A woman jogging through a park in green sportwear

Does running improve your fitness – or do you need to be fit to be a good runner?

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Running can be tough for beginners and experienced joggers alike. These tips can improve your fitness to become a better runner. 

If you’ve ever been on a mission to get fit, you’ve probably tied up your laces and headed out for a jog around the block. But many of us then start doubting our fitness levels as we gasp for breath, or end up with sore joints after just a short loop.

While running is seen as something you do to improve your health, the truth is that many people don’t feel fit enough to partake in the first place. But do we really need to be in peak condition before we start running – and how do we do that?

“Running can be really challenging, and I think if you went from doing nothing to suddenly running you would likely be very sore, you would find it very hard and you would take longer to recover,” says Dr Amal Hassan, consultant at The Institute of Sport, Exercise and Health. “Just how fit you need to be before running depends on who you are and what you currently do – it’s not a one size fits all.” 

How fit do you need to be to run?

Obviously, you don’t need to be Mo Farah to start running – because even he probably couldn’t complete a 26 miler on his first attempt. But the good news is you probably don’t even need to be as fit as you think. 

“If you’re a complete beginner who has never done any formal exercise before, I’d say maintaining a brisk walk for 30 minutes is a good benchmark before running,” says Dr Hassan. “Walking is a moderate-intensity activity, so being OK with that means you can then begin to tolerate a bit more of a stimulus.”

If you’re already there, running coach Lillie Bleasdale says that you can absolutely start to build fitness through running. But there’s a catch – you still might not be fit enough to continuously run. 

A woman walking during a run over a bridge
Walking while running can help while you improve your fitness

“I think people have to be OK with walking during their run – especially at the beginning. If you want to get fitter, it’s a gradual process of increasing the periods of running and decreasing periods of walking.

“Even the runners I work with who are working towards Boston qualifying marathon times still go out on a long run and take a few minutes out to walk. I think that’s a big thing – people think they ‘can’t run’, but know that just because you walked, it doesn’t mean you’re not a runner.”

For Miranda Larbi, an ultra-marathoner and Strong Women’s editor, starting slow is the best way to improve your running fitness. We can’t all start as sub-30-minute 5k runners, but the body gets best at what it does most frequently, so keeping running naturally means you’ll improve at it. “I learnt to run by running. My dad started taking me out and always said I could run slowly, but not stop. I eventually built the fitness to go fast by just going slow,” she says.

However, Bleasdale is also keen to point out that running alone isn’t the best way to get fit – even for pros. “I think we assume being a good runner just involves putting on a pair of trainers and heading out the door. Actually, running is just one part of it – we also need to be in the right headspace, we need to be strong, we need to have recovered well and we need the right kit,” she says. 

Dr Hassan agrees. “Obviously we’re all born with the DNA blueprint that means we can literally run forwards, but there are so many elements beyond just the physical ability to create that movement. It’s sustaining it without injury, having enough fuel and energy and your systems being well trained to access the energy you need and your motivation. It’s quite complex, and there are biological, social and psychological elements to consider.”

How to get fit to run

Strength train

“Every time you hit the floor when you run, you are hitting something called ground reaction force. That is the amount of force that is pushing back up through your feet, ankles, knees, hips and entire body. Usually, it’s around two to three times your body weight – so if you’re a 60kg woman, you need to bear in mind that the weight you’re moving through your body can be up to 180kg,” says Bleasdale.

Strengthening the muscles and joints is crucial to both improving your run (so your body can take that heavy load for longer) and avoiding injury. “Being strong means the body deals with the force in a more efficient manner – I think of it as being bulletproof against injury,” says Bleasdale.

It doesn’t mean you need to be a renowned weight lifter before getting into running, she insists. “I always say that doing anything is better than nothing and I would integrate strength work from the moment that you start working through your initial introduction to running with that run-walk method. You don’t need an 80kg barbell – all you need is your body weight to strengthen your joints and muscles for running.” 

Recover well

“The basics are: ensuring you have enough carbohydrate to fuel your run, getting enough electrolyte hydration and protein back into your body after your run, and taking at least one day off of exercise a week,” says Bleasdale. “I like to fit my clients’ days off around their busiest times of the week because I think they don’t need to layer on the extra stress of running.”

Recovery also includes the good stuff like sleep, so you can actually repair the muscles you’ve been working so hard, and prepping and rehabbing the body with warmups and cooldowns.

Work on your mindset

“You’re going to stick to the things you enjoy, so there is a compromise to be made between being strong and fit to run without risking injury, but not doing things you hate,” reminds Dr Hassan. “You need to be thinking about what you can do but also what you want to do, whether that is the types of strength work you do or the running itself.”

For Bleasdale, the mindset is the most important part. “There are so many mental obstacles to overcome with running, so we need to find ways to channel the inner positivity,” she says. For her, a lot of that comes from avoiding social media comparison. “A couple of months ago I decided to make my Strava private because I was sick of the thought of other people judging my runs all the time and it’s helped so much,” she says. “It’s really tough when you’re working towards a goal and it feels like everyone else has achieved that goal already, so I do believe a good attitude towards running starts with mindful consumption.” 

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).