The ABCs of running: a guide for young and beginning runners

It’s crosscountry season!

Kids starting a cross-country race

Kids aged 8 to 11 start the Pinetree Classic 2.5K race in Coquitlam, BC. Photo by Warren McCulloch

This post is written in response to a reader who asked me what advice I could give to a group of middle school-aged runners who are preparing to do a fun run in a few weeks.

My initial reaction was, “Yikes! Where do I start?”

There is a HUGE amount of information available online and in running magazines about how to train, what to wear, how to fuel/hydrate your body, how to race, how to treat injuries, etc. If these kids are doing an Internet search, surely they’ll be overwhelmed. Also, they’ll get a lot of (possibly) misleading or unnecessary information from people whose main goal is to sell running-related products.

Running can be a simple, inexpensive sport. That’s the beauty of it! So I thought, Why don’t I write a bare-bones guide for beginning runners. Let’s see how short and simple I can make it.

For simplicity’s sake, the following guide is geared for young people aiming to try a cross country race or a fun run between 1K and 5K long. However, the tips here could be useful for any beginning runner.


There are only two items of running clothing that are really important for runners.

1. Shoes. Wear shoes that are meant for running, not hi-top basketball shoes or tennis shoes. I can hear the question popping out, “Is it a good idea to buy those fashionable minimalist shoes?” Personally, I love how light and free I feel in those shoes. But they are most appropriate for fast, light runners with perfect form. Your best bet is to buy your shoes at a specialty running store where you can get good advice from the salesperson about which type of shoe is best for your feet. Your shoes should feel comfortable. The most expensive shoe is often not the right one for you.

2. (Women and girls only) A running bra. Running is a high-impact activity. You need support. Choose a bra that looks and feels good on you. It should fit snugly but still be comfortable.

3. Other gear. The other stuff is not critical (except during extremely cold weather). Wear clothing that is light, comfortable, and easy to move in. “Technical” materials are better than cotton because moisture evaporates from them quickly. Your body heats up very quickly when you run. It’s a good idea to dress in layers in cooler weather. You might start out with a long-sleeved shirt or a light jacket on over a t-shirt. As you warm up, you can easily remove the outer layer and tie it around your waist.


Running is a wonderful sport because if you do it regularly, you’ll improve. I’ve heard many stories of people who start off barely able to drag themselves once around a 400m track, but they gradually build up their distance until they can run a full marathon! [26.2 miles/42.2 kilometres]

Here are a few Qs and As:

Q. How often should I run?

A. To make progress and avoid soreness, you should run at least twice a week. It’s better if you run three or four times a week. This will give your body a chance to recover on your non-running days. You might want to play other sports or do cross training activities like cycling, swimming, gym workouts, or yoga on your non-running days.

Of course, serious competitive runners usually run six or seven days a week.

Q. How far should I run?

A. That depends on your race distance. If you’re going to be racing no further than 5K, you don’t need to run further than that–in fact, most of your runs can be shorter. If you’re totally out of shape, you might want to start by alternating a minute or two of running with a minute of walking.

Q. Should I just try to keep running my race distance faster and faster?

A. No. You’ll improve faster and be a better runner if you include sprinting short distances in some of your workouts. As you get fitter, you can add sprints of any distance (50m to 400m) into your workouts. You should always do an easy warm-up jog for at least five or ten minutes before doing sprints. Take a short rest (30 seconds to two minutes) between each sprint until you’re ready to run fast again.

Q. Where should I run?

A. One thing I love about running is being outside in natural environments, like forest trails or parks. Try to find a place where you don’t have to run on pavement, because pavement is harder on your body. It feels good to run on gravel or woodchip trails, or on grass. Some of your sprinting can be done on a track if there is one available. It’s a good idea to avoid roads where you face the danger of cars and unhealthy fumes.


Countless books and articles are available to give you nutrition tips for running and other sports. Here are the most important points:

1) Don’t eat right before running. You might throw up if you do. Don’t run for at least three hours after eating a full meal. On the other hand, you don’t want to feel weak before your workout. If you eat lunch at noon and your workout is scheduled for 6 p.m., eat a light snack one to two hours before running.

2. Try to drink a carbohydrate-rich drink or eat a small carbohydrate snack within half an hour of completing your workout. This helps your muscles recover quickly.

3. Most people know the basics of a healthy diet: Lots of fruits and vegetables, whole-grain carbohydrates as much as possible (pasta, breads, rice), small servings of protein (meat, chicken, fish, cheese, eggs) or other protein-rich foods if you’re a vegetarian. Limit your intake of fatty, salty, and refined foods.

Running is fun!

What if it isn’t? The secret is persistence. When I started running, I hated it. A lot of people hate running, because they don’t keep at it long enough for their bodies to adapt to it. Running is an intense kind of exercise that can make you feel sick, exhausted, and sore if you’re not fit when you start doing it. But if you keep running at least two or three times a week, you’ll experience dramatic improvements in the way you feel and the way your body can perform. It’s exciting and rewarding. It’s a good idea, too, to have a race goal—and make your first goal a modest one, like completing a 2K or a 5K fun run, or finishing your school’s 3K cross-country race. It will give you a tremendous feeling of accomplishment to train for and finish a race.

When I started running at age 16, I did a lot of silly things. I didn’t wear proper shoes or a proper running bra. I ran in cut-off jeans. I ate a huge spaghetti dinner an hour before a 1,500m track race. I had to learn things the hard way, like having to run a rough cross-country race with one shoe because my cheap shoe fell off in the mud, and getting sick after my track race. But I learned to be a good runner, and I grew to love running.

A Canadian cross-country running team in 1978.

In 1978, at age 18, I was on my first Canadian team! We were in Glasgow for the World Cross Country Championships. There are many great Canadian runners in this photo–can you identify any of them?

About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
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2 Responses to The ABCs of running: a guide for young and beginning runners

  1. Caroline Crabtree says:

    Nancy, when we were running in the ’70s there were not running bras nor female running shoes. Was the race in Taylor Park where you lost your shoe; that is where I lost my right North Star runner. After that race my dad brought me, Nike Waffel (red and white). The first running bras didn’t come out until 1980 I believe and they cost a fortune (think close to 6o.oo dollars). Oh how times have changed! Also we didn’t have that nice stuff called (lyra (spandex)).

  2. Hi Caroline,
    I remember that race at Taylor Creek so well–I hated it! I wasn’t good on those muddy courses. I remember tons of people falling down; the boys trampled each other but the girls often helped each other up. I didn’t lose my shoe there though; I lost it at my first OFSAA race in 1976; I can’t remember where that was but it was on a ski hill.
    Running clothing was pretty primitive in the ’70s–I shudder when I remember how I used my worn-out bras as running bras.

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