To succeed in any sport, you’ve got to follow the basic principles. Golf: keep your head down. Tennis: remember to follow through. Running: train, don’t strain.
Wander too far from the basics and your performance suffers. It’s as inevitable as a stock-market fall when interest rates rise. And no athlete is immune – not even the most experienced and successful. That’s why reviewing the basics can always give you a boost.
Of course, beginners have an even greater need to follow these rules. They haven’t learned the ropes yet and need guidance every step of the way, with answers to dozens of everyday questions: What should I eat? What should I wear? How fast should I go?
Well, here are the answers all in one place. Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, we think you’ll benefit from this review of six key running topics: training; shoes; apparel; running surfaces; nutrition; and injury prevention.
Training: not rocket science, but trickier than you think
- Mix running and walking Few people can run a full mile the first time out the door, so don’t even try. You’ll get discouraged and quit. Instead, mix running and walking. Run for 30 seconds, walk for 90 seconds, and repeat this nine more times for a total of 20 minutes. When you can comfortably run/walk for 20 minutes four times a week with this 30/90-second pattern, change your run/walk ratio to 45/75 and repeat the four-times-a-week pattern. Next comes 60/60, then 75/45, then 90/30. Eventually you’ll be running for several minutes at a time between walking breaks, and then – hallelujah! – you’ll be able to run for 20 minutes without stopping. More about the run-walk technique.
- Take the ‘talk test’ Always run at a relaxed and comfortable pace. This isn’t the Olympics – it’s a lifelong fitness quest. To check your effort level, start a conversation with your training partner. You should be able to speak without gasping or feeling out of breath. If you can’t, then slow down.
- Go farther, not harder Once you reach the magic 20-minute mark, build up to 30 minutes (then 40, 50 and 60). Don’t make the mistake of trying to get faster – don’t try to run your 20-minute course in 19 minutes. Increasing endurance is your first priority.
- Be a tortoise, not a hare We don’t have to retell the old children’s story here. Running works just like the tortoise-and-hare race. It rewards the patient (with weight loss, steady progress, less stress, more energy and a host of health benefits) and penalizes the overeager (with injuries, burnout and the like). This isn’t a sport for sprinters. Be slow, not sorry.
- Don’t compare yourself with anyone else Check out the apostrophe in RUNNER’S WORLD. There must be a billion runners out there, so we could certainly call this magazine RUNNERS’ WORLD. But we don’t, and this is because we realise that there’s only one runner who really counts – you. So don’t feel bad if you see someone who’s faster, thinner or smoother-striding. Running is your activity – make it work for you, and don’t worry about anyone else.
Shoes: the most important purchase you’ll make
- Buy the real thing Get a quality pair of running shoes; not tennis, aerobics or cross-training shoes, but shoes made specifically for running. Expect to spend between £50-£70 for a good model from a serious manufacturer.
- Go to a specialist running shop When you’re looking to buy, don’t head for the major sports chain on the high street. Go instead to a shop that specializes in running footwear. At a specialist running shop, you’ll find a wide selection of shoe models and sizes, as well as trained salespeople who are themselves runners and who understand the particular needs of beginners. If you need a recommendation of a shop, ask on our general forums.
- When you shop for shoes, do these three things: (1) Go late in the day, when your feet are their largest (feet swell during the day and during running); (2) Bring along the socks you’ll wear while running; and (3) Have both feet measured by a salesperson, even if you think you know your shoe size (one foot is often larger than the other, and you’ll need to be fitted for the larger foot).
- Be fastidious about fit The running shoes you buy must fit properly to work properly. A good-fitting running shoe will feel snug but not tight. There should be room at the front of the shoe to allow your feet to spread during running. Press your thumb into the shoe beyond the big toe; it should fit between the end of your toe and the end of the shoe. In the rearfoot, your heel should also fit snugly so the shoe will hold your foot securely.
- Take the shoes for a test run Most running shops will allow you to jog around in the shoes you’re considering. Do so. As you run, pay attention to how your toes feel: are they sliding forward? Do they feel pinched together? Also, notice your heels: are they sliding out of your shoe slightly? In general, are the shoes comfortable? If not, try another pair.
Apparel: not just a fashion statement
- Use thin layers Sweat moves more easily through two thin layers than it does through one thick layer. A well-designed layering system keeps you warm and dry during the colder months, yet still allows freedom of movement.
- Make it breathable Cotton is great at soaking up sweat, but it’s also great at holding on to it. A soaked T-shirt will stick to your body, and cotton’s coarse, rough fibres may chafe your skin. Breathable, synthetic fabrics, such as CoolMax, wick perspiration away from your skin and out to the next layer of clothing or to the outer surface, where that moisture can evaporate quickly, with the desirable result of keeping you cooler in hot weather and warmer in cold weather.
- Consider the weather conditions you’ll be running in If you rarely run in rain, sleet or snow, you don’t need a waterproof jacket. If winter temperatures in your area rarely drop below zero, you may only need one layer, so buy a good one. And unless you live in the Scottish Highlands, you probably won’t need more than two or three layers on your upper body and one or two layers on your legs.
- Don’t overdo it Many runners make the mistake of overdressing when it’s cold outside. A good rule of thumb is that you should feel slightly cold during the first mile or so of your run. If you feel toasty right after heading out the door, you’re probably going to get too hot later on.
- When the sun shines, protect your skin with a dark shirt Dark-coloured clothing absorbs UV light, protecting your skin better than light-coloured clothing, which lets light through. You may feel a little warmer in a darker shirt when the temperature soars, but sun protection is more important.
Running surfaces: they make a huge difference
- Sidestep the pavement Concrete pavements are made of crushed rock, and over time they’ll crush your legs. A little running on pavements – say five minutes – is okay, but never do the bulk of your daily run on pavements. Aside from the pounding your legs will take, urban pavements are crowded, uneven and cracked, so you can easily trip on them. Avoid them as much as possible.
- Beware the one-track mind Tracks are definitely easier on your legs than pavements, but they’re tougher on your psyche. Many beginner runners go to a track for their initial runs and, not surprisingly, find circling a 400m loop to be mind-numbing. Tracks are for speed sessions or races, not endurance runs.
- Look for the open road Asphalt is the surface on which most runners log the most miles. Asphalt isn’t the softest surface, but it’s a lot softer than concrete. Don’t run on the side of steeply cambered roads, because it can lead to injuries. If possible, run on the most level part of the road.
- Go for the green Parks are excellent places to run. Usually there are plenty of grass fields to run around. You can do loops around the entire park or laps around the football pitches. Most parks have amenities such as toilets, and are generally safe for solo running. Grass is the softest surface to run on, but it can be uneven, so be alert for hard-to-see bumps, holes and sprinklers, which can trip you up.
- Run on the dirt Smooth dirt trails are easy on the legs and great for the mind. And there’s less chance of running into hazards on dirt than on grass. Nothing’s better than running on a great trail through a forest or along a scenic river or lakefront: the pounding’s minimal, the mind wanders and the miles flow by.
Nutrition: fuelling the fire
- Never run on an empty stomach Many novice runners skip breakfast and eat a salad for lunch in an attempt to lose weight. This is a mistake – your body needs fuel to run. If you don’t take in steady calories during the day (known as ‘grazing’), you’ll be sluggish and your legs won’t want to move – and you’ll hate running. Also, make sure you eat 200-300 calories about an hour before your run, so you’ll have fuel in the tank.
- But don’t pig out Some new runners take the opposite approach by eating too much before their work-outs; this is particularly true with sugar. If you feel as if you’re running with a brick in your stomach, and you often end up doubled over with a stitch, rethink your fuelling scheme. A banana or a bagel is a great snack before a training session; a doughnut is not.
- Avoid pit stops Many beginners (and even some experienced runners) worry that drinking fluids before a race or work-out will translate into annoying pit stops. Not necessarily. Drink steadily beforehand and your body will balance itself out. If you tank up on fluids an hour and a half before you train, you’ll have time to get rid of the excess before you start running.
- Drink and fuel up on the run Keeping adequately hydrated is critical to your running (not to mention your health). This means drinking the equivalent of eight large glasses of water every day, and probably twice that in warm weather. It also means taking in about half a pint of fluid every 15-20 minutes of running. For runs of an hour or more, you also need to replenish spent energy stores with carbohydrates. Your optimal intake should be 50-100 calories of carbohydrate per 30 minutes of running.
- Eat a balanced diet Don’t be fooled by all the fad diets out there; the healthiest way to eat is also the best fuelling plan for your running. Most of the food you eat should be whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Strive for 6-11 servings of grains (one serving equals a slice of bread, 25g of cereal or a cup of pasta), five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables, and two to three servings of meat and dairy products a day. Keep sugary, fatty foods to a minimum.
Injury prevention: five dos and five don’ts
- Do your warm-up by walking Even if you’re fit and not overweight, start each run with two to three minutes of brisk walking. It’s the ideal warm-up for any runner, regardless of ability.
- Do take it easy Either do a run/walk programme (see tip 1) or run at a pace at which you can chat with a friend without being out of breath. Running harder increases your risk of injury, not to mention early burnout.
- Do run by time, not distance Measure your run by time spent running, not by miles covered. That is, try to run for 30 minutes rather than for three miles. Doing this will help to prevent you from trying to go faster and faster over the same route.
- Do progress slowly You should only increase the actual time spent running by five minutes a day or less. Another good rule is to never increase your mileage by more than 10 per cent a week. Instead of running longer, you may want to add an additional shorter run during the week. The leading cause of injuries to beginners is running too far before they’re ready.
- Do stretch and strengthen Learn how to stretch properly – and devote 10 minutes to it after each run. Pay particular attention to the hamstrings, calves and quadriceps. Also, consider light strength-training exercises for the same muscle groups.
- Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses Running with a spouse, significant other or anyone else who is faster and fitter than you can be very frustrating for a beginner – and it can cause tension between you. Instead, seek out someone who is at your level.
- Don’t run with pain If something hurts, stop Don’t try to ‘run through it’ (infamous runners’ term), even if you’ve heard that’s what good runners do. It isn’t. It’s what stupid runners do – runners who get hurt again and again.
- Don’t leave the flatlands Once you gain experience, hills are a great way to boost fitness and strength. But not yet. Running up and down steep hills can increase the risk of pain and injury from jarring.
- Don’t race And don’t even think about running a marathon. Not yet. You’re learning how to train, and you’re conditioning your body. Racing is for runners who already know how to train and are ready to test their bodies. If you must run a race, look for a low-key 5K (3.1 miles) and consider walking part of it.
- Don’t apply ice or take painkillers before you run If you’re sore, take a day off, which isn’t a bad thing to do now and again anyway, whether you’re feeling pain or not. Building planned rest days into your programme can both motivate you and help to keep you injury-free.
|For The Health Of It|
Running does wonders for your body. It boosts ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, conditions your heart and lowers your risk of certain types of cancer. But maybe you’ve heard all that. Here are some rather more surprising benefits: