It's effective and cheap—here's how to make it fun, too.

Woman tying running shoes
Credit: Milan Sladic/EyeEm/Getty Images

Back in middle school, I was repeatedly told that I “run like a duck.” What’s more, I tired far too quickly on runs, was slower than all my friends, and got distracted and bored in no time. Clearly, running wasn’t for me.

As I got older, I started taking workout classes and found I was keen on those with clear instructions and technical elements to hold my focus, like yoga. I’d found my fit. But then I moved to New York City, where group classes are expensive. Running, on the other hand, is free.

To stay in shape (and on budget), I knew I’d have to hit the pavement, so I consulted Hannah Fields, an elite runner and expert with Brooks Beasts Track Club in Seattle. She claimed to have once hated running, like me. Fields taught me that one helpful way to overcome the hang-ups, aches, and monotony that can come with running is to learn mindfulness. “Take in all the sensory elements around you: the trees you pass, the breath going through your lungs, the sounds passing by,” she explained. This way, you’re not so fixated on looking perfect or finishing. Her second tip: Find a running buddy—preferably one with good form you can copy—to make runs more entertaining and help keep you accountable.

I began joining a friend on her daily morning run, a two-mile loop in the park. She was on day 88 of what is, to date, a 322-days-in-a-row personal running challenge, and she agreed to slow her pace so I could join her. Eight months later, things have clicked for me—she and I are running at least four times a week, and we’ve shaved almost a minute off our original time. An extra perk: Since she’s in coding school and I work full-time, it’s the only chance we have to catch up.

When she told me she was signing up for a race, I felt motivated to do the same; I’d come this far with her help. Happily, my type-A personality responded well to concrete goals—race dates, mileage to hit, a pace to strive for. Since then, I’ve passed three half-marathon finish lines.

Do I love running now? Most days. Sure, I have times when my legs feel heavy and I’d rather bail. But months of practice have made my stride less imperfect, I have recurring dates on the calendar with a close friend to look forward to, and I’ve learned how to turn runs into mindful moments, my time to escape. I’m miles from where I started.

Catch a Runner's High

Your First Thought: “I can’t even comfor­tably run a mile. I don’t know where to start.”

Rethink it: Start slowly, literally and figuratively. Walk-run a mile and work your way up to longer distances as you build your cardiovascular strength and endurance. Small doses of running—even 1 to 3 miles, twice a week—pack maximum health benefits, says Carl J. Lavie, MD, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention at the Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans.

Your First Thought: “Running is just so boring.”

Rethink it: If you can’t run with a friend, run to a juicy podcast. There’s nothing like a true-crime murder mystery to distract you from the five-mile slump.

Your First Thought: “Miles feel impossibly long.”

Rethink it: Measure distance in a different way. Maybe you can do one mile in three songs.