Larry Moss, a 58-year-old contractor from Boulder, Colo., would like to forget his first run in August of 2009. “I thought I was going to die,” he says, “My legs hurt, my lungs hurt, I couldn’t catch my breath.” Somehow, though, he made it through a 15-minute run and hasn’t looked back since. “I was on a high for the rest of the day: My mind was content, my body was pleasantly tired,” says Moss, a collegiate athlete who ran a bit in his 20’s but hadn’t run a step since 1995. “I felt like my whole system had been rebooted.”
The intangible runner’s high—a nearly ecstatic feeling that is attributed to increased endorphins after a run—is just one of the myriad reasons why running is such a popular sport. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, more than 35 million Americans ran in 2008, a nearly 20 percent increase from 2007. And it’s not just 20-year-olds joining the ranks. People in their 40s and 50s (and older!) are starting to run in droves. Consider this: In 1970, only one person over age 50 finished the New York marathon. Nearly 40 years later, more than 8,500 New York marathon finishers fit that description in 2009—and 12 of them were age 80 or older!
The sport is booming in part because it’s so accessible: no gym membership necessary; the motion is familiar; the only equipment required is a good pair of shoes and, for women, a supportive sports bra; and you can do it anywhere: from your back door, on a trail, or over a lunch break.
“Running is the best bang for your buck when it comes to burning calories,” adds Christine Hinton, a coach and expert on running for beginners in Crofton, Md. “An average person burns about 100 calories per mile.”
Alix Jennings, a 38-year-old in Madison, New Jersey, has reaped the benefits of a regular running routine, which she began two years ago. “I started with a mile, and then just added on five or 10 minutes to runs regularly,” says the mother of two who is currently training for her first half-marathon. “Now I can’t believe how much I’ve come to depend on it, both physically and mentally.” Jennings, who lost 10 pounds through pounding the pavement, loves the time running provides to mentally process her day and life. “When I can’t go, I feel restless all day long,” she explains.
How to get started
If you’re ready to join the pack, Hinton has a couple of tips on running for beginners:
- If you’re a regular walker, after a warm-up walk, do a 2-minute run, followed by a 4-minute walk, and repeat that five times. Each week, gradually increase the running time and decrease the walking segments; the goal is to run 30 minutes straight in about 3 months.
- When you’re running, don’t go all-out; instead, find a relaxed pace where you can easily carry on a conversation. Keep your strides short and plentiful, which minimizes impact on the body. “Aim for 90 steps per minute,” says Hinton, “Count how many times your right foot lands in a minute, and it should be around 90.”
- Stretch after you run, when your muscles are warm, not before. If your knees or another body part feels sore after a run, place an inflammation reducing ice pack (or bag of frozen peas), not a heating pad, on them for 20 minutes.
Join a group
Joining a running for beginners group can make a huge difference, both in motivation and commitment. “The runners in my group quickly develop strong friendships,” says Hinton, “which is great for social reasons, and also for accountability: When a workout buddy is waiting for you, you have to go.” Moss is part of the No Boudaries Program, which is a 12-week, coached program, which guides beginners across the finish line of a 5k (3.1 miles). Other places to find beginning programs are through the Road Runners Club of America (rrca.org) which lists over 1,100 clubs nationwide, or your local running store
Moss, who has lost about 25 pounds since his first run, now logs about 20 miles a week, running with his buddies twice and with the No Boundaries program twice. “Every run isn’t perfect,” he admits, “And some still are painful.” Still, he loves the sport so much, he’s convinced his wife to try a 5k, and knows he’ll never relive those first run feelings again. “Running has made me feel alive again,” he says, “I’m going to be running for the rest of my life.”