Get 12 tips to improve your distance running, whether you’re a new runner or have been logging miles for years.
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Today’s post comes from Joanna Thompson, a professional runner. She shared 12 tips for distance running and while this post is titled distance running tips for beginners, I still found it extremely valuable — and I’ve been running for 20+ years. But I do wish I knew some of these things when I started to train for my first marathon 10 years ago! And even now, with more miles on my legs, these tips serve as great reminders. So, whether you’re a beginner or a long-time runner, you’ll find this post helpful as you look to go the distance.
Every long distance runner has an origin story.
I started running at age eleven. Back then, I had no idea what I was doing. I showed up to practice in basketball shoes and tried to out-sprint the boys in the last 50 meters of the warm up. Little did I know that this weird sport was going to change the course of my life.
Fast-forward to present, and running has been central to my existence for 16 years. It has introduced me to some of my best friends. It sent me to college. Now, it pays my bills.
If you are a new distance runner writing a story of your own, here’s a few pieces of advice to help you hit the ground running, now and for the long haul.
12 Distance running tips for beginners
1. Find a shoe that works for you
There is a giant market out there for running shoes – so huge it can become overwhelming. As a runner new to long distance, you might be tempted to drop an exorbitant amount of money on a gimmicky shoe that purports to perfect your form, prevent injury, or give you superpowers. Or, you might be tempted to skimp and buy the cheapest shoes. Or, maybe you want to buy based on looks alone.
But take it from me: there is no magic shoe.
In fact, a recent study from the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada demonstrated that the best shoe for you is whichever one feels most comfortable. Try on a variety of shoes (at your local running store, if possible), pick the pair that makes your feet happy, and roll with it.
2. Rise and shine with a consistent time
Consistency is the key to developing a healthy running habit and working up to big miles. I recommend picking a time that works best for you to work out and stick with it. Think through when is best for your schedule and your body. Don’t pick a time based on what you think is the “best” time, e.g. early is best just because you see people on Instagram logging very early miles. The best time is whatever you’ll do consistently.
Many athletes like to start the day running. In addition to being convenient with most 8-hour workdays, morning running has been linked to a speedy metabolism, deeper sleep, and reduced daily stress. Plus, a lot of distance road races start very early, and if your body is already accustomed to exercising first thing in the morning, then race day won’t come as such a shock to your system. (If running in the morning is your best time but you struggle to wake up early, read this post!)
That said, don’t worry if you can only squeeze in a run after work. The most important thing is to try to run around the same time every day so that your body becomes accustomed to it. And again, being consistent with a time will also help the habit stick.
3. Squad up
Aside from the health benefits, one of the greatest perks to distance running is the community. It’s difficult to cover miles and miles with any training partner and not bond. Over the course of my running career I’ve gotten to know some truly amazing people through our shared love of this sport.
Meeting new people can be intimidating, especially if you (like me) happen to be an introvert. But I can’t overstate how helpful it is to have a group of like-minded individuals to keep you accountable on the days when running feels like a chore. What’s more, a good conversation will make the miles go by faster and ensure that you don’t run too hard. I’d encourage any new runner to reach out to their local running club, find out when they meet, and show up to practice according to their schedule.
4. Build some base mileage
Whether you’re a seasoned running veteran or fresh off the couch, you want to ease into running longer. The best way to stay healthy and build confidence is to increase your weekly mileage slowly but steadily using a training schedule or plan. Don’t go from zero to sixty miles a week. Instead, as a rule of thumb, begin with whatever mileage seems manageable to you – if that’s forty miles per week, start there. Twenty-five miles? No problem.
Never run before? That’s ok too. Start by alternating running with walking, and build some miles using this run walk method (popularized by legendary coach Jeff Galloway). This gives your body time to adapt to the new stress of running without getting injured by jumping in to running too much too quickly. And over time, you’ll find that you can increase the ratio of running minutes to walking, and your mileage will climb. If you need more guidance, Teri’s running course is a great resource for getting started. You can become a running from any fitness level, I promise.
5. Take it easy
Repeat after me: easy days are for easy running.
When I was training for my first marathon (26.2 miles), I was amazed at how tired I felt all of the time. I quickly realized that I was going too fast on my easy days. Once I started listening to my body and running at a truly comfortable pace, I found that I had much more energy for, well, everything else.
How do you gauge your easy pace? Talk to somebody. Your so-called “conversation pace” is the speed at which you can comfortably chat without wheezing. Easy running and recovery runs should comprise the bulk of your weekly mileage, especially as you start to acclimate to distance running, since over-doing it can lead to running injuries.
6. Lean into the long run
Traditionally, around 30 percent of your weekly volume should come from one long distance run. So, for someone running 40 miles per week, a 12 miler is about right.
If that much mileage sounds intimidating, try rephrasing the run in terms of minutes. For example, if your normal daily run lasts 45 minutes, try a long run of 65 minutes. And again, don’t be afraid. It’s normal for a long run to seem daunting at first, but I promise that once you get a few under your belt, your body will adjust to running longer. You might even find yourself enjoying it.
7. Stride it out
For many runners (especially us long-distance types), strides might be an afterthought. Like, “I just finished 10 miles, why do I need to sprint around like a fool afterwards?”
Adding strides to your routine can dramatically improve your running form and efficiency. And when done before a workout, these short sprints (think 20-45 seconds) help engage fast-twitch muscle fibers, which goes a long way in injury prevention.
My coach’s personal philosophy: there is no such thing as too many strides. He recommends tossing in 8-10 twenty-second accelerations at the end of an easy run three times a week, and up to 12 before any intense interval workouts.
8. Incorporate interval workouts
Interval training is the best way to start running faster. In this case, “interval” is just a term for any pre-determined unit of measure or time during which you run faster than your easy pace. For example, try running eight 400 meter (quarter mile) segments with 2 minutes walking recovery between intervals. The 400s can be at your target 5k pace. This type of training will prepare your body to run faster during races.
Start out running one interval workout a week. Once you feel comfortable, you can progress to two – just be sure to stagger them throughout the week so that you’re able to recover with some easy running days in between.
9. Hydrate on the go
There’s no way around it: running means sweating. And sweating means you need to prioritize hydration. This is something that I’ve really had to work on in the last few years, especially during in the heat of summer.
The best way to ensure you’re getting adequate fluids is to make a habit of carrying around a Nalgene bottle filled with water or your favorite sports drink (remember that your body needs a mixture of pure water and electrolytes to function at max capacity). It might seem like a pain at first, but hydrating will quickly become second nature. Another good way to stay hydrated is to drink a glass of water before your coffee in the AM. Just starting with this will encourage you to drink more water all day.
If you find yourself in a hot race, don’t be afraid to grab a water cup from one of the aid stations and dump it on your head. You can even use the stations as walk breaks if cramps are an issue. And, of course, make sure you are hydrating throughout your race, with water and electrolytes.
10. Step away from the bench press!
Strength training is important. It helps stave off injury, correct imbalances, and improve biomechanics. But the truth is that you don’t need bulging biceps or rippling abs to be an efficient runner. In fact, carrying around huge slabs of muscle can make distance running tricky.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should avoid the gym altogether. As you ease into distance running, shift your focus from maxing out to improving core stability. It may sound wimpy, but some of the best exercises for runners are simple balance drills. Even standing for thirty seconds at a time on one leg can engage and strengthen all of the little stabilizer muscles in your legs and core to help you run faster. Body weight exercises, like planks or back hyperextensions, are also great additions to your training plan.
11. Rest and Recover
Believe it or not, most of the improvement you make in running doesn’t set in durning the actual running – it comes from recovery. Sleep maybe the most important ingredient for any training plan, especially as you begin to run longer distances.
When your body enters a deep sleep cycle, it starts to repair the micro tears in your muscle fibers caused by exercise, strengthening them in the process. This in turn serves the dual purpose of reducing the risk of injury and allowing you to reap the benefits of all your hard work.
One common mistake new runners make is not allowing days for pure recovery. But a weekly non-running day is essential – not only will it give your body extra time to heal, it will also prevent psychological burnout.
12. Have fun with it
At the end of the day, running should be fun. That doesn’t mean there won’t be workouts that suck or runs where your legs feel like concrete. But ultimately, the goal is to fall in love with running, because nobody should spend that much effort being miserable.
So my final piece of advice is this: find whatever aspect of running brings you joy — be it community, faster times, longer distance, or simply staying fit — and hone in on that. I’m certainly glad I did.
What advice would you give a new runner?
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About the author: Joanna Thompson is a part-time professional runner for On ZAP Endurance. Originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, Joanna graduated from NC State University in 2015 and moved to Blowing Rock, NC to pursue her running dreams before pursuing her other dream of writing. She is an avid reader, an enthusiastic baker, and a self-proclaimed huge nerd and starting NYU’s graduate program for Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting (SHERP) in August 2020. You can find her on Instagram here.