How to Determine the Right Running Program Before You Hit the Pavement

Soldiers run two miles during the Soldier Wellness Education and Training program.
Soldiers were sweating during the 2-mile run, part of the in-processing for the Soldier Wellness Education and Training program (SWEAT). (Sgt. Heidi Kroll/172nd Public Affairs Detachment)

Most of the time, when people start training to get better at running, they either will pick up where they left off years ago, run with a friend or just run for the 30 minutes they allotted to run that day. 

Regardless, this often can spell pain and injury for many as they typically progress way too quickly for their current abilities. When starting a running program or trying to figure out how to start a running program, the best answer is that it depends.

The following is a list of why it depends on which running program is right for you:

1. Running background: When was the last time you did any running? Months, years or never? If you run, how many miles per week are you running? If you are new to running, you definitely want to start off like a beginner. 

This typically means starting off by walking and mixing in short runs of 1-2 minutes throughout the 30- to 45-minute walk. If you are serious about progressing to run 5-6 miles without stopping, give yourself a few months to build up to that distance. See beginner running plan for ideas. 

2. Body weight: Depending on your body weight, you may want to start off with a walking program if you have significant weight to lose. Your knees, shins, and hips will thank you for not running on them while 40-50 pounds or more overweight. 

Even walking may cause pain as it impacts your joints, so you may want to consider non-impact cardio options just until you are feeling less or no pain when walking. Biking, elliptical, rowing, or swimming are great ways to get the cardio conditioning needed not just to lose weight, but get in better shape to run when you are able. 

Here is a rule to follow as it applies to activity: “When it hurts to run, stop running. When it hurts to walk, don’t run, stop walking and try non-impact cardio activity. When it hurts doing non-impact or nothing at all, see a doctor.”

3. Goals: It also depends on your goals. Do you want to run your first five- to 10-kilometer run? Are you preparing for boot camp, special-ops screening or PT tests? All of these require a different level of preparation and foundational workload before completion. If you run regularly but need to speed up your pace for timed runs, consider training for your timed runs with goal pace and sprint workouts.

Dropping your mile pace can be a combination of building volume each week and increasing your speed, but learning your goal pace for any running event is a smart way to tackle the training. For instance, if you want to run a really fast 5K run, you do not need to run slow 10-mile workouts. Make your workouts fast/goal pace and sprint intervals so you push the new pace and learn how to maintain it as well.

4. Injuries: Have injuries plagued your running buildup or introduction to running? Were you previously injured from running and now starting again?

If you are susceptible to running injuries that are in the overuse category (tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, stress fractures), this could be due to an overly aggressive progression when you started running again.

When you are recovering from a running injury, you still should continue to do some form of non-impact cardio activity, if possible (depending upon the injury, of course). And when you start to run again, do not start back where you left off. Treat yourself like a beginner with a basic running program that allows for non-impact days between running days until you build a solid base of pain-free running again. 

Your injury also could be from your running technique or footwear. Maybe a new pair of real running shoes will help. You tend to get what you pay for when it comes to quality running shoes. They can be a bit expensive and in the $100-plus range.

When you are considering running in preparation for a future training or racing goal, it is important to remember you need to start small and proceed with a series of progressions. There is a reason why more than 50% of all runners get injured every year, and typically that is due to too steep of a progression and mileage increase. 

Start off with shorter and faster runs first, with walking intervals mixed in. Build up to longer distances that build on each other every week to the tune of a 10%-15% increase in time or distance. If you create a steady progression of running distance or time, you will be less likely to get overuse injuries that can cause great delays with training for your future goals.


Running plans

Beginner to Advanced Running Plan

Six Week Running Plan 

Intermediate levels

Need for Speed Workout

Interval Workouts

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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