Top Ten Things Every New Runner Should Know

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runnerIf you are new to running, I hope you find the following top ten list to be useful in making your new endeavour a safe and enjoyable one. If you are a more experienced runner that has experienced frustration in the form of injuries or lack of progress or if you have been running for years and still just don’t like running, read on…you might find some things that will help.

1. Develop Proper Running Form First!

Unfortunately, if many coaches or experienced runners made a top ten list like I am presenting here, far too many of them would not put form at the top of the list. Some might not even mention it at all. I would venture to say that the most common thing that would grab the number 1 spot on most top ten lists would be shoes. Many would urge you to go get the right pair of shoes first and foremost before training for your first race so that you don’t get injured. In fact, up until recently, I would have fallen into that category. I have given many people that advice as the first step in beginning a run training program. For most, this is built around the idea that your running form is what it is and you need a pair of shoes that will “correct” any mechanical inefficiencies that you may have.

However, I have come to realize over the last year that running, much like swimming, is very much more about learning form and efficiency than it is about power, leg strength, or shoes that compensate for inefficiencies. This doesn’t mean that shoes are not important – they are – but it is now much more about avoiding the wrong shoes than it is about picking the “right” shoes. Don’t worry though, I will get to shoes in a minute.

So what do I mean by “Proper Running Form” and how do you get good running form? Well, unfortunately, many people run with poor posture, they strike the ground with the heel vice the midfoot, and they push off with their toes rather than picking their feet up off the ground. On top of that, they often don’t even know that they should be thinking about these things. I would say that the average new runner just thinks that they should just go run and whatever form happens is just how they run and that is how it is. The good news is that you can change how you run and make your form more efficient with just a few tweaks and focuses. Mastering an efficient running form will change runs that were once difficult and unmanageable into enjoyable times outdoors that you look forward to. Why? Because you will use considerably less energy to go faster and farther than you ever could before.

Now, because I have just started to get into REALLY learning about proper running form over the last year and this is not a blog all about running form, I am not going to give you a full clinic on how to attain proper running form here in this blog. Others have done that for me and with much more knowledge and experience than I have. So, I will simply give you a very powerful reference that will give you everything you need to know about effortless and injury-free running form and I will also give you a few of the highlights. So, if you really want to master this running form, read “Chi Running” by Danny Dreyer or get the DVD. Here are the top three things, in my opinion, for proper running form as taught in Chi Running:

     a) Align your spine, hips and ankles. Look at yourself in the mirror standing with your side facing the mirror and correct your posture such that your neck, your spine, your hips and your ankles are all in alignment. You should be able to draw an imaginary straight line between all of these points. This engages your core muscles and also ensures that the weight of your body is being supported by your bones and ligaments and tendons rather than your muscles.

     b) Lean your entire body forward from the ankles (not the waist). While maintaining the alignment mentioned in step 1, lean forward at the ankles. You can practice this by leaning into a wall or post making sure that your heels don’t lift off the ground. When you run, the more you lean forward, the faster you will go. Leaning forward at the ankles with proper alignment ensures that you land on your foot while it is almost underneath you instead of out in front of you which gives you a proper midfoot strike rather than a heel strike.

     c) Maintain a cadence of 85-90 strides per minute. If you have a tempo trainer or metronome, you can set it at 85-90 beats per minute and match your stride to the beat. If not, just count every right foot or left foot strike (pick one or the other) for 1 minute. If you are too low, just start slowly adding more strides over the next several weeks (here is where a tempo trainer or metronome can really come in handy…a tool that I also use in swimming).

Here is a video from youtube by the founder of Chi Running, Danny Dryer. This video talks about the importance of a midfoot strike and some of the other things I talk about above. Again, if you really want to learn all of the drills and focuses taught in Chi Running, get the DVD and/or the book.

Do you want to see what efficient running form looks like? Do you have kids? Go watch them run in the back yard. There it is…perfect running form. They lean forward, they have a quick cadence, and they land on their midfoot. Just run like your kids!

2. Build an Aerobic Base

Many new runners make the mistake of going out too hard on every training run right from the start. It is very important to build a strong aerobic base before you start working on speed. This is often very difficult for most runners (even new runners) to make themselves do. The tendency is to run every training run at (or near) your goal race pace until one day you have finally trained your body to run at that pace long enough to make the full distance of your goal race. However, countless professionals and almost anyone that has been successful in endurance sports does something completely different to start with. Why? Because it works better! In the endurance world, this period in the training cycle is often called the “base” or “preparation” phase. During this phase the athlete spends most, if not all, of his or her time in the “aerobic” zone. Your aerobic zone can be defined in terms of your heart rate (if you use a heart rate monitor during your training…which is a good idea) or simply in terms of RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion). On the 1-10 RPE scale, the aerobic zone would 1-5. If you are training for your first race, I would recommend that anywhere from the first 1/3 to the first 1/2 of your training program be dedicated to building an aerobic base. This will teach your body to burn fat efficiently and it will “enlarge” your aerobic zone which means that you will be able to run at faster paces while still remaining in the aerobic zone.

NOTE: It is OK to do some strength training (even advisable) during this period, but I would mostly stay away from doing any running that gets your heart rate above your aerobic zone.

Feel free to contact me directly if you would like more information on how to find your aerobic zone using heart rate.

3. Stretching

Yes, I had to put it in here. You all know you should be stretching. Have you found any running articles that say not to stretch? Maybe…there is always some research coming out that says that stretching is bad, but you probably won’t find a whole lot of that out there. The one thing you will find is disagreement on when to stretch. Some say to stretch before the run and some say to stretch after the run. Which do I say? I say after. I think it is good to have a pre-run routine that involves some body looseners or dynamic stretches (see the Chi Running DVD) and some form focuses, then go for your run, and then get a good stretch when the muscles are warm. Stretching cold muscles is not a good idea. I recommend stretching the hamstrings, Achilles tendons, quads, and calves after the run when the muscles are warm. Again, the Chi Running book and DVD really have it covered here.

In addition to stretching after your runs, I highly recommend a regular yoga routine for increased flexibility, breath work, and focus. My previous blog on the benefits of yoga for triathletes and others goes into more depth on why yoga is so beneficial.

4. Start slow and increase slowly

If you are just starting a running program for the first time, start with a very conservative number of miles per week and increase by no more than about 10% each week. If you are starting really low with the miles you don’t need to get your calculator and your GPS out for this. If you start with 4 miles in the first week (say 2 runs at 2 miles each), then you should run no more than 4.5 miles the next week (maybe a 2 mile and a 2.5 mile)…you don’t need to make it 4.4 miles and be that exact. The point here is that you don’t want to go out and run 4 miles in your first week of a running program and then run 10 miles the next week. Approximately 10% increase or less is what you should aim for each week.

5. Core work

With proper running form, everything comes from the core. The hips, abs, and lower back do most of the work while the legs are just keeping you from falling down for the most part. So, it is very important to have a strong core if you want to be a good runner. It will help you to maintain the proper posture for the duration of your runs which will save you valuable energy. If you are practicing yoga (like I suggested in #3 above), then you are already getting some good core work but I would also recommend a few workouts a week that focus completely on abs and core. It takes less than 15 minutes for most people to get a good core workout so it shouldn’t be that difficult to fit in to your schedule. I have a good core workout video online for free that you can try here. In addition, I recommend any of the core work from P90X (Core Synergistics, Ab Ripper X) or from The P90X One on One Series (Killer Abs, Iso Abs, etc).

6. Shoes

Asics Gel NimbusI said earlier that I would get to shoes, so here it is. As I mentioned before, I used to think that shoes were the number 1 thing to focus on before you start a new run training program. However, I have changed my opinion on this since learning more about proper running form. Unfortunately, there are thousands of different running shoe models out there and picking the “right” shoe is extremely difficult. Usually, the more expensive the shoe, the more people think it will keep them from injury. More cushioning, more stabilizing, more motion control, less pronation, less supination….how do you know what to get? Well, here is my take: Get a pair of shoes that is comfortable and has little to no difference in height between the heel and the forefoot. That’s it. Shoes that have a lot of cushioning in the heel are unnecessary if you have proper running form (remember, you are not landing on your heel) and they tend to change the way your foot naturally lands on the ground (because your heel is too high). Runblogger has an excellent article on “minimalist” shoes that gives the difference in heel to forefoot height for a large number of shoes. The rest of the Runblogger site is also worth a look as well. He has some good videos of running form as well as lots of discussion.

Keep in mind though that proper running form and a shoe that is comfortable (and level) will work for a majority of people but not all. While I think that orthotics and inserts and special running shoes are often unnecessary gimmicks, there are people that have serious biomechanical inefficiencies or issues from previous injuries and may need special treatment. If you think you may fall into this category, please consult a physician prior to starting a regular running program.

7. Hydration

It is important to keep yourself hydrated when running. Being even just a little dehydrated during a run can result in a loss in performance and a disappointing race or training run. I recommend hydrating with 8-16 ounces of water 60-90 minutes prior to any training run. If the run is shorter than 30 minutes, you shouldn’t need to hydrate during the run unless it is particularly hot outside or you tend to sweat a lot. If the run is longer than 30 minutes, I recommend having a way to hydrate during your runs in the summer months. You can last a bit longer when it is cooler out. If you are running longer than an hour, I highly recommend having some sort of hydration available during the run no matter what the temperature is outside. Set your watch to beep every 15 minutes to remind you to take a drink and stay hydrated.

Some options for carrying hydration with you include fuel belts, camelbacks, and hand-held bottles. Also, another option for your longer runs is to plan your route around parks with water fountains or convenience stores where you can stop to hydrate.

8. Intervals, Speed Work, Strength

When you have built your aerobic base as I mentioned in #2 above, you may want to start working some “speed-building” into your training. As I said, the first 1/3 to 1/2 of your training program should be dedicated to building an aerobic base. After that, you can start working a little more on building speed and sport-specific strength…IF you want to. If you are just looking to make it across the line in your first 5K without dying then by all means continue training in the aerobic region. However, if you want to build some speed, you will need to do some work at higher exertion levels.

My recommendation is to replace 1 or 2 of your runs each week with an interval/fartlek set and/or a tempo run. In the interval set, you would warm up (about 1/3 of the workout) and then do a set of intervals such as 10 x 30 sec at maximum speed with 2 minute recoveries between intervals and then cool down (about 1/3 of the workout). In the tempo run, you would warm up (again 1/3) and then run at a pace just above your aerobic zone (RPE of 6-7) for about 1/3 of the workout time, and then cool down (about 1/3).

Other excellent additions to your training program after you have built a solid aerobic base are plyometrics and more focused lower body strength training.
– Plyometrics is basically “jump training” and does wonders for building explosive speed. P90X has a 60-minute workout dedicated to Plyometrics that will take your running to a whole new level, and the plyometrics in the Beachbody program Insanity will take you even further. I don’t recommend doing this more than once per week as it is very high impact, but it is certainly highly beneficial in building speed.
– Lower Body Strength Training will also build speed and muscular endurance. You’ll want to work the calves, the hamstrings, the quads, the glutes, and the hip flexors. The legs portion of the P90X “Legs and Back” routine does an excellent job. You can also find many running-specific leg strength programs online.

9. Music

Leave your ipod at home! I know most of you will hate me for this. Don’t worry, I don’t consider this to be a “must do”. However, I do believe that listening to music when you run is not the best choice and here are my reasons:

a) You will often mess up the steady cadence that you are trying to keep as part of your proper running form. Different songs have different beats and it will be difficult to maintain a consistent cadence with the changing beats. Plus, if you are using a metronome/tempo trainer, you will have a hard time hearing it with the song playing.

b) It is not as safe if you are running outdoors on the road because you can’t hear traffic. Obviously, this doesn’t apply if you are running on a track or a path in a park with no traffic concerns.

c) You miss the connection with nature that goes along with outdoor running.

NOTE: There is an alternative if you absolutely must listen to music. If you have the ability to record sound on your laptop or elsewhere and save the recording as an .mp3 file, then record your tempo trainer beeps as an mp3 for about a minute and insert it inbetween each song on your playlist. That way, you will be checking your tempo every 3 or 4 minutes. Or, if you don’t have that ability, simply take your tempo trainer with you and check your tempo every 5 minutes or so and make sure the music hasn’t changed it and turn it off in between….just don’t forget to check it!

10. Treadmill

treadmillUse the treadmill sparingly. I know this won’t be difficult for some of you because you absolutely HATE the treadmill. However, for those of us that live in regions that have cold winters or a lot of rain, it may be much more convenient to run on a treadmill for a good portion of the year. I understand this issue because I live in the Seattle area and it is often not very appealing to go out in the rain or cold.

I am certainly not saying that you should never use the treadmill. I have a treadmill in my garage and I use it. However, I try to do a majority of my runs outdoors and only use the treadmill when the weather is really bad or when I am doing specific workouts that need either a treadmill or a track.

Why? The treadmill seems to actually make more impact on your body than running outdoors with proper form. Because the surface moves toward you on the treadmill, the impact actually seems to be greater. Also, it is difficult to do a proper lean on the treadmill unless you have a very large running surface. If you are using a very large treadmill like the type you often find at a gym, then you may have enough surface to do a proper lean without feeling like you are crowding the front bar or just about to get shot off the back. My treadmill has one of the largest surfaces in the industry and I still feel like I am crowding the front when I run on it…but that is probably partially because I hate running near the back. Home treadmills (like what you would buy at Sears) are often far too small to feel comfortable with a proper lean.

So, my recommendation is to do your runs outdoors (on a track or the road) whenever you can and use the treadmill on really bad weather days or days when you are doing interval sets where you want to increase the speed to a specific sprint pace on each interval. Also, if you do run on the treadmill, I recommend increasing the incline to about 1-2%. This simulates running outdoors better and lessens the impact.

If you want more help with your running program or more details on any of the things that I have mentioned here, don’t hesitate to contact me at I love talking about training with people and love helping people. If you want serious help developing a program and personal coaching, I also offer full coaching services.

Happy training,

Ryan Chapman


  • Margaret Sager

    November 29, 2010

    THANK YOU! The information about running form was SO helpful. My knees have been very unhappy with me since last week. The chiropractor said it was muscular, but didn’t really give me any help for how to make them happy again. I think improving my form will make big difference.

    • BASEtraining

      November 29, 2010

      Awesome! Glad you liked it! Keep me up to date on how things are going for you.

  • Leigh

    December 5, 2010

    Thanks Ryan-I really enjoyed reading this!!!! Great information!

    • BASEtraining

      December 5, 2010

      Thanks Leigh! I am glad you liked it.

  • lens adapter

    October 7, 2011

    This was a very helpful article, thanks!

  • Barbara Karbassi

    December 15, 2012

    This was an excellent article and spot on of what I have been learning. I actually trained with Danny in June this year and thoroughly believe in chi running. I also think you were speaking to me personally on the base training. I realize from the science of my body how training wrong can really hurt you when you think you are doing better if your going always at 110%. How wrong I was.

    • BASEtraining

      December 15, 2012

      Thanks, Barbara. I know you will get into the base training and do well. Let me know if you want to start a program with me in the near future for Canada.