A change in training or racing habits can revitalise anyone’s running. Doing the same kinds of workout, training cycle after training cycle, can result in plateaus and, sometimes, injury – even if you’re adjusting those workouts as you get fitter. ‘Using the muscles in the same manner with every stride, every workout, can lead to problems,’ says Tim Tollefson, physiotherapist and physiologist, and also a former elite road marathoner who switched to off-road ultra running.
Variation can also increase motivation, which translates to better physical outcomes: you’ll bring more energy and effort to a workout you’re excited about. ‘Changing to a different distance, a different kind of running – those sorts of things refresh the brain,’ says sports psychologist Dr Sean McCann. And shifting from roads to trails, as Tollefson did, is only one way to reap the benefits of a change-up.
Of course, if you can’t seem to get into a routine in the first place, your big change may simply mean committing to consistency. ‘Any one workout won’t make or break you,’ says elite-runner-turned-coach Malindi Elmore. ‘Getting out the door more days than not ultimately makes for good performances.’
Here are three simple and effective ways to change your running life for the better – and maybe for good.
1/ FROM ROAD TO TRAIL
Tune in to your body instead of your watch as you run the trails
Why: Uneven surfaces and big climbs engage your stabilising muscles and your mind, says trail-running coach Mario Fraioli. Road runners must let go of the paces they run on pavement – a tough but worthwhile shift. Spending time in nature also has brain benefits: research has found that time in natural environments can boost physical and mental recovery.
How: Swap one or two short road runs each week for easy-effort trail runs, and go for time, not distance, suggests Fraioli. After a month, move your middle-length easy runs to the trails. (Your shortest can be on trails or roads.) Later, take some long runs and key workouts off-road, substituting time-based repeats for distance-based intervals. As long as a trail workout feels as difficult as a similar road run, you’ll gain fitness, says Fraioli.
Stay healthy: You need to prepare your body for uneven surfaces, says strength and conditioning coach Tim Moyer. A pre-run ankle-mobility drill (right) helps you negotiate missteps. Lunges (far right) strengthen the muscles you use to navigate over rocks and tree roots.
Warm-up: Ankle alphabet
While sitting or standing, lift one foot off the ground and rotate at the ankle to write the alphabet in the air with your big toe. After ‘Z’, repeat with the other foot. This preps you for uneven terrain.
Three essential moves
a/ Walking crossover lunge
Stand tall. Step forward and left with your right leg, crossing over your left leg, and lower into a lunge. Drive through your right heel to return to the starting position. Alternate legs for 3 sets of 5 reps per side.
b/ Curtsy lunge
Stand with feet hip-width apart. Step your right foot behind and beyond your left leg into a lunge. Return to the starting position by pushing through your left heel. Perform 3 sets of 5 reps on each leg.
c/ Drop lunge
From standing, pivot and step back with your left foot. Lower into a left-side lunge, keeping your right leg straight. Push through your left leg to return to standing; repeat on the other side. Do 3 sets of 5 reps per leg.
2/ FROM DISTANCE TO SPEED
Short, hard runs build guys and grit. And they can be fun, too (really, we promise…)
Why: Working towards a speedy mile and/or 5K can lead to breakthroughs when you return to longer races, says Elmore. Short, hard training builds fast-twitch muscle, which your body can recruit for a more efficient, explosive stride when slow-twitch fibres fatigue. Plus, says Fraioli, in short races you can stop fretting about pacing yourself and focus more on reeling in the runners in front of you – a mindset shift that can help you finish any race stronger.
How: Spend at least eight weeks doing some higher intensity speedwork while dropping total mileage by about 15 per cent. Elmore says each week should include hard 200-400m repeats at 5K pace or faster with equal rest; a three- to-five-mile tempo run and a long run of 60-plus minutes, with recovery runs or rest days in-between. Before hard workouts and races, do a 20-minute warm-up of jogging, dynamic exercises and strides.
Stay healthy: As your pace quickens, your knees will absorb more stress, especially if your quads, glutes and hamstrings are weak. To prepare to go fast, Moyer recommends a pre-run move that mimics running (left), plus a series of single-leg exercises to do at the gym (right).
Warm-up: Standing march
From standing, simultaneously drive your left knee and right arm up so both are bent at 90 degrees. Lower to the starting stance and repeat with the opposite arm and leg. Perform 3 sets of 10 reps per side.
Three essential moves
a/ Single-leg dead lift
Shift your weight onto your left leg, knee bent slightly. With your right leg slightly bent, lower your chest towards the floor, allowing your right leg to lift. Return to the start. Do 3 sets of 5 reps per side.
b/ Bulgarian split squat
Take a step away from a bench. Reach your right foot back and rest it on the bench. Bend your left knee, lowering as far as you can with control. Push through your left foot to stand. Do 3 sets of 5 reps per side.
c/ Elevated step-back lunge
Stand on a low bench. With your left foot, take a large step backwards and lower your left knee. Push through your right heel to stand. Do 3 sets of 5 reps per side, and raise the bench height as you progress.
3/ FROM SPORADIC TO CONSISTENT
Life can get in the way, but nothing boosts fitness and performance like getting out there more often.
Why: If you’re not running for at least 30 minutes every other day, your body will struggle to adapt to the stresses on your musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems. Consistency helps you pass the point at which every run feels hard, says Fraioli.
How: Running becomes habit-forming when you’re excited to do it – and if you’re held accountable when motivation dips, says Fraioli. Work out what your most enjoyable outings have in common – are they morning loops near home, or de-stressing trail miles after work? – and prioritise these types of run. Fortify your resolve by joining your running buddies at least weekly, suggests Elmore.
Stay healthy: Sporadic runners may not know their limits, making overuse injuries common, says physiotherapist Lauren Loberg. Start runs with a dynamic move (left) to loosen up muscles unaccustomed to running. To rebuild your lower body and core, do fast, high-rep strength exercises (below).
Push off your right foot and cross it behind your left, then step left with your left foot. Next, cross your right foot in front of your left to continue moving laterally. Alternate for 30 seconds and reverse. Repeat this three times.
Three essential moves
a/ Single-leg squat tapping wall
Stand with your heels a foot-length away from a wall. Balance on your right leg and lower down until your bum lightly touches the wall. Drive through your right heel to stand. Do two sets of 12 reps on each leg.
b/ Lateral band walk
With a resistance band around your ankles, lower into a quarter-squat, take a quick step to the left, and follow with your right foot. Continue taking quick steps to the left until you reach 30. Do 3 or 4 sets in each direction.
c/ Mountain climbers
From a press-up position, drive one knee to your chest, then return your raised foot to the starting position while driving the other knee to your chest. Do 3 sets of 15 reps per leg, alternating legs as quickly as possible.