Evidence-based Tips to Start (and Stick With) Running

Evidence-based Tips to Start (and Stick With) Running

Katy Kennedy
Lecturer in Exercise Psychology
May 19, 2024

When I first started running, like many people, I did it all wrong. I set off like a bat out of hell, hated every second of it, and gave up after my first (miserable) race. Fast forward 20 years, and I now love running.

I did my PhD in Psychology partly on the topic of beginner runners, and over the years I’ve learnt a lot about using psychology to help people to enjoy running.

My research agrees with much of Mark Kennedy’s None to Run approach (he’s not a relation, he just happens to have the same cool name as me).

Whilst I can’t summarize my 90,000 word PhD thesis here, I can share some evidence-based tips on getting started.

Here are some suggestions:                

1. Sort out the practicalities

Some of my beginner running participants started out wearing knackered old shoes which had been in a closet for a decade, a baggy old t-shirt, and jogging bottoms with worn out elastic.

Whilst this is entirely understandable (a key appeal of running is its low cost, and people don’t want to splash the cash on kit they might not continue using), in reality I found that being uncomfortable got in the way of my participants enjoying their running.

It’s very difficult to feel ok running when your trousers are falling down or you’re concerned that your breasts are moving more than your legs.

Don’t go crazy buying all the latest snazzy running apparel, but a comfortable pair of shoes, a supportive bra and well-fitting clothes (particularly ones which don’t make you overheat), can make you feel more at ease.

Wearing proper running clothes might also give you an identity as a runner (though if you run, you’re a runner!), which has been found to be associated with sticking with running longer term (1).

Other resources:

How to Shop for a Running Sports Bra

Finding the Right Running Shoes

2. What’s the plan?

In terms of starting to run, it’s a good idea to harness the natural motivation of the ‘Fresh Start Effect’.

There’s loads of evidence that people take up healthy behaviours at certain times of year (New Year, after public holidays or at the start of school terms) or after personal milestones (a significant birthday, moving house).

With the cooler weather coming up in autumn (in the northern hemisphere), this can be a perfect time to start a running habit. Fresh weather for a fresh start!

Another aspect of planning is where you will run. Try to plan a pleasant route if possible (though treadmills sometimes have their place), as being able to appreciate scenic places can take your mind off the discomfort beginners often feel when running.

A 2019 study of Dutch runners (2) found that green environments with less traffic and a lively atmosphere were particularly valued by beginner runners, so aim for these types of places if possible.

Of course, you may prefer to or need to use a treadmill, and that’s fine too.

There have been quite a few studies showing that generally people feel better running outdoors compared with a treadmill, but the treadmill does have several advantages in that the environment is more controlled, you can watch TV, and you can run at a predictable and consistent pace.

If you want to just switch off and not be distracted by your environment, then maybe a treadmill is for you.

Try to avoid hills if you can, it’s the equivalent of speed training! Most importantly, try to plan a good end to your run, as I found this was important in my beginner running studies.

How you feel at the end of a run can have a big influence on whether you want to repeat the experience (this is called the peak-end effect) so try to make it as pleasant as possible.

A flat finish, a particularly powerful music track, a very short sprint finish right at the end, these are some things which can help you feel good towards the end of the run.

Don’t forget to cool down too though, this might be as psychologically as physically important, and can function as a period of reflection and celebration.

Listening to some relaxing music during your cooldown can also help you feel better, according to one interesting study, which found that participants had lower cortisol levels and more positive feelings when listening to slow, sedative music compared with fast, stimulating music during their cooldown.

3. Getting out the door is the hardest part

When I was studying beginner running groups, there were often more experienced runners helping out.

One of them gave advice to some of the group. ‘Getting out the door is the hardest part’ he said, ‘I still find that’.

He’d been running for 40 years!

Unfortunately, I do not have a magic cure to this problem, if I did then I would be a multimillionaire with a beach house in the Maldives, a penthouse in Manhattan, and golden baths full of champagne. I would also be fully prepared for the marathon I am about to do with my son in (gulp) two weeks.

A friend of mine, Dr Rachel Hallett, did an interesting study on this ‘getting out the door’ effect, though(3). She asked people to plan which days they would aim to exercise, and half the participants were asked to listen to music just before their workout.

The other half were asked to make an ‘implementation intention’, which is a statement setting out where and when a goal-directed behaviour will happen (e.g. ‘On Thursday evening after work I will do a 30 minute run while my kids are at a karate lesson’).

She found that both groups had more success meeting their exercise goals versus a control group, and the music group exercised much more frequently than the control group.

This suggests that if you pop some music on before your planned run (and also make an if-then statement about when/where you will do the run), you might be more likely to be successful in getting out the door.

Worth trying!

4. Slow down. No, slower. Nope, slower still. Maybe even a bit slower than that?

In my research I found that beginner runners tend to set off like Usain Bolt.

He only needs to run for 10 seconds though, not for minutes at a time.

Pace yourself.

The beginner runners in my studies also seemed to believe that running ‘should’ be hard, otherwise they weren’t doing it properly.

This is a common (and rather macho) idea about exercise generally, but why would you continue doing something which you hate?

Better to frame exercise as something to enjoy as far as possible, as there is plenty of research showing that you are much more likely to form an exercise habit if you enjoy the experience

As in life generally, you will have hard days sometimes when you go running, but my participants who framed this as ‘part of the journey’, accepting downs as well as ups, seemed to see the bigger picture rather than giving up.

Sirois and colleagues concluded from a big’ study of studies’ that self-compassion could be important in encouraging positive health behaviours, with this relationship explained by high levels of positive affect (good feelings) and low levels of negative affect (bad feelings).

Encouraging self-compassion on ‘hard’ exercise days could therefore be useful in helping to make you feel less bad about finding it hard.                  

5. Celebrate good times

This is related to the peak-end effect, discussed above.

This isn’t just about a good ending though, it’s also about taking the time to appreciate your successes after each run, however small.

Have you finished a run? Celebrate!

Finished a week’s worth? Celebrate even more!

Finished the whole program?

Go wild!

Run the furthest ever?

Tell a friend/neighbour/your dog!

There is a raft of evidence on the importance of feeling a sense of achievement in persisting with your running. In a study of running and mental health, Morris and Scott (4) found that a sense of achievement improved runners’ mood and confidence.

This sense of achievement related to goals within runs or across different runs (e.g. a faster time, a certain number of runs, or simply finishing a run). 

I also found in my research that even completing a planned run resulted in a sense of pride in finishing, and that people felt achievement in finishing single runs, completing a week of runs, getting faster, running further, or just feeling like running became easier over time.

Phillips and Chapman (5) found that repeated successful performance of healthy behaviours was associated with increased enjoyableness, suggesting that initially non-enjoyable behaviours become more enjoyable with successful repetition.

So, pay attention to your achievements, it might help you to enjoy running!  

🙌 Over to you:

What ideas do you have to help others to get started with running?

I’d be fascinated to hear about any advice or experience you might have, so do comment below!

If you want to connect with Katy, she can be reach via Twitter and LinkedIn.

Research sources:

1. Plateau, C. R., Anthony, J., Clemes, S. A., & Stevinson, C. D. (2022). Prospective study of beginner running groups: psychological predictors and outcomes of participation. Behavioral Medicine, 1-8. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/08964289.2022.2100865

2. Deelen, I., Janssen, M., Vos, S., Kamphuis, C., & Ettema, D. (2019). Attractive running environments for all? A cross-sectional study on physical environmental characteristics and runners’ motives and attitudes, in relation to the experience of the running environment. BMC Public Health19(1), 1-15. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s12889-019-6676-6

3. Hallett, R., & Lamont, A. (2019). Evaluation of a motivational pre-exercise music intervention. Journal of Health Psychology24(3), 309-320. https://eprints.keele.ac.uk/2174/3/Journal of Health Psychology Hallett %2526 Lamont in press.pdf

4. Morris, P., & Scott, H. (2019). Not just a run in the park: a qualitative exploration of parkrun and mental health. Advances in mental health17(2), 110-123. http://eprints.staffs.ac.uk/4443/1/Morris, Paul, DClinPsy, Thesis, August 2017.pdf

5. Phillips, L. A., & Chapman, G. B. (2012). Enjoyment and success: Reciprocal factors in behavior change. Journal of Applied Social Psychology42(4), 990-1009. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2011.00849.x

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