How to Begin a Running Program | 9 Steps to Reach the Finish Line Injury Free

By David Mills, PT, MPT

Running is a popular choice for exercise for a variety of reasons, including the cardiovascular benefit and the overall health improvements associated with running.  Along with the convenience and low cost of being a runner, there is also the stress relief that is can offer. 

It has been said that to run all you really need is a pair of shoes, a small amount of time and a running path. In reality, you need a lot more to avoid injury and to safely and effectively begin or resume your running program. Despite all the benefits of running, there is also an adverse side to running: injury. Approximately 56 percent of recreational runners will sustain a running related injury each year.

Many things contribute to injury, but a few key factors are: training errors (lack of specific strength and flexibility), inappropriate surface and terrain, biomechanical lower extremity malalignment, along with inappropriate footwear2.  Let’s discuss the things that you need to know to start your running program and to stay on the path instead of being sidelined by injury.

First Steps

First, have a professional look at any nagging aches and pains in the knees, ankles, and hips.  Small issues can turn into major injuries with the increased stress that running adds to your joints, tendons and ligaments. A physical therapist can help reduce the risk of injury by getting a biomechanical and movement screen before you begin to run.


running-shoesFootwear is very important to help maintain your proper biomechanical alignment. Getting into the correct shoe can even keep your ankles, knees and hips in correct alignment and decrease stresses on your tissue. Make sure that wherever you buy your shoes, store assistants perform a proper gait analysis on you and they are knowledgeable about what foot structure would benefit from what shoe.  Some runners need stability, while others may need more of a minimalist shoe. Specialty running/walking shoe stores may be a bit more pricey, but over time, the right shoe will pay off.


Planning your running routine is important. The “weekend warrior” crams all exercise into a two-day span, but this approach can cause injury. Space out your runs so you can recover properly. Also keep in mind that performing other exercises such as strengthening and sports will impact your run and may change your running schedule.

Soreness and Pain

Expect to be sore when beginning a running routine. Running places unaccustomed loads on the joints, muscle and other tissue will cause muscle soreness, which is often delayed. This is called delayed onset of muscle soreness, or DOMS.  DOMS usually develops 12-24 hours after exercise and that soreness may peak within 24-72 hours3.  

There is a difference in soreness and pain. Listen to your body and be aware of new onsets of pain. Pain becomes a concern when it is sharp pain that returns in the same areas each time you run and worsens with increased distances.  A physical therapist will be able to determine the cause and recommend changes to your program or running style.

Cross training is also important. A novice runner should not start out by running 7 days a week.    Being able to continue to gain cardiovascular endurance while reducing stress on your joints is key.  Mix in biking and even swimming to reduce the impact on your joints.

Increasing Distance

Safely increasing your intensity, frequency and duration of your run will help to limit the stress on your body from running. Many running injuries we see are a result of overuse and doing too much too soon. Try the 10% rule, increasing mileage at rate of 10% each week.  This will allow for a slow increase and give you time to adapt to your new routine.

Another common approach to increasing your running distance is using the interval training method, which is a ratio of walking to jogging.   There should be a slow and steady approach to this method, especially if you are a new runner.  Begin with a 1:3 minute walk to jog ratio and add another minute of running each week, and for some who are less experienced,  add a minute every other week.  Repeating this sequence will keep your heart rate elevated with a brisk walk between runs.  This is a great way to build your endurance and safely increase distance and time running.  

Seeking Guidance

Becoming active in a running club or group that does weekly runs is a great way to get guidance from experienced runners.  Generally they also do social events that can make running less of a chore and more of an enjoyable hobby.  Having a sense of community will allow you to become more active in the running community and you will be more likely to stick with it.  Finding a running coach that can customize a routine for your experience level and expectations can be great in getting you started on the right track.  

Running-stretchStretching and Recovery

People often find stretching boring, but it’s an important part of running. Static stretching — holding a stretch for a longer period of typically 30 seconds — is good for after your runs, but dynamic stretching should be performed prior to runs. Think of dynamic stretching like running drills such as high knees, walking lunges, and high leg kicks. There are tons of ways to get a dynamic stretch, but the key is to warm up with something to reduce injury.


Check out The Number One Training Error for Runners, in which we explain the importance of strengthening for runners.  

Goal Setting

Set some realistic, attainable goals. Striving for a goal helps with motivation, as long as you are appropriately pacing yourself. Even logging your runs with running apps can be a source of motivation and a good way to keep tabs on your progression and distance. Make it fun by running new routes.


Even if you follow all of these steps, you may still suffer an injury at some point while running. Avoid self-diagnosing on the internet. Each person’s body structure is different and trying a generic routine to treat yourself will not cut it. Consider being evaluated by a physical therapist who will evaluate your functional mobility, assess your movement patterns and come up with a plan to reduce your incidence of injury. Physical therapists use prescription of exercise along with manual techniques to resolve pain and prevent further injuries.

At Back in Action we offer a free screening, which will allow us to pinpoint the cause of your issue and get you back on the right course.  

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