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How to Start a Running Program

Running is one of the simplest and most efficient forms of exercise, but you have to ease into it.

Running is among the simplest and most efficient forms of exercise. You can do it almost anywhere, with minimal gear, and the calories-per-hour burn is near the top for the most common exercise routines.

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But you have to ease into it: Running can take a toll on your bones, muscles and joints, which might not be used to such high-impact activity. If you haven't already done so, start with walking.

Steady walking slowly builds muscle and endurance in your legs while enhancing your overall aerobic capacity. It also helps you develop a consistent daily routine incorporating exercise. After about a week, break into a jog about every four minutes for about one minute or less, advises Dr. William Fernandez, from Garss Valley, Calif.  You can build on the time and intensity — gradually — as you start to feel more comfortable jogging.

Done properly, running doesn't need to be abusive to the body. Most people were never taught how to run, and yet as children most of us ran quite a bit. It's an instinctive activity. Unfortunately, modern living has taken us far away from many of our physical instincts, so you may need to relearn the art of running. In brief, that means:

  • Start standing upright, but when you begin to jog, lean forward to let your upper body lead your legs. Don't just lean from the hips — try to keep your whole body aligned, and your back relatively straight.
  • Focus on lifting your legs using your abdominal muscles. Those muscles, as a group, are larger than your leg muscles, so this style of running is more efficient than pushing with your legs.
  • Establish a cadence that you can maintain. If you come to a hill, shorten your stride in order to keep the rhythm.
  • Look straight ahead while running and don't let your neck, shoulders, jaw and other muscles tense up.

There's more to it than that, but those pointers should get you started safely. When running is done correctly, it strengthens bones, muscles and crucial spinal support structures.

Woman jogging on street

Getty Images

Watch for potholes, rocks, uneven terrain and, of course, traffic. Run against the traffic, and at dawn, dusk or nighttime, wear reflective clothing.

Lastly, find a running partner. Running together at the same pace is part of the joy of the sport. Keep looking for a partner who matches your pace and your goals.

To ensure you have a safe posture and gait, have your running position observed from the front, back and side by a professional who specializes in sports injuries and body mechanics. You may also want to join an organized group in training for an event to receive coaching. Doing so can produce useful information about potential injuries as well as running performance in a competition.

And remember: If you can't or won't run, for whatever reason, walking is a valid substitute. You just have to do it for longer stretches to get the same calorie burn.

Carole Carson, author of From Fat to Fit: Turn Yourself into a Weapon of Mass Reduction, serves as the coach for the AARP Fat to Fit online community.

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