Who needs the gym? You can exercise for less by taking up running. Not only will it improve your fitness and boost weight loss, it’ll help to enhance your mental wellbeing too
Getting off the couch and going running can seem intimidating if you've never done it before. But follow our expert advice and you'll soon be pounding the pavement like a pro – and reaping the rewards that it brings
The benefits of running
Regular exercise can help you to sleep more soundly and perform better at work.
If you’re looking for ways to improve your fitness with exercise, running and jogging is a great option. It’s free (if you don’t use a treadmill), can be done all year round, and can be enjoyed on your own, with friends or family members, or as part of a larger group.
Exercising with other people can help to motivate you – and it's also great for your social life.
Running can also benefit your brain power and your mental health. Research published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that 30 minutes of running per week for three weeks improved the participants’ sleep quality, mood and ability to concentrate during the day. Other studies reported in Neuropsychobiology in 2009 found that “the overwhelming evidence present in the literature today suggests that exercise ensures successful brain functioning”, benefiting patients over 50 with depression, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Running also helps to strengthen your bones, which is particularly important if you’re over the age of 30.
The NHS Couch to 5K
Available as a podcast or an app, the Couch to 5K programme is designed to empower people like you to get running and live a healthier life.
The NHS’s well-known Couch to 5K programme is designed for people with little or no running experience, preparing them for a 5K run in nine weeks. You can choose to either listen to each session as a podcast or download the programme as an app for iPhone or Android.
Week one comprises a five-minute brisk walk, then alternating periods of running for one minute and walking for one and a half minutes, for 20 minutes in total. By week five, you’ll be building up to running for five to 20 minutes, and by the end of the programme you’ll be coached through running for 30 minutes.
Running can give you a real sense of achievement, and keep you energised for the rest of the day.
There’s also lots of advice on the importance of rest days, and repeating weeks if necessary. And the HealthUnlocked Couch to 5K forums are packed with useful tips and support from fellow Couch to 5K runners. It’s important to remember that the programme is designed to build your stamina and endurance rather than just speed, so you shouldn’t run too fast; a general tip is that you should be able to hold a conversation while you run.
The importance of warm-up exercises
Warming up – and down – is an important part of the running ritual, as it will help you to train better and avoid injury.
Before you go for any jog or run, it’s essential to warm up your muscles. You can find lots of warm-up exercises at Runner’s World. You’ll need to stretch out the muscles in your upper and lower legs, hips, lower back and arms.
Other runners recommend doing calf raises every day, to strengthen the muscles you’ll need to run comfortably – they can even be done while you’re brushing your teeth! There’s also a list of helpful knee exercises for runners on the NHS Live Well pages.
Equally important are post-run stretches – to prevent the build-up of lactic acid in your muscles. Follow the NHS guide to how to stretch after a run.
Shin splints are common, especially if you’re new to running. They can be avoided by shortening your stride, to avoid your heel hitting the ground; you should aim to land on the middle of your foot.
Choose the best running shoes
Take the time to find a pair of running shoes that meet your personal requirements and will help you to achieve your goals.
The only specialist equipment you need is a pair of trainers, and if you’re just starting out you don’t need to spend too much. If you’re able to invest, however, it’s wise to visit a running store that can monitor your gait on a treadmill and suggest the best shoes to suit your natural running stride. A fitness tracker can also be useful, but they are certainly not essential.
Find a routine
Choosing routes that are safe and comfortable will help you to run with confidence.
If you want to start running, spend some time working out what time of day and day of the week will work for you, and find a handful of suitable routes to keep your runs varied – ideally without crossing any busy roads and without any steep inclines. The most important thing is that you feel safe and can run there comfortably.
You could also make a plan to work towards a particular goal; for example, run 10k in total within your first month.
You’ll find more advice on starting to run at Runner’s World.
Join a park run
Park runs enable you to run at your own pace, and are also a great way to meet likeminded people.
Once you’re near the end of the Couch to 5K programme, you could think about joining your local park run, a generally informal 5K event held every Saturday morning at 9am at more than 700 locations around the UK. Visit parkrun UK to register for free and print your barcode so that your run time is recorded. There’s no pressure to run at a certain speed; lots of park runners walk, and there’s a wide range of ages and abilities at every event.