A Time to Run -
We hear it over and over again: we need to exercise to achieve and maintain good health. Unfortunately, knowledge alone is not enough to motivate most people to lace up their trainers and consistently get their heart rate up. There are so many barriers to making our best intentions a reality. For some it’s the intimidation of not being “sporty” or not being the fastest, or the fear of coming last and looking ridiculous. For others, it’s the discomfort of being hot and sweaty and squeezed into lycra. If you are lucky enough to overcome these hurdles, you might resolve to become The New You, only to find yourself back on the couch and back to Your Old Self within a week. It is so easy to feel overwhelmed by the daily grind with all it’s responsibility and time pressures that we often don’t prioritise our health. Exercise seems to be the first thing to go when we become stressed. When it comes to running, there is rarely a time when you finish a run and wish you hadn’t started, but nevertheless, the hardest part about going running can often be just getting your trainers on and walking towards to the door. It’s important to promote running from the bottom of the to-do list to the top. Prioritise it. Make it a ‘non-negotiable’ like going to work. Make it a habit. Increasing its importance in our minds enables us to focus on it, visualise it, commit to it and achieve it. Not only will this help us to achieve our running goals, but it will also benefit other areas of our lives.
The benefits of running are numerous and wide-reaching. Not only does it do wonders for our physical fitness and strength, but it has a profound effect on our mental health. It is not always possible to separate one from the other because a healthy mind and body usually go hand in hand. This is certainly true of running. An entertaining, easy read that highlights some of the research into why running is beneficial is Marie Bean’s 2013 book Lazy Runner. She outlines the important statistics around running and the fight against disease. For example, a major physical benefit of running is cardio-vascular fitness. In other words, the effectiveness of your heart pumping oxygen around your body. Improved cardio-vascular fitness helps all aspects of our bodies to function better, including our brains. This, in turn, regulates our hormones, which affects our mood. It also is the most effective natural way to lower blood pressure because it strengthens the heart muscle and makes arteries softer and more pliable, which prevents blockages. Another physical factor that has a flow on effect to our mental well-being is that running improves the quality of our sleep. It has been shown that running noticeably reduces the time it takes to fall asleep, by almost half! It also increases the time we stay asleep by up to an hour. This, combined with the endorphins generated by running, have been identified as being responsible for helping relieve symptoms and even cure mild depression. It is also shown to increase our ability to concentrate and improves memory function. As far as the serious stuff goes, running has been shown to reduce the risk of some cancers, specifically breast and colon cancer. It is thought that lowered oestrogen levels in runners, due to reduced body fat, reduces the risk of breast cancer. As for colon cancer, the link to running is thought to be that the bowel is activated during running and, as is often joked about in running circles, running dramatically, and sometimes uncontrollably, expediates waste elimination. It can reduce the risk of colon cancer by up to 40%. Other serious diseases which are kept at bay by running include diabetes and dementia. (Marie Bean, 2013)
Unfortunately, nothing worth having in life comes easily and to reap all these benefits to our health and well-being, we need to find a way to maintain consistency with running and overcome the barriers created by our own minds and our sedentary society. There are several strategies we can employ to help make running a habit that we can’t live without. It is important to find ways to maintain consistency when running, and these will vary from person to person depending on what it is that demotivates you in the first place. According to sports scientist and personal trainer Mal Porter, it is crucial to have a plan and set goals. He identifies over training, as a result of poor planning, as being very common in seasonal runners. To overcome this, he suggests the notion of having an “A Race” “B Race” and “C Race” with the A being your ultimate goal for the period and the B and C being a “test” to measure how you are travelling towards that goal. It is a common phenomenon for people to decide to take up running only to announce shortly afterwards that they just aren’t a runner. As with any sport, it is unlikely that you will reach your potential after a handful of attempts and with little or no preparation, instruction or support. It is important to set yourself up for success by planning ahead to establish your training routine, course, goals, time frame and some support. Support networks come in many forms: either by finding or starting a running group, or by joining in with community activities such as Parkrun. Mal emphasised the importance of Parkrun saying, “I can’t talk up Parkrun enough for its community inclusiveness” and also suggested, if you like to run alone, to find a coach, “to talk you through the times that you want to remain in bed or on the couch.” By combining these tactics in a way that suits your circumstances, you are well on your way to being a long term, consistent and committed runner. Other experienced runners would agree that making running a group activity goes a long way towards helping you achieve your goals. Verne Lowson, a running coach and co-founder of the running group Blood Sweat and Beers (BSB) explained how he was amazed at the community response when he and his wife, Al Lowson, embarked on their little adventure of organising a few Sunday runs. This very quickly turned into a 250 strong group of people of all ages and abilities, all achieving amazing things in running and because of running! Al pointed out that the group is run through Facebook and there are plenty of people who follow the group but run independently except for maybe one or two events a year, but are still able to enjoy the inclusion, motivation and goal setting that a running group provides.
The other side of the same coin is to ensure that once you overcome yourself and are running regularly and consistently, that you run “smart” and take care of yourself to prevent injury or fatigue which may land you back on the couch! The bare minimum of maintaining an injury free running experience would be to ensure that you stretch with a range of stretches. Mal explained the difference between Dynamic and Static stretches. Dynamic stretches “involve constant movement or bouncing to lengthen a muscle to, or near, it’s end range” These types of stretches are important before running to prepare the body for those specific movements. It also serves as a gentle warm up by raising your core temperature and gradually increasing the muscles’ range of motion. After running, static stretches, which are a “slow passive movement that is held in position for a period of time at, or near the end of its range of motion”, are beneficial because they increase flexibility and release any tension that may have built up during your run. Every person has slightly different biomechanics, so it might be a good idea to draw on that support network to identify the areas that need extra attention. However, a general rule which Mal follows is to “work from the ground up”. Having this pattern of stretching makes it easier to form into a habit than if you stretch in a haphazard way, or only stretch the muscles that feel tight. Stretching is one important aspect of running health, but it is also important to build up strength to support your body while running. Mal suggests that the best way to do this is to include at least one ‘strength session’ in your training plan to “provide greater strength within the supporting structures” and to cross train where possible. He says that “too much of a good thing can lead to injury” so taking part in different activities utilises different muscles which can build up your overall strength and prevent many common running injuries because the surrounding muscles are strong enough to support the body as it runs. Mal sees between 50-60% of runners injured each year, with that number reduced to about 20% in those who cross-train effectively. A ‘strength session’ may include exercises such as squats, push ups, lunges and lifting light weights. To really spice up your running plan and avoid what Mal refers to as “junk kms” it’s a good idea to include sessions set within a specific heartrate or VO2, hill sets, speed sessions and interval training. Not only will this improve your running, but it is also great for keeping boredom at bay. Speed sessions and interval training can provide that extra challenge or little bit of healthy competition to keep you coming back for more.
Adharanand Finn, in his book “Running with the Kenyans” (2012) identifies the often-overlooked importance of shoes in creating and maintaining your run mechanics. Finn points out that Humans are designed for running: “It’s why we have Achilles tendons, arched feet, big bums and a nuchal ligament at the back of our necks (to keep our heads still as we run).” He feels strongly that “Running shoes only mess things up” and is an advocate for bare foot running which forces us to run in a more ‘natural’ style of fore foot first, rather than relying on trainers to cushion our heel. However, if you’re not quite ready to throw your expensive Nikes in the bin, ensuring that you have a running shoe that supports your best, natural gait (by moving the foot closer to your body) rather than forcing you to over stride, is important. Don’t forget about socks too. You can spend a lot of your hard earned money on a pair of running shoes only to wear an old holey worn pair of socks and then wonder why you’ve got blisters, you may as well run in some old worn out shoes. Finding the right sock can be a minefield, the team at Inspire Athletic have done the hard work for you. Check out their great range of Compressport and Feetures socks.The benefits of running are undeniable and well documented and the most common phrase I’ve heard from runners, and it rings true for me, is that “running changed my life”. Whether it be from a person who runs ultra-marathons at the age of fifty or from a mum of three kids who does Parkrun once a week, it has a huge impact on our health and happiness, if we only let it!
DYNAMIC STRETCHING EXAMPLES
Performed as repeated dynamic action (see GIF) on alternating legs to open up the chest and stretch the hip flexors, lower back and arms.
Performed as repeated dynamic action (see GIF) Swapping sides after a few repetitions. Stretches the ITB and adductors.
This stretch can be extended, as shown below, to intensify the stretch and include the upper body.
STATIC STRETCHES AND ROLLING
ITB Stretch & Quad Stretch
Foam Roller Exercises
About the Author
Geri Walsh has been running on and off (mostly on) for many years. Through the challenges of high school, emigration, University, remote teaching, more emigrating and most recently, raising a young family, running has been the constant. She is married with three little boys and lives in Brisbane. She spends her time doing usual Mummy Things while plotting how to write her own book and go for a run!
Photo Credit - Al Lowson
Bean, M. (2013) Lazy Runner. Lazy Runner Pty Ltd, Queensland Australia.
Finn, A. (2012) Running with the Kenyans. Faber and Faber Ltd, London.