It's an exercise that can transform the shape of your body, while burning fat and calories at a rapid rate. It can usher in optimal health and requires minimal investment. It's little wonder then why running is a daily ritual for millions of people in pursuit of fitness across the globe

If you thought that running was the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other really fast, then you'll be surprised to learn that there's a science to it as well. And when done the right way, it can greatly increase your metabolism (the rate at which your body burns calories throughout the day, even when you're at rest), significantly lowering blood cholesterol levels while building up long-term cardiac endurance -- in essence, ensuring that your heart remains healthy even as you grow older.

"It's also the most effective way to rid yourself of stubborn abdominal fat," says Parveen Banu, Chennai based fitness instructor, trainer and physical therapist who works at Core and 99 Degree Fahrenheit fitness studios.

According to a study conducted in 2008 by the Stanford University school of medicine, regular running even slows the effects of aging. Interestingly, the study tracked the health of 500 runners for over twenty years. It was established that these people had fewer disabilities, enjoyed a longer life span, were more active than their peers and half as likely (when compared to those who did not run) to die early deaths. Yet, despite these benefits, it isn't advisable for everyone to take up running indiscriminately. "Running is not recommended for those with wheezing, arthritis, hypertension or heart problems. And if you're clinically obese, you will have to lose a little weight first before you begin," says Banu.

A beginner's guide

Your running routine should take into account factors such as age, gender, current levels of fitness, medical problems, surgeries that you've had, whether you've exercised before, your primary purpose of exercise (whether it is for weight loss or cholesterol control). The speed with which you run and the duration is dependent on these factors.

For most beginners, trainers recommend no more than twenty minutes to a half hour of running, six days a week. As you grow stronger and fit, you can slowly increase your speed and distance. Most seasoned runners are able to cover 10 km an hour.

One should always keep in mind that being a high-intensity exercise, running can be brutal on the joints. "It's not just the knees that absorb the impact of the entire weight of your body as you run, the adjacent muscles absorb this impact as well," says Delhi-based fitness instructor and Reebok Master Trainer, Vinata Shetty.

"By practicing weight training three times a week you can strengthen these muscles and this will help you run more efficiently and avoid injuries. Stretching should also be an essential part of your routine. As you run, the muscles around the glutes and the legs get stiff. I recommend a foam roller (a hand held equipment consisting of a soft roll of foam) that you can apply before and after your running session to gently stretch out all the muscles in your body. Better flexibility will help you gain speed and strength as your running progresses."

Tread softly

Most beginners face what experts call the 'shin splint syndrome'. This is a severely restricting pain along the shin bone, the front portion of your leg, just below the knee. It can even make it difficult for you to walk.

"In order to avoid this, before you take that first step, ensure that you're wearing the right shoes," says Banu. "Your footwear should have more than just a fancy brand name and the mandatory padding. Custom made shoes that fit in with the shape of your foot are the best. Before making a purchase, I advise my clients to consult a podiatrist (a doctor specializing in treating medical issues associated with the feet) who will clinically assess the shape of your foot," says Banu. And why is this so important? "Many people tend to have some small abnormality in the foot--like raised arches or flat feet. If you wear regular running shoes, these abnormalities can cause a shift in the centre of gravity when you run. This could expose you to the possibility of severe injury." ASICS shoes, she says, tend to address these issues and are the best brands for running.

Where you run is just as important too

"You should never train on a concrete or tarmac," advises Shetty. "Always run on softer surfaces--grassy pathways and mud tracks are preferable, but even your treadmill is a good option. If you're training for a marathon, there is often a misconception that you'll have to practice running on a road--this isn't necessary. If you must, limit training on the road to just once a week and do most of your running practice on surfaces that are softer to avoid injury."

Runaway Tips

Seasoned runners have adopted ingenuous ways to avoid injury. Karthik Narayanan, 31, working in the Strategic Planning division at Dell, Austin, USA has been running 6 miles a day (app. ten kilometers) for the past four years now. He advises runners to warm up adequately before every session and to wear a knee brace which will lend support during a long and gruelling session.

"Be aware of posture," says Aarti Christeen, 29, a Chennai based PR professional who has run for years. "Don't allow your body to sag. If you're tired, take a break, but when you run, your head, neck and back should be straight and properly aligned."

Experts also advise that you wait at least an hour and a half after meals before running. This is because the vigorous exercise can cause blood to pool in the arms and legs, taking it away from the stomach, therefore affecting digestion.

(The author can be contacted at kamala.metroplus@gmail.com)