Running just might be the most convenient workout going. You don't need to be a skilled athlete, and there's no fancy equipment involved; just lace up your sneaks and go. It's also one of the most efficient ways to blast fat and burn calories—about 600 an hour.
Sure, walking has its benefits, but research shows that running kicks its butt when it comes to shedding pounds. One recent study of 47,000 runners and walkers, from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., found that the runners burned more calories and had a far greater decrease in BMI over a six-year period. The joggers who started out heaviest (those with a BMI over 28) lost up to 90 percent more weight than the walkers did.
"Runners are more likely to stay at a steady weight than those who do other forms of exercise, and they're more efficient at losing pounds when they need to," noted Paul T. Williams, the lead researcher of the study. One simple reason: The higher your workout intensity, the more postexercise calories you continue to burn.
Dropping pounds and toning up are hardly the only benefits of this killer cardio workout: You'll also reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes, boost your mood, temper stress and build muscle, especially in the lower body and core. You don't even need to dedicate a lot of time to reap these rewards; do 20 to 30 minutes, three to four days a week, and you'll see significant improvement.
Ready to hit the road? Follow the plan that best suits your running level. Whichever you go with, add in one day of cross-training (think cycling or swimming) to rev up calorie burn and help prevent injury. Soon enough, you'll feel as if you were born to run.
If you're a beginning jogger
Your stats: You're new to running and generally don't work out consistently.
The goal: By the end of 10 weeks, be able to run for 30 minutes straight—and build up to a 5K challenge.
Your coach: Susan Paul is an exercise physiologist and training program director at Orlando Track Shack Fitness Club in Orlando, Fla.
The plan: Very flexible, it involves a combination of run/walk intervals three days a week. Start with three minutes of running and one minute of walking for a total workout of 12 minutes. As you get fitter, increase the running by one or two minutes, and decrease the walking. By Week 8, you should be running without any walking. Your ideal pace? One where you can carry on a conversation, but still feel like you're doing a brisk walk.
1. Start off on the right foot. Making a small investment in gear now will save you loads of aggravation later—you'll feel more comfortable and avoid aches. "A good pair of running shoes can help ward off injuries like knee pain," says Paul. Get a gait analysis at your local running store (it's usually free) to help determine your ideal shoe type.
2. Stop side stitches. Beginners are often plagued by this cramp, which strikes like a boxer's body blow and happens when an overworked diaphragm begins to spasm. To ease the pain, slow down and forcefully exhale each time your opposite foot strikes (so if the stitch is on your right side, breathe out when your left foot comes down). It also helps to massage the area with two fingers. And don't eat too much before you head out; a full stomach can be a culprit.
3. Think tortoise, not hare. "The biggest mistake most new runners make is they start out way too fast," says Paul. "It takes time for your body to get used to the demands of running. You have to condition your muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones, not just your heart and lungs." No matter how tempted you are to push yourself, don't. Slow and steady wins the calorie-burn race!
If you pound the pavement semi-regularly
Your stats: You're a "sometimes" runner who does at least three miles without stopping a couple of days a week, most weeks.
The goal: Increase your endurance, run for an hour straight and tackle a 10K by the end of 10 weeks.
Your coach: Jonathan Cane is an exercise physiologist and co-founder of City Coach Multisport in New York City.
The plan: Do three different running workouts every week, on alternate days. In the first run, build speed through intervals; start with a two-minute speed burst at a challenging but sustainable pace, followed by three minutes of easier recovery jogging. Repeat six times for a total of 30 minutes. As the weeks pass, alternate between building up the speed bursts and balancing out the recovery time. For your second weekly workout, which focuses on mixing speed and endurance, begin with running for a couple of miles and build up to 4.5 miles over the course of the plan. The third day helps you build endurance. Focus on covering the distance, not your pace. Kick off with a 2.5-mile run. Over 10 weeks, try to work up to running 5.5 miles.
1. Make three the magic number. If you're used to running twice a week, says Cane, "three times is your sweet spot—you'll get a big bump in both speed and endurance, but it's not so much more that you'll risk getting injured." And if weight loss is a goal, remember that adding just one extra day of running helps you burn an additional 300 to 400 calories, depending on your pace and size.
2 It's OK to hit the treadmill. Some running purists say there's no substitute for the outdoors, but all things being equal, "your heart and lungs don't really know the difference between the road and the treadmill," says Cane. So if it's late in the day, raining or just not a good time to go outside but you really want to keep up your training, feel free to hit the "on" button. To compensate for a lack of wind resistance and natural terrain changes, keep the treadmill deck set at a 1 percent incline.
3. Turn down the music. Yes, pumping JT through your earbuds can power you up that hill, but don't forget to tune in to how your body feels. "At this stage, you know you can already run for a while," says Cane. "But it's important to be aware of cues: how heavy you are breathing, or if you have a small twinge in your knee and need to slow down. It helps keep you from getting injured and makes you more aware of when you can bump up your pace or give a little more effort."
If you're an experienced runner
Your stats: You run three to four times a week for at least five miles nonstop.
The goal: Boost your overall performance—speed, endurance and distance—over the course of 12 weeks, then challenge yourself with a half marathon.
Your coach: Andrew Kastor is coaching director at Asics L.A. Marathon and head coach at Mammoth Track Club in Mammoth, Calif.
The plan: In Week 1, run three to four miles at an easy pace (think 5 on a scale of 1 to 10) on your first day; four to five miles on Days 2 and 3; and five to six on Day 4. In subsequent weeks, keep doing one easy-pace day, and vary half-mile-long to mile-long speed intervals. The detailed schedule also tells you how to add in race-pace workouts, so you can hold your speed for longer distances.
1. Buddy up. Face it, sometimes you just don't feel like going for a run, especially when you've been seriously challenging yourself. Having someone by your side is a great way to make the miles more tolerable and maintain your performance. "When you train with a group or pack, you almost always run a little harder or faster," says Kastor. Grab a friend or find a new jogging pal at buddyup.com or the Road Runners Club of America (rrca.org). Choose partners who are a bit better than you; you want a challenge but don't want to get burned out or injured.
2. Take the plunge. Kastor, who works with many elite runners (including Olympian Deena Kastor, his wife), recommends a cold bath right after a hard workout. "It helps reduce inflammation by constricting the blood vessels, so there's less blood pooling through the muscle tissue, and you're not as sore the next day," he explains. Massage can speed recovery, too: Give yourself a five-minute rubdown using a foam roller; roll slowly up and down your legs, butt, shoulders and back. You can also alleviate soreness by gently pressing into the area with your fingers.
3. Write down your goal. You're amping up your workouts—pump up your motivation, too! Jot your goal time for the half marathon or just 13.1 on a sticky note, and post it onto your mirror. As Kastor puts it: "Seeing that number will remind you to make the best choices for your body."