Question Time

For nearly 20 years, I wrote for RUNNER’S WORLD and its predecessors, Running and Jogging. I have also given countless clinics and seminars, coached dozens of athletes and met tens of thousands of runners at races around the country. Throughout this period, I seem to have answered the same questions again and again.

In my penultimate month of writing for RW before I finally pulled the dustsheet over my word processor, I thought I’d give you the answers to a few of those questions. If the answers seem simple, that’s because they are. But don’t let the simplicity fool you – this advice really does work.

How Can I Run Faster?

To be blunt, the only way to run faster is to… run faster. You have to condition your body gently to faster running by introducing short, speedier bursts into your normal easy runs. Here’s a sample session for running a faster 5K: after an easy warm-up, run at your intended race pace for one or two minutes, followed by two to three minutes of easy running. Start by adding two of these faster bursts into your easy run and gradually build up to 10. Restrict yourself to just one of these sessions per week.

How Can I Run Farther?

Success here involves doing the opposite – in other words, slowing down. If you start out running one or two minutes per mile slower than your usual pace on a long run, you will find that you can keep going longer and farther without feeling as tired. A long, slow run will yield almost the same endurance benefits as a long, fast one. And you’ll burn almost as many calories.

How Do I Stay Motivated?

Good goals are the secret of motivation, along with an eager training partner. By a good goal I mean something that is definite, attainable and personally worthwhile. Avoid targeting nebulous things like ‘getting fit’ or ‘feeling better about yourself’. Write down specific goals, such as losing five pounds or entering a 10K, and chart a plan of progress towards it with short- and long-term targets. An reliable training partner is a good supplement to goal-setting. Most of us find it easier to disappoint ourselves than to disappoint someone else.

Will I Damage My Joints?

It’s surprising how many non-runners put this forward as their excuse for a sedentary lifestyle. All the long-term research I have seen says no. In separate studies that tracked subjects over 40 and 50 years, runners had no more joint problems than non-exercisers. In fact, some orthopaedic surgeons have suggested that people who have a genetic predisposition to arthritis can delay its onset and cope better with its symptoms if they continue a regular programme of moderate running.

Why Do I Feel Wonderful Running One Day And Terrible The Next?

Inevitably there will be days when you feel immortal, and others when your whole body feels heavy and sluggish. But if you’re constantly suffering these peaks and troughs, it could be that you aren’t resting enough. Rest is a critical part of any training programme. The real gains in speed and strength don’t come during a hill or interval session, they occur during the rest period that follows. You need to give yourself at least two days between the quality sessions in your programme – and by ‘quality’ I mean intervals, fartlek, hills and even long runs.

How Do I Avoid The ‘wall’?

The ‘wall’ is a mythical structure that pops up when you run significantly faster or farther than in training, or when you expend your body’s primary source of fuel, which is carbohydrate stored as glycogen. By running faster or farther than before, you overwhelm your muscles, which then struggle to get enough oxygen. Glycogen, the fuel stored in your muscles, is burned, and large amounts of lactic acid and waste products pour into your system faster than they can be removed. As a result your muscles tighten and burn – and that’s when you’ve hit the wall.

You can take steps to avoid this by topping up your fuel supplies with an energy bar or a carbohydrate drink during a race, or more specifically targeting your training to a particular race. Also, start your long runs or your races slower than you would normally, even if it feels too slow to start with. Just be patient, and you’ll finish strong.