How to start running – a beginners’ guide from couch to 5K

From preparing for a run to creating a regular routine, our guide on how to start running is here to help...

How to start running: woman running
(Image credit: Getty)

If you're curious about how to start running, you're in luck! Our expert beginner's guide has got you covered. 

You’ve got yourself a pair of the best running shoes for women, maybe you've even invested in one of the best fitness trackers too, but even with all the kit it can be daunting to know how to start running when you've never done it before. 

More than two million people in the UK run at least once a week. And, it’s no surprise to hear that those numbers are increasing, particularly among women and adults in their mid-life, as we begin to understand more about how it helps boost our bodies and minds.

“Research shows that people who do sport, on average, live six years longer than those who don’t,” says Dr Sanjay Sharma, professor and consultant in cardiology at St George’s, University of London. “Sports and regular exercise have countless beneficial effects on a number of conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, depression and heart disease.”

Plus, there are the effects that general overall fitness may have on us, should we contract coronavirus. Many reports have suggested that those who carry less weight may be better able to fight off the virus should they get it. Plus, they may experience less severe symptoms. So, there appears to be no better time to get into fitness than now!

However, before you head out for your first run, it’s important to make sure you are properly prepared.

Here's how to start running

Prepare properly for a run

Make sure you choose suitable running shoes and hi-vis clothing for your run. You always do a warm-up/warm-down routine, which can be as simple as a five-minute brisk walk at the start and end of your run. Avoid icy weather and busy roads (falls and fumes), minimise joint-damaging jolts and give injuries rest and time to recover. 

Always check with your GP first if you have existing medical conditions or any concerns before starting a new exercise routine. Remember, if you are diabetic, it’s particularly important to check with your diabetes team before you start running and also to ensure you choose well-fitting trainers – keep an eye out for damage to your feet.

Building up slowly is best 

Not only will you want to know how to start running, but you also want to stay running. To keep up the momentum, it's important to build up strength and fitness gradually. Christina Macdonald, running guru and author of Run Yourself Fit, recommends experimenting with walk/run intervals. It’s a similar format to the NHS’s Couch to 5K running plan, which we really recommend.

“Each week, try to make small increases in the amount of time you run or reduce the walking intervals,” Christina suggests. Try her eight-week plan to help you steadily increase the volume, while giving your body time to recover. Only increase your run time by 10% each week to keep you feeling fresh and raring to go.

Create a regular routine and follow a training schedule

Week 1

  • Monday: Run 1 min/walk 2 mins x 5 = 15 mins
  • Wednesday: Run 1 min/walk 1 min x 5 = 10 mins
  • Friday: Rest or gentle cross-trainer, cycling or swimming 15 mins
  • Saturday: Run/walk 15 mins with as few walk breaks as possible

Week 2

  • Monday: Run 1 min/walk 2 mins x 6 = 18 mins
  • Wednesday: Run 2 mins/walk 1 min x 6 = 18 mins
  • Friday: Rest or gentle cross-trainer, cycling or swimming 20 mins
  • Saturday: Run/walk 20 mins with as few walk breaks as possible

Week 3

  • Monday: Run 2 mins/walk 2 mins x 6 = 24 mins
  • Wednesday: Run 3 mins/ walk 1 min x 4 = 16 mins
  • Friday: Rest or gentle cross-trainer, cycling or swimming 22 mins
  • Saturday: Run/walk 25 mins with as few walk breaks as possible

Week 4

  • Monday: Run 3 mins/walk 2 mins x 4 = 20 mins
  • Wednesday: Run 4 mins/walk 2 mins x 4 = 24 mins
  • Friday: Rest or gentle cross-trainer, cycling or swimming 25 mins
  • Saturday: Run/walk 30 mins with as few walk breaks as possible

Week 5

  • Monday: Run 5 mins/walk 2 mins x 3 = 21 mins
  • Wednesday: Run 5 mins/walk 1 mins x 5 = 30 mins
  • Friday: Rest or gentle cross-trainer, cycling or swimming 25 mins
  • Saturday: Run/walk 35 mins with as few walk breaks as possible

Week 6

  • Monday: Run 6 mins/walk 1 min x 4 = 28 mins
  • Wednesday: Run 9 mins/walk 3 mins at brisk pace x 3 = 36 mins
  • Friday: Rest or gentle cross-trainer, cycling or swimming 30 mins
  • Saturday: Run/walk 37 mins with as few walk breaks as possible

Week 7

  • Monday: Run 7 mins/walk 1 min x 3 = 24 mins
  • Wednesday: Run 12 mins/walk 3 mins at brisk pace x 2 = 30 mins
  • Friday: Rest or gentle cross-trainer, cycling or swimming 35 mins
  • Saturday: Run/walk 40 mins with as few walk breaks as possible

Week 8

  • Monday: Run 8 mins/walk 1 min x 4 = 36 mins
  • Wednesday: Run 15 mins easy pace/walk 3 mins at brisk pace then run 5-10 easy pace at the end = 23-28 mins
  • Friday: Rest or gentle cross-trainer, cycling or swimming 40 mins
  • Saturday: Run/walk 45 mins with as few walk breaks as possible

How to start running: couch to 5k woman running alongside sea

Think about your posture

When you start running, it's important to think about your posture to avoid getting injured. Good posture is crucial for health and performance, says Lynne Cantwell, clinic director and physiotherapist at Six Physio. “Imagine a line going from your ears to the ground – all of your body parts should stay as close to this as possible,” Lynne advises. 

  • Neck: Avoid sticking it out and keep it in line with your shoulders. A Pilates chin-tuck exercise will help you practise retracting your neck.
  • Shoulders and mid-back: Keep your ears over your shoulders and gently drawn back. Keep your back straight and upright, but not rigid.
  • Arms: Bend your elbows at 90º and keep them underneath your shoulders. When you extend backwards, your hand should just graze your pocket.
  • Feet: Aim for a mid-foot strike. You’ll be lighter on your feet and have more bounce – plodding on your heels will put more pressure on your knees. Keep your foot stride close to your centre – so one foot is in front and one foot behind (but no more than a foot length).

What to eat before and after a run

Pre-run breakfast shake: 125g low-fat fruit yogurt, 200ml skimmed milk, 30g rolled oats and 1tbsp clear honey.

Post-run refuel: ½ avocado and 2 large poached eggs on 1 wholemeal muffin, with a dash of lemon and pepper. Eat 15-30 mins after training to replenish glycogen stores. And make sure you drink plenty of water throughout.

Three common mistakes to avoid when starting your running journey

  1. Don’t set off too quickly. “Use the ‘talk test’ to tell whether you’re running at the right speed,” says Christina. You should be able to speak in normal sentences.
  2. Don’t come to a sudden stop. Slow down gradually to prevent dizziness. Legs have more blood moving through them during exercise and suddenly stopping may mean blood pools in your lower body. 
  3. Don’t give up. Consistency is key to improvement. Get into a habit of running at a certain time every other day and your stamina will build up quickly.

And if you feel you need a bit of support, try Parkrun, a group run that anyone can join. Before the social-distancing measures began, Parkrun ran a free timed 5K run in parks across the UK every Saturday at 9am and they plan to start up again as soon as it's safe to do so. 

All you have to do is register online, print off a barcode and take it with you to take part in any event. It doesn’t matter how fast you are (loads of people simply walk them), but you’ll be emailed details of your time, position and age grading, so you can aim to improve week on week. 

The benefits of running on your mood

Following our 'how to start running' plan will not only benefit your physical health, but will help improve your mental health too. Dr Melanie Wynne-Jones says, “Running gives us time to think or clear our heads, while exercise, natural open spaces and companionship (if we want it) boost feel-good brain endorphins.”

“Serotonin, dopamine and even growth-hormone levels have all been shown to be higher post-run, all of which contribute to that euphoric mood-boosting feeling,” Adidas Runners Captain Olivia Ross Hurst explains. “The more you exercise, the more you can boost your mood, as repeated exercise actually enhances the number of dopamine receptors in the brain over time.”

Indoors vs outdoors running?

So, should we run outside or on a treadmill? “Both are good, but if you can get outside to run, even better,” says Olivia. “Breathing in fresh air gives muscles a boost of oxygen, increases your energy levels and wakes you up. Natural sunlight (even on a cloudy day) stimulates vitamin D production (crucial for overall health and wellbeing) and boosts serotonin release.”

With thanks to Dr Sanjay Sharma, professor and consultant in cardiology at St George’s, University of London, Christina Macdonald, running guru and author of Run Yourself Fit, Lynne Cantwell, clinic director and physiotherapist at Six Physio, Dr Melanie Wynne-Jones and Adidas Runners Captain Olivia Ross Hurst.