Being new to running can mean many things: new motivation to exercise, higher energy levels, enthusiasm for your new habit, finding your tribe among local running group, a strong and sudden interest in race bling and tech shirts. And we certainly hope that your new running routine is changing your life for the better.
With all this new excitement, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that you are still building your body up and getting it used to running. In fact, it can be easy run too much, especially right at the start. How much should you be running as a newcomer? Are three days enough? Should you try four? What about five days?
As with so many other things in running, how many days a week you run is a personal thing. However, there are some good rules of thumb for beginners so that you don’t find yourself injured, discouraged, or both.
Fundamental Variables of Training
There are three fundamental variables of training for a race: frequency (how often you run), duration (how far you run), and intensity (how fast you run). Your fitness level, age, overall health, gender, goals, and a variety of other factors will determine what is going to be best for each of these categories.
Today, we’ll focus on the first—frequency. Matt Fitzgerald believes that at the bare minimum, runners should run at least three days a week to see some form of progress. However, he emphasizes that every individual, including non-runners, should attempt to exercise in some way every day.
Individuals who exercise daily are at lower risk for disease, live longer, and are healthier than those who do not. This does not mean, however, that you must run every day. In fact, there are great benefits to cross-training with yoga, swimming, biking, walking, and so forth.
Especially if you decide to run three days a week as opposed to more frequently, you need to make those runs count if you want to see improvement. Fitzgerald believes that this is the minimum effective training protocol for runners, and it is certainly enough for beginners.
You can make your three runs a week count by targeting the other two fundamentals. Of your three runs, one should be a long run to focus on raw endurance and duration. The other two should be a tempo run for intensive endurance—both duration and intensity—and a speed workout for intensity.
Running: 2-4 Days a Week
Fitzgerald has a pretty aggressive approach to running, which might be too much for beginners. If you are new to running or if you’re coming back after a time off, two days may even be ideal for you. You’ll want to give your joints, tendons, and muscles the time to adapt to the stress of running.
Experts tend to recommend that beginning runners try to run three-four days a week. If you think that two runs a week is going to better match your fitness level and goals as well as current situation in life, go for that. If you feel more aggressive, try for four days. Just figure out what’s best for you, but make sure not to over-do it.
Trying to run five, six, or even seven days a week as a beginner will put you at a greater risk for injury, especially shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and other skeletal-muscular injuries. Your body just isn’t ready to pound the pavement that many days a week yet.
Instead, you’ll probably want to run two or three days a week, and perhaps four if you’ve been active and are healthy overall, as this will give you the opportunity to strengthen your muscles and bones.
Plus, starting off with two to four runs of 20-30 minutes each per week makes running seem manageable. If you’re just getting into running, the last thing you want to do is discourage yourself from it by taking on an overwhelming volume of exercise. Knowing that you have rest days is not only great for physical recovery, but also gives you a break from having to run all the time.
Cross-Training: 1-2 Days a Week
On the off days, you should consider cross-training. Your body doesn’t just get a break from running; you also have the opportunity to strengthen your body so that it can run better. Cross-training is any physical activity that isn’t running, so find one that works for you.
If you tend to be a sedentary person, just getting up off the couch for a 15-minute walk in the evenings on your cross-training days is great. If you’re trying for an aggressive race pace, you might want to look into weight training and core workouts, as this will help you run stronger. Maybe you love the water, so swim on your off-days. Whatever it is, do it.
Let’s say, however, that the idea of trying to run two days, and then cross-train two days, seems incredibly overwhelming to you and will keep you from any starting any sort of physical activity. If cross-training is too much, don’t do it! Just focus on what is manageable.
Rest: At Least 1 Day a Week
Finally, don’t forget to rest at least one day a week! Yes, rest is an important part of any training program. Don’t neglect it! Some elite runners will run every single day of the week, but that doesn’t mean you need to. Plus, they know how to get needed rest for their muscles in the midst of their training.
It’s essential to allow your body to rest, which means no running and no cross-training, for at least one day a week. This is critical to avoiding injury, burnout, and poor results. You want to give your muscles a chance to heal and become stronger.
How Often You Should Run
All right. We’ve discussed the general rules of thumb to follow regarding how often you should run as a beginner, but what about you personally? It turns out you can figure out what mileage and time investment you should devote by considering several factors: past experiences, present conditioning level, and future goals.
For past experiences, you can ask yourself questions like:
- How often did I run previously (if at all)?
- How did that training feel?
- How often am I exercising each week (even if it’s just going for an evening walk)?
- What’s the farthest I have ever run?
For present conditioning level, you can ask yourself questions like:
- What is the honest state of my health?
- Am I overweight?
- What is the farthest I can run right now?
- What pace can I sustain for that distance?
- Am I generally sedentary or more active?
For future goals, you can ask yourself questions like:
- Do I want to achieve a specific time goal? If so, what?
- Am I running for health reasons?
- Am I running for another reason?
- What do I want to be able to achieve in x months?
After you have answers to these questions, you’ll have a better idea of your desired destination and how to get there.
If you want to be able to run a half marathon at an 8-minute mile pace in 5 months and the longest you’ve ever run is 3.1 miles, you’ll probably want to run 4 days a week. If you want to be able to run one mile without stopping, even if it’s a 12-minute mile pace, in 5 months, you’ll probably be able to run 2 days a week.
Next, you need to map out the time you are able to devote to training and figure out how to fit those sessions into your schedule. Don’t forget about things that could interfere with your plan: unexpected late nights at work, parent-teacher conferences at school, kids’ soccer games, etc.
Based on all of this information, you’ll be able to put together a training plan that works for you, or find one online that is going to be a good fit.
Making It a Habit
No matter how many days a week you decide to run, you want to make sure that you turn it into a habit. As we all know, the best way to form a habit is to do something consistently. Thus, try to run at roughly the same time every day. In just a few weeks, your body will start to learn that it’s time to run.
If possible, you should try to run in the morning, or between 1-4pm in the afternoon. Research shows that exercising at these times is most conducive to allowing you to sleep properly at night, as your body has had time to rest from exercising.
In addition, running in the morning has the added benefit of a great start to your day. Studies have found that individuals who exercise in the morning are much more likely to get their run in than those who wait until the end of the day. Even if you’re not a morning person (I’m with you!), you can start developing two good habits at once: getting up early, and running.
Now that you know how often you should run, what about after you’ve gotten several weeks into running two to four days a week? Are there benefits to adding days? Before upping to another run per week, you should consider adding time to your runs instead.
You want to allow your body to adapt to running so that you avoid injuries and burnout. Consider adding five to ten minutes to one of your runs so that once a week, you are doing a longer run. This may only be three miles for you, depending on how fast and how long you run, but it will help you gain endurance and become a faster runner.
Be sure to wisely increase your mileage so that you don’t get hurt. A good way to add more time/miles is to run more every second week. This gives your body the time it needs to get adjusted. A good guideline to follow is not to increase your time or mileage by more than 10% at any one point.
Progressing Beyond Beginner Status
As you get in the rhythm of regularly running two to four days a week for several months, you can start to add an additional running day or start to include speed training in your plan. In just four months, you can build up your fitness from running/walking three times a week, to running five times a week.
Here’s how you progress:
- Weeks 1-6: Run (or run/walk) three days a week for 20-30 minutes at up to 60-70 percent of maximum heart rate (MHR)
- Weeks 6-10: Run three days a week for 30 to 40 minutes at up to 65-75 percent MHR
- Weeks 10-13: Run four days a week for 30 to 45 minutes at up to 70 percent MHR
- Weeks 13-16: Run five days a week for 25 to 40 minutes at up to 65-75 percent MHR
In the end, only you know what is going to be best for you in terms of how often to run. Feel empowered to try a certain number of days, and if it’s too much, cut back. If it’s not enough, add a day. Running is a highly individual sport, and it’s more important to do what is comfortable for your body than to follow an arbitrary number.