NOVICE RUNNER? GETTING BACK IN SHAPE AFTER A LONG LAYOFF? LOOKING TO IMPROVE, BUT STUCK IN A RUT?
First - Learn To Listen To Yourself
A steady running habit is one of the best things a person can do to improve and maintain mental and physical health. Whether you aspire to realize the meditative benefits of running, want to just improve your physical health or aim to someday complete a marathon, you have to start somewhere.
During the Covid-19 Shutdown, I have noticed many folks out running who look like they are new to the sport – or are trying to get back in shape after a long layoff. If you are a novice runner or are starting up again after a long layoff, you might find these tips helpful. And, if you have been trying to get faster and go longer but keep getting injured or are stuck in a rut, there may be something for you here.
Why listen to me? I am not selling anything. I just want to pass along what I have learned and help others enjoy a sport I love. I started running in 7th grade - in 1967. I had some success at the college level in distances from the mile to the marathon, but my main qualification for offering advice is that I am still running today 53 years after I started. In part, I am blessed with good genetics and knees – but, after watching every running fad that raised its head in every decade come and go, I finally learned to listen to myself. I believe that is why I am still able to run and still enjoy running a half-century after I began.
Before you lace up, please first check with your doctor to make sure running is a good and safe exercise for you. This is just good sense.
Second – if your toes point in or out when you walk or run, or you are bowlegged or knock-kneed, check with a podiatrist or physical therapist before starting a running program. Running with structural imbalances like these can cause injuries to your back, hips, knees and feet. A professionally made custom orthotic or a pair of running shoes that are constructed to accommodate your situation may prevent a lot of problems down the road.
Third - buy yourself a good pair of running shoes with plenty of support and toe room. There are dozens to chose from. Any store that sells running shoes can help you pick a suitable pair.
FIRST LAP - BABY STEPS
Like anything worth doing well, success in running is a long game. You will see improvement and find joy in running but don’t expect to see results immediately. Stick with it for at least 21 days and you will see positive results. After that, you will steadily improve as your body adapts. In two or three months, you may see vast improvement. And if you keep running beyond a few months, you may develop a healthy habit for life.
Many people quit within the first week or two of starting. They lose motivation and/or it feels too hard. The key to sticking with it is to start with baby steps. Don’t even start running if you can’t walk briskly for at least 3 miles. Then, aim to run and walk a mile. Once you can run a mile steady and slow without walking, alternate a running day with a walking day. About every other running day (every 5 days), add 1/8th more mile. In about 4 weeks, you will be up to 2 miles of steady running.
Take it easy. Don’t try to increase your pace or distance too fast. Remember, you have a lifetime to run fast and far. Getting hurt or discouraged because you pushed too hard at the beginning, may rob you of the chance to accomplish your goals.
Once you can run 2 miles steady and slow, try the Schedule below. But first a few words about Form, Weight Loss and Injury.
Running well is not just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. Running with proper form will make you a faster runner who can run further distances and it will prevent injuries. Every time you run, concentrate on your form – whether jogging, sprinting, going uphill or down or going for a long steady run, the basics of form are the same. Practice running with good form. Running with poor form is practicing to run poorly. Thinking about and maintaining good form at all times takes mental concentration. Without focusing your concentration on the task at hand, your mind will drift and your form will too. Being aware of and returning your concentration to maintaining form at all times is an exercise in meditation.
When you routinely and deliberately check and slightly adjust each aspect of your form – fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, head, chest, hips, feet – while running and keep each in tune, you will find yourself flying along with little effort. And you will not need or want to listen to music through ear buds to distract you from running. The music will be in the movement of your body.
When running, imagine you are inside a giant wheel that is rolling along. At the top of the wheel at 12 o’clock is your head. Your head is not leaning forward or backward or sideways on your neck. It is positioned precisely and balanced at the top of the wheel. At the bottom of the wheel at 6 o’clock is where your feet land. They do not fall in front or behind the 6 o’clock position. When they hit the ground, they strike precisely on the bottom of the wheel. Your body is erect and balanced. You are not leaning forward or backward. And, all you need to do is keep that giant wheel smoothly rolling along. If you do it right, it will take little effort -- whether running slow or fast. Just think about keeping yourself in balance in that wheel rolling down the road.
Arms and Hands
What about your arms and hands? They are critical. They are as important as your legs. They balance and drive you forward on the wheel. Each arm swing back drives the opposite leg forward. They are your metronome.
Start with your hands. Imagine you are holding a rolled up paper about 1 1/2” in diameter with a comfortable and relaxed, but almost closed hand. Do not crush the paper roll. Do not drop the paper roll. Your thumb joint is resting lightly on top of the first joint of your first finger. Again, a gentle but affirmative meditative position. Your hand must not flap on your wrist. The line from your elbow to your hand must be fixed, relaxed, straight and allow for no movement. Again, no wrist and hand flapping.
However your elbow angle must flex with each arm swing. Do not lock that angle. Locking it will cause your shoulders to rotate. Do not let your shoulders rotate. Although near a 90 degree angle, the angle between your upper arm and lower arm must open and close with each arm swing. The angle decreases as your arm swings up and increases as your arm swings down. The faster you run, the more the angle changes. Imagine you are drumming or hammering as you bring each hand/lower arm down and slightly open the angle between the lower arm and upper arm. As you bring that same hand/lower arm up on the back swing, the angle closes slightly. Beat the drum gently as you run.
Your arms swing easily on hinges from your shoulders but your shoulders do not move. Your chest is up and out and your shoulders remain relaxed and not hunched up and your arms swing freely from them. Your shoulders do not rotate – they remain in position and square across your body.
Your hands do not cross and barely approach the midline of your chest as you swing your arms. With your elbows slightly askew out from your body, your arms swing back and forth in the direction you are running – not sideways across your body. You are in complete control of your posture.
Chest, Shoulders, Head, Face and Eyes
Erect good posture. Chest is up and open. Shoulders slightly back but relaxed. Head is balanced on your neck at the top of the Wheel. Chin is up – not buried in your chest. Eyes are up and fixed on the horizon ahead – not looking at your feet or the ground ahead. Your face is relaxed. No need to squint with effort. No need to lock your jaw. No need to rotate or move your head. You are fully aware of all parts of your body and in total relaxed control of them.
Hips and Butt
Stand up. Do not lean forward – or backward. Imagine your hips are a large bowl filled with water. Engage your core a bit and tilt them ever so slightly so that no water spills over the front. Keep the water in the bowl. Never stick your butt out or lean forward from your hips – even if running into the wind or uphill. Stay erect in the Wheel. Use the power of your arm swing and hips to conquer the hill and wind. Leaning will do nothing but create imbalance.
If you have had a job that requires sitting all day, you butt may be weak. A weak butt will make other muscles like your hamstrings work harder than they should. A pulled hamstring can put you out of commission for months or more. Find some on line exercises to strengthen your butt and consider a standing desk.
I am not going to get into a debate between heel strikers and forefoot strikers. Watch 99% of Olympic runners and they are all forefoot strikers. In longer races like the marathon, it may appear that the are running flat footed, but I guarantee that seen in slow motion, they are striking forefoot first.
Heel striking puts the brakes on with each stride. It is inefficient and can ruin knees. Heel striking does not allow your foot and calf muscles to act as shock absorbers. The barefoot running craze showed why it is important to land on the balls of your feet. Can you imagine landing heel first while barefoot? Humans were not built to run that way.
Get erect within the Wheel and land on the forefront of your feet and let your calves, feet and Achilles tendon take up the shock. It is ok to then instantaneously touch the heel to the ground before lifting off again. Run quietly and softly – pad along in the Wheel with your forefoot coming down at the very bottom of the wheel. Just keep that Wheel rolling along.
The faster you run, the higher you will be on the balls of your feet. The slower you run, the more it will feel almost flatfooted – but the forefront of your foot should strike first. This is natural and correct.
Run erect and proud. Tuck your butt in – don’t let it stick out. Keep the water within the bowl of your hips. Chest up, head up, eyes up and ahead, face relaxed, hands relaxed but in position, shoulders square. Arms swinging freely and elbow angle opening and closing as you softly beat the drum. Forefoot of foot striking the bottom of the wheel that you gently roll along.
Keep checking every aspect of your form. Rotate around your body, check every aspect and make slight adjustments. Concentrate on form and always practice good form – even when jogging slowly. Don’t practice sloppy form. When the pressure is on and you are tired, the practice will pay off because it will be ingrained in you.
WEIGHT LOSS AND INJURIES
We are all born with a particular body form that is established genetically. We are not all built like greyhounds, but we can still all run well. Running will likely allow you to shed weight and shedding extra weight will help you run faster and further. If you are 25 lbs over your normal weight for your body type, you are effectively running with a 25 lb. bag of dog food strapped around your waist. Imagine the pounding this puts on your knees and hips and back. It can cause injuries. So, to run faster and further and reduce injuries, watch what you eat. Running alone will not likely result in weight loss until you get to the point where you are running for an hour or more at a time. So, cut the carbs (bread, pasta, beer, wine, liquor, ice cream, desserts, sports drinks, sodas, sugar, chips, fried food, candy) and run and you will see the excess weight fall off slowly and steadily over a number of months. You don’t need gels and sports drinks while running until you are running for at least an hour. They are just excess calories. You have plenty of glycogen/sugar in your body without them. Up to an hour run, plain water is all you need.
If, during your running, you feel a pain or ache in your knee, foot, ankle, hip, back. Stop – walk home and take at least 3 days off from running. Ice what hurts. Go for a bike ride or walk if you need to exercise – but don’t run. On the 4th day, try an easy jog. If you feel the pain or ache come back – even slightly, STOP and give yourself another 3 days off and ice again. Try again, but if the pain or ache does not go away after this, see a sports medicine therapist or doctor to find out what is going on. You have a lifetime to run. Most injuries will clear up with rest and ice. Pushing on when you first feel a problem almost always results in more of a problem and sometimes an injury that can take you out of commission for months. Then, you may have to start all over again from scratch. Don’t be stupid. When it hurts, rest and heal.
Ok. You doctor says you can exercise. You have no fundamental problems with pronation or supination (toes pointing in or out). You can run 2 or 3 miles slow and steady in one session. You want to run further and faster. You may want to try a race.
I know that by now you have purchased a GPS watch to measure your heartrate, distance and time and you probably subscribe to Runners World or other magazines that publish all sorts of schedules that all are aimed at guaranteeing you will run a fast 5k or 10k race time. You believe that all you need to do is stick to the schedule – no matter what – and your goals will be achieved. WRONG.
Throw the schedule away and largely ignore the watch. Learn to listen to and honor the watch that is in your body and brain. Do not blindly follow someone else’s schedule. They do not know you or your capabilities.
Then again, simply running the same distance at the same pace every day, day in day out will not help you improve. So, what will help you steadily improve how fast and far you can run?
First Principle – Improvement Comes With Recovery From Stress (read that again)
Take my word for it and the word of every exercise physiologist on the planet. Improvement in conditioning comes when the body is allowed to recover from stress. Run hard or run easy but don’t waste time on “medium” days. In my opinion, “medium days” are a waste of valuable time. They are “junk” miles. Every work out should either be hard or easy. Medium days simply prolong the recovery period and delay your ability to have another hard day. They do not advance the ball.
Second Principle - Alternate Hard/Easy Workouts.
Take at least one easy day between two hard days. Better – take two easy days between hard days. If needed, take three easy days between hard days. What is best – one easy day, two easy days or three easy days? It depends. It depends on how hard the hard days were, how easy the easy days are and you. Only you will know what is best and you must learn to listen to your body.
Use this test. The day after a hard workout, just give yourself a break and KNOW you will be taking an easy day. Enjoy the easy day. KNOW you will only improve if you allow yourself to recover. UNDERSTAND that recovering is critical to improving and your good hard day will be wasted unless you recover. If your hard day was actually hard, I guarantee you will feel it the next day. After running a bit on your easy or recovery day, try a few sprints or pick ups. If your legs are dead and you have little enthusiasm or energy, you need at least one more recovery or easy day. Repeat the test on the second recovery day – you may find need a third recovery day. Three days will usually be sufficient. When in doubt, lean towards a recovery day so you are fully recovered. Then hammer that next hard day – you will be ready for it and you will enjoy pushing yourself hard and seeing your progress.
Third Principle – Understand What A Hard Day Is
A hard day is either – a Long Run, a Tempo Run or an Interval Run.
A Long Run is a run that is two to five times longer than a typical easy day. It is done at a slow steady pace with no regard for time. The sole objective is to comfortably complete the run. It is time on your feet. Try to ignore your pace. Think about being on the Wheel. Roll along comfortably and be meditative. It is “me” time.
A Tempo Run is a run that is about the same distance as a typical easy day but is comfortably fast and includes a warm up and warm down. It is good to time yourself on a Tempo Run. Measure your progress and enjoy the development. Run easy until you warm up. Stretch if you like. Then, start the watch and run comfortably fast for the Tempo distance. It is not a race. Concentrate on form. As the run progresses, try to increase the pace a bit but stay under control. Breathing and form should be under control at all times. The mark of a good tempo run is where each mile is a bit faster than the last and you still feel strong finishing. Then jog a bit to warm down. Good job.
An Interval Run is a run best run on a track. If you don’t have a track, find a nice park or bike path. After a good warm up, the Intervals consist of a set of fast runs over specific distances with a jog in between the fast runs. The fast intervals can be over 200, 400, 800 or 1200 meters or any combination. The jog rests should typically be ½ of the fast interval. Aim to build up to a cumulative total of between 15 minute and 25 minutes of fast running per session. Thus, if you are running 400 meter intervals that each take about 2 minutes to complete, you should run 7 to 12 intervals, plus the jog rests.
If you have never done these before, be gentle with yourself until you get a feel for it. Start with a total of 8 or 10 minutes of fast running (4 or 5 x 400 in the example) and add a minute to each Interval Session. These can be tough, but you will see amazing improvement. Time your intervals and compare your progress from week to week. Run and jog with good form. Learn to run swift and smooth. Let yourself fly.
Fourth Principle – Understand What An Easy Day Is
An easy day can be anything from an easy slow run, to a bike ride to a day off. In general, an easy running day is something between 2 to 5 miles. Enough to warm up and stretch the muscles and test how you feel. My easy day is nearly always 4 miles.
I recommend trying to run on your easy days – especially at first – so you can learn how hard your hard day actually was and what it takes to recover. If you find you are just wiped out from the prior hard run, skip the run and go for a bike ride or sit at home and watch a movie. Everyone needs a day off from time to time and if you are needing one, listen to your body. It will be grateful and reward you with a nice fast Tempo Run later. Running should be fun. It is fun to reward yourself with a nice easy run after a successful hard day. And it is fun to be able to run fast on hard days. Remember, only by recovering can you get faster.
Setting Your Schedule
Don’t “set a schedule.” Schedules that are “set” on paper and aim to accomplish certain things on a certain time frame – like prepare for a race - usually lead to a) injury b) frustration and c) failure. A set schedule by definition ignores the runner and what is actually happening to their body and mind in real time.
At most, regardless of how experienced or inexperienced you are, the following schedule is as specific as you should get.
· Day 1 – Long Run
· Next One to Three Days– Easy Runs
· After Recovery – Tempo Run
· Next One to Three Days– Easy Runs
· After Recovery – Interval Run
· Next One to Three Days– Easy Runs
· After Recovery – Long Run (note, this might be as long as 12 days after last Long Run)
Some basic rules:
1) Don’t increase the Long Runs more than about 10% more than the last Long Run. Take your time building up.
2) Listen to your body on the Tempo Runs. Remember – each mile should be a bit faster than the last. If you blow up and crash in the last mile, you started too fast. Listen to yourself.
3) Run swift and smooth on your Intervals and jog as slowly as you like between them. Again – stress and then recover.
4) Don’t get locked into believing you need to do the same thing each day of each week. That
is an artificial recipe for disaster.
There is no magic here. Throw the published schedules away. Listen to and honor yourself. Stick to it and you will be rewarded with a lifetime of health and enjoyment.