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Becoming a runner is 5 easy steps

Running helps keep the cardiovascular system efficient and strong, helps lower blood pressure by maintaining the elasticity of the arteries and can help people stay in shape and reach an ideal body weight.

Running improves fitness and helps with weight loss.
Running improves fitness and helps with weight loss.Photo by Joel Ford/Getty Images

"Running allows a person to burn an average of 100 calories per each mile he or she runs. Other popular activities, such as biking and walking, only burn a fraction of those calories in the same amount of time," says Elizabeth McLeod Sadler of Vanderbilt University, author of the 2008 study, “The benefits of running.”

Many consider running a painful, tedious and exhausting way to exercise. Yet often the reason for those negative views is that beginners as well as those deciding to pick up running again after a long absence try to do too much too soon. They start to feel aches, pains and soreness after just a few days and then give up on running.

The key to successfully starting a running program or returning to running is taking things slow. Gradually build up the time spent running and take rest days to allow your body plenty of time to acclimate to the new demands and stresses put on it. Those who find running painful, tedious or exhausting aren't doing it correctly. The old cliché "no pain, no pain" is never the smart way to approach running or any other exercise routine for that matter.

Even if you have never run before, you can become a runner by following these simple steps.

Step 1: Consult your physician to make certain a vigorous exercise program like running is safe for you.

If you are over 40, not accustomed to regular exercise, have a known health risk or are more than 20 pounds over your ideal body weight, it is always wise to consult your health care provider before starting a running program.

Step 2: Get a good pair of running shoes.

As far as exercise goes, running is one of the least expensive methods of getting fit. All it requires is a good pair of running shoes and some comfortable workout clothes. Just make sure not to skimp on the shoes. Running is a high-impact workout and poor quality shoes can lead to injuries.

Experienced runners can usually pick out the right shoe without any help but beginners shouldn't try to go it alone. Go to a running specialty store where the reps have been trained in helping fit runners with the proper shoe based on things like sex, weight and foot type. You may pay a few dollars more to buy shoes at a running store instead of at the big chain athletic equipment store at the mall but the professional fitting assistance will more than pay for the difference.

Step 3: Choose a beginner running program.

There are many excellent beginner running programs you can find free on the Internet that have been put together by running coaches and other fitness experts. The best programs have several things in common. A good beginner program includes a gradual progression of time and distance, requires 8-9 weeks to complete, gets you to the point of running 30 minutes without stopping and at least at the beginning follows a run/walk approach where you alternate running a specific numbers of minutes with walking a specific numbers of minutes.

The run/walk method helps you to avoid pain, soreness and potential running-related injuries. These programs also only require you to run 3-4 days each week allowing the other 3-4 days for rest days. Rest is also important in preventing excessive soreness, undue fatigue and potential injury.

Two excellent programs for beginners include the Runner's World magazine "8-Week Beginner's Program" by veteran runner Amby Burfoot and "The Couch to 5K Running Plan" by Josh Clark. Even if you never have any plans to run a 5K road race, both of these plans are still great just for those who want to start running for general fitness and weight loss.

Step 4: Find a place to run.

Another great thing about running is that it is easy to find a place to run. Neighborhood parks, sidewalks, streets without a lot of vehicle traffic and even the track at a nearby high school or university are all viable options. In cold or inclement weather you can simple jump on a treadmill at home or at a neighborhood gym to get your run in.

If at all possible choose a place to run where the surface is something softer than cement. Running on such a hard surface is hard on the feet, ankles and legs of any runner but can be especially hard on beginners. That's why parks are such a great choice as a running location. Some parks have fitness trails and most have grassy surfaces suitable for running.

Step 5: Get out the door and run.

Once you have your doctor's okay, have a good pair of running shoes, have decided on a program and have a place in mind where you plan to run, it's time to get out the door and run. If you haven't run for a long time or ever, expect it to feel a little awkward at first but that will soon pass. Not everyone has the gait and grace of an elite runner but most of us do have our own unique efficient running style that we fall into quite naturally.

Especially at the beginning there is no need for speed. You will reap the same cardiovascular benefits and the calorie burning benefits no matter how slow you might run. The key is to elevate your heart rate into the "aerobic zone" which is somewhere between 60 to 80-percent of your maximum heart rate. Don't worry you won't need an expensive heart rate monitor just yet. You can estimate using your perceived level of exertion.

Experiment with your pace, the speed you run at and you will eventually learn to get into the zone. It may feel "comfortably" hard but you should never be out of breath. When you become breathless you will have left the aerobic zone and entered the anaerobic zone. Most runners use what is called the "talk test" which means if you can't talk normally while running you are running too fast and need to slow the pace.

These tips will allow you to get started as a runner. Once you have reached the end of a beginner program you should be able to run for a half hour without stopping. You can then simply continue running 30 minutes a day, 3-4 times each week to maintain your fitness and weight or you may decide to go on to more advanced program to increase your endurance and level of fitness. In future articles we will examine more advanced running programs and training techniques.