A Beginner’s Guide to Running

Do you know how to run?

It’s a simple question, and probably something you might not even think about.  After all, what’s so tough about running, right?  You put one foot in front of the other, repeat the process as quickly as possible, and BAM you’re running!

However, did you realize that running improperly, especially for long distances, can do some serious damage to your body while not even giving you the benefits you’d expect from putting in all of that effort?  Not cool, I know.

Luckily, Nerd Fitness is here to help!

Today, you’re actually going to learn how to run the right way, keeping you healthy, happy, and injury-free.

My History with Running

Here’s a little known fact about Steve Kamb: I actually ran cross country in high school (and even won an award for it)!

Now, these days you won’t catch me doing much distance running (mostly because I get bored very quickly, but also for reasons best explained here).  That being said, I am still a HUGE fan of certain types of running: sprinting, quick trail runs, Parkour, interval training, and even the occasional 5k for for a great cause.  On top of that, being a solid runner is never a bad skill to have, whether you’re trying to be the next James Bond or you need to avoid the upcoming zombie apocalypse.

Which brings me to the point of today’s article.

To use a ridiculous and yet surprisingly applicable analogy: learning how to run is like taking a high school sex education class: let’s be honest, you’re gonna do it whether or not you’re given any instruction or advice, so you might as well learn how to do it safely so you don’t hurt yourself!

Welp, that’s the first time the word “sex” has graced the pages of Nerd Fitness.  Probably the last time too.

Okay, have you pulled your head out of the gutter yet? 

Good. Back to running.

Do you want to run?

First and foremost, when people tell me they’re going to start running, I always ask: “do you enjoy running?”

If the answer is “no,” then I yell at them (nicely), “THEN DON’T DO IT!”

If you are starting to run because you want to lose weight, but don’t actually enjoy running, I HAVE GREAT NEWS!  You don’t have to run; in fact, there are more efficient ways to burn the right kind of calories.  Your diet will be 80% of your battle anyways, so if you can find a way to start eating healthy, your exercise can come from activities you DO enjoy – hiking, strength training, martial arts, Ultimate Frisbee, whatever.

Now, if you answer with something like:

  • “Yes! I love running,”
  • “I like interval training and sprints”
  • “I don’t love it, but I need to complete it for a fitness test”
  • “I’m running a 5k for charity/work and want to do well”
  • “Not yet, but I think I could…”

…then we can continue the conversation!  Let’s take a look at the first few important steps (get it!) when it comes to running.

What to do first

Before you even THINK about strapping on a new pair of Nike shoes and going for a run around your neighborhood, we need to get a few things straight:

Your body needs to have a base-level of fitness before running becomes a viable option.  Every time you run, every time you take a step, you put the pressure of your entire body weight on the muscles, tendons and joints in your legs, knees, ankles, feet, and toes.  If you are overweight and have improper running technique, that means your joints and tendons are taking an absolute POUNDING for however many steps you take during your run: around 6200 steps in a 5k, 12,200 steps in a 10k, or 50,000+ steps in a marathon.

You’d have to be crazy to want to do something that hurts your body 50,000 times in a row!

So, clean up that diet, strength train every other day with something like the angry birds workout plan, and then do some form of low-impact activity on your off-days.  Things like:

  • Hiking – my personal favorite: get out and see the world!
  • Biking – easy on your joints, gets you moving.
  • Swimming – very low impact as the water holds you up.
  • Walking – go for a nice long walk around your town, and keep your head up. Enjoy the scenery.
  • Elliptical – although I’m not a fan of spending all afternoon in a gym on a treadmill, this is the better option as it removes the opportunity for joint impact.

Strength training, clean eating, and low impact activity – build up at your foundation to prep your body for running.  The less weight your body has to carry around, the less work your legs and joints have to do, the less likely you’ll be to damage your joints and/or injure yourself.

Now that you have a solid foundation and you’re ready to start running, you can move on to the next step.

How to warm up properly

Before you take your first stride as a runner, you need to be properly warmed up.

When most people think of warming up, they probably think of standing there and doing some static stretching for 10 minutes…you know, to make sure you don’t get injured!

Wrong! Fail!  Stretching BEFORE running can actually increase your risk of injury.  Instead, try a dynamic warm up –  get your body properly warmed up and prepared for the rigors of running.

My buddy Jason over at Strength Running has a pretty extensive and thorough post on dynamic warm ups, including a few routines for you to try out.

Just like with strength training, if you don’t have time to warm up, you don’t have time to run.  Cut the run short if you need to, but not the warm up!

How to run properly

Have you ever seriously thought about HOW you run?

You know, which part of your foot hits the ground first, at what angle your knee is bent (if at all) when you make contact, or how your posture is set up during your run, and so on.

If you’re like the hundreds of thousands of people that go running and get injured on a regular basis, probably not.

Fortunately, you’re a Nerd Fitness reader, which means you are incredibly intelligent, really ridiculously good looking, and modest.  It also means that you DO pay attention to how you run.

Your running technique is the most important thing when it comes to running – no fancy pair of “running shoes” can fix that for you.  In fact, did you know that expensive running shoes are probably more likely to cause injury than if you were to run barefoot?  True story – expensive, fancy, cushioned shoes promote bad behavior.

When you run in cushioned shoes:

  • Your ankles and arches get all of the support they need from the shoes, so your stabilizer muscles and tendons go unused and grow complacent – this is a recipe for disaster.
  • Your tendency will be to run with your heel hitting the ground first (a heel strike, as they say), which means your leg is completely extended, which means that the impact of your step will send shockwaves through your ankle, knee, hips, lower back, and so on.  Not good.  Multiply this jarring impact by a few thousand steps every day, and you WILL get injured.

What this means is that it’s time to start running like you’re barefoot (whether or not you are will be up to you): take shorter strides, land on the balls of your feet with your knee already bent, and absorb the shock rather than transfer it through your body.

Here’s a great video to show how your stride changes when you are running barefoot vs in shoes:

Barefoot vs. Shoe Running

Chris McDougal, author of Born to Run, a book that will make you want to go run immediately after reading it, wrote a Men’s Health Article on how to run barefoot – “Imagine your kid is running into the street and you have to sprint after her in bare feet.  You’d automatically lock into perfect form — you’d be up on your forefeet, with your back erect, head steady, arms high, elbows driving, and feet touching down quickly on the forefoot and kicking back toward your butt.”

Here’s another great explanation of it: “The barefoot running technique has been described as falling forward. It has also been described as gently kissing the ground with the balls of your feet. If you need one more concept to meditate on while running barefoot, imagine that a log is lying across the path in front of you; you don’t want to kick the front of the log with your toes. You want to step over the log with each step, keeping your knee bent and placing the ball of your foot immediately behind the log as your chest moves over the top of it.”

And even MORE info on where/how your foot should strike, thanks to the fine folks over at Harvard.

So, no matter WHAT kind of shoe you’re wearing (which I’ll cover next), it’s important to stop stomping your heel into the ground, and instead focus on having your foot strike the ground more towards the middle/ball of your foot.  Shorter strides, bent legs that are underneath you rather than fully extended out in front of you on impact, standing straight up, arms pumping, and trying to lightly bounce off the ground without your heel coming into contact with the ground.

YES, it will feel weird. 

YES, your calves will get sore almost immediately.

YES, it could save your knees from horribly debilitating injuries down the road.

How to improve your technique

THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT: don’t do too much too soon or you WILL hurt yourself. 

In the Matrix, Neo wakes up in the real world and says “why do my eyes hurt?” Morpheus stoically replies: “because you’ve never used them before.”

Your ankles, feet, calves, and legs are going to be used in a way that you’ve never used them before, so they need lots of time to get properly adjusted.  I remember when I got my first pair of Vibram FiveFingers back in the day, the first thing I did was go for a long run in them – I couldn’t walk properly for three days afterwards because my calves were so freaking sore.

START SLOW.  If you’re going to run with a new style, you have to control yourself and do it for only a little bit at a time.  I’m talking mere minutes to start out.  Five minutes of barefoot running is enough to cause discomfort if you’ve never done it before, so take it easy.  Slowly ease into it…too much + too soon = injury.

Try running up hills.  I find running up hills is a fantastic way to improve your technique – when you sprint up a hill, you naturally have to take a shortened stride and land on/spring off the balls of your feet to get up it.  This is the style you want!

Stay off the roads.  Although I’m a big fan of barefoot running (or using minimalist shoes like Vibrams), it can be tough to do in a typical urban running environment: unforgiving concrete and asphalt can wreak havoc on your ankles and joints especially when you’re just starting out and strengthening your body.  Instead, get off the roads and hit the trails in your woods or town!   My buddy Matt from No Meat Athlete wrote a fantastic article about trail running over on Zen Habits if you want more specific trail running advice.

 Cool down properly – whether you just finished sprinting, interval training, or closed out a big 28-mile run, it’s important to cool down properly – spend some time bringing your heart rate back down with a slower jog (while maintaining good form) or walk.  After you do your cool down, it’s time to stretch like a mofo, with a BIG emphasis on your calves – trust me on this one.  I’m a big fan of this stretch and this stretch when it comes to getting your lower body stretched out, though you can also do things like this.  What’s important is that you stretch what’s tight to minimize the soreness for the next training day.

Additional thoughts

Spend as much time barefoot as possible.  I train barefoot, I walk around barefoot whenever possible, I hike “barefoot,” and run “barefoot” in my Vibrams.  If you want to get used to running with a barefoot technique, spend more time barefoot!  I wear my Vibrams as often as possible; whenever I’m in a social situation where having ninja-gorilla feet isn’t acceptable, I wear my Merrell Barefoot Tough Gloves.

If you don’t like Vibrams or aren’t ready to run barefoot, try some other options like the Merrell Barefoot Trail Gloves or  New Balance Minimus.  That being said, I would still recommend spending as much time each week completely barefoot to strengthen your feet, ankles, and calves, while making sure to get in a good barefoot run here and there.

Track your progress.  If your goal is to run a faster 5k, then keep track of how long it takes you to run a 5k!  If your goal is to run barefoot, keep track of your runs and extend your barefoot time each time you run.  “What gets measured gets improved.”

Continue focusing on strength training!  Whether your goal is weight loss, strength and muscle gain, or overall increased fitness, having a solid base in strength training will keep you healthy and safe.  Conversely, dumping all of your effort into just running (without any strength training) will cause you to burn muscle along with fat, which typically results in that “skinny fat” look.  Strength train, sprint or run on trails on your off days, and have some fun.

Eat right – You can still run while following the Paleo lifestyle – meat, veggies, fruit, nuts, and some healthy starches like sweet potatoes or yams.  Check out Jason’s article here and Dr. Cordain’s “The Paleo Diet for Athletes” for more info.  Personally, I’d rather you run less and eat healthier than force yourself to eat extra carbs (that are probably unhealthy) so that you can spend even more time running long distances, but that decision is up to you.

Ultimately, I want you to do what makes you happy and keeps you healthy.

The Rebel Running Guide

For the past month or so, I’ve been planning out and working on the Rebel Running Guide.

(There should be confetti shooting out of your CD drive right now).

This will be a premium product that will focus on a beginner’s guide to running – I’ve partnered up with Jason, the guru behind Strength Running, to help put this sucker together.  The RRG will take you from all the way from complete newbie through to your first 5k and cover topics such as:

  • How to run while still living the Nerd Fitness lifestyle (strength training focus and Paleo).
  • How to train specifically for adventure 5ks (Warrior Dash, Spartan Race, etc.).
  • How to run in a real race (signing up, what to expect on race day, getting your number, how to start).
  • What to eat while training, the night before a race, and the morning of, after the race.
  • Barefoot running techniques and barefoot shoe reviews.
  • Videos and lessons on proper foot strike techniques.
  • Common running injuries, how to prevent them, and how to deal with them.
  • Different training plans based on your level of fitness.

Ultimately, the goal with this guide is to get you really good at running a 5k, and keep you healthy along the way.

Check out the REBEL RUNNING GUIDE and see how to stay healthy, injury free, and happy.

What else do you want to know about running properly?

How else can I help keep you injury free?



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