For strength-training savants, cardio can seem like a necessary evil. Listen to some guys around the gym and they make it sound like taking a mere lap around the block can eat away at your precious muscle or whittle your body into a marathoner's gazelle build.
But if you’re trying to overhaul your current regimen and face a new kind of challenge, then keep reading and lace up (preferably in one of these top running shoes). Whether you've been a strict lifter for years or you're just a guy who's never exercised before and wants to start pounding the pavement, consider this your blueprint for becoming a runner.
(Oh, and by the way: If you're a muscle-bound guy trying to improve your cardiovascular fitness, there are plenty of lung-bursting, muscle-taxing, non-traditional cardio workouts you can do. There’s a sweet spot for how much cardio to do without losing muscle. And, believe it or not, you can even run a marathon without sacrificing your hard-earned physique.)
1. Begin with the basics: Start slow
If you’ve never run more than a mile (and that was to pass gym class in high school), you need to start gradually, even if you’ve got excellent endurance from CrossFit or MMA training. Your legs will need to acclimate to the repetitive pounding motion of road or trail running. You can experience shin splints (inflamed, irritated muscles, tendons, and/or bone tissue around your tibia) if you increase the intensity or distance of your runs too quickly. Shin splints can also occur if you’re flat-footed and running without orthotic support, have improper running form, or swap your terrain from a somewhat cushy treadmill to unforgiving asphalt or concrete.
2. Create a plan
We'll say it: You will enjoy running a lot more if you have a plan, and a resource to help get you through it.
You can find a run coach who can put you through your paces once or twice a week and come up with a personalized training plan to follow. (Road Runners Club of America is a great resource for locating experts in your area). If there are running clubs near you, consider joining up for a few sessions, because experienced folks can help encourage you through your beginner stages.
On a budget? You can download the Nike+ Run Club App and use its four-week Get Started program. It’ll take the guess work out of creating a training regimen by suggesting different types of runs*, as well as incorporating Nike+ Training Club workouts to supplement your training in order to build the necessary strength, mobility, and agility. Some other notable running apps include RunKeeper, which offers training plans crafted by running experts, and Couch-to-5K, which helps new runners prevent injury by easing into training with a few 30-minute workouts per week (a virtual coach also gives you cues about your training mid-workout).
3. Don't stop strength training
“If you want to be a runner, you need to be an athlete, too,” says Chris Bennett, a Nike+ Run Club Global Head Coach. "And if you can become a stronger athlete, you'll become a stronger runner, meaning it'll be tougher for you to get injured." Running is a full-body activity, so the stronger your core, stability, and mobility are, the better. Consistency is key to staying healthy—so don't skip the warmup, dynamic drills, mobility work, or workouts targeted at lesser-used muscles. Try our strength-training leg workout for running to ward off imbalances and weaknesses, or try this bodyweight routine you can do anywhere.
If you're becoming a runner to complete a lofty goal, like a marathon, use this 16-week strength-training guide for marathoners to cover your basics. Shooting to do a half? Use this nine-week half-marathon strength and conditioning program.
Make sure you vary your runs, too. “A common mistake with new runners is they think they have only one gear or pace, and they have to do the same run every day,” says Bennett. Do you complete the same strength training workout in the gym every day? Of course not. (At least we hope not.)
Same goes for running: You should do a mix of runs and strength workouts, which brings us to the next crucial step: Get to know every kind of run.
4. Familiarize yourself with the three main types of runs*
“We all have an 'easy' pace, a 'strong' pace, and a 'blazing-fast' pace,” Bennett says. Pretty much anywhere you live, you’ll find roads, trails, flats, and hills to train on. You don’t even need a track. As long as you can measure out, estimate, or time your sprints, you can do speed (or "track") workouts on any level ground.
“Any good plan should take advantage of all the different types of running,” Bennett says. Here’s your guide:
- Recovery run: This is just another name for your typical easy run. You’re not pushing the pace or the intensity, just using it to get your legs accustomed to running and/or to help your muscles recover from an arduous hill or sprint workout. These will be the majority of your runs.
- Speed run: “These should be fun,” Bennett stresses. Release your inner dog, cheetah, unicorn—whatever metaphor that’ll help you let loose and enjoy ripping out sprints. “If you’re nervous about running fast, that’s just misplaced excitement,” he says. “Just channel that nervousness the right way and you will be ready to rock.” Just be sure you get your form right, first.**
- Long run: There’s no minimum distance. “It just means this is your longest run of the week,” Bennett explains.
5. Master good practices and proper form**
To be clear: You will get tired, and that is okay.
“The best thing you can do for your form is to get in better shape,” Bennett says. “Everyone has a tendency to exaggerate bad form when they get tired, so you’ll notice, as you get later into a run, your arm swing and knee lift disappear, and you're not running upright with a slight lean forward,” Bennett explains. It’s your body’s way of saying ‘Sorry, bud. I’m done.’
That means you'll have to stay mentally sharp, too. “Do a little system check during those last stages of a run to identify many of the things you’re doing (or not doing),” Bennett says. While you don't necessarily have to radically change your natural running form to mirror perfect running form (for example, if you're somewhere between a heel and forefoot striker, don't kill yourself to make it the perfect forefoot strike), keep these main points in mind:
- “If you tend to lean back or slump forward, remind yourself to let your chin lead your chest a bit, and that should help with your upper body positioning and foot strike, too," Bennett says.
- Shake your arms out and keep them low (about waist-level), so you’re not tensing your shoulders and wasting energy.
- Keep your breathing even. “If you can control your breathing, you can control your form,” Bennett says. Some people like to count their breaths (in for two breaths, slowly out for three; or in for three, slowly out for four) in order for it to become meditative and, after a while, reflexive. This will help if you tend to become a gasping mouth-breather five minutes into a run.
6. Track your runs
This is probably obvious, but you don't need a ton of technology to start running, and that applies to tracking as well. A humble notebook is all you need to track the time of your run, your mileage, and how you feel during the workout. If you want, write down how your sleeping and eating is going—you'll be surprised how closely your training mirrors your overall health.
If you want to go one step up, a great tracker or wearable can clue you in on important metrics like sleep, resting heart rate, and running dynamics. Some trackers, like Garmin's Forerunner 935, offer a holistic look at your training by tracking how restorative your sleep was, how taxing a workout was (along with an estimated recovery time to let you know when your body will be primed and ready to tackle another intense session), whether you're overtraining (if your resting heart rate is unusually high compared to other days' metrics), and what your running dynamics are like (if you tend to overstride, which puts you at risk for joint injuries, like runner's knee).
What's more, every mile you run is a part of your story, Bennett says. Journaling can seriously help you hit your fitness goals. "Write about how you started with a 5- or 10-minute run, and how you kept it relaxed even though you felt a little self-conscious," Bennett explains.
Write about the success you feel completing that first milestone, whether that's your fastest mile or farthest run, and write about the frustrations and upsets. "You need to celebrate the effort and, besides, weeks (or months and years) later, you'll appreciate looking back at the journey and being able to measure that improvement," Bennett adds.
"Running is about so much more than the numbers on your watch."
7. Avoid the most common running setbacks
Yes, running is hard. Here are four ways to make sure you set yourself up for long-term success:
- Pick the right running partner. Just as journaling can keep you motivated, a running buddy can keep you accountable. Choose carefully, though: You need to make sure you're not setting yourself up for failure (a great workout buddy needs to have certain traits). "Make sure the run distance and pace makes sense for you both," Bennett says. "That may mean you run the first part of a run with a friend and end your run early," he suggests. If you're not at the same fitness level, one person's not working hard enough and the other is chasing to keep up. You want to motivate and push each other in a positive way.
- Be strategic with music. Think of your playlist as your Assistant Coach, Bennett says. "Every run you do has a certain rhythm, but you need to let yourself warm up and adjust to the effort of running," he explains. As you settle into your stride and work out any kinks, your pace will naturally pick up. And, this may surprise you, but "the goal for all your normal runs, recovery runs, and long runs is to end with your best running at the end." Set your music up to reflect this—make the first few songs a bit more mellow but motivational, have some steady fan favorites on deck to keep you chugging along mid-run, then end with your most kickass tunes. If you have a playlist that has your hardest-hitting, fastest music at the beginning, you'll end up hammering the start of every run, which will burn you out, Bennett explains.
- Stay consistent. Don’t put ridiculous expectations, deadlines, or pressure on yourself early on. "If you can’t get the run in that you want to do, just get the run in you can do," Bennett recommends. Life's gonna get in the way—there will be looming work projects, weddings, kids, stray dogs—so it's not a big deal if your 30-minute run becomes a 10-minute one.
- Don't overdo it. Nearly everyone runs too fast or too long at first. "If someone truly wants to get better at running, they need to be patient and humble," Bennett says. Don't let your pride overcome common sense, either. Just because you're a hotshot in the gym doesn't mean you can come into running with the same gusto. Your body will take the brunt of that mistake.
8. Alter your nutrition for running
When you stop looking at food just to settle your stomach and appease your brain's pleasure center, then you'll start to view your nutrition as the fuel that sustains your training.
If you're just starting off, you don't need to completely change your diet. You simply need to be carb-smart and be mindful of pre- and post-workout nutrition, like the best foods to eat before and after a run. Hydration needs to be a greater emphasis here than in the weight room, too. Take note of these running nutrition and hydration guidelines for everything you need to know about carb and water intake from a 5k to an ultramarathon.
9. Go out on your first run
"The purpose of the first run is simple: End it knowing you could have gone faster or longer, and wanting to run again," Bennett says. If you start off thinking you need to run three miles at an eight-minute pace, then (unsurprisingly) don't hit those marks, you're going to feel dejected.
"If you can enjoy your running, you'll be consistent, and if you can be consistent, you'll improve," Bennett says. "If you improve you'll experience success, and if you can experience success, you'll be willing and inspired to work harder to experience even more success." This is true regardless of your sport or endeavor.
So, on Day 1: If you've opted to bring along a tracker and music, get everything set up first, so you don't have to stop and futz around with technology. As you set out, try to feel totally relaxed. "You should also be in complete control of your breathing and form the entire time on the run," Bennett says. "If you feel like you're losing control, it means you're running too hard."
Effortless-looking runners look relaxed because they're running at a pace that's right for them. Unless they're in an actual race, they aren't racing. As a new runner, your first goal is learning how to run the right way. "Allow your body to naturally adjust to the effort," Bennett says, without straining or stressing over numbers (pretend your tracker isn't there until it indicates you've hit your prescribed distance for that day). "Just remember you should end the run feeling strong," Bennett says.
Remember this invigorating, empowering feeling, and use it as motivation to start your next run. After a couple weeks, you'll come to find cardio's not so bad after all. Heck, you might even call yourself a runner—thigh-baring shorts optional.