Kick The Habit (Preview)

Take your running up a gear with these six simple fixes to the most common mistakes (non-subscriber preview)


Posted: 17 June 2008
by Matt Barbour

BAD HABIT: You’re a night owl

Runners who short-change sleep compromise recovery, immunity and mental sharpness, which can turn an easy workout into a gruelling one. "Sleep enhances the restoration of cells damaged by exercise," says Professor Jim Horne from the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University. Getting enough shut-eye can also ward off 'effort headaches'. A 1999 study found that distance runners suffered twice as many headaches as non-runners – most likely due to the dilation of blood vessels and sinuses that occurs during exercise, says Horne. The good news: headaches occurred less often when runners got more sleep.

BREAK IT: Some people are fine on five hours a night; others require 10. "Runners who put greater demands on their bodies tend to benefit from the higher end of that range," says Horne. Note how many hours you get each night. Review it and look for patterns. Once you figure out your target number, try to hit it each night, particularly during the week leading up to a race. "Consistency and knowing what works for you is key," he says.

BAD HABIT: You never stretch

It’s hard to squeeze in runs some days, never mind stretching. But tight muscles can contribute to shin splints, plantar fasciitis and muscle pulls, which could sideline you for weeks. Improved flexibility also shortens recovery time; looser muscles are more receptive to glycogen replacement, which accelerates healing, says Richard Holt, expert running coach for www.momentumsports.co.uk.

BREAK IT: Your muscles get the most benefit from stretching for 15 minutes post-run. Hit your calves, quads, hamstrings and glutes (see our complete stretching guide). "You’re not limiting your workout – you’re enhancing it," says Holt. "Stretching will do your body more good than could be done by running that mile."

BAD HABIT: You forgo sunscreen

Runners are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer than non-runners, say doctors at the Medical University of Graz in Austria. The occurrence of skin abnormalities was found to increase with mileage. Another study from the University of Tübingen in Germany named sweat as a contributor to UV-related skin damage; perspiration increases the photosensitivity of skin, making it more prone to burning. "The sun is definitely a job hazard for distance runners," says Dr Alison Ross, science information officer at Cancer Research UK.

BREAK IT: Before every run, apply a sweat-proof lotion with a minimum SPF of 15 that shields against UVA and UVB rays, says Ross. Try Riemann P20 Once A Day (£18.45 for 200ml from chemistdirect.co.uk). If you have fair skin or a family history of melanoma, consider sun protective clothing and avoid midday runs. You should also have a coffee before you go, advise dermatologists from The State University of New Jersey. They say the exercise-caffeine combo can deflect some of the damaging effects of the sun's rays.

BAD HABIT: You train hard on easy days

This is the most common training mistake of all. You feel good on a scheduled easy day and train too hard. Now you’re a bit tired for your next session – which doesn’t go as well as planned. Annoyed, you run the next scheduled easy day a bit harder. "So begins a vicious cycle in which the easy days are done too hard and the quality of the hard days goes down,"says Keith Anderson, running coach at Full Potential (www.fullpotential.co.uk).

BREAK IT: "It takes discipline to go easy when you feel good on a planned recovery day, and that discipline is often the difference between a good and a great runner," says Anderson. Using a heart monitor is a good way to prevent yourself from training too hard on your easy days. "Keep your heart rate below 75 per cent of your maximum heart rate– or 70 per cent of your heart rate reserve – and let your body recover to allow high-quality workouts on your hard training days."

BAD HABIT: Running, running and more running

While there’s no doubt that clocking up the miles will do your running no end of good, you might well suffer as a result. "Running isn’t an all-round form of activity – it uses predominantly the lower-body muscles and in a very specific, limited way," explains Coates. The upshot is that your running muscles will become short and tight, and non-running muscles will become weak, creating imbalances – little wonder that in a typical year nearly two-thirds of runners will suffer an injury that is bad enough to put them out of action.

BREAK IT: Complement your running with some conditioning-specific work. "Focusing on core stability keeps the pelvic girdle and spine in perfect position to stop the pelvis tipping forward and prevents back ache and poor running form," says Coates. Try toe touchdowns – lie on your back with knees bent and hands under your back. Contract your abs and press your back against your hands, then slowly lift one foot a few inches off the floor, pause and lower. Do the same with the other foot and continue this until you lose the pressure against your hands.

BAD HABIT: You go for a PB in every race

No runner can deny the buzz gained from slashing precious seconds off their most vital statistics, but becoming an addict to that rush isn’t best for you in the long run. "Expecting consistent progress is terrible for motivation as it’s simply not possible, from beginners to Olympic athletes," says Sam Murphy, author of Marathon From Start to Finish (£12.99, A&C Black). “Taking the pressure off helps you peak when it really matters."

BREAK IT: Sit down with your yearly race calendar and prioritise your races into 'A's, 'B's and 'C's. "It’s a system that’s been used in triathlons for years, and is great for giving your training a long-term view," says Murphy. "Ideally you should only peak for one marathon a year, and two or three half-marathons and 10Ks. To demand everything from your body in every race you do can lead to injury, lasting fatigue and psychological issues, which can hamper your running for life."

To read the full 14 fixes - including advice on hitting the right pace in each training session and performing well on race-day - subscribe now. You'll even save 30 per cent on your annual subscription by doing so right here online.


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