Running has short- and long-term benefits for your heart.
Start a running program by setting goals and believing in yourself.
Group training, such as the Heart to Start program, can be very helpful.
When it comes to a healthy heart, you should eat a nutritious, low-fat diet, abstain from smoking…and run a 5K? According to Robert Quintos, MD, running is the closest thing to a “magic bullet” for heart health. And he should know—not only is he a cardiologist at Providence Heart Clinic-Bridgeport in Oregon, he is also director of the sports cardiology program at Basecamp Prevention + Wellness, as well as a certified running and Ironman coach.
“Running has both immediate and long-term benefits,” Dr. Quintos says. “You immediately see changes the same day that can lower blood pressure, improve insulin sensitivity, which is a marker for diabetes, and improve sleep quality, which can also be a marker for heart disease. Long term, it definitely has benefits, which includes reducing the risk of heart attack and stroke, and reducing mortality rates from heart attacks and strokes.”
Not a runner? Don’t worry: starting a running program isn’t as daunting as it would seem. If you employ some smart strategies, such as the ones outlined by Dr. Quintos below, you’re sure to get off on the right foot.
- Believe in yourself.
Many times, the biggest obstacle to taking up running is psychological, not physical, Dr. Quintos says. “Believe that you are a runner,” he says. “Many people don’t look like a runner or feel like a runner, but they are. There will always be someone faster or fitter than you are, but that doesn’t make you any less of a runner. All of those people were a beginner at some point. Use that as your motivation.”
- Run in a pack.
Running is typically considered a solitary sport, but Dr. Quintos recommends that newcomers plug into a running program or group. “Our free Heart to Start program is a great option. We make it easy to join virtually as well, as we know having a community to work out with and exercise buddies are important.”
With Heart to Start there is a wide range of people at various fitness levels so you can find a group that matches where you are at, and there are coaches there to guide you further. Dr. Quintos says that it is a community first and foremost, and an exercise program secondarily. “It’s a community of people who are trying to improve their lives and fitness so it’s a very supportive group. It empowers people who want to take charge of their health and run/walk a 5K. We provide a training plan, the coaches, the resources, and expert speakers, but most importantly it’s an inclusive community where everyone is welcome.”
- Set a goal.
There’s nothing like a deadline or a race entry fee to keep you motivated. “Deciding to do something different is the first step, whether it’s walking or running. It doesn’t matter, just get motivated,” Dr. Quintos says. “Finding a race to enter also helps in goal setting.”
He adds that setting a goal has two parts: identifying the “what” and the “why.” “The ‘what’ is the performance goal itself,” Dr. Quintos says. “I tell people to make sure it’s a SMART goal, and that stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. That sounds like a lot, but it can be as simple as, ‘I want to run a 5K without stopping to walk by the end of the summer.’ That gives each running session a purpose; you know what you are striving for.”
The “why” is the inspiration for the “what,” and it can be anything: setting a healthy example for kids, or a having a family history of heart attacks. “That’s important because if you have a bad day and fall short of your performance goal, if your ‘why’ still holds true it will continue to keep you motivated to chase your goal.”
- Know how to avoid injuries.
It can be demoralizing to start a running program and then have to stop suddenly because of an injury. Dr. Quintos says there are some time-tested ways to help avoid injury. “The first is spend time getting the muscles stronger,” he says. “For new runners or people who are sedentary most of the day, there are specific muscles that may not be able to support the impact of a running program. These include the core, abs and back, that stabilizes the whole body, as well as the glutes and hips. So spend time not running and getting stronger.”
In fact, although it sounds counterintuitive, not running actually helps your training. “During your program, incorporate recovery days,” Dr. Quintos says. “As you put stress on the body it needs time to recover, and that process is important for muscles to grow and repair themselves.”
It also helps to go slow and not take on too much too soon. Dr. Quintos advises that you shouldn’t increase the time or duration of your run by more than 10 percent per week so that the body can adjust.
- Understand your overall fitness level.
This is important for new runners so they don’t overextend themselves, which can lead to injury and won’t improve fitness. One way to measure this is by heart rate, but don’t feel the need to buy a monitoring device — simply check your pulse.
“Even more basic than that is judging effort,” Dr. Quintos says. “There’s an effort scale we can use and we can put effort in certain zones as far as how intense the workout is. Admittedly, that can be tough for newbies to judge what zone they are in but that will come in time as they learn more about their bodies. It doesn’t have to be fancy — it can be a subjective perception of how intense your workout is. In general, moderate effort, where most new runners will spend the majority of their time is what we call conversation pace, where you can run and carry on a conversation. The next zone up, you can still talk but you can’t complete sentences. So, you can use conversation to judge effort.”
- Check in with your doctor if you have heart risks.
If you are starting a running program and have any risk factors for heart disease, such as advanced age, family history or history of diabetes, it’s wise to talk with your physician beforehand. Dr. Quintos adds that if you have any issues with pain, such as in the knees, it can be worthwhile to get a movement screening that studies how you walk and identifies certain weakness, so they can be corrected before you start a running program.
- Invest in good shoes.
For a sport that doesn’t require any equipment, there is certainly a lot of gear for runners for sale. Newcomers should instead focus on getting a well-fitted pair of running shoes. “Shoes are going to impact everything about your running and affect the mechanics of your stride, so a good shoe is the most important thing,” Dr. Quintos says. “After that, everything is secondary. Running- specific clothing that will breathe and won’t hold onto sweat would be the next thing, but for running you don’t need a lot. You just need your shoes and the motivation to get out there.”
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.