Inspired by the London Marathon, or just fancy a jog around the park? Running's more popular than ever, but it can be daunting for a beginner. Here are some expert tips for putting your best foot forwards
EASY DOES IT
"The cardinal rule of a new runner is 'Be Patient'," says Lee Matthews, head of fitness at Fitness First (www.fitnessfirst.co.uk). "Your body needs time to adapt to and it may be uncomfortable at first, but you'll see results fairly quickly.
"Newcomers should follow these three rules: run more slowly than you think you should, don't run as far as you think you should, and run more often than you think you should.
"If you start too far and too fast, you'll wind up burned out at best, injured at worst."
Simon Cabot, a senior physiotherapist at Nuffield Health (www.nuffieldhealth.com), echoes Matthews's advice. "It's always important to take training slowly, 90% of the injuries I see are related to overtraining and doing too much too soon," he states.
Matthews suggest using the 'talk test'. "You should be able to talk comfortably while running; slow it down if you're running out of breath and don't hesitate to alternate running and walking or take a breather. It's not a sign of weakness, just common sense," he says.
ALL IN THE TECHNIQUE
Nobody teaches us how to tear around the playground when we're little, but that doesn't mean we're all able to run 'properly' as adults.
The team at Fitness First advises not to run 'heels first': avoid striking the pavement with your heels, as this can contribute to back and knee pain. Landing on your forefoot instead will allow your muscles to catch your weight and reduce impact on joints.
Watch your stance, too. "Leaping forward and striding too far is inefficient and will drain energy fast," says Matthews. "Make sure you stand tall and lean slightly forward, so when you feel like you're going to fall, step forward just enough to catch yourself. This should be the length of your stride. Less motion also means less wear and tear on the joints."
GET A PLAN
If you're hoping to make running an ongoing fitness regime, or if you've set yourself a goal to conquer like a charity run or marathon, follow a training plan.
"Find an online programme to build up to something like a 10K, as this provides sensible boundaries to use as guides," says Matthews.
There are lots of books and websites with training plans. Alternatively, Matthews adds, you can always speak to one of the personal trainers at the gym, who'll help devise a tailored plan - and don't ignore the rest days!
"Rest days are very important!" says Matthews. "Any programme should include rest days."
DON'T SKIP THE WARM-UP
"Warming up can increase performance by up to 17%," says Matthews. "Keep your stretching dynamic [stretching with movement], as static stretches can make your joints unstable."
Plus, your muscles and joints will be in motion when you're running, so it helps to 'train them up' this way. Squats and lunges are good examples.
Your cool down will help your body to gradually work down from the state of high exertion, and also allow muscles to remove waste products, so they'll be better prepared for your next training session, notes Matthews. Unlike the warm-up, he suggests included static stretches in the cool-down.
MIX IT UP
Your goal might be to run regularly, or eventually reach a certain speed or distance, but don't focus all of your energy on actual running. Incorporating cross training into your regime, switching it up a few days a week so that you're doing other activities, will help build your overall strength, fitness and flexibility, and also take some pressure off of your joints.
Cycling and swimming are too great low-impact activities.
While your legs and lungs may be what you feel most when you start running, to progress you need to be in good shape all over and a strong core goes a long way to helping avoid injuries, so incorporate some weight training and strengthening too. This doesn't just mean pumping iron; check out classes on offer or look up Pilates exercises online.
BE INJURY WISE
Runner's Knee, shin splints, hamstring strains... there's a lengthy list of 'common' running injuries. Hopefully, training sensibly will avoid them, but everybody's body is different and problems can arise - dealing with them as soon as possible is crucial.
"The worst injuries I see [from overtraining] are stress fractures," says Cabot, who notes that a key part of avoiding injuries is listening to your body. "If you're tired, take a break - you're most likely to injure yourself when you're tired.
"Be aware of any ongoing discomfort that lasts more than a couple of days or any sharp pain, pins and needles or numbness. It's normal to feel aches and stiffness, but this should only last 72 hours.
"As a general rule, you shouldn't have any swelling or sharp pain at any stage and should stop whatever you're doing straight away. If the injury's worsening or you have trouble putting weight on the affected joint, see a physiotherapist. Don't leave an injury to worsen at risk of 'wasting time'; you're never burdening the professional."
The Nuffield Health website has an 'Ask a physio' form, where you can fill in details of your concern and a physio will call you back.
For less severe injuries, remember the RICE method - rest, ice, compress and elevate - and rest is vital. While having to rest may feel frustrating, it will give your body the best chance of returning to full fitness.
"You're about to burn more energy than you're used to. Getting your eating habits right will help massively," says Mark Mansfield, Tutor at Premier Training International (www.premierglobal.co.uk).
"Balance your diet to include good quality protein to help repair and rebuild your working muscles, seasonal fruits and vegetables to boost your immune system and help deal with the stresses your body goes through, and good fats like olive oil and coconut oil. At lower intensity, we'll utilise these as a fuel."
Endurance athletes often talk about carb loading, but for moderate runs, it's unlikely you'll deplete your glycogen stores, Mansfield adds. "Starchy carbs may leave us with energy peaks and resulting troughs," he says.
Go easy on the caffeine too and try to avoid falling into the trap of relying on it for a kick, as it can wreak havoc with hormone systems and sleep.
Last but by no means least, ensure you keep well hydrated. "You'll lose a lot of water when you run; your water intake has to increase in line with this. Whatever your current intake, drink at least one or two litres more," says Mansfield.
MIND OVER MATTER
Running can be as much of a mental challenge as a physical one. But persevering can bring great rewards, as Alexandra Heminsley, author of Running Like A Girl (Windmill books, £8.99) discovered. After years thinking she'd never be a runner, she proved herself wrong.
"You want to start running. You watch the London Marathon, see the others in the park with their fancy watches and swishing ponytails. You decide it's not for you after all - it's a sport for 'other people'," she says.
"We've all been there. But what's important to remember about getting started is that every single step is worth it. Whether you start with trying to stay running for five minutes or commit to day one of a marathon training schedule, you'll never regret a run. It's the fastest way to flood your body with endorphins, and to feel the first seeds of a new confidence growing inside you.
"It doesn't matter if you're not the one in the slick pink neon or leading the pack on a Saturday morning. Every step you take is one your heart and lungs will thank you for.
"The balance of time spent feeling a bit rubbish (sweating, a bit anxious, burning legs and lungs) is so massively outweighed by the time you spend feeling a bit brilliant (shinier skin, swelling pride, proper hunger that deserves a decent meal) that you can't help but win."
RACE FOR LIFE!
Signing up for a charity run's a great goal for new runners. Cancer Research UK's Race For Life events 5k and 10ks taking place across the country, from May throughout the summer. Find full dates and details online.
:: Run, walk, dance, enter raceforlife.org
BEST FEET FORWARDS
In the wrong footwear, you could be running towards injuries - fast! If you can't afford a fancy pair at first, just ensure they're designed for running so that your feet get adequate support. For keen runners, it's worth visiting a specialist stockist to have your gait analysed and get tailored advice.
Meanwhile, here's our pick of four of the best...
:: Nike Free 4.0 Flyknit, £109.99, Foot Locker (Footlocker.eu)
Being ultra-lightweight and flexible are the Flyknit's top selling-points. It's a good-looking shoe and the woven upper makes it nicely breathable. Though it feels incredibly light, the Flywire cables make for a supportive and satisfying run and the super-flexi sole works a treat.
:: Reebok ZQuick, £60-£80, Reebok (www.reebok.co.uk)
With car tyre technology in their soles, Reebok's latest running shoe claims to be the ultimate for control and support. It certainly looks the part and, in action, it's light and easy to wear, with a definite extra 'bounce' on my normal running route - my legs felt less heavy by the end.
:: Haraka Women's Running Trainers, £34.99, Hi-Tec (www.hi-tec.com/uk)
For a less pricey running shoe, Hi-Tec's Haraka is a solid choice. With good cushioning and a sturdy sole, it scores high on comfort and I'm impressed with the 'bounce'. For the modest beginner, a good choice.
:: Women's XA Pro 3D Shoe, £100, Cotswolds Outdoor (www.cotswoldoutdoor.com)
Designed with trail racing in mind, the XA Pro 3D's a good shoe for those keen to mix up their running terrains. The reshaped Advanced 3D Chassis, and Sensifit system technology promises a superior fit and support. It does the trick during a cross-country trial, and the grippy sole's very good.