Help me become a mediocre but uninjured runner
September 12, 2019 9:52 AM   Subscribe

I'm a complete novice to running but would like to try and get into it. My main goal is to not get injured. What are some good, detailed resources?

I had heard of couch to 5k, and I checked it out, but it seemed hard to find some of the specifics I want...I haven't downloaded the app yet though

Look at that! 21 pages of links!

My main concern is honestly just injury. So many runners get injured. But on the flip side, I know some people who have done truly impressive ultramarathons... I've tried asking the runners I know, but their responses often still assume a certain level of knowledge and I feel bad sort of asking for me. They'll say to stretch. What kind? They'll say to make sure to do some strength training to balance out muscles. What weight training? I really need the details because I am clueless. Assume I know literally nothing.

I live in China at the moment (though have a couple of trips to America on the slate in the next 6 months), and basically just have (some) money and the internet at my disposal. Thankfully the air where I live is clean.

For more background details, I'm in my 30's and while not wildly unhealthy, I'm definitely overweight, and probably need to lose like... about 30 pounds (this is after talking to a dr etc...I don't have many issues, but the potential ones I do have are all weight related...). My main plan of attack is to eat less and just sort of try and have a healthier relationship with food...I don't see running as about weight loss per se, more just about like, trying to be healthier and using my body in an interesting way? I know there are other ways besides running to get health benefits etc of exercise (and if I end up hating running that's what I'll do), but I dunno, I was on a hike in a pretty impressive part of the world recently while on vacation and I enjoyed just...using my body to move out and about in the world. For the first time in my life I really...wanted that, in a way I hadn't before. I really want to just like, be able to really move through the world, through interesting places. I think it'd be cool if I were better at that. I think I'd enjoy trying out trail running, that sort of thing. I like the minimalism of it. Put on some shoes and go run around in the world. Obviously need to work up to that though. Thus this thread.
posted by wooh to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best advice I can give you is to try to get fitted with a proper pair of running shoes in a shop that specializes. There are all over the place in the US; I'm not sure what's available in China. A running store pro will look at your feet, your gait, talk to you about the sorts of running you want to do, etc and put you in the right pair which will go a long way towards preventing injury. Good running shoes aren't heinously expensive, either - maybe around $80-$100.
posted by jquinby at 10:00 AM on September 12, 2019 [6 favorites]

DrMsEld is injury prone and was not very athletic, sounds rather similar to your situation btw, and she benefited greatly from the teachings in The Non Runner's Marathon Trainer. It carried her through her marathon and she's now (2 kids and 5 years later) using it again for a half marathon while a friend of her's, also injury prone if a bit more athletic, is using it for a full marathon herself.

It's major focus is crystal clear instructions with a very well laid out plan for what you need to run, when, why, and how to train up. It took much of the thinking out of the equation, which was huge for when she was doing a doctoral defense and running three times a week or so. It also focuses on not getting injured, don't quote me but I think it's even to the point of you never run a full marathon length until the day of the race so that you're that much less likely to pop an injury in training when you're really close to race day and lose all your progress. It sounded a bit crazy to me, that factoid if I'm recalling it correctly, but damn if it didn't work for her.

Be aware that, as it turns out, diet is much more impactful on her for actual weight loss but being healthy in general is never a bad thing and she gets a good mental boost out of running regularly as well so, well, yea, good luck!
posted by RolandOfEld at 10:01 AM on September 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

Plus one on the shoes being key. Also it’s best to cross- train, with some weight lifting and or biking.
posted by kerf at 10:02 AM on September 12, 2019

Probably the biggest thing is that whatever sneakers you own that kind of look like running shoes, are not running shoes. Either talk to a friend who *really* knows running or go to a local running store. The local running store is going to put you in crazy technical and expensive and heavy shoes because they want to be conservative and not get you hurt. Once you wear that pair out you'll know what you do and don't like about them and it will help guide you to get a pair that's a little more tailored to you.

Trail running is a big part of how I lost 50lbs. It's way less boring than road running. Just start out very very slow and don't increase the mileage too fast. Your shins are going to hurt at first - it's probably not shin splints (unless it is), your shins are just going to be sore.
posted by ftm at 10:02 AM on September 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

I began running about two and a half years ago and will be running my first marathon in November. I didn't do Couch to 5K as it progressed at a volume faster than I felt comfortable, but I did Runkeeper's version of same and it worked for me.

I won't say I didn't get injured, I battled plantar fasciitis and achilles tendonosis and went through physio for the latter, but I think I learned from both what to (not) do so they don't recur. I'm being very cautious in mileage volume as I train. A solid base is key as you move up from 5K to ultra, so don't rush it. I personally think those who run a marathon or ultra in their first year of running are a little bonkers, but every body is different.

While my diet (overall nutrition, not in the specific eating plan sense) isn't perfect, a lot of it has solved itself by virtue of I can't run in the morning if I had two slices of pizza for dinner and I want to run in the morning so... It will be a little trial and error because like volume, everyone is different. I wish I could have a coffee and toast before running long, but I can't. Some can.

My blog (linked in profile) is my running journey. Feel free to ping me with any more questions. There's a great running social network out there.
posted by TravellingCari at 10:06 AM on September 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

I started basically from scratch about 10 years ago, and have run a handful of marathons and half-marathons over the years. Agree wholeheartedly that you should get fitted for proper running shoes.

The other thing is to take your progress incrementally - most runners follow the 10% rule when increasing their weekly mileage. For example, if you run a TOTAL of 10 miles one week, try not to go more than a total of 11 miles the following week, and so forth.

I also found that run/walking is a great way to help get started and avoid injury.

Strength training and mobility is a huge, huge factor in avoiding injury. There are some great videos on Runners World or YouTube about strength training for runners (focusing on glutes, hips) or core strength for runners (very important!), which I encourage you to do in conjunction with your runs.
posted by something_witty at 10:13 AM on September 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

Just to add to the above, my One Great Trick is to run slooooowly. Like slower than a walk. Increase the speed sllllloooowwwwly.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:18 AM on September 12, 2019 [9 favorites]

The most useful advice I've gotten:
1) You will improve more slowly than you expect. It's a cliche, but a cliche I've lived: Injuries come from doing too much, too fast. Expect frustratingly slow progress.
2) You can improve for longer than you expect. If you start gradually and consistently run for, say, 3 years, gradually increasing your intensity and distance. you will achieve a level you cannot currently dream of. (Of course, if you just want to get a comfortable level of fitness and health level and stabilize there, that's great too, and more realistic for most people.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:26 AM on September 12, 2019 [3 favorites]

I started from scratch and Couch to 5k worked for me. In the early weeks, I did an extra cycle of whatever the interval was. I've done it four times now and every time it makes the jump from short intervals to running 20 minutes I'm surprised it works, but it does. You can also always repeat days (or weeks!) if you don't feel ready to move up. But your body may surprise you.
posted by something something at 10:31 AM on September 12, 2019

Fitted running shoes, avoid extremely rough terrain (but do primarily run on natural trail paths as flat, concrete roads are not what your feet were built for) and places where there are likely to be cars, make sure your ankles are stabilized at all times. I just sprained my ankle pretty badly from trying to avoid a car on a narrow park path and I am kicking myself for not thinking this would eventually happen. Otherwise I hadn't ever really endured a lot of typical injuries just from avoiding concrete surfaces and doing warm up stretches.
posted by Young Kullervo at 10:40 AM on September 12, 2019

+1 re: the importance of getting good running shoes. The one time I got some nasty shin splints was from running on the sidewalk with some clunky sneakers that messed with my natural step. After that, I went to my local REI, talked with people who knew more about shoes and pronation than I did, jogged around the store in various pairs, and ended up getting some awesome lightweight shoes that worked great. Now all my shoe pain comes from like, wearing boots that are actually a little too big but they looked cute online. Try on potential shoes in person!

Look for a local outdoorsy/running store for this kind of thing, rather than a department store's shoe section or an athletic brand's store where most of the shoes are just for fashion rather than function. (For example, though I have run around various city sidewalks in just some ol' Adidas Sambas before, those were just short sprints - you'll want to make sure you get shoes specifically designed for running for more than a few minutes, especially if you plan on running on trail terrain.) If you can find someone local who you know runs a lot to ask where they got their shoes, they'll likely have opinions on what you can get and where you can go try shoes on in person.

This REI guide to selecting running shoes provides a decent overview of basic terms and concepts to keep in mind - I clicked around on their website a bunch before going into a store to check out some shoes in person. Basically you want to take a look at your current shoes and see where the wear is to figure out which parts of your feet are hitting the ground first - literally to examine the way you walk - which will help you find the appropriate shoes.
posted by rather be jorting at 11:03 AM on September 12, 2019

Yes, get fitted for shoes if you can.

None to Run is slower in progression that C25k, and includes strength training, which I found very helpful.

Best advice I ever got was to run slower than you think you should. Yes, even slower than that. I also have a very very short stride, which means I cover less distance than other people with the same cadence, but it protects my knees (my doctor’s a fan of this) - YMMV there.
posted by okayokayigive at 12:13 PM on September 12, 2019 [2 favorites]

Lots of good advice above, from my experience as someone a bit overweight who only really started running in his 30s.

Something else I found useful was to pay attention to my body more than the training plan. If the training plan said to do 5k today, but my knee felt a little weird after a mile, I'm going to listen to the knee and take it easy. If it starts hurting, I'm going to stop running. After all, the main goal is to be healthy and have fun, not win some imaginary contest.

It's not a definitive resource, but I've found that the goofy humor of Dumb Runner contained a lot of contextual cues that experienced runners might forget to convey to a newbie. It's also occasionally *really* funny. See, for example, this bit of sarcasm
posted by pykrete jungle at 12:15 PM on September 12, 2019 [5 favorites]

Read up on form! The most important thing for me was learning that while the ball of the foot should hit first, you should still be pushing off the heel of your foot using your glutes. If your shins hurt, let your feet flop around more, don't try to hold them up when they're off the ground. Starting with a really slow pace and intervals helped me focus on form until I didn't need to think about it so much any more.

I think this is the video I found most helpful.
posted by momus_window at 12:53 PM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

I went the barefoot running route—all my knee problems are from combat sports. ^^ I found the secret to not getting injured while running is to run as fast as my body wanted to—and no more than that, except for very brief sprinting (I’m talking 100 meters max).

My body was okay with me pushing limits in terms of duration and the ramp ups used by c25k and c210k. I briefly tried to push overall pace and mileage, but things started protesting pretty quickly. Ditto for racing, that tension over duration was not good for me.

If you do this for the long run (ha!), strength training can also iron out mobility issues and weaknesses that might be problematic after a while.
posted by executive_dysfuncti0n at 1:14 PM on September 12, 2019

I started running in 2014 via a self-directed process that is similar to coach to 5k programs (I simply jogged with my dog until I started to feel like it was to hard, and then I'd walk. This was initially jog for half a block, and then walk to the intersection and start waling after crossing the street. From there jogging distances got longer). The main thing is I didn't run hard, and I didn't exhaust myself making my body hate running.

In December of 2014 after I'd done a few 10k's, I started trying to get faster. 2015-2016 were my years of injury mostly because I'd keep getting over eager with trying to get fast. Secondarily because I was 38-39. In 2017-present I've been better (sigh, but still no great) about doing stregth work beyond just running. In 2017 I did my first 50 miler. In 2019 I did my first (and 2nd and 3rd) hundred+ mile races.

Studies have mostly indicated that stretching doesn't prevent injury, with the exception of if someone isn't functionally mobile for proper running form. However, studies also indicate that dynamic stretching doesn't correlate with a lead up to injury, but static stretching; especially before running correaltes with increased injury risk. I've heard many runners strongly preach about stretching, but the only people I've seen at ultra running events doing static stretches were doing a non-ultra distance/time entry.

Studies have indicated that getting stability shoes has a higher correlation with getting injured later on. So I'm not a big fan of the "go to a running store and get gait analysis" that new runners are often given. I'll note I went to two running stores for gait analysis/fitting and both told me I need stability shoes. I currently (while often running 8-11 hour weeks) wear neutral shoes. And yeah, pictures of me while running show I pronate a *lot* (litterally it looks like a picture as an ankle-breaking injuries is occuring). But that's just how my body works. If anyone ever tells you that you need to break shoes in, walk out right then.

If you have wide feet, I'll highly suggest looking at the brands Topo and Altra. You're looking for "trainers" , not flats nor racing shoes. Most people don't have any problems taking road shoes on light trail if it's not wet, so I'd advice just going with road shoes for now. You should be able to try on a pair of shoes in the store and run a few steps and everything just feels good.

I highly recommend Running Rewired by Jay Dicharry - he as a lot of tests to verify if you have enough functional mobility, and the stretches that one should use to increase mobility.

For strength routines, excluding specific exercises I was given by PT's during injury, I recommend two; Jay Johnson's SAM (Strength and Mobility) and the Mountain Leg routine, in either the 3 minute or 5 minute version.

In the last year+ the only time I've had to take off of running was because of severe edema/swelling following my first hundred (done in bad mud/rain conditions) where I couldn't even fit my feet into shoes for 5+ days. There've been times that I only did slow running and skipped workouts (but still ran slowly) because I had a calf feeling off. Slow running (for me, a heart rate of 135 or lower) seems to be "active recovery" for me.

Going in to a sport, because of Dunning Kruger effects one doesn't know when to slow down, but seeing progress fills one with enthusiasm, so they push and push until their hurt. It's a big ask, but excluding young people (24 and under) who are naturally athletic, I think most runners should't do any speed work for 6-12 months after starting to run.

Just do aerobic level (based loosely on heart rate zones) running/walking, slowly increasing distance/time as well as times per week that one runs. When you start out, staying aerobic is going to involve a lot of running slow. No, slower than that. And intervals of walking.

If you don't have a heart rate monitor, a good test is time how fast your breathing vs. your step rate. If you're breathing is slower then 3 steps while you inhale and 3 steps while you exhale, you're good. I can aerobically run while taking 2 steps for inhale, and 2 for exhale, but I also can get solidly anerobic while still doing 2 and 2. While you're inexperienced don't play in grey areas and stick for 3 and 3.

The number one phrase around most runners injuries is "Too much, too fast, too soon."

My last thought related to avoiding injury is if you're still sticking to running after 2-3 months, get a second pair of shoes and rotate which one you use. Currently I run 7 days per week if my schedule allows it, and I always have at least 3 pairs of shoes in rotation (I currently have 5 sets of road shoes and 4 sets of trail shoes). Different shoes will have your feet/ankles work differently, as well the foam will recover better with more time between wearings. Some people only get 200-400 miles per pair of shoes. Other's can go well into the thousands of miles per pair of shoes.
posted by nobeagle at 1:22 PM on September 12, 2019 [4 favorites]

I began running three months ago, after several years of couch potato-ing. I scoured the internet for beginning advice, especially on avoiding injury, and found it all came back to:
1. Buy good shoes. Go to a running store. This is your only real start-up cost!
2. Run three times a week for the first couple months. And by run - it's a mix of walking and running. Walking is good.
3. Run slowly. It's just about getting out there. Speed will come much later.
4. Increase your distance and/or time you're running very gradually each week. If you're using an app and you feel like it's pushing you too hard repeat a week.
5. If you hurt, don't push yourself!
Everything I read went back to not doing too much, too fast as the number one way to avoid the litany of injuries that befall newbie runners.
Edited to add -- warm up! Walk for five minutes before officially running. It's good for your body. Stretch after.
posted by missmary6 at 1:31 PM on September 12, 2019 [1 favorite]

Didn’t read all of the responses but one thing that comes to mind is that a lot of running injuries are preventable. Sure, you might twist an ankle but you might do that just walking around. Things like shin splints don’t just appear. They get ignored until they’re more serious problems. So ... don’t do that. Learn how to pushing yourself with pushing yourself too hard. If you’re sore after a run, you’re probably going too far or too fast.

Definitely get fitted for shoes. Without knowing you, I’m guessing you might be looking at stability shoes which are the kind I wear. Look into the Jeff Galloway training program. Walk breaks make longer runs more manageable and facilitate recovery. Seriously, I was sore for a week after my first half marathon where I barely took walk breaks but with my second, I walked at regular intervals and was not nearly as sore afterwards.

Stretching isn’t something I focused on a lot because I felt like I figured it out as I went along. Sorry that’s not helpful! Regarding diet, I’d encourage you to plan ahead because working out makes me hungrier. Good luck and have fun!
posted by kat518 at 2:46 PM on September 12, 2019

I was thinking about this thread on my run just now, and wanted to add to my comment above: I was 40, and quite overweight, when I started running for the very first time. I haven't lost a speck of weight in the last year and change since I started, but WOW do I have a different relationship with my body. I *love* running. Just like you said - it makes me feel like I'm really moving in and through this world. It makes me feel powerful for the first time pretty much ever. The downside of that power is that I constantly have to hold myself back: I want to run faster, and harder, and longer pretty much every day - but I know, because I've learned the hard way, that I'll get hurt* if I do. Baby steps are key.

*I haven't had any serious injuries from running, just some minor annoyances - in fact, running (slowly!) has helped an old knee injury. I trashed my back walking a half-marathon, though. Baby steps.
posted by okayokayigive at 6:32 PM on September 12, 2019

Jill Angie's Not Your Average Runner podcast (and other resources) could be for you!

She's a running coach and life coach and her early podcast episodes are all about getting started with running. Like literally getting started. None of these assumptions that you can run a mile or whatever. Have a listen or read the show notes. She's an advocate for doing run-walk intervals, (which I am a huge fan of) and this a good way to avoid injury. Run walk intervals are also known as the Galloway method and it just means you run for a predetermined length of time, then walk for a predetermined length of time and repeat until you're done. Intervals can be as short or as long as you like. You might want to start with a 15 second run interval (or less!) followed by a minute of walking and do that a few times in one session.

Perhaps don't do the normal couch to 5km using an app - it's a recipe for failure for a lot of people (I failed it twice before I found a better way). There are dozens of different ways to train and different ones work for different people. Personally I use Maffetone method heart rate training (intervals are governed by my heart rate). But run-walk is a really good way to start and I encourage you to look into it.

Good luck!
posted by eloeth-starr at 12:37 AM on September 13, 2019

Change the word 'running' in the question to say 'squat'
What would be the number one advice you'll receive?

Form. Form. Form. Everything else in my opinion is secondary.
This by nature will force you to start slow. (In doing squat you'll start with no weight). And to pay attention to how your body is moving and feeling.

Do the same thing here. Seconding momus_window's advice. Read up and watch videos on forms. And consciously practice them until it's second nature.

Be cautious with the shoes, especially with the ones that are supposed to 'correct' your gait. Disclaimer that I am (well...was) a barefoot/minimalist runner. I have nothing against shoes but while you're training your form, excessively padded shoes can mask the proper signals your body is sending. i.e if your form is wrong (say landing on your heel), it will hurt when you run barefoot but they will be masked when using shoes letting you think that it is fine.
posted by 7life at 9:25 AM on September 13, 2019

Decade-long runner here.

I wouldn't recommend getting "fitted" in a running shoe store. The science between the "type" of shoe (neutral/stability/motion control/etc) and injury is weak at best and sometimes completely contradictory. Every couple of years, the shoe industry invents a new way to reduce injury/make yourself faster, and often it's something hawked a decade or two before. In short, there aren't clear and fast answers what the best shoe is for you, and as a beginner runner, how you run is likely to change as you become a more experienced runner. Even the best-trained retail employee can't tell you how the shoes fit your feet, or how they're going to feel while running.

I'd recommend going to a store where they have running shoes, but where they're all laid out on the retail floor instead of asking someone to get them for you. Then basically try on as many shoes as you can. Shoe fit varies drastically, even from the same brand. Shoe sizes are also largely imaginary, so don't get locked into thinking you are a particular size. If you think you're a particular size, also try on a size bigger and smaller. If the store has them, try on the wider or narrower version of the shoe. Often people feel awkward for asking for so many shoes (and in different sizes) and taking up so much of the employee's time, so they get locked into getting shoes that only fit the best from a few pairs.

You're aiming for shoes that generally fit the same around all parts of your foot, with no tight or loose parts which would give you blisters. Anything else like stability elements, magical shoe foam, rigid/soft elements are secondary.

Running shoes are always on sale, since every year they change the model in some way and close out last years. Also ask the store what their return policy is - if you put on the shoes at home a day later and just walking around in your carpeted home hurts, then you need to be able to return them. Some stores even have return policies in which you can return them after a run or two. Sometimes shoes don't work out, it happens.


I'm not familiar with Couch to 5K, but I had the benefit of a friend who had been running for years. I didn't even "run" for the first few months. I started out walking semi-long distances for a month, then a slightly faster "trot" for another month. Felt stupid doing it, but my friend insisted - and kept me company on these boring walks. But I didn't get injured when I started actually running.

I often run with people who are complete beginners - haven't run in months or years - and it's a common sight to see them run wildly ahead of the (more experienced) group. They often burn out entirely in 15-20 minutes and start walking/limping, and never go running again. Your brain will say "this is my running speed" but if you haven't built up your body to it, it's just going to lead to injury. Start off slowly.. and then slow down. If it's too slow to even believe that you're running, doing run/walk intervals is an excellent suggestion.
posted by meowzilla at 10:56 AM on September 13, 2019

As with any part of your body, overexerting your feet without proper strengthening will cause stress injury. So make your feet stronger.

I’m not going to tell you to run in barefoot shoes, but I am going to tell you to GET a pair of barefoot shoes (FiveFingers, New Balance Minimus, Merrill RoadGloves, etc.). Wear them to WALK. A lot. These shoes have zero support. Your feet will need to figure out how to be feet. You will likely have sore calves. Your arches may never have actually had to be arches before. (An arch is a self supporting structure. Bones get stronger under stress. Reducing stress on your arches by supporting them just makes them weaker. Weak arches are an injury waiting to happen. Your foot seems to be the only body part where advice is to brace it when it’s weak, rather than strengthen it.)

Alternate between walking in the barefoot shoes and running in whatever running shoes work best for you. Your feet will be stronger, which will help you not get hurt when running. But pay attention to other signals - knee pain especially - and DO NOT keep pushing yourself when you have parts of your body telling you to stop. Muscle soreness is inevitable as you build strength, but joint pain should not be ignored.

Personally I like to actually run in the barefoot shoes, because I overpronate and running shoes don’t let me do that - which in turn forces my knees to do things they don’t like, and that hurts. Barefoot shoes let my feet and knees do what they want, which works with my own biomechanics. But that took a decade plus of working towards better foot strength. You can’t jump into it overnight, whether barefoot or standard running shoe, you need to give your body time to adapt.

As with all advice - listen to your body more than you listen to anyone else. Take it slow, and enjoy it.
posted by caution live frogs at 6:07 AM on September 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

I hated running and struggled to do it until my late twenties, when I somehow managed to learn to love it. Not sure how I accomplished that transformation of perspective, but one important part of it was abandoning (on the advice of a wise vagabond, incidentally) the fancy shoes prescribed by experts at running stores and switching to Five Fingers.

They were the only thing that didn't give me horrendous shin splints. YMM obviously V. One caveat is that I had pretty strong arches from doing karate barefoot my whole life, so I was able to avoid a long minimalist conditioning time. The advice Caution Live Frogs gives above seems prudent and accurate in this regard.
posted by lordcorvid at 8:49 PM on September 14, 2019

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