It’s no surprise that the beginning of the year brings out many first-time runners determined to make good on their resolution to lose weight and get into shape. If you are one of these people, then this article is for you.

However, before buying an expensive pair of running shoes and signing up for your first race, the first thing you should do is make an appointment with your doctor and get a physical. As evidenced by several high-profile fatalities at the Philadelphia and San Antonio marathons in 2011, running can be incredibly demanding on the body and it’s wise to first make sure your heart, lungs, and legs are up for the challenge.

Once cleared to run, find your first race and sign up for it. A first-time 5K runner should allow for approximately three months of training, so April would be an ideal time for that first race. In fact, Benicia’s Run for Education takes place on April 15 and would be a perfect local option.

The best way to schedule training for your first 5K is to break it up into three, one-month segments. In the first month you should focus on “base” training. This entails a lot of long, slow running—even walking if you’d like. The purpose of base training is to gradually build up strength in your legs and feet—preparing the body to handle the 3.1 miles of pounding it will face on race day. If possible, run two to three times a week and start out with distances no greater than a mile. Gradually increase your runs every week by five minutes until you can cover over two miles. If you can’t cover the entire distance running, it’s no problem. Start your workouts by walking and slowly introduce running into your routine. A good technique to do this is to break up your run into five-minute increments, running for two minutes and walking for three. Eventually work your way up until you can run for five minutes straight.

After the first month, you should be able to run for the majority of your workout. At that point, it’s time to introduce hills to your regimen. Benicia is the perfect place for this! Running hills is a fantastic way to improve your cardiovascular system and teach the body to operate efficiently, which will make your first race an enjoyable one. Because of its steepness, a great option for hill training in Benicia is Cambridge Drive. Select one day a week in your training schedule as your “hills” day. After a 10 to 15-minute warm-up, begin your workout by running as fast as possible up the hill. You don’t need to run all the way to the top and should instead time your climbs, not exceeding two to three minutes per climb. Walk or jog back down to your starting point and repeat the climb until you have completed four repetitions. In subsequent weeks, try to increase your repetitions until you can complete six to eight at the end of your second month of training.

As you enter your third month of 5K training, it’s time to introduce speed workouts and long runs. Speed sessions don’t need to take place on the track. In fact, with its measured course, the Benicia State Recreation Area is an optimal location for these workouts. Once a week, schedule a “speed” day that entails ½ mile accelerations. After your warm-up, try to complete three, ½-mile repetitions as fast as possible. Take a five-minute break between your repetitions and, as with your hill workouts, gradually increase your repetitions every week. During this final month of training, you should also be incorporating longer runs into your schedule. If possible, try to complete one or two four-mile runs. Being able to tell yourself on race day that you have run further in training is a major confidence boost.

Finally, the most important aspect of preparing for your first 5K is to go easy on yourself and not stress about your finishing time. Completing the race is all that counts. Be proud of the fact that you are taking positive steps towards improving your health. Congratulations!

Duncan Larkin is a professional fitness writer and former Benicia resident.