How to Learn to Run: The Best Way for Most People

Updated December 20, 2019


Your Guide:

Alex Johnson

For the last 10 years I’ve been learning what it takes to be a runner. I’ve raced in 5Ks, half-marathons, obstacle course races, and most recently completed my first ultramarathon. I’ve mastered the process of going from 0 to 1 through many long periods of consistent and inconsistent running. The issues I overcame throughout my long running career have been challenging, but they taught me valuable lessons that I can now pass on to you through this guide. The information here, based on everything I’ve learned along the way, will give you the blueprint that you need to confidently and efficiently transform yourself into a runner.

This guide is continually updated. Suggestions and feedback are welcome at [email protected].


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Table of Contents


I. Introduction

a.The Single Best Way to Learn Running

The single best way to learn to run is to start by walking and then gradually introducing periods of increased speed at specific time intervals.

In practice, the best way to do this is to follow the Couch to 5K running program.

In 1997, Josh Clark created the Couch to 5K plan to help anyone get started running, and by his own estimate, it has now helped millions of people accomplish this goal.1Chris Higgins, “Second Wind: Special Features,” Chris Higgins.com, https://chrishiggins.com/c25k/

Couch to 5K is a foolproof plan to get you from your current fitness level to your first 5K or 30-minute uninterrupted run. This plan will:

  • Ease you into running with a flexible training program that allows you to adjust to an appropriate difficulty in about nine weeks from start to finish.
  • Teach you how to progressively increase your training to run farther each week. You already know how to run — you’ve been doing it all your life.
  • Allow you to train how you want to train, follow a self-led, self-regulated progression, or use minute-by-minute instructions narrated to you from an app.

The simplest way to get started is with the help of the official Couch to 5K app from Active Network.

My Recommendation

App-Based Option ($2.99)

Google Play | Apple App Store

The simplest way to get started is with the help of the official Couch to 5K app from Active Network.

  • Audio cues guide you through each workout step by step.
  • Tracks all the details of your runs: pace, distance, and calories burned.
  • Chooses the exact workout and exact week to match your progress, seamlessly switching between manual training and app training.
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The program is simple, easy to follow, and leaves little to no room for error. If you do nothing but follow this program, you’ll experience a great deal of success. There are few, if any, single sources of information that will guide you through the walk-run progression and also cover the additional nuances and complexities of learning the sport. For that reason, I’ll be recommending a few other things to learn and places to seek information along the way.

Manual Option (Free)

Anyone willing to invest a little bit more effort can follow the program manually. It’s not as easy as the guidance you’ll receive from an app, but you’ll be in complete control of the structure of every run. Couch to 5K is a nine-week program with weekly runs slowly progressing from a mixture of running and walking to a full, uninterrupted run of 30 minutes or 5K. With the added instructions provided in this guide, you can follow Clark’s plan to accomplish your goal of learning to run.

Couch to 5K Running Plan Cheat Sheet

Click here to view the full Couch to 5K Running Plan

Nearly every article or training plan aimed at first-time runners will include ideas from Clark’s plan — whether they’re duplicated word-for-word or modified slightly and presented as something new. Furthermore, for reasons we’ll explain in the Tested Resources section, the top resource we’re linking to is Clark’s original guide, republished by Cheatography.com. This is, in our opinion, the best way to get the plan today.

The manual method requires you to:

  1. Use a timer to track each of your runs.
  2. Keep track of where you’re at within the cycles of each prescribed run.

For individuals who find it difficult to balance these requirements while focusing on running itself, the app companion can greatly simplify the process with specific step-by-step instructions narrated to you during each workout. The app was designed to work with any stage of the Couch to 5K plan, so if you’ve started on the manual method, you can easily transition to the app at any time. I believe many users will find the app the easiest way to follow the program, but since the manual method is free, simple, and requires no software or purchases, it’s great to consider.

Beginning this program is a surefire way to get started running. With the added tips and advice found in this guide, you’ll be rounding out your complete running education to become a well-informed and well-trained runner in no time.

b.Top Takeaways

  • Use the Couch to 5K program and spend nine weeks progressing by alternating running and walking, increasing distances until your first 5K or 30-minute run.
  • Keep it simple: You don’t need much to run, especially in the beginning. Don’t be distracted by the excessively complicated commercial space that has emerged around running.
  • Invest time in getting the right pair of shoes, they’re the only real thing that you need to get started.
  • Learn how to progress by slowly increasing your running effort each week — focus on how you feel day to day to speed up or slow down your progression.

II.The Basics: Getting Started

You’re going to need a few simple items to get started. In the following section, I recommend the bare essentials.

a.What You Need to Get Started

Getting started as a runner is easy — you really only need one thing: shoes. Don’t stunt your progress by waiting to get started with the “perfect pair of shoes.” It’s likely you already have something that will get you through your first few training runs, but in the long run, a proper pair of running shoes will be valuable.

How to Choose a Running Shoe

Selecting running shoes can be an incredibly overwhelming process for a beginner because the market is flooded with so many options. Let’s start with a few simple suggestions:

  • Try many different shoes — don’t simply choose the first one that fits. Try on as many shoes as you can. Depending on what the store allows you to do, test them with a light walk or jog and identify the pair that is most comfortable and that feels most natural on your foot. Assuming the shoes fit (covered in the next section), you should feel no immediate discomfort. You should feel good walking in the shoes as soon as they’re laced properly. Continue to test shoes until you’re sure you’ve found the most comfortable option.
  • Look for standard road running shoes. These have a smooth, flat sole on the bottom. If you’re primarily running on paved roads, avoid shoes made for trail running — the lugged sole will wear down more quickly and shorten the life of your shoes. Specialty trail running shoes are practical only for running exclusively on dirt rock and gravel paths. These shoes have improved durability, superior soles for mixed surfaces, and better traction in wet weather conditions.
  • Don’t be distracted by colors, designs, or aesthetics. These things won’t impact what’s important: the function and fit of the shoe.
  • Select the most comfortable shoe for you. Research by the Human Performance Laboratory in Calgary, Canada, demonstrated that despite the high level of complexity in the world of running shoes, what’s most important is fairly simple.2B. M. Nigg et al., “Running Shoes and Running Injuries: Mythbusting and a Proposal for Two New Paradigms: ‘Preferred Movement Path’ and ‘Comfort Filter,’” British Journal of Sports Medicine 28 no. 20 (July 2015), https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/49/20/1290 The shoe that fits most comfortably is likely to be your best bet. Studies on the subject of running injury have concluded that the shoe that is most comfortable for an individual will automatically reduce the risk of injury when running.
Choosing the Appropriate Size and Fit of a Running Shoe

Sizing a running shoe can be complicated, so I’ve broken it down into three simple steps:

  1. Find the shoe size that provides enough space between your toes and the front of the shoe.3“How to Choose a Running Shoe,” REI Co-Op, https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/running-shoes.html Make sure you have room for approximately a thumb’s width in the front. Test this by moving your foot all the way to the front of the shoe until your toe touches the front. Check the gap between the back of your foot and the heel of the shoe.
  2. Ensure an overall snugness, without excessive tightness. The toe box (the front third of the shoe where your toes spread out) should have enough space for your toes to move freely and feel comfortable; your toes should not feel like movement is inhibited.
  3. Ensure that the heel feels “locked” and your foot has room to expand. Lace the shoes so that they hold your heel firmly in place without lifting up, but at the same time don’t apply excessive pressure to the top of your foot. It should feel snug but not tight, yet tight enough that your heel can’t slip out. Our feet tend to swell toward the end of the day and during prolonged exercise. With this in mind, consider if the shoe might become too tight if your foot expanded slightly.

Getting Your Running Shoes

Choosing Shoes From Your Closet

It’s fairly common for people to have running shoes, even if they’re not a runner. If you’re interested in heading straight to shopping for new ones, skip to the Choosing Shoes at a Store section.

When evaluating shoes you already own, choose the shoes that most closely meet the following criteria:

  • The most comfortable shoes that also fit correctly (remember these fit guidelines).
  • Made of a soft fabric with breathable “uppers” (the top of the shoe around the laces and tongue).
  • Have a soft, cushioned base instead of a hard, solid base, which is commonly found with brands like Keds, Vans, Converse, and Chuck Taylor.
  • Have a rubbery, tactile sole for grip and traction.

If your shoe presents any level of discomfort after the first week of Couch to 5K, I recommend following the steps in How to Choose a Running Shoe. If love the way your shoes feel when running in them, chances are you’re in good shape to continue wearing them until that changes — either with them wearing down or becoming less comfortable as you run more.

Choosing Shoes at a Store

Seek a local specialty running store and avoid going to big box retail chains like Target, Foot Locker, and Kohl’s. The staff at specialty running stores has useful knowledge specific for guiding you to the best pair of shoes based on what they have and what you need.

Don’t be afraid of shopping online, as virtually all major online retailers have flexible and accommodating return policies. Whatever your usual size, try buying the next size up and the next size down to ensure finding the right fit without too many back-and-forth returns.

Minimalist, Maximalist, and Running Barefoot

The running industry has become infamously contradictory, intimidating, and complex for beginners. The minimalist and maximalist shoe movements have introduced so much conflicting information that it’s hard to see right from wrong.

Minimalist shoes are characterized by flat soles, near-zero cushioning, and a hard, solid surface between your foot and the ground. The basic principle is to mimic running under the conditions in which the human body evolved (with as little support as possible). Popularized by the book Born to Run, these shoes have exploded in popularity.5Christopher McDougall, Born to Run (New York: Knopf, 2009). Long before Born to Run was published, barefoot running was made famous by runners Abebe Bikila (who won two Olympic gold medals running barefoot in both Rome and Tokyo) and Shivnath Singh, the current holder of the Indian national marathon record.

Maximalist shoes came to the market quickly thereafter, going in the completely opposite direction with large, cushioned areas between the foot and the ground. Made popular by the brand Hoka One One, these shoes appear noticeably taller and the sole thicker than the average running shoe.

I recommend avoiding minimalist shoes, particularly as a beginner, when your connective tissues and joints have not yet adapted to the strain of running. Maximalist shoes are okay as long as they’re selected in line with the overall guidelines for choosing a shoe. What’s most important is finding the most comfortable shoe.

b.Running Shoe Recommendations

To start your search, the following are a couple of top recommended shoes.

Read more
Brooks Ghost 12

Top Recommendation

Brooks Ghost 12

$122+ on Amazon.com

Men’s Version | Women’s Version

This men’s shoe has been a staple for runners for years. It’s on its 12th iteration and has seven editors choice awards from Runner’s World magazine. It’s a comfortable, lightweight shoe and, based on its popularity, it’s a good place to start when looking for your perfect shoe.

Read more
Saucony Kinvara 10

Runner Up

Saucony Kinvara 10

$109+ on Amazon.com

Men’s Version | Women’s Version

Just like the Brooks Ghost, the Kinvara has been around for years; on its 10th iteration, this men’s shoe has earned many awards from popular publications like Runner’s World. It’s another popular option that is likely to be a great choice for you.

Most manufacturers design non-race-focused shoes to last 400 to 500 miles, so investing in running-specific shoes can feel pricey. Rest assured that if you pick wisely, you’ll get a lot of value from them for many months, even years, to come.

c.Secondary Gear

The following items are not necessary to start, but as you spend more time running, you might be interested in the convenience they provide. These are my best-in-class recommendations for each item.

Read more
Running Socks
Balega Silver Antimicrobial No-Show Compression-Fit Running Socks

$13+ on Amazon.com

Being new to the sport, it’s likely you’ll be giving your feet more stress than they’re used to. This popular brand of running sock recommended by Runner’s World is designed to help you avoid blisters and provides cushioning in the right places to ensure your run is as comfortable as possible.

Read more
Running Belt
SPIbelt Running Belt

$22+ on Amazon.com

A running belt will allow you to keep all of your things stable and accessible while running, without fear of dropping or losing them. This Wirecutter top-rated running belt can hold all of your essentials: keys, wallet, and phone.

Read more
Tune Belt Armband
Tune Belt Armband

$16+ on Amazon.com

This armband which comes highly recommended from The Wirecutter is an alternative to the running belt. It allows you to both interact with your screen while the phone is securely in place on your arm and conveniently connect wired headphones.

Read more
AmazonBasics High-Density Round Foam Roller
AmazonBasics High-Density Round Foam Roller

$20+ on Amazon.com

The only piece of recovery equipment warranted for a beginning runner is a foam roller. While this is certainly an optional investment, it can be an incredibly useful tool to help ease tension on overworked or sore muscles. This Wirecutter recommended foam roller is an excellent choice to get you started. For more information on how to use this tool, read about how to avoid injuries from running.

d.What to Wear While Running

It’s important that you’re comfortable running and that your body is prepared to handle both heat and sweat. As a general rule, try to wear lightweight, breathable, moisture-wicking fabrics like synthetics or wool. While you can run in just about any lightweight clothes, cotton will become uncomfortable and heavy as it absorbs sweat, which can lead to chafing and other negative side effects. While the following recommendations will get you through fair weather conditions, you’ll want to prepare for particularly hot, cold, or wet weather.

If you’re running in hot weather and exposed sun, you’ll need:

  • Hat and sunglasses to help protect your head, face, and eyes.
  • A headband or bandana to help keep sweat out of your face and eyes.
  • Sunscreen to protect your skin.

If you’re running in the cold, you’ll need to:

  • Layer with breathable, insulating fabrics like wool, or wear sweat shirts and sweat pants, which are great for cold weather running.
  • Add gloves and a Buff (a fabric tube that can protect your neck, face, and head) to help make cold temperatures more bearable. The heat generated by running will help keep the rest of your body warm. As you experiment running in cold weather, note the temperature and see when your body needs additional insulation to keep warm.
  • Pay special attention to keeping your hands, head, and ears warm — these extremities are the first to be affected during a cold run.

If you’re running in the rain:

Until you’re running longer than 30 minutes, any normal lightweight shell rain jacket should be fine. Specialty running jackets optimized for fit and comfort while running are helpful, but are not necessary for shorter duration runs.

How to Carry Your Phone and Belongings on a Run

It’s important to keep the essentials with you on a run, and it can often be a bit tricky to know where to put them. Some athletic wear will have appropriately sized and tight-fitting pockets that do a great job of holding things securely in place while you run and walk. If that’s not the case, here are a few other options:

  • Armband: Armbands are a great way to securely keep things in place. They come in various shapes and sizes depending on how many things you plan to carry with you.
  • Belt: Running belts are an easy and convenient way to bring things with you — they secure tightly to your waist and do a great job at holding things in place.

If your clothing can hold your keys and other essentials but not your phone, you can always simply hold it in your hand. Take care not to drop it if and when your hands start to sweat.

e.What to Know Before Your First Practice

Don’t overcomplicate it. You’ve likely been able to walk and run since you were a child — there’s nothing inherently different about what you’re doing now.

Don’t overcomplicate it. You’ve likely been able to walk and run since you were a child — there’s nothing inherently different about what you’re doing now. You don’t need special clothing or special gear — you just need your legs and feet.

The goal of running is to push your body to greater intensity levels and durations doing something natural. It might not be easy at first, but the idea is to adapt so that your body can exert itself for 30 minutes or more. Before you know it, you’ll be running with ease.

Running on a Treadmill

Depending on where you live and the time of year you’re starting, a treadmill might be an appealing alternative to running outdoors. This differs from outdoor running in two ways:

  • Most treadmills include a functional cushion, softening the blow when your feet contact the belt. This prevents your body’s joints from adapting to the impact they’d receive running outdoors.
  • Running on a treadmill repeats the same motion again and again — this removes the need for your body to adapt to balancing and using the many smaller muscles that help you steer and navigate objects encountered running outside. Similarly, the stride and gait you develop on a treadmill is likely to differ from that which you develop running outside.

Training on a treadmill is fine, and in the event of light injury or extreme weather can even be advantageous. If you can run on a treadmill when you can’t run outdoors due to the weather, it’s always going to be better to get the run in than not. Simply remember that it won’t translate 100% to running outdoors. If your goal involves running outside, you’ll need to train outside to be fully prepared.

Guidance for the Walking Portions of Each Workout

In the context of this guide, you’ll be instructed to walk quite a bit. Since walking is a normal part of everyday life, it’s reasonable to be uncertain about how quickly you should be doing it. Your walk should be faster than normal, like you’re in a hurry to get somewhere, but not so much that you have trouble breathing. You should be able to comfortably hold a conversation.

Warming Up Before Running

Every run will start the same way, with a 5-minute warmup:

  1. Start by simply moving your body. Once you’re moving, graduate to a “walking” pace and proceed for about a minute.
  2. From here, start going through your dynamic stretching routine.
  3. As soon as your body and muscles are warmed up, return to a brisk walk and continue at this pace until the total duration of your warmup has reached 5 minutes.

Stretching Before Running

If you’ve ever been in gym class, you’ve probably been told to stretch before you start to exercise. This is great advice in principle, but modern science has demonstrated that the traditional “static stretch” (where you stretch and hold a position for 20 to 30 seconds) will negatively impact your performance, not aid it.6L. Simic et al., “Does Pre-Exercise Static Stretching Inhibit Maximal Muscular Performance? A Meta-Analytical Review,” Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports 23, no. 2 (March 2013): 131-48.

A simple dynamic stretching routine is all that’s needed to warm up for running. Dynamic stretching is different from static stretching in that you’re practicing movements similar to those you’ll be doing in the activity and using the specific joints needed to prepare for that activity.

For running, a specific dynamic stretching routine of butt kickers and high knees, as shown in the following video, is sufficient to get you on your way.

High Knees Butt Kickers in Place | 24 Hour Fitness

How to Perform the High Knee and Butt Kicker Dynamic Warm-Up

  1. To perform high knees, start by running in place. Then, one leg at a time, take a large step, raising your knees as high as you can. As you run, land on the balls of your feet as lightly as you can.

    A popular alternative is to float your hands above your knees near your waistline and “kick” your knees into the hands, this helps provide a goal height for your knees to push toward. The specific height is not important; what is important is to stretch the muscles and tendons in your legs to the full extent of their range of motion.
  2. To perform butt kickers, continue to run in place, but try to touch your heel to your butt (glute) with each step.

    Depending on your individual range of motion and fitness, your heel may or may not make contact with your butt. What’s important is to stretch the muscle and tendon to the natural limits of their range of motion, not to force them to extremes.
  3. Alternate between 10 reps of high knees and 10 reps of butt kickers continuously for 30 seconds, followed by 30 seconds of rest. Repeat for three total cycles.

Cooldowns

A cooldown is recommended at the end of each training session. While it’s less important in the big picture than the warm-up, it’s still helpful to do in easing out of your workout and into a state of rest.

How to Perform a Cooldown

After you’re done running, return to a walking pace that feels natural. The goal is to stabilize your body’s heart rate and cardiovascular system before stopping entirely.
Walk until your breathing and heart rate have returned to normal (the speed with which this happens depends on your fitness level). The common cooldown length is 5 minutes.
Once you’re breathing normally, feel free to end the cooldown and your workout.

  1. After you’re done running, return to a walking pace that feels natural. The goal is to stabilize your body’s heart rate and cardiovascular system before stopping entirely.
  2. Walk until your breathing and heart rate have returned to normal (the speed with which this happens depends on your fitness level). The common cooldown length is 5 minutes.
  3. Once you’re breathing normally, feel free to end the cooldown and your workout.

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f.Your First Practice Session: A Walk-Through

Begin by putting on your running shoes and a weather-appropriate running outfit.

After you’re dressed and ready to run:

  1. Start with a brisk 5-minute warm up of walking and dynamic stretching.
  2. Proceed with your first run, which will include two cycles of walking and running in this practice session.
  3. Start by running for 60 seconds. If you have a timer on your watch or phone, use that. If not, count it off in your head.
  4. Change to a brisk walk for 90 seconds (remember, walk like you’re in a hurry to get somewhere).
  5. Run for another 60 seconds.
  6. Walk for another 90 seconds.
  7. Return to a casual walking pace until you’re breathing normally.

Congratulations! You’ve finished your first session! From here you have nine weeks of personal bests to look forward to as you progress further and further toward becoming a runner.

III.Common Mistakes to Avoid

a.Common Learning Mistakes and Solutions

Whether you goal is to make running a part of your life or to simply train for and complete a single event, the process will undoubtedly have a few speed bumps. I’ve experienced countless frustrations and slowdowns myself and have heard similar things from many beginner runners I’ve spoken with. The following information can help you get ahead of some of these common mistakes and help frame your mindset so that you can approach running with confidence. Once you’ve adopted running as a hobby, go further by learning about how to stay healthy and avoid injury.

Beginner Mistake #1

“Running isn’t for me, I don’t get a runner’s high and don’t enjoy the sport.”

Many new runners have been disillusioned by the claims of experienced runners who laud the sport’s ability to induce a good mood or “runner’s high.” Chasing this feeling can be frustrating when you experience the pain and strain of trying a new and difficult sport instead.

Solution: You haven’t been lied to — the runner’s high is a real thing, but you’re likely not experiencing it because it’s overshadowed by the stress of adapting to something new. Running is hard. Depending on your physical fitness level, your weight, the temperature, and the intensity with which you’re running, it can seem like self-imposed suffering. The best advice I can give is that once you control for certain things, like running in favorable weather and dialing down your intensity to something sustainable, you’ll experience a runner’s high — it will happen. Trust that it will eventually be easy and that your body will adapt to consistent training.

Beginner Mistake #2

“I’m gaining weight, but part of the reason I started this was to lose weight.”

New runner weight gain is a common problem. We incorrectly assume that we’re burning through large amounts of calories and earning significantly more food than we normally need to consume.

Solution: Your body is capable of fueling itself for this level of activity and recovering with a normal amount of food intake. Depending on what your full day and physical activity look like, the added 30 minutes of activity from this training doesn’t warrant eating additional food.

Beginner Mistake #3

“I don’t feel good when I’m out on my run.”

Running should feel like work, but it should also be fun (and comfortable for the most part). If you’re feeling sluggish, slow, and uncomfortable while running, it’s important to check on a few key things.

Solution: Think about how long it’s been since you last ate. There are two extremes to avoid. If you’ve eaten one to two hours before your run (depending on what it was), the act of digesting food can make you uncomfortable while running. Alternatively, if you haven’t eaten in a long time, you’re actively dieting, or you aren’t used to running on an empty stomach, you might also experience discomfort. It’s okay to run on an empty stomach and to run while dieting, but if this is new to you, it might take some adjustment.

Beginner Mistake #4

“I don’t feel good after my runs.”

Running can take a lot out of you. It’s normal to feel the strain of exercise, but if you’re feeling excessively drained, you might need to address your level of effort and exertion.

Solution: The relative intensity of your runs will be a significant factor in how you feel afterward. Next time, try running slower, and if you need to walk a few extra seconds to catch your breath, do so. Alternatively, if you’re running in extremely hot weather, it’s likely you’re battling mild dehydration and heat exhaustion. Drink ice water before your next run, bring a water bottle with you, and focus on running in the shade.

Beginner Mistake #5

“I am dreading my next training run — this is moving too fast.”

Everyone adapts to training and running at different speeds. If you’re truly dreading the next run, it might be worth considering your progression and whether or not you’re going too fast.

Solution: You might be feeling this way for a couple of different reasons. How quickly are you progressing? If you’re moving forward in the program more quickly than your body is adjusting, you might need to step back to an easier week. Are you struggling with some level of discomfort during your run? It’s worth looking at your clothing and gear to see what you can do to make running more enjoyable. Do your feet hurt? Are you getting too hot and dehydrated? The correct shoes and clothing could help you enjoy your runs more.

b.Common Time and Money Wasters

Common Money Waster #1

Buying lots of different sports nutrition products.

Companies have flooded the market with products aimed at runners and athletes to help them perform and recover from exercise. As a beginner, don’t waste time and money on these products. Most people can comfortably sustain running for up to 90 minutes without any additional calories or nutrition.

Solution: Until you’ve moved further into training runs that last an hour or more, there’s no need to change anything about your workout nutrition or to consume any special food for your workouts.

Common Money Waster #2

Buying expensive recovery tools and physical therapy devices.

Similar to nutrition, the “recovery” industry has exploded in recent years attempting to sell athletes and runners a multitude of products they don’t need. While you’re learning to run, these products are unlikely to provide any noticeable advantage over the basic rest and recovery principles outlined in Avoiding Injuries From Running. Some examples of things to avoid are vibrating foam rollers and massage balls, expensive electronic massage devices, and giant automated massage boots.

Solution: Do everything you can to rest and repair, but save your money and don’t buy unnecessary recovery devices and clothing.

c.Common Jargon (and Meanings)

To get familiar with running, the following are a few standard phrases you might come across as you explore and learn more:

  • Barefoot running shoes: Shoes that provide as little protection and support as possible to closely mimic the experience of running barefoot. See Minimalist, Maximalist, and Running Barefoot for more on this.
  • Couch to 5K: This is the original name of the run/walk plan developed by Josh Clark. It was later sold to Active.com, which owns the trademark. This is the first major run/walk training plan to become synonymous with first-time running training.
  • Fartlek: Swedish for “speed play,” Fartlek runs are a staple of more advanced training plans and can help you improve your running speed and efficiency.
  • HIIT: High-intensity interval training, HIIT is a common acronym used to describe interval training plans.
  • Intervals: Moving beyond introductory running training, the word intervals refers to high-intensity training for a short period, or interval, of time, followed by a period of low-intensity training. These intervals are then repeated. These workouts are part of nearly all more advanced running plans.
  • Long run: In a given training plan, the long run is the longest run of the week. This is another pillar of more advanced training plans.
  • Plantar fasciitis, shin splints, and patellar tendonitis (runner’s knee): These are the most common running injuries and, as such, they’re a frequent subject of conversation in running circles. See avoiding injuries for more on this.
  • Pronation: This refers to the inward roll of the foot when striking the ground. See What About Pronation and Supination? for more on this.
  • Supination: Supination refers to the outward roll of the foot and is less common than pronation. See What About Pronation and Supination? for more on this.
  • Support shoe, motion control shoe, neutral shoe: These are types of shoes designed to address pronation and supination. A support shoe is recommended for individuals with excessive pronation in their stride. A motion control shoe is another name for a support shoe. Neutral shoes are normal shoes that do not attempt to alter the movement of the foot. See What About Pronation and Supination? for more on this.

IV.Dive Deeper

a.Build Your Practice (Nine-Week Challenge)

Overall Structure

The program is designed to slowly develop your running capability over the course of nine weeks. In week 1, you’ll be doing a lot of walking and a little running. As the weeks progress, you’ll gradually do more and more running. Throughout the program, it is suggested that you repeat weeks if you feel like the difficulty is progressing too quickly. In the same vein, you can also skip ahead if the training runs are far too easy. This technique allows you to autoregulate yourself into a faster or slower progression based on your body’s adaptation and needs. This is the beauty of the walk/run program and the key to its flexibility.

Weekly Structure

Each week will follow the same structure where you choose three days to complete the three prescribed workouts from your training plan.

Choose the days that work best for you, the most important criterion is that you complete all three prescribed workouts, the days and times you choose to train are flexible. I recommend resting one day between workouts unless this would prevent you from completing all three workouts — which is what’s most important.

Workout Structure

Early in the program, each workout will have you follow a simple pattern of walk, then run, then repeat. The amount of running you do will gradually increase until you’re running an entire 5K start to finish.

Each week will be different, but will have the same components:

  1. Warm-up
  2. Repeated cycles of running/walking. (Note: Some later weeks include no walking.)
    • Run time: Run for a specified duration
    • Walk time: Walk for a specified duration
  3. Cooldown

Here’s a full training session from week 1 as an example; it includes 10 major steps:

Part:
Warm-up5 minutes
Repetition 1Run 60 seconds, walk 90 seconds
Repetition 2Run 60 seconds, walk 90 seconds
Repetition 3Run 60 seconds, walk 90 seconds
Repetition 4Run 60 seconds, walk 90 seconds
Repetition 5Run 60 seconds, walk 90 seconds
Repetition 6Run 60 seconds, walk 90 seconds
Repetition 7Run 60 seconds, walk 90 seconds
Repetition 8Run 60 seconds, walk 90 seconds
Cooldown5 minutes

Find the full week-by-week schedule in the Top Learning Resource.

Choosing the Right Tool to Complete Each Workout

Scenario 1: I’m using the app option, Couch to 5K -- Run Training

Step 1. Install, launch the app, and tap Skip in the top right corner. (In my research, I did not see any worthwhile benefits from creating an account.)

Step 2. The app will ask you to enter your weight. This step is optional. You can either tap Skip in the top right corner or enter a weight and tap Save. (Even if you enter your weight, calorie counts are merely estimates based on averages. If you think you will find these data points motivating, then add your weight. Otherwise, skip this step. It will not affect your actual training program.)

Step 3. Under Week 1 Day 1, tap Go to Workout.

Step 4. Sliding left and right, find the virtual coach who sounds most interesting to you. They each follow the exact same training program but vary in their audio cues and virtual personalities. After you find the best option for you, tap the name of your desired instructor and then tap Start Now which will appear after you tap.

Step 5. Begin your workout!

Each workout progresses through three stages.

Stage 1 begins with a warm-up. Follow the guidelines in Warming Up Before Running.

Stage 2 will guide you step-by-step through the walking and running rotations for each stage of the Couch to 5K program. Let the app do the hard work here — just follow along and do your best not to break away from the recommended durations and times.

Stage 3 will lead you into a cooldown period before concluding the workout. Follow the guidelines in the How to Perform a Cooldown.

Scenario 2: I’m using the manual option, tracking myself

Follow the weekly structure to determine which days you’ll be running. For manual training, you’re going to need two things: a way to keep track of your time and a way to count your repetitions/laps (this isn’t absolutely necessary if you can keep track of the laps in your head). I recommend the following options for tracking your time and laps.

Option 1: Use a watch with stopwatch functionality

Digital watches and fitness tracker watches often come with stopwatch functionality that can both keep time and count your repetitions or laps.

Option 2: Use an actual stopwatch

You can purchase a basic stopwatch relatively cheaply at a number of outlets, sporting goods stores, department stores, or on Amazon. For an easier time, look for one that has lap counting as a feature.

Option 3: Use the stopwatch app on your phone

Stopwatch functionality comes standard on all iOS and Android devices.

Out on Your Run

The most important thing to remember is to keep track of where you’re at in the run — how many cycles you’ve completed and how many you have left. Use the lap counter on your stopwatch to keep track of how many laps you’ve gone through in the workout. Use the stopwatch to time yourself and track when to move to the next stage. For example:

Lap 1Warm-up, 5 minutes
Lap 2Run 60 seconds (repetition 1)
Lap 3Walk 90 seconds
Lap 4Run 60 seconds (repetition 2)
Lap 5Walk 90 seconds
Lap 6Run 60 seconds (repetition 3)
Lap 7Walk 90 seconds
Lap 8Run 60 seconds (repetition 4)
Lap 9Walk 90 seconds
Lap 10Run 60 seconds (repetition 5)
Lap 11Walk 90 seconds
Lap 12Run 60 seconds (repetition 6)
Lap 13Walk 90 seconds
Lap 14Run 60 seconds (repetition 7)
Lap 15Walk 90 seconds
Lap 16Run 60 seconds (repetition 8)
Lap 17Walk 90 seconds
Lap 18Cooldown, 5 minutes

Follow this pattern to plan each run. Know what you need to do and have a way to keep track of it before you start. Do whatever you need to do to keep track, whether that’s making a note within an app on your phone, bringing a pen and paper, or simply keeping up with the lap number using your stopwatch.

b.How to Pick a Trainer or Coach

There are many reasons why you might want to seek out a trainer or coach to help you improve your running. Self-guiding with a training plan can be hard, and the expertise from a professional can help you see and understand things you would miss on your own. The following are some helpful tips for finding the right one:

  • Start by asking your local specialty running store for recommendations. The staff likely includes a few coaches, or they have a go-to list of reliable local trainers to refer you to.
  • Search online for coaches who cater to first-time runners; online coaching can be just as helpful as meeting with a trainer in person.
  • When evaluating a potential trainer, discuss with them what level of runners they’re used to working with. Just because they coach experienced or elite runners does not automatically qualify them to teach a beginner — beginners have unique needs.

c.How to Find Your Community

Find Your Local Running Store

For shoe selection, community, and connecting with running events, a local specialty running store is a great resource for all runners. Search both Yelp and Google to find top-rated running stores near you. If you have friends who run, ask them where they prefer to shop.

Find a Local Running Club

Local running clubs are popular and can be a great way to get to know local routes, runners, and events. Most specialty running stores function as a hub for these types of clubs and are a great place to start searching for a club. To locate a running club near your, search the Road Runners Club of America website. Or you may even stumble across a poster or sign walking around town.

Tracking Your Runs and Connecting With Other Runners Online

We’ve recommended the Couch to 5K app to facilitate specific workouts within a program, but many other apps exist for recording runs and connecting with other runners online. There are many benefits to tracking and sharing your runs. First is solving the simple problem of where to run. Seeing where other runners in your area train might inspire you to try a new route. Strava takes this one step further with its Global Heatmap website and app, which can locate the most popular paths for runners.

Dana Margulies, one of the expert runners consulted for this guide, said, “I’m not sure I would have reached the level I’m at today without the social aspect that I’ve added to my running game.” My experience has been similar. Connecting with friends, family, or even strangers via apps can be incredibly motivating. These connections can foster both positivity and encouragement around your own training with comments and kudos and become an immensely powerful motivational tool for continuing your running journey. Included are some of the top community-oriented apps as rated by the None to Run online running community.7“Running Gear Recommended by the N2R Community,” None to Run.com, https://www.nonetorun.com/recommended-gear

In addition to these apps, the dedicated Couch to 5K subgroup on Reddit (named r/C25K) is a good place to connect directly with others who are starting their journey toward becoming a runner.

d.Avoiding Injuries From Running

If you’re not already an active person, running will add a significant stressor for your body to adjust to. The following are common situations that cause injuries:

  • Progressing too quickly by adding more training than the body can recover from.
  • Introducing aspects of a new running style too quickly.
  • Adding nonrunning stressors without balancing them with the running stressors.

General Recommendations for Avoiding Injury

The following are the most important elements for avoiding injuries, as well as recovering, if you do happen to injure yourself:

  • Get enough sleep: Sleep is outside of the scope of this guide, but many would consider it your number one tool for recovery.
  • Release muscle tension: Use a foam roller on heavily used muscles like the quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes between runs to keep your body relaxed. Tight and inflexible muscles will degrade your running form, which leads to injury over time. Foam rolling can often be an intimidating practice for beginners. To get started, I recommend this guide from Runner’s World and this video from The Run Experience.
  • Progress slowly: Progress in your training at an appropriate pace and don’t overload your body with more than it can recover from naturally. If you feel unable to recover, temporarily scale back your training until you no longer feel dragged down when moving from session to session.
  • Eat a healthy diet: Eat a nutritious diet. Like sleep, diet is outside the scope of this guide, but eating right is critical for proper recovery from physical training.
  • Maintain a good mindset: Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Running is a high-impact sport, so beginners will probably go through an uncomfortable adjustment phase. The two scenarios in the Beyond Your First 5K section include recommendations for safely progressing when increasing your running time. Running can and should be a pain-free, injury-free sport when done properly. To get there, you must adapt your body to the stresses of the sport, and that process can be slow.
  • Adopt a strength routine: Perform basic runner-focused strength routines two times per week, either after your run or on a rest day.

e.Strength Training

Basic strength training for the lower body and core is important for all runners and can be particularly helpful for runners who are starting from a sedentary lifestyle. Strength training is a big subject and could easily fill an entire book or guide. For that reason, I’m simply introducing the concept here and sharing resources that will allow you to dive deeper into the topic. Make strength training a part of your long-term training program — it will both decrease the likelihood of injury from running and improve your overall run performance.

My top recommendation for the easiest way to get started is to follow None to Run’s Simple Strength Routine for Runners. Many resources and books are available on this topic, and for those seeking to dive more deeply into the subject, I suggest the Strength Running website.

Perform strength training on days you’re not running, or immediately after a run workout. Avoid performing strength training before a run, which can fatigue the leg muscles, making it harder for the body to perform a safe and effective running stride.

f.Beyond Your First 5K

Preparing for and completing your first 5K is an exciting step. If you reach this point in your journey and are eager to take things a step further, there are many ways you can advance your running.

Scenario 1: Continue training using an app

In the same way you built up to your first 5K, a multitude of apps can help guide you to go further. Select an app that’s closely aligned with your goals, whether that be a 10K, half-marathon, full marathon, or even an ultramarathon! The Couch to 5K app that was recommended has a convenient option for those looking to move from 5K to 10K.

Scenario 2: Self-guide your way to added distance

The Couch to 5K progression guide from Cheatography provides a plan for your journey toward 10K and uses the same progression as getting to your first 5K. Continuing down this path, you’ll simply go further with longer runs, more running, and less walking.

For runners looking to train for a longer event, such as a half-marathon, full marathon, or even an ultramarathon. I recommend finding specialized plans, starting with those top running authorities offer.

Generally speaking, progressing toward a specific goal can be helpful, as you’ll be training with a purpose, a timeline, and milestones to motivate you. This is, however, not the only way to go about it. For many people, progressing as a runner will simply be a self-motivated pursuit not driven by a distance goal. Runners can employ the 10% rule to self-regulate their own progression to add mileage and distance over time.

Making Progress: The 10% Rule

The 10% rule dictates that runners should increase the time they run by no more than 10% per week to prevent injury and overtraining. Before putting it into practice, the first prerequisite is to establish a baseline running schedule. Typically, this means deciding what a normal week looks like for you with respect to how many days you’ll be running. Then, increase your total weekly distance run by 10% by either running farther each day or by creating a “long run” that gradually gets longer.

Choosing How Many Days You Run per Week

Runners finishing the Couch to 5K plan will likely be following the prescribed three running days per week of 3 miles or 30 minutes. Before progressing, you might first want to decide if this matches up with your ideal week. You could either increase to four, five, or six days of running per week, or you could reduce your running days to one or two.

Modifying Your Weekly Schedule

If you’re running three days per week and want to keep it that way, go on to the next section. To change your schedule, you’ll likely be increasing your running time. Increasing your running from three to four days a week is a 33% jump, so to reduce the risk of injury, you might consider decreasing the distance run per day to equalize the increase across each day. Make the change and hold steady for at least two weeks before considering further modifications. Once your body adjusts to its new schedule, you’re ready to move on. Approach reducing your running the same way, for example, to go from three 3-mile runs a week to two runs a week, consider increasing the distance to 4.5 miles per run to maintain a similar level of effort.

Advanced Progression

Moving on from here, you can start incorporating different styles of training runs to improve your running. A common practice is to rotate through easy and hard days by running at low intensity on some days and running at high intensity on others by incorporating hills (if you have access to them). In addition, runners often perform weekly runs that focus on either increased maximum distance, maintaining a goal pace or speed, or rotating through high-intensity intervals to condition the body for high output. Explore information from Top Authorities to learn more about advanced running training.

g.Top Authorities and Resources

Essential Experts, Authors, and Publications

Content and books from running experts typically focus on three subjects: marathon or specific distance training, athletic and speed training, and beginner training. I suggest the following writers to learn about more advanced running concepts. Even without a specific distance goal like a marathon, a book framed for marathon training contains worthwhile concepts that will help you become a better runner.

  • Jack Daniels has earned a reputation as one of the most infamous running experts and coaches. His many accolades include being an Olympic medal holder, former Olympic coach, and head coach of the cross-country programs at Wells College. He has a doctorate in Exercise Physiology and is considered the “world’s best coach” by Runner’s World magazine.8Adam Bean, “Your Magic Number,” Runner’s World, March 14, 2005, https://www.runnersworld.com/training/a20829461/your-vdot-training-number/ Daniels’ book Daniels’ Running Formula is a staple in any serious runner’s library.
  • Hal Higdon is synonymous with marathon training. He has been writing for Runner’s World longer than any other writer and has authored 34 books. He’s one of the founders of the Road Runners Club of America and has won four World Masters Championships.9“About,” Hal Higdon website, https://www.halhigdon.com/about-hal-higdon/ His book Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide will teach you how to become an experienced runner.
  • Matt Fitzgerald has authored more than 20 fitness books, many about running. His work covers a range of subjects, including nutrition, training, and the connection between the brain and running. Start with 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster by Training Slower. For those interested in the overlap of running and nutrition, there’s Racing Weight: How to Get Lean for Peak Performance.
  • Arthur Lydiard is credited with popularizing running around the world. His training methodologies have influenced nearly every coach and athlete, whether they realize it or not. Any list of experts would be incomplete without him — you won’t likely make it through a running book without his name coming up at least once. Ironically, his own books are not highly recommended, though anyone with respect for the sport will consider them worth exploring. Check out Running with Lydiard.
  • Runner’s World is the world’s top running magazine.10“Top 10 U.S. Running/Marathon/Triathlon Magazines,” Cision website, Oct. 5, 2011, https://www.cision.com/us/2011/10/top-10-running-marathon-triathlon-magazines/ It’s hard to leave them off a list of authorities or experts, although I’m conflicted. As an ad-supported publication, they contribute to the problem of selling you things you don’t need. You’ll see in the other sections of this guide that we’re passionate about suggesting only a minimum of products. That being said, they have an impressive staff of writers and editors and create high-quality content that can be incredibly helpful and informative. Just remember not to mix up their gear recommendations that have been researched and studied with the advertisements for gear.

Helpful Online Resources

The Sage Running website provides a multitude of great resources for beginner and veteran runners alike. You’ll find training plans, coaching, and loads of running information. Sage’s YouTube channel Vo2MaxProductions covers everything from track racing and ultra trail running to marathons and casual jogging.

Strength Running is a learning resource that helps runners achieve their personal bests, accomplish their goals, and avoid injuries. Content is available through excellent written content (available for free on the site), a weekly newsletter, and a podcast that hosts many world-famous runners and coaches.

V.Research Methodology

a.Considered Opinions

Experts Consulted

Meghan Kennihan: Meghan is a USA Track & Field coach and a Road Runners Club of America certified distance coach. She is also certified as a personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and a level 3 USA Cycling Coach. She has over 12 years of experience teaching spin classes, weight lifting, and group exercise. Meghan is also an experienced runner, ultrarunner, and triathlete and has competed in, won, and placed in 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons, marathons, ultra distances, and triathlons.

Brad Zeman: Brad was inspired to start running in late 2011 by his son who was battling serious health issues. In 7 years of running he’s completed dozens of 5Ks, half marathons, and even the Chicago Marathon which he completed with his now recovered son. Brad live in Illinois and continues to run with the help of his coach Meghan Kennihan. Contact Brad at [email protected].

b.Evaluation Criteria

The following criteria were used to select the best method for learning to run:

  • Beginner friendliness (easy to use and low friction)
  • Value (price vs. learning)
  • Usefulness longevity (how long the resource will be relevant to a runner as they progress in learning)
  • Safety and care (whether the resource focuses too much on progressing to longer distances and not enough on introductory running)
  • Applicability (if the resource is flexible enough to use for runners starting from different levels of athletic capability)
  • Effectiveness (if it actually works)

c.Tested Resources

With the key research considerations in mind, I examined the following contenders before choosing my recommendation for the top learning resource.

Original Couch to 5K plan

Technically speaking, this is the top recommendation, but we’re linking to a republished version that is easier to access.

Key Takeaways:

  • An eight-week walk-to-run program with three prescribed workouts per week.
  • Minimalist program with nothing more than necessary to start running.

The original plan is no longer published on Coolrunning.com, where it originally shot to fame. It’s now only accessible through third-party republications or through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. Due to the inconvenient nature of the Wayback Machine, I did not choose this as the top recommendation.

None to Run

This program was developed by Mark Kennedy specifically to help guide first-time runners through the challenges faced while learning to run.

Key Takeaways:

  • A 12-week walk-to-run program with three prescribed workouts per week.
  • Program includes gear recommendations for beginners, a weight-loss program, and multiple goal distances.
  • The website has a growing community of runners following the plan to connect with.

This resource was closely considered for the top resource, but was ultimately not selected for three main reasons. The 12-week length of this program is too long, and a beginner runner would be better off with the flexibility of a nine-week program that can be extended (or shortened) based on the runner’s personal progression. The second reason is that the Couch to 5K plan has been successful with an incredibly large number of runners — in comparison, far fewer runners have completed the None to Run program. Lastly, while helpful, the many layers of detail in the None to Run program add complexity that could overwhelm a beginner. Generally, simpler is better.

Run Eat Repeat, The Hyper House, and other Couch to 5K versions

As I’ve mentioned, the original Couch to 5K plan has been republished many times, with Run Eat Repeat and The Hyper House two such examples.

Key Takeaways:

  • Some plans are better than others and can cater to niche audiences that might be right for some readers.
  • Most published plans fail to add additional value to the original Couch to 5K plan they borrow from.

I selected the top resource because it is the simplest and best version of the content.

C25K from Zen Labs Fitness

This app guides you through the program step by step with audio cues and tracks your progress week by week.

Key Takeaways:

  • Free to use for basic functionality, with frequent advertisements.
  • Upgrade to premium to remove ads and gain additional features, like estimated calorie burn, distance traveled, and a music service.

The experience with C25K is good, and anyone who chooses this app will be able to effectively follow the program. It’s a good choice for anyone who is not bothered by ads and wants a free app. I do, however, think it’s valuable for a beginner to see their distance and calorie burn information as they learn, and that is not available unless you pay to upgrade.

Put simply, this app is just more expensive than the alternative from Active Network and, despite that, the experience and features fail to justify the premium cost. Pricing is incredibly complex, with many options available, but every combination is more expensive than competing apps. For example, users purchasing the $49.99 permanent upgrade to premium features would be paying $47 dollars more for a nearly identical experience. Furthermore, the app pushes its music experience as an upgrade, but it can easily be obtained for free with music apps like Spotify or Apple Music. One last frustration with the app is the ineffective use of screen space during run tracking. With premium features enabled, you must cycle through data points one at a time to see elapsed time, distance, and calories, despite ample space for seeing them all at the same time.

5K Runner From Fitness 22

This app also guides you through its beginner program step by step with audio cues, and tracks your progress through the overall program week by week.

Key Takeaways:

  • Free to use for the first four sessions; after that it requires a paid subscription.
  • Includes features like estimated calorie burn and distance traveled.

5K Runner provides a good experience for the user and, like the other offerings, anyone using it can effectively progress through a training. However, only the first four training runs are free; after that you have to upgrade to continue. For Android users, a three-month subscription costs $2.99, with unlimited access for $4.99. For iOS users, a three-month subscription is $7.99 after the seven-day trial, with unlimited access for $9.99. The app offers a good experience, but the steep price doesn’t justify it compared to the $2.99 Active Network app.

VI.Conclusion

a.Final Thoughts

One thing about running that I find incredible is the fact that if you’re intentionally progressing in your training, you can include a “personal best” in some way every week. This is something that you can count on and, with hard work, almost always succeed at. Regardless of what is going on in my personal or professional life, running allows me to go further, whether it’s a single “farthest” distance run or running “farther” in more miles one week versus any previous week. This weekly opportunity for accomplishment (and the hard work required to make it happen) help me find balance during otherwise stressful and chaotic times in my life. Once you’ve traveled down the path of becoming a runner, I hope it becomes a source of joy in your daily life just as it has for me. Take care out there.

b.Sources

Bean, Adam. “Your Magic Number.” Runner’s World (March 14, 2005). https://www.runnersworld.com/training/a20829461/your-vdot-training-number/

Higdon, Hal. “About.” Hal Higdon website. https://www.halhigdon.com/about-hal-higdon/

Higgins, Chris. “Second Wind: Special Features.” Chris Higgins.com, https://chrishiggins.com/c25k/

“How to Choose Running Shoes.” REI Co-Op. https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/running-shoes.html

Nigg, B. M., J. Baltich, S. Hoerzer, and H. Enders. “Running Shoes and Running Injuries: Mythbusting and a Proposal for Two New Paradigms: ‘Preferred Movement Path’ and ‘Comfort Filter.’” British Journal of Sports Medicine 28 no. 20 (July 2015). https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/49/20/1290

Simic, L., Sarabon, N., and Markovic, G. “Does Pre-Exercise Static Stretching Inhibit Maximal Muscular Performance? A Meta-Analytical Review.” Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports 23, no. 2 (March 2013): 131-148.

“Top 10 U.S. Running/Marathon/Triathlon Magazines.” Cision website (Oct. 5, 2011). https://www.cision.com/us/2011/10/top-10-running-marathon-triathlon-magazines/

Main Photo by Andrea Leopardi on Unsplash

About the Author

Alex Johnson

Alex runs firstprinciples.cc, where he writes about the fundamental principles behind nutrition, health, and happiness. In addition to writing, Alex works with individuals directly as an online coach. Previously, Alex helped start Hipcamp.com to help connect more people with the outdoors. As the first employee, he built and ran the Data and Operations departments during the company’s first five years. In 2019, Alex stepped down from his active role at Hipcamp to further his passion for helping others through First Principles, and he continues to support the Hipcamp team as an active advisor.


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