Kick The Habit

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 run intervals that are too short

"Training at 3K to 5K race pace will work your cardiovascular system to its limit, which will help increase the stroke volume of your heart and improve your muscles' ability to use oxygen to produce energy aerobically," explains Karen Hancock, coach at the Serpentine Running Club in London. "But it can take up to a minute for your cardiovascular system to work at its maximum capacity – so if you run intervals of 400 metres or less, you will not accumulate much time in the optimal intensity range."

BREAK IT: Rack up time at VO2 max with intervals of two to six minutes’ duration, Hancock advises. If you run 1K intervals in 3:45, you are maintaining VO2 max for a solid three minutes. In a workout of 8 x 1K, you would accumulate about 24 minutes at VO2 max pace, which provides a strong stimulus to improve your VO2 max. "Some athletes persist running short intervals, probably because repeat 200s or 400s are not as tough mentally as having to maintain pace for longer periods," Hancock says. "Remember: you have to train the brain before the body will follow."

BAD HABIT: You 'flap'when you run

"When I’m out training, I see non-elite runners 'flapping' their feet onto the ground," says Veronique Marot, winner of the 1989 Women’s London Marathon and endurance coach at Leeds AC. "The 'flap' is made by their whole foot striking the ground at once, which tires you out quicker and leads to injury as the foot arch isn’t being exercised enough." The problem stems from running with your back rather than from below your knee, she explains. "There’s no roll through the foot strike, so all that energy is deadened. The shock to your knees and hips is terribly damaging."

BREAK IT: Hit the ground slightly on the outside of the heel, roll in through your mid-foot and take off from the toes. And check your shoes, Marot advises. "Your shoes have to provide flexibility at the same time as support."

BAD HABIT: You run too slow on long runs

"Glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrate, and when you run low, you run slow," says Holt. Long runs deplete your glycogen stores, which stimulates your muscles and liver to store more, helping prevent future depletion. "The faster you run, the more glycogen you burn, so running your long runs at a solid pace is a more effective way of depleting your stores than running slowly," Holt explains.

BREAK IT: Take the breath test. "Gauge if you’re burning glycogen by the level of your breathing," Holt advises. "If you’re puffing and panting, you’re working too hard and burning up your glycogen reserves too quickly. Similarly, if you’re running at a pace where you can comfortably have an unstilted conversation, you’re burning solely fat." Aim between the two. "You should just about be able to utter short phrases, but nothing more."

BAD HABIT: You underperform because you under-race

There are races, and there are races. "Even after 30 years of running and coaching, I still learn something from every race I compete in or attend," explains Trevor Muxlow, endurance coach at Notts AC. "This distinct dichotomy between 'races' and 'training' can be destructive, as races can, indeed should, be used for training – just because everyone else on the starting line has chosen this as their single most important race of the season, doesn’t mean you should. The simple fact is that the more you race, the better you get at racing."

BREAK IT: Aim to race at least once a month, and plan your racing schedule in conjunction with your training one, not separately. "Races should be included in training plans for at least six months in advance, preferably a year if it’s a marathon you are aiming for," says Muxlow. "Ideally, 'training' races should mimic the conditions and pace of your target races – and make sure to jot down in your training logbook straight after what went well and what went badly so that you can learn from the experience."

BAD HABIT: You don’t take care of your feet

Amazingly, few runners give their feet the attention they deserve. "The problem is that runners don’t tend to pre-empt problems until it’s too late and they’re halfway round a marathon," explains Wayne Edwards, musculoskeletal podiatrist at Health and Fitness Solutions in London. "Most worrying is when they cut their toenails or try to sort a problem the day before a big race without any professional advice, which invariably leads to bigger problems than they would otherwise have faced."

BREAK IT: Seek out the services of a registered podiatrist (podiatrypages.co.uk) at least a week before undertaking any serious training or a major race. "It might cost you £30 for a consultation, but they’ll be able to pin-point any potential problems, as well as put you on the correct path to recovery, so you’re fit to run when the time comes." The best off-the-shelf products? Try Advanced Footcare’s Professional File (£6.99, from Boots) to combat black toenails, Flexitol Heel Balm (£5.99 from taureanhealth.com) for rough or dry heels and Lamisil AT Cream (£3.99 for 7.5g from Boots.com) for athlete’s foot.

BAD HABIT: You are a race-day guinea pig

If you’ve trained hard physically, you’ll no doubt be ready for the race, but preparation and knowing what to expect on the day is key so you can perform at your best. "Experiment with clothing and nutrition all you like in the run-up, but don’t use the race as the first time to try anything," Coates warns. "In training you have to combine every single factor that will affect your race-day performance – just one small change can make the difference between a great and a disappointing run."

BREAK IT: One of the biggest mistakes, Coates says, is slipping on a new pair of trainers at the start line. "Ideally you should buy the same model you’ve trained in, and wear that new pair for at least 20 miles before the big day to avoid rubbing," she says. "I always advise runners to buy two of the same pair and alternate – you should be able to get a discount for buying two pairs at once and you’ll always have a spare, run-in pair for races."

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."

BAD HABIT: You’re iPod dependent

Running to music certainly provides a handy distraction on those long slogs, but what happens when it becomes an essential crutch? "When the New York Marathon banned runners from listening to music last year there was an outcry, as so many athletes felt they literally couldn’t run without their tunes," explains sports psychologist Dr Costas Karageorghis from Brunel University in London.

BREAK IT: When Haile Gebrselassie attributed slashing two seconds off the 2,000m world record to synching his pace to the tune Scatman, there was no MP3 player in sight. "He worked out the track had the optimum beats per minute for his goal time and trained repeatedly to it, so when it came to the race it was firmly implanted in his mind's ear," says Karageorghis. Find your optimum track for your race time and slash your playlist to one in the week running up to the big day.

BAD HABIT: You are your own medic

We runners are quick to self-diagnose and treat when something’s 'off'. We’ll ice a tight hamstring, pop ibuprofen and hobble through lingering pain. Big mistake, says Paula Coates, author of Running Repairs: A Runner’s Guide to Keeping Injury Free (£8.44, amazon.co.uk). "Minor injuries wrongly diagnosed could turn into serious issues."

BREAK IT: When you have a nagging ache or pain, the sooner you see a doctor – preferably a sports medicine specialist – the faster you’ll be back on track. If you’ve been sluggish on runs, schedule a check-up. Asthma, a heart murmur, high blood pressure or anaemia can sap energy levels. Ask your doc to test your blood's iron stores. "Serum ferritin, responsible for iron storage, can become depleted, which is associated with slower recovery and declining performances," says Coates.