A Runner's Guide to Health
With spring just around the corner, the usual onslaught of lycra-clad running addicts will soon be invading our parks, streets, and gyms. From early morning to late at night, an army of fitness fanatics in fluorescent tops will be pounding the pavement in search of an endorphin high, a moment of release, and a fast solution to weight loss. But is running really that good for you?
BENEFITS OF RUNNING
There are few movements that are more natural than running. The majority of us are indeed born with the innate ability to put one foot in front of the other. We all learn to walk from a young age, and soon learn to run as well.
As such, running is one of the easiest and most accessible forms of exercise that exist. Just about anyone can put on a pair of trainers and go for a jog. No need for a gym, for any special equipment or assistance. Just get up and go!
Running can provide a fantastic degree of variety, for those that choose it. From short burst of sprints to marathon-like endurance sessions, the runner can vary the length and intensity of each workout to suit their needs. Anyone can work at their own level, their own speed, their own pace.
The number one reason why people enjoy a regular jog is for weight loss. When done at the right intensity, running is a fantastic workout and can burn fat very effectively. Because it is such a full body exercise, engaging the leg muscles of course, but also the arms and core, your heart and lungs must work overtime to provide your muscles with the oxygen and blood needed.
A low to medium-intensity run will mainly work the aerobic system, while higher intensity work such as sprints will also challenge the anaerobic system - and can change the way your muscles recover from bursts of intense activity, and lead to increased fat burn within the cells.
Like any intense exercise, running will get your heart pumping, your blood rushing and your sweat pouring - all excellent news for your health, your skin and your internal well-being. Doing something great for your body will also increase your positive energy, help alleviate stress, and increase your mental focus and clarity.
DRAWBACKS OF RUNNING
Like any activity, running can have its pros and cons. The major downside to running is the lack of education and awareness most runners have, about how to run properly and how it affects their bodies.
For many, it seems to be a simple equation of running = burning calories = burning fat. Therefore, for many, more running = more fat burnt. However, it is not as simple as that. In fact, listening to that advice can be very detrimental indeed.
Firstly, although running is a very natural and functional activity, doing so for extended periods of time is not. Think about it for a second: when else in your life do you repeat a single movement thousands and thousands of times, over and over again? And what seems more functional to you: short bursts of intensity that would help you run for a bus, or extended periods of low-intensity jogging?
Repeating a single movement thousands of times is not a bad thing in itself. However it can quickly turn into a disaster if any major weakness are present. And in our modern sedentary society, 99% of us do have such imbalances.
Indeed, most of us are affected by the Sitting Syndrome: tight chest and shoulders, tight lower backs and tight hips coupled with weak upper backs, weak cores and weak glutes (bum muscles.) Now, as mentioned in one of my previous articles, Keep Calm and Squeeze the Glutes, this very important muscle works to absorb part of the impact from the foot on the floor, and acts as a buffer to spread the forces safely into the lower part of the spine and the rest of the body.
If any weakness is present, the muscles around the knee take the majority of the hit instead, and are repeatedly subject to the load of the body and the forces directed from the floor up. The lower back and hamstrings will also be working overtime to compensate for the lack of support. At the same time, the tight hips, quadriceps and IT bands on the front and side of the legs will be strained and tight from being in a seated position for many hours each day, and will pull excessively on the kneecaps. You can imagine what effect thousands of repetitions can have if any of the above imbalances are present !
Secondly, the original idea of calories in versus calories out for fat loss is a myth. Although the idea spread like wildfire, there are no scientific findings to back it up. Instead, as a general rule, the higher the intensity of exercise, the faster you will burn your stored sugars and start to delve into your fat reserves. Running for long periods of time at a low to moderate intensity will therefore have little to no effect on weight loss.
Indeed, on average, it will take 30-40 minutes of steady low-intensity cardio to burn off all the sugars and to start burning fat. In comparison, a higher-intensity workout of sprint training can kickstart fat burn much faster (10-20mins into the workout). And a weight training session will lead to even faster fat burn (within 5-10minutes for a high-intensity session!) Why? Because your body has to work overtime to recover from the high intensity spikes.
Challenging your body’s ability to recover is another factor that leads to weight loss. During the recovery period, while your internal system is making the changes it needs to adapt to the workout, your body will still be burning energy. However, while a high-intensity session will keep you burning fat for 5-6 hours, a low-intensity jog will only hold its effect for 1-2 hours following the workout. In contrast, the effect of a high-intensity weight session will last for 2-3 days!
The demand on your body of a low-intensity jog are far below that of high-intensity interval training. As a beginner, the first few weeks may see great gains and some good fat loss, however very quickly (within 3-6 weeks) your body will adapt to the workout. In order to keep challenging your body, you will need to increase the speed or intensity of the run. Most people however choose to increase the length instead.
This can lead to a final drawback: the burning of muscle. Long runs (over 30-40mins) can lead to muscle breakdown, as your body uses stored protein for energy. Have you ever wondered why marathon runners are slim, while sprinters are muscular and defined?
There has been a recent focus on the biomechanics of running, gait and foot position - with an ensuing craze for trends like barefoot running. However, perfect technique is an ideal, a utopia. The key is being aware of your body’s imbalances and finding a running style that suits you - your top priority should be comfort. Paula Radcliffe’s nodding, and Haile Gebrselassie's crooked left arm (a habit left over from his childhood, when he ran to school every day carrying books), show that you don’t have to have outstanding technique to perform well.
Good posture is essential to good technique and increased efficiency in your breath and form. Stand tall, keep your head upright. Imagine a piece of string pulling you up from the top of the head, and look straight ahead. Keep your chest high and shoulders back.
Aim to land on the balls of your feet rather than your heel, without over-striding. Lean forwards slightly to use gravity, and aim for your foot to land directly under your front knee. Land light and spend as little time in contact with the ground as possible. Keep your movements fluid and comfortable.
Remember your arms - they will help stabilise you by providing a counter weight to your legs, in turn improving your rhythm, balance and speed. Imagine you have two parallel bars in front of you, and are helping yourself by dragging yourself along. Keep the elbows bent at 90 degrees, and allow the arm movement to start from the shoulders and upper back.
Find a breathing pace that is right for you. Deep, rhythmic breathing is best for oxygen absorption. Inhale through the nose into the belly, and exhale through the mouth. Relax your core muscles: the arms and legs will help stabilise your trunk. Over-contracting the core muscles my limit your natural range of rotation.
Like any repetitive activity, a number of strains and injuries can arise from running. Below are a few of the most common ones. For more detail, check out http://www.upandrunning.co.uk/commoninjuries.
Lower back pain is very common amongst runners, either during the session, immediately after or the next day. It can vary from full-blown spasms to tightness and limited mobility. Generally due to poor core strength or weak glutes from excessive sitting, it can be treated with rest, stretching and a strength and conditioning routine.
Knee pain can be the result of weak glutes, incorrect footwear, or tight/weak thigh muscles, and should be treated with rest, glute strengthening exercises, balance and stability work, and correct shoes (seek professional advice.)
Chin splints can develop from overtraining, incorrect footwear, tight calf muscles or weak glutes. Again, it can be treated with rest, massage, glute strengthening and correct running shoes.
Ankle strains can occur from running on uneven ground, and stretching/tearing the ligaments surrounding the ankle. Rest is a must for a quick recovery, as well as ankle mobilization and balance exercises.
For all injuries, it is generally recommend to cross-train (ie do a different exercise like swimming or cycling) until the injury subsides or the imbalance is corrected.
HOW TO LOVE RUNNING
When practiced with awareness and constant refining, running is an excellent exercise to use in combination with other types of training. It can be part of a balanced training routine, but should not be the sole focus.
Here are a few tips to enjoy your runs:
- Set your intention before you set out for a run. Take a couple of minutes to relax, and to give it your best. Also, decide to engage in the run wholeheartedly, to be fully present and to enjoy the moment.
- Don’t overdo it. When you first start, dont be afraid of alternating walking and running. The key is to enjoy it, not to kill yourself and never try again. If you enjoy it you will naturally want to do it again and again and again.
- Focus on breath, form and sensations. Bring your awareness throughout the run to the sensations of your breath and its rhythm. Feel your movements and constantly refine each action. This will help keep you in the present, and avoid the thoughts that may slow you down or keep you from enjoying it.
- Run outside. The treadmill is boring. Outside is fun.
- Use positive reinforcement. Take a good look at yourself in the mirror just as you leave the house, and congratulate yourself for doing something great for yourself. Then again, when you return, high-five yourself (mentally) for having followed through.
- Set yourself small achievable goals. Focus on a small goal at each run, either an extra lap, a bit more speed, or a better breathing rhythm. Challenge yourself to keep your motivation up!
- Use the RPE scale. The Rate of Perceived Exertion ie how you feel on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being a full-blown sprint.) Warm up and cool down around a 4-5 out of 10. Low intensity is a 6, Moderate intensity is a 7-8 and High Intensity is 8-10.
- Above all, do whatever you can to enjoy it ! And share your experiences with you friends, your family, and myself!
Love & Health,