outer Banks in our small van and ran for 12 hours, trading off every couple miles, to see how much distance we could cover in half a day. Together, we ran a little over 44 miles. I am not fast, but I am consistent. Running is more than just a way for me to stay fit - it’s where I solve problems, come up with ideas, refill my emotional tank, and above all, it’s my favorite way to explore a new place. 

The tips below are things that I’ve learned over two decades of putting one foot in front of the other. 

1. Get going.

Starting my GPS in Badlands National Park.

One of the only things I remember from my years as an undergrad exercise science student is Newton’s First Law: a body at rest will remain at rest unless an outside force acts on it, and a body in motion will stay in motion. (I’ve oversimplified this idea, but you get my drift, right?) In this case, we’re talking about your body. Your running body, that is. For me, often the hardest part about running is making up my mind to do it. I’ll look at the weather when I wake up, take note of the fact that it’s 28 degrees outside and start coming up with a dozen reasons why I should stay under the covers. At that moment, the only thing that really gets me going is knowing I’m going to be pissed at myself the whole day if I skip it. So, I go. And once I've got my shoes on, the rest of me knows what to do.

2. Find support.

That being said, not every running workout can be attributed to sheer willpower. Some days you’re going to need an ace up your sleeve in order to get you out the door. In my case, this secret weapon of mine is my wife. As soon as she starts to see me hit snooze and bury my face under my pillow, she starts nudging me to get up and get going. We’ve made this agreement ahead of time that when one of us starts to bail on the day’s run, the other will gently push us into action. And it works. I do the same for her. The trick is, ya can’t both want to bail on the same day.

Also, in a similar vein, you can lean on your friends and family for that good ol’ fashioned positive reinforcement and support when you need some motivation. Your circle wants to support you. Let them! Though social media can certainly have its drawbacks, this is one of my favorite parts about it ... that people from all over can see and take part in your fitness journey by supporting you with encouragement.  

3. Join a running club.

Membership in a running club is kind of like getting extreme running support. Some clubs are for elite runners only but there’s a ton of clubs out there that are more experience-based rather than performance-based. When I first moved to Frederick, Maryland in 2006 one of the first things I did was to show up and join the Frederick Steeplechasers. It’s a come-one, come-all kind of club and though there are some really fast runners in the group, it doesn’t feel elitist or exclusive. Some of my first friends in that city were runners from that club and though I’ve moved to Asheville, they continue to support me from afar. Got a question about shoes, gear, cold weather running tips, or local races … someone in your local running club, multiple people actually, are ready and eager to give an answer. 

4. Recover.

Cooling down after a hot run in Death Valley National Park.

All good things must come to an end. Nah. If you take care of your body, hopefully, you’ll run well into your golden years. Seriously. Part of the key to that, however, is recovery. I try to think of my body as a vehicle for rad adventures and as such, like any other vehicle, it requires a little maintenance. I’ve played around with a few different training plans and cycles over the years but for the last several years, I’ve consistently run 5 days on, 2 days off. Over and over and over. I’ll also build in a week of complete rest at least twice a year; typically once in the summer and once in the winter. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to add rest days when I feel a little hitch in my stride or a pull in a muscle, but for the most part, this plan has served me well. In part, it’s because I’m no longer seriously racing but am just out there for fun and for health benefits. If you’re looking to go fast or you have performance-based goals, this kind of plan probably won’t suit you. 

Also, if you're injury-prone or you have a demanding work schedule and time is tight, you may only be able to run a few days a week. Everybody is different and will need their own unique training plan. Play around with various workout schedules and cycles and see how your body responds. The idea is to push your body to make improvements but no so far that you end up injured. It’s a fine line.  And if you're just getting back into running after a long hiatus, it's not a bad idea to check in with your doctor ahead of time to make sure you're good to go. 

5. Get fit for shoes at a specialty running store. 

Consider getting a trail running specific shoe if you want to log miles on dirt. Pictured here is Hoka One One's Speedgoat 4.

Pushing yourself day in and day out without a solid plan for recovery is a recipe for disaster. So, too, however, is wearing improperly fitted shoes. I’ve had the misfortune of having two stress fractures in my right foot. Both of the injuries were in the same place and my doc attributes it to overuse. I don’t disagree with him but I also think it’s because I was wearing shoes that were too narrow and too small. I’d worn a certain brand and model for years but then suddenly they stopped making them. I scooped up as many of them as I could but at some point, I had to find something else. That’s when my foot problems began. 

Enter Hoka One One. I made a trip to a specialty running store after getting out of my boot and after getting on a treadmill to have someone assess my running gait, a big blue box was plopped in front of me. In it were the thickest soled shoes I’d ever seen. I have to admit that at first sight, I was skeptical. That is until I took a few laps around the store and realized not only did they offer cushioning and stability but they just ‘felt right.’ The shoes I took home that day were Hoka’s original Cliftons. And I’ve been running in them ever since. Injury-free, too. 

6. Dress for success.

If you're traveling, be sure to research the weather where you're headed. You may need to bring very different gear than what you're wearing at home.

A pretty common rule of thumb is to dress for about 20 degrees warmer than what your weather app says it is outside. So, for example, if it says it's 35 outside, dress for temps that feel like 55. Of course, that means you’ll need to know how to dress for 55. (For me, it’s shorts, a short-sleeve shirt, running gloves, and a trucker hat.) 

In the summer, I typically wear a tank top and shorts. In the fall and spring, I’ll wear a light jacket and some ¾ length tights. Come winter, however, is where I really see the benefits of specialty running gear paying off. Depending on the temperature and the wind, I’ll wear long tights, mid-calf socks (I'm a big fan of Swiftwick socks), a beanie, a long-sleeve moisture-wicking layer, an outer shell, and even gloves. The trick is to stay warm but not to overheat. 

In the beginning, it might be helpful to keep a log of what it was like outside, what you wore, and how you felt. Over time you probably won’t need it, but learning what to wear and when will help you maximize your experience. 

Lastly, as your runs start to get longer think about finding a way to carry some fluids. I love the hydration vests from Nathan. They’re lightweight, durable, come in cool colors, and they make carrying water, keys, credit card, etc. a lot easier. 

7. Find out what motivates ya.

Seeing new places will almost always make the miles seem fun. Pictured here in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

When I was a kid, say five or six years old, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for a sticker. My mom had made a posterboard and when we did certain chores around the house, we’d get a sticker. They motivated me to do all kinds of things: take out the trash, feed the dog, empty the dishwasher, etc. Turns out that even as an adult, I can still be coerced into doing things by rewarding myself. It’s not as easy as giving myself a sticker, but a similar principle applies: if A, then B. If you run X miles, then you get a new pair of shoes. Or a jacket. Or a night out. Or an entire pizza. Whatever it is, figure out what it is that makes you tick and then use it to your advantage. 

8. Sign up for your first race. Or don’t.

A bunch of my friends sign up for races because that’s the thing that motivates them to train. I get it - the race on the calendar, that you paid for and committed to, holds you accountable. There are few people out there who can show up to a marathon, without the training in the bag, who can just get the job done. That being said, you may not feel the urge to race. And there’s nothing wrong with that. For a while, I was racing several times a month. I was collecting t-shirts and finishers' medals at such a rapid pace that my dresser drawers started overflowing. But after a while, the allure wore off and I stopped racing. I went for three or four years where, though I was training, I didn’t sign up for a race. And I didn’t miss it. Running had taken on a new meaning to me. The point wasn’t to go fast or to set a PR but it was a way to escape from the day to day, stay fit, and clear my head. I saved a good bit of money just running for the fun of it but I will say this: there is nothing like a start or finish line at a race when you are surrounded by like-minded individuals, runners. It’s a beautiful, magical energy that everyone should aim to experience at least once in their life. 

9. Learn to listen to your body.

Slowing down and even taking a break are two things that will allow you to run consistently without injury.

All this running around is going to make you tired. There, I said it. Running makes me tired. Though people talk of the runners high, I’ll be the first to admit that I am tired after every single run! Sometimes I do feel an elevated sense of euphoria when I’m exploring a new place or I see an amazing sunrise but I am always, always tired. 

The thing is, there’s tired and pushing through it and then there’s pain. It can be challenging to distinguish between the two. But it’s really important to learn the nuance between the two so you know when it’s safe to push yourself and when to back off, stop, or even take an extra rest day or two. 

As evidenced by my two stress fractures, this took me a while to learn. Back then I believed in the mantra ‘no pain, no gain.’ But it left me in a boot for six weeks; twice. These days, I pay attention to aches, soreness, an elevated heart rate while at rest, difficulty sleeping, extreme exhaustion, etc. There are watches and apps to help with this but short of spending a lot of money on technology, you can start to attune to your own signals and then make decisions based on them. 

These days I take a day or two off when something feels a little off. The body is designed to repair itself if you give it a chance. Most of the time, a short break it's all I need to get back out there. 

10. Mix things up.

Non-impact activities like getting on your SUP can help keep you running healthy and strong.

Running is awesome but when you feel called to ride your bike, go for a hike, or paddle into a few waves, you should go for it. Being committed to running is one thing but being rigid and inflexible in your ways is another. To be honest, this can be challenging for me. I often struggle on rest days, even though I know that part of a good training plan is resting. 

11. Keep it fun.

Lacing up for a few miles with my wife. Both of us are in the Hoka One One Clifton 6's.

Sounds obvious, right? But it’s actually easier said than done. The thing is, the key to a long-lasting relationship with running is to make it something that you actually enjoy rather than something you dread. Some obvious ways to make running fun is to add music and add friends. For me, both make the time pass quicker. When I’m laughing and telling stories, the miles become something in the background. And getting over that one last hillcrest with your buddies is somehow easier when you’re doing it as part of a pack. 

Another way to keep it fun is to mix up the terrain and the scenery. It could be as simple as running your normal route backward or at a different time of day. It could mean that you book a trip to a new place and you run miles in a completely new place (this is one of my favorite things to do.) 

12. Show up.

Running in Missoula, Montana, 2019.

Last but not least … just remember that getting out there and running is running. You’re a runner no matter what your pace is, no matter what your distance is. You’re a runner the moment you lace up and get out the door. You're a runner no matter your body shape or size. You're a runner even if you've never run in a race or if you take walking breaks. You're a runner if you say you are. And when you take a break from it, try not to beat yourself up too badly about it and just get back out there. The run will always, always welcome you back.

#EveryoneOutside | All photos by Caroline Whatley

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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