OK, I may have told you a little white lie. There are no shortcuts; you can’t cheat at running. It’s one sport where you have to train properly or you’re going to suffer. However, there are a few simple measures you can take to benefit your health and improve your running in the process. Here are some run hacks I discovered by accident that will hopefully improve your running life too.
Run hack #1 Stop sitting
I recently took a weekend job in a shop to supplement my income. Despite only working a couple of shifts a week, much to my surprise standing up for eight hours a day had a dramatic impact on my running. Although I haven’t technically spent any more time training than usual, being on my feet and keeping active all day has definitely strengthened my legs. As a result, I am proud to say I shaved 25 minutes off my PB at the Istanbul Marathon in November. But can standing up a bit more really make that much difference to your running, or was my PB just a happy coincidence?
The hot seat
The average person spends more than half of their day sitting. Even if you go for one really great run a day, once you add up desk time, eating time and TV watching time, that’s still another 14 hours spent sat on your bum.
“A sedentary lifestyle is associated with many health problems,” says Professor Mark Whiteley. “Weight gain is the most obvious health risk. However the effects on the cardiovascular system are profound. Our hearts and blood vessels (arteries and veins) only stay healthy if we have bouts of exercise. During exercise, the heart can increase its pumping from 5 litres per minute to 30 litres a minute. As with all muscles, this exercise keeps it healthy as long as it is done regularly.”
Stand up for your rights
But for office workers, is simply standing up at your desk the key to getting fitter? “Standing at work has some advantages, but is not the answer,” says Professor Whiteley. “Although you use more calories standing than sitting, if you stand still you have a greater pressure of blood in your veins at your ankles and also the cartilage in your joints gets squashed and can get damaged. Standing very still is almost as bad for the brain, spine and shoulders as sitting.”
The obvious answer is to keep active. “Whether stranding or sitting, the body needs regular movement,” adds Professor Whiteley. “Of course if you are standing at work, this is easier to do naturally. Moving the legs pumps the blood up the veins back to the heart. Moving enough to increase the heart rate improves the health of the heart and also the arteries by increasing blood flow. The brain gets perfused with an increased flow of blood with more oxygen and the movement of the body stimulates the brain by a system called the 'reticular activating system'. The movement of the spine and shoulders stops muscle cramps and aches - and the weight is moved over the surface of the cartilage, stopping just one area being pressurised.”
It’s all very well to recommend you move about more, but unless you’re employed as a gym instructor or prepared to sacrifice your weekends for a shop job, staying active all day can prove difficult. “The ideal situation would be a desk set-up that allows you to stand as well as sit, as this gives you the option to change position regularly,” says BCA chiropractor Tim Hutchful. “The more adjustable your desk set-up is, the more likely you are to find a position that suits you."
The British Chiropractic Association offers the following advice for combatting a sedentary lifestyle:
- Try not to sit for more than 30-40 minutes. Stand up to stretch, change position and walk around a little.
- Look for small opportunities to exercise during the day. Use the stairs instead of the lift or escalator, get off your bus/train/tube a stop earlier and walk or take a walk during your lunch break.
- Try ‘Straighten Up’ - a simple, three-minute exercise programme for all ages, designed to help strengthen the spine, improve posture and help joints.
Run hack #2 Sleep naked
The best and perhaps most profound adjustment that I have made to my fitness of late has even less to do with running and actually came about by accident. I moved into a new flat last year and, due to a lack of available plug sockets, I was forced to charge my iPhone outside my bedroom. Reluctant to keep hopping in and out of bed, I started leaving my phone in the hall all the time and sleeping naked (in a gadget sense - it's cold this time of year). Consequently I've been forced to concentrate on a good book instead of scrolling through Twitter into the late hours. The result? I sleep like a baby. And when I’m well rested, I definitely run better.
The science of sleep
My inadvertent discovery hasn’t benefitted my sleep patterns simply because I don’t sit on Twitter all night long. According to the Sleep Foundation, studies have shown that small electronic devices ‘emit sufficient light to miscue the brain and promote wakefulness’. Photoreceptors in the retina sense light and dark, signaling our brain about the status of the outside world and aligning our circadian rhythms to the external day-night cycle, so looking at our phones essentially tricks our brains into thinking it’s still daytime.
According to research carried out by a professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School the blue light emitted by smart phones and computers induces less time in the REM phase of sleep, and delays the brain's melatonin secretion by an hour and a half. In short, keep your electronic devices out of the bedroom and benefit from better sleep. And if you’re well rested, you will by default get better at running.
Run hack #3 Eat real food
My last run hack may sound like an obvious one, but when I actually started practicing what I preach and eating home cooked meals made from fresh vegetables, the impact my nutrition had on my running was profound. After years of using running as an excuse to eat whatever the hell I liked, last year I started paying a bit more attention to my diet, with fantastic results.
“It's so important to get fuelling right and to look at the body in terms of physics; a lighter frame with the same or larger engine is a faster, more efficient machine,” say Sports Nutritionist Sally Pinnegar, director of fitnaturally.co.uk. “The frame is our fat, among other things, and the engine is our muscle. The body is a finely tuned machine; it needs quality fuel and that fuel needs to be in place at the right time for optimum performance. As runners, we need to upgrade our fuel, eat better quality, natural food and stop using our running as an excuse to eat junk. It’s very simple to make a few dietary changes, which translate into being a stronger, faster runner.”
Follow Sally's top tips for running nutrition:-
- Time starchy carbohydrates wisely, eat them before and just after training. Reduce them at other times.
- Make way for nutrients by cutting junk calories, a banana has far more nutrients than a choc chip Danish. The Danish is like putting red diesel in a Ferrari.
- Eat moderate portions, big bowls of pasta or cereal aren’t necessary and will just add extra body fat.
- Time runs to end at a main meal time, then you can use the meal to refuel, an easy way to omit extra calories.
- Avoid over-fuelling, it’s so common for people to overeat by having more food before the day of a long run, more on the morning, gels during, a snack straight after then more for the rest of that day and the day after.
- You don’t need to worry about eating more protein, protein deficiency is extremely rare in the western world. Most people eat an excess of protein. Bin those shakes!
- Keep things natural, a glass of homemade chocolate milk after a hard run is as good as any expensive protein gloop - better in fact. Real food is better than energy bars, a peanut butter sandwich works wonders.
- Eat a varied and colourful diet, that’s how you maximise nutrient intake. Increase your repertoire of easy natural meals.
- Think of vegetables as the main part of your meal, the meat and fish are side dishes.
- Keep fibrous foods to after your run, to minimise bush stops (we’ve all been there!)
- Don’t stress the numbers. Calorie counting is an inexact science. Go by how you look and feel, and how you perform. Eat when hungry, until you’re about 80 per cent full.
Have you got a run hack you’d like to share? Tweet @RunnersworldUK using the hashtag #runhack