How to Turn Your Walk into a Run

You have been walking faithfully four to five days a week, gradually increasing your time to 30 minutes or longer. Congratulations! But after following this routine for several weeks, you may no longer feel the challenge you once did. You feel it’s time to kick it up a notch and see where these legs can take you! The next step for many walkers in your situation is running.

Running is a great sport in which almost all individuals can participate. Despite the fact that many people believe running can lead to arthritis of the knees and hips, studies conducted by Stanford University and the Cooper Institute have actually shown that running can improve bone and joint function for those not already suffering from arthritis.

Running has been also shown to:
  • Decrease blood pressure
  • Increase cardiovascular functioning
  • Increase HDL (the good cholesterol)
  • Improve aerobic endurance
  • Increase muscle strength, especially in the lower body and core
  • Promote better sleep
  • And perhaps most importantly, promote a sense of self-confidence and well-being
Now that you know the benefits, before embarking on any running program, it is always best to get clearance from your health care provider, especially if you are older than 40 or have a history of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes or osteoarthritis.

While becoming a runner can be a tad overwhelming in the beginning, getting the right shoes, developing a good plan, and allowing time for your body to adapt to the rigors of the sport should get you well on your way. Many new runners find that setting a goal to run a race, such as a 5K, keeps them on target to finish their training program.<pagebreak>

Start at Ground Level

A runner’s only real piece of equipment is a good pair of running shoes. Running in the wrong shoe is a surefire way to injure one's self; wearing improper footwear can lead to issues not just in the foot, but also the ankle, knee, hip, lower back and even your shoulders. This is why it is essential for you to go to your local running specialty store to get fitted because the staff there has been trained to fit runners of all levels.

Here are a few pointers for getting fitted for running shoes:
  • Allow plenty of time. It takes time to find the right shoe, but it will be well worth the time invested.
  • Go at the end of the day, when your feet are the most swollen from being up and about.
  • A runner’s foot is bound to swell, especially on longer runs; therefore, most runners need to go up one to one and a half shoe sizes from their normal street shoe size. Don’t panic; this is quite common.
  • Bring the socks you plan to wear when running or ask the salesperson to recommend a good running sock for you to wear while trying on the shoes.
  • Bring in an old pair of your athletic shoes so the personnel can evaluate the wear pattern on your shoes to determine the roll of your foot, also known as your pronation.
  • Try on many brands and models and don’t necessarily go with the most expensive, the prettiest color, or the first one that fits comfortably. Most new shoes will fill nicely because of the cushioning, but keep trying.
  • Lastly, ask about the store’s return and exchange policy. Most stores will not take shoes back once they have been worn on the street, but ask just in case your shoes don't feel comfortable on your first run.

Develop a Plan

Now that you have your new shoes, what's next? Having a plan is fundamental for most beginner runners. Running without a plan or training program is like going on vacation without a map to get to your destination. Most people can prepare for a 5K in approximately 12 weeks of consistent training, and there are many training programs available online. Missing a workout here and there is not too critical, but if you are missing a workout once a week in a three-days-a-week training schedule, you may require more time. Therefore, you may want to consider repeating weeks until you have a solid base before moving along the schedule.

If you are not confident to begin a running program on your own, check out your local running club or consider hiring a running coach for a few sessions just to get you going. To find a certified running coach or club, visit the Road Runners Club of America website. There, you'll find a state-by-state listing of coaches and clubs in your area. And don’t forget about your local running specialty store--often, these stores offer social runs for their customers and some even direct clinics for runners of all fitness levels for a nominal fee.

To be a runner does not mean that you have to run from the first step out the door and every subsequent step thereafter. In fact, walk/run programs (which combine intervals of walking and running) are best suited for novice runners and work well for seasoned runners, too. This method reduces your risk for injury while slowly helping your body to adapt to the rigors of running. While your cardiovascular and respiratory systems might be physically ready for a run (especially if you've been active in other aerobic activities prior to running), don’t forget that your muscles, joints, connective tissue and diaphragm also need to adapt to the new, more rigorous movement patterns of running. This takes time.<pagebreak>

Hit the Road

With new shoes and a schedule, you must consider surfaces. While you might be stuck with whatever running surface is available to you, such as concrete sidewalks, it might be worthwhile to find an alternative. Here's what you need to know about the pros and cons of various running surfaces.
  • Grass is the ideal running surface, according to most experts, but it's also more difficult to maintain your balance on this surface due to the unevenness of the terrain. It's not the best choice for a new runner unless the grass surface is on a football or soccer field that has been maintained.
  • Running trails are generally easier on the joints due to the dirt and cinder that overlays the surface. You may want to check with your local parks and recreation department to see if there are any in your area. However, do not consider running on a hiking trail as these surfaces tend to be more uneven and therefore more difficult to run on and maintain one’s balance.
  • A high school or college track is less jarring on the joints. However, running around an ellipse for an extended period of time can get boring rather quickly.
  • Treadmills are a great resource for many new runners who may not have a running partner or group. They allow for runs at all times of the day in the safety of a controlled environment. However, treadmill belts help propel you, so it is best to run on a 1-2% incline (or grade) to help make the transition to outside running a bit easier.
  • Concrete, the surface most readily available, is the worse surface on which to run. While most people can’t avoid running on this surface, it is 10 times harder on the joints than running on asphalt, so it is better to experiment with a variety of running surfaces to avoid injury.

Listen to Your Body

Every run should begin with a proper warm-up. Starting with a brisk walk for at least 5-10 minutes will allow your heart to get pumping and the blood to start flowing to the muscles. Warm-ups and cool-downs are very important to integrate into your program and should not be skipped. Warming up allows the heart to slowly elevate and get the blood flowing to the muscles while cooling down allows the heart to gradually return to a slower rate.

It isn’t too unusual for a new runner to hit the trail too fast, too soon. This may be one reason many new runners give up very soon into their program. The problem is they do not allow time for their body to adapt. Runners might find it beneficial to use a heart rate monitor to make sure they are not running too fast or too slowly. The Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale can also be used to determine intensity of training.

It is very important to follow your running schedule, especially if you have no previous running experience. Rushing the process will increase your risk for injury and/or burnout. However, you can repeat a week or two if you are not ready to advance. As a runner, it is essential that you listen to your body. This means if something does not feel right, it is best to slow the process.

You do not have to run, walk, or run/walk every day to be a runner. As important as running is, it is even more important to allow good recovery, especially as you get older. Recovery—not the running itself—is what helps your body adapt to running, so make it a part of your regular schedule. In fact, most running coaches recommend no more than 3-4 days of running per week max. Doing some nice cross-training activities, such as strength training, yoga and your old standby, walking, on your non-run days will allow for good recovery while not overtaxing the body. After all, your goal is to be a lifelong runner—not a once-in-a-lifetime runner.