Running is an easy, relatively cheap way to stay in shape and keep the kilos from coming back – unfortunately, for many newbie road warriors, it can also be painful. If you’re suffering from sore knees and cramping shins, your rookie mindset might be to blame. This is how many novices end up injured – by thinking all you need is a pair of shoes and the will to sweat. “Most people are poorly prepared for the stress that running puts on the body,” says Kelly Starrett, author of Ready to Run.

Use this plan to prep yourself so you don’t wreck yourself. Consider it your checklist to incredible fitness.

1. Equip Yourself

Seek out a speciality running store and invest in the gear you’ll need to start strong. Here are a few essentials.

  • Shoes That Fit

Don’t just go to a department store and buy the first pair that looks cool. It’s worth the extra effort to find a running store that can provide a gait analysis. The test will tell you how you run – that is, whether your foot rolls inward (pronation) or outward (supination) when it strikes the ground – and whether you have high arches or flat feet. That information will help the staff put you in shoes that compensate for weaknesses in your running mechanics.

  • Miniband to Prevent Injury

Stash this simple item in your gym bag or overnight bag – it can save you from a world of hurt. You can use it to strengthen the oft-injured muscles around your hips as well as your smaller stabilising muscles, says personal trainer Jim Ferris. (Need miniband exercises? Keep reading.)

  • Dumbbells for a Strong Core

A firm muscle is a fast muscle. If you don’t own dumbbells, buy a pair of 10 to 20kg each. With these, you can combine weighted exercises (such as overhead push presses, straight-leg deadlifts, and lunges) with classic body-weight moves like planks, side planks, and mountain climbers to strengthen your core, says sports medicine doctor Jordan Metzl.

2. Build a Foundation

Don’t take off like a rabbit. Spend two weeks walking while doing these moves three days a week and then once or twice a week afterwards.

  • Miniband Sidestep

Here’s the ultimate hip fortifier: Position a miniband around your legs just below your knees. Keeping your upper body still, take small steps to the right for about 20 feet and then sidestep back to your left for another 20 feet. That’s 1 set. Do 3.

  • Turkish Getup

This move boosts mobility and strengthens every muscle from head to toe, especially those in your core. A strong core allows you to run with more control and stability. For the how-to, see page 160. Do 5 reps on each side.

  • Cadence Lunge

Build strong strides: Holding a dumbbell in your right hand, step back with your right leg into a reverse lunge as you swing the weight in front of you. Explosively stand back up. That’s 1 rep. Do 10 and switch sides. Do 3 sets of 10 per side.

  • Band Lying Leg Extension

For bulletproof legs, lie on your back with your hips and knees bent 90 degrees. Loop a miniband around your feet. Straighten your right leg. Reverse and repeat with your left. Do 3 sets of 10 reps per leg.

3. Prep Your Muscles

Readying your body requires loosening up your muscles and locking down your nutrition. Run through this routine before you pound some pavement.

  • Open Your Hips

With a wall directly behind you, assume a lunge position with your left knee forward and your right knee behind you on the floor close to the wall; your right shin should be running up the wall. You’ll feel your right hip and quad stretch. Switch legs; repeat. This simple move opens up your hips and helps prevent knee, back, and hip pain, says Starrett. Do it for a minute on each leg before and after you run.

  • Stretch Your Calves

Prevent Achilles tendinitis and shin splints: Stand on the balls of your feet on a step with your heels hanging off the edge. (You can use a railing or a wall for balance.) Push yourself up and slowly (to a count of 10) drop your heels below the level of the step. Push back up and repeat. Do 3 sets of 15 every day after you run.

  • Don’t Carbo-Load

Step away from the pasta, Prefontaine. Beginning runners often over fuel, not realising that a 5km run burns only around 400 calories, which is roughly the amount in two candy or energy bars. Your normal diet will give you what you need until you reach half-marathon distance and beyond, says Metzl.

  • Hydrate Gradually

Resist the urge to glug lots of H20 before a run; you shouldn’t feel as if you’re cramming for an exam, says dietitian and Runner’s World  columnist Pamela Bede. A better strategy is to simply drink when you feel thirsty, she says. For any outing lasting under an hour – as long as conditions aren’t too hot or humid – you really don’t need to carry water. You’ll be perfectly fine with the fluid you have on board.

4. Start Running

Your first runs are critical. Learn proper running mechanics early so you can make faster progress and protect yourself from injury.

  • Don’t Overstride

Try to maintain a compact stride and a quick cadence (i.e., step turnover), says track coach Mark Coogan, who now coaches pro runners for New Balance . That’ll help you avoid landing on your heels too much. If you’re a bigger guy, it could also moderate the impact on your lower back. “It’s especially important when going downhill,” he adds. “That’s when the quads and knees can take a beating, and also when new runners tend to go for it.”

  • Relax Already

Try not to move like Frankenstein’s monster. “I tell people to imagine they’re holding an egg in each hand. You don’t want to be squeezing so hard that you’d break it.” That helps you stay loose everywhere, including your upper back and shoulders.

  • Be Efficient

Beginners have a tendency to swing their arms across their body as they gain speed, Metzl says. That motion wastes energy because it’s side to side rather than forward. Swing your arms naturally back and forth; the movement should be a perfect counterbalance to your legs, propelling you forward.

  • Foam-Roll

Roll everything. Set a timer for 10 minutes and foam-roll back and forth over as many parts of your lower body – glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves – as possible for about 30 seconds each. When you’re really feeling the pinch, dig into achy spots with a cricket ball, Starrett says. Align the ball with the tight area, take a deep breath, and relax around it, letting the ball sink in and knead the spot. Then roll the area very slowly.

5. Increase Your Speed

With a solid base and a plan to become strong and avoid injury, you’re ready for the long haul. Follow these rules of the road.

  • Build Mileage Slowly

An abrupt buildup in distance – say more than 30 percent over a two-week period – dramatically increases a new runner’s risk of injury, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. You can stay off the DL by allowing your body sufficient time to adapt: Increase your mileage by no more than 10 percent a week.

  • Finesse Your Speed

Now let’s go fast. Speedwork can help you burn more calories and train you to run fast without having to suck wind. Coogan recommends strides. They’re simple: in the middle or at the end of a normal run, just increase your pace to a near sprint for 100 metres; then resume your normal pace. If you do 8 to 10 of these, recovering after each one, every other day for two weeks, you’ll start to see your times improve.

  • Tackle a Hill

Add a weekly hill workout and you’ll quickly become a stronger runner, says Coogan. He recommends finding a gentle hill–at least 150 yards–and running quickly up it. “Try to do it five times the first week; add a couple more every two weeks. When that becomes too easy for you, find a steeper, longer hill.”

  • Recruit a Friend

You’ll be more likely to stick with the sport if you have a running partner. If your buddies hate running, join a club. Many, like the Nike+ Run Club, are free and draw big crowds.

Picture courtesy Ydwer van der Heide / Red Bull Content Pool