21 big running questions put to the pros

1/ Is it important to vary the steepness of my hill repeats?

Yes. Your quads, glutes and calves all engage while running uphill, but the steepness of the hill is what determines how much – and steeper doesn’t always mean every muscle group is working harder. Also, your cadence increases and stride length decreases on steeper inclines. To build strength, try short, steep hill sprints at 90-95 per cent of maximum effort, with full recovery in between. For more of a cardiovascular workout, try longer, more gradual hill repeats at 70-80 per cent of maximum effort.

Ryan Knapp, head coach of Miles to Go Endurance


2/ What’s the best marathon training session I can squeeze in before a long commute?

You’ll get the most bang for your buck – improved aerobic capacity, speed and efficiency – with a session that includes a variety of faster-than-easy paces. Here’s one you can do in 50 minutes: after a 10-minute warm-up jog, run
 10 minutes at tempo pace (about, or 
a little faster than, half-marathon pace). Then do 3 x 1 minute at 5K pace with a minute of jogging recovery between each rep. Finish with another 10 minutes at tempo pace, plus 10 minutes of jogging to cool down.

Mario Fraioli, running coach


3/ What is the minimum weekly mileage I need to clock to comfortably complete a half marathon?

You’ll want to work up to a peak week of at least 30 miles, with a long run
 of at least 10 miles, two weeks before the race. If you’re running at least
 10 miles per week, begin by working 
to spread your mileage across four or five running days, then take a few months to gradually increase your midweek and long-run mileage. Weekday runs during this build-up should be 40-50 per cent of your weekend long-run distance.

Michael Merlino, head coach at In Flight Running


4/ I run in the morning before heading to my desk job, but I’m tight when I stand up. What can I do?

Preventing tin-man syndrome starts during your workout: leave time to cool down, easing into a jog and then into a walk before rushing off to get ready. Then, keep moving throughout your work day: take standing and/or walking breaks every 30 minutes or so.

Hayley Munn, RunnersConnect coach 


5/ What’s the best duration and effort for a purely stress-reducing run?

It depends on how you’re feeling and what’s causing your stress. If you love pushing the pace, you’ll benefit most from a harder-than-easy run. If you need time away from a stressful situation, a long, slow effort might be best. But for most people, a few easy miles do the trick. If you notice that you’re thinking about the stressful circumstances, gently allow yourself to drop those thoughts and return to the present.

Greg Wolk, mindful-running instructor and practitioner 


6/ What is ‘muscle confusion’?

This in-vogue fitness concept touts constantly changing your workouts – kickboxing class one day, Pilates the next and a different routine the following week. Science shows it’s not the best strategy for improved performance in a particular discipline, because you can’t replicate success when you don’t know what’s giving you the results. Runners are better served by a plan that gradually increases volume and/or intensity and that includes cross-training as a complement to their mileage.

Brett Bartholomew, strength and conditioning coach, and author of Conscious Coaching


7/ What’s the best time of the month for women to race?

Some research suggests endurance performance peaks when oestrogen levels are highest (in the days leading up to ovulation and in the middle of the phase between ovulation and menses). But every woman is different, so track your cycle and symptoms to learn when you run your best. You may still end up racing on a not-ideal day because hard workouts and high mileage can throw off your cycle. To avoid this, take in more calories, protein and healthy fats during heavy training, and limit caffeine consumption.

Jenny Hadfield, running coach and author of five training books


8/ Should I try to nail my workout after a rubbish night’s sleep?

A night or two of tossing and turning won’t throw you off too much, and you may feel more alert that day (and sleep better that night) if you run. If you’re chronically deprived, however, your body might tell you it’s struggling and you must listen to it. Running makes muscles, bones and joints stronger only when those parts can regenerate after you’ve taxed them. Sleep is critical to that process.

Dr Matthew Edlund, author of The Power of Rest


9/ How do I work out the logistics of run-commuting?

Work out what you’ll need when you reach the office and bring in what you can (clothes, a towel, shower gel) the day before. A small running pack or belt can hold the things you can’t leave overnight (wallet, keys etc). Plot the safest route between your home and your workplace, and make sure you can be seen by drivers.

Jacob Puzey, coach, founder of Peak Run Performance 


10/ Why should I work my upper body?

It’s not just for gym-rats. Building upper-body strength makes you a more efficient runner 
by improving posture. Exercises that work the muscles around your shoulder blades prevent slumping and make breathing easier when running. Do bent-over rows (3 × 8 reps on each side using fairly heavy weights) and press-ups with your hands on a stability ball (30 reps total). When running, try to swing your elbows back, as if you are trying to jab a runner behind you.

Jay Dicharry, coach and certified sports clinical specialist


11/ Is it possible to do my recovery run too slowly?

A guide is to run at a pace at which you can hold a conversation. Recovery-run days need to be easy if you are to get the full benefit from your schedule. Hard workouts provide a training stimulus, but they also fatigue the muscles, so your body needs easy days to adapt. Recovery runs may gently ease out stiffness and improve blood flow to muscles, but rest and other recovery methods might be better if you're really sore. As well as allowing time for repair, recovery runs can add volume to your training without increasing your risk of injury.

Jo Pavey, 5-time Olympian


12/ Am I slowing with age because my stride is shorter or my turnover’s getting slower?

Your stride is probably shortening as your muscles lose power – but that’s not the only factor behind the slowdown. Cardiovascular fitness, flexibility and range of motion decline with age. Consider focusing more on intensity than mileage: workouts that alternate between short, hard-effort bursts and recovery periods help build power in the calves, which seem to lose function sooner than other muscles as we age. Try twice-weekly short interval or
hill sessions at higher speeds – if
 you’re able to do them without aggravating any injuries.

Dr Paul Devita, professor of kinesiology and former president of the American Society of Biomechanics


13/ Do I need to warm up and cool down for easy runs?

Warming up is always a good idea even before an easy session – you’ll 
run more efficiently and with less injury risk if you prime your muscles and joints with pre-run movement. Start off with five minutes of mobility drills: the lunge matrix, in which you lunge forward, to the side and backward with each leg, plus front-to-back and side-to-side leg swings. Then ease into your run with 
10 minutes of slow jogging. Cooling down isn’t as critical, but simple strength exercises (such as planks, press-ups and single-leg squats)
 build more-resilient muscles.

Jay Johnson, coach


14/ Can triathlon training boost my running?

Yes. Swimming and cycling build cardiovascular endurance without stressing your body in the same way as running. They also work different muscles in different ways. For example, an upper body built through swimming can help with your running form. Plus, the variety stops your routine becoming monotonous. That said, when your event is a running race, reduce your cycling or swimming to once a week. This ensures you keep the bulk of your training specific to your goal. 

Carolyn Zilberman, triathlon and running coach 


15/ How important is it to monitor my heart rate before or during a run?

You may choose to track your heart rate while running so you can target different intensity levels, ensuring your easy runs aren’t too taxing and hard runs are taxing enough. You can also check your resting heart rate daily, right after you wake up: a higher-than-usual rate may indicate you’re overtraining or getting ill, so you can take it easy or rest. If you have palpitations or an irregular heartbeat you should see your doctor.

Dr James Beckerman, runner and the author of Heart to Start


16/ Why is it hard to run with a slower running buddy?

Your body finds your most efficient gait. When you run slower than your natural pace, your gait alters, which creates different stresses on your muscles. It’s also tougher to hold your form as you reduce your stride length or stride rate. Running with a slightly slower buddy may help you avoid going too fast on a recovery run, but running at a pace that’s too slow for you can leave you sore.

Nikki Reiter, Run SMART Project coach and biomechanist for Run Right Gait Analysis


17/ Where do I look when I’m running uphill?

Look straight ahead – about three or four metres in front of you. You should only be able to see your hands in your peripheral vision. If you see them moving in full view, your head is probably drooping, which inhibits your breathing and wastes energy. Avoid leaning too far forward: your body should be aligned and upright.

Patti Finke, coach and director of Portland Marathon Training Clinic, US


18/ Do I need to taper before a tune-up race?

Do a mini-taper only if you intend to push the pace. In the week before race day, cut mileage by 20-30 per cent and stick to easy runs after Monday or Tuesday. Take a few rest or easy days post-race, and wait until soreness has eased before returning to hard training.

Randy Accetta, coach 


19/ How can I fit strength training into my schedule?

Most runners can do two sessions per week without cutting too much into running time. Each session should last at least 30 minutes, split into thirds among core, upper-body and lower-body strengthening. Schedule sessions for easy-run or rest days.

Heather North, run coach and PT 


20/ If I run purely to stay fit and healthy, can I do all my runs at an easy pace?

Yes. For health and wellness, aim for 20-60 minutes of exercise three to five times a week at 80 per cent of your maximum effort. You should be breathing harder than when you’re strolling through the supermarket, without losing the ability to speak in complete sentences. No one to talk to? Gauge it by reciting some favourite song lyrics.

Janet Hamilton, registered clinical exercise physiologist and coach


21/ What’s the best remedy for debilitating muscle soreness in the days after a hard session?

Mild soreness indicates you worked your body just hard enough for it to become stronger, but anything more painful means you overdid it. Soreness is typically due to microtears in the muscle fibres and connective tissues: the further you go beyond your current capabilities, the greater the trauma. To manage the agony, do a low-intensity activity (such as walking or swimming) or soak in a warm Epsom salt bath to increase blood flow and promote healing.

Janet Hamilton, registered clinical exercise physiologist and coach