When it comes to getting fitter and stronger as a runner, there are several key things to focus on – regular training, good nutrition and sleep and recovery. It’s important to know when to rest and when you need to be disciplined and ditch the sofa for a training run that will make all the difference to your fitness. Here’s our guidelines for the best ways to improve your running. Try to apply as many of them as you can to your own training and hopefully you’ll soon begin to feel fitter and stronger.
1 Be consistent
It’s better to run two to three times per week for a shorter time-frame of say, 30 minutes, on a consistent basis than to aim to run five times per week and miss lots of sessions. A stop-start approach won’t do much for your fitness. It’s better to do fewer sessions less frequently but with a consistent pattern rather than aiming to do lots more and not achieving your goals.
2 Go with the hard/easy rule
Never do two hard sessions back to back. A hard run should be followed by an easy recovery run. Hard runs back to back increase injury risk and lead to fatigue.
3 Set your own pace and running schedule
While it can be fun to run with others, it’s easy to go along with their running schedule and increase your injury risk in the process. If you normally run for 30 minutes and your friend wants to run for an hour, don’t risk it. Similarly, if you’ve trained hard and you’re due to have a rest day, don’t be tempted out by a friend who doesn’t want to run on their own. Stick to your guns and rest.
Some people believe that “time on your feet” is the way forward for improving as a runner. But this one-dimensional approach doesn’t work for many. Few of us have the perfect running technique and those who are injury prone or are building up to a long race distance are well advised to cross-train. If you feel pain or niggles, it’s better to hit the cross-trainer or go out cycling than it is to run. Mix up your training so that you’re not constantly subjecting your joints to the impact of running. And always see a physiotherapist if any pain persists.
5 Choose different surfaces to run on
Grass and trails are less traumatic on the lower limbs than concrete or tarmac. The treadmill is also cushioned. Mix up the surfaces you run on and give your joints a break. However, if you’ve had knee issues, be aware that, while trails provide softer surfaces underfoot, they can cause rotation of the knee that can lead to pain and stiffness.
6 Progress your training gradually
Never increase your mileage dramatically. Even if you feel fit enough to do it, it’s just not wise to jump from three miles to ten and expect to get away with it. Plan your training sessions and gradually increase your time/mileage and set goals as you do it.
7 Build in recovery weeks
If you are training for an event like a half marathon or marathon that requires lots of mileage, have a recovery week every three to four weeks that’s easier. Otherwise, if you constantly overload your body you will suffer from fatigue.
8 Work on your posture when you run
Most of us don’t often think about good posture and our desk jobs can cause us to slouch at work or when we run. However, try to focus on keeping your body upright when you run – think of having a straight back with your eyes ahead, your arms pumping but with your hands relaxed. Avoid swinging your arms across your body – try to pump them up and down.
9 Try to avoid tension
When you run, if you’re tense you’re more likely to pull a muscle. Try to stay relaxed through all your muscles, and avoid clenching fists or poking your neck forward.
10 Use the treadmill if weather is hazardous
Some people don’t mind running in bad weather conditions. Some aren’t bothered by rain, snow or ice. But unpredictable icy conditions can cause injuries. If the weather is really treacherous outside and you don’t want to miss a run, don’t ditch the idea of using a treadmill at the gym. Getting to know the different programmes it offers, such as hill or random options, will give you a chance to push your fitness to new levels. It’s also handy for sprint intervals.
11 Be aware of the signs of overtraining
We all know that running can be addictive, so it’s understandable from time to time that you may not want to skip a run and might even want to try and run every day. But overdoing it can be counter-productive. Coach Phoebe Thomas says: ‘Signs of overtraining include going to bed exhausted and not being able to sleep at night, loss of appetite, permanently “buzzing”, agitated legs and being run down with mouth ulcers, dry skin, colds or viral infections.’ Do any of these sound familiar? If so, take a few days off.
12 Build up your pace gradually on a run
Whatever distance you intend to run, warm up and do so gradually. Start every run by walking, then gradually pick up the pace to an easy jog, then slightly harder and then let your body find its own running pace. Don’t just go out and burst into a fast run, or else you risk injury.
13 Use the foam roller
Most gyms have them, or you can buy them fairly cheaply on Amazon. They effectively offer a cheap alternative to a sports massage – roll your legs over them and you’ll find they massage out knots and tight spots in the legs.
14 Get a sports massage every month
If you can afford it, a sports massage once a month can prevent injury, especially if you’re training for a half or marathon. Twice a month would be even better.
15 Vary the type of races you do
This will not only keep you motivated and help prevent boredom, it will also enable you to get fit in a variety of ways. Obstacle races, trail events and mini-triathlons will challenge your body in new ways. It also means you can focus on doing more core and strength work, which will break up your training routine and avoid doing just running all the time.
16 Stay motivated by getting involved in a running community
Whether you do parkrun every Saturday or you choose to join a running club, mixing with other runners and encouraging them and listening to what helps them become a better runner will motivate and inspire you. parkrun encourages all of its runners to marshal four times per year. Helping others will make you feel good about your own running.
17 Find a running buddy with a similar fitness level to you
Running with someone else can help to avoid boredom and make those long runs go by faster. However, it’s always best to run with someone of a similar ability level so that you both feel good about your running and the slower runner doesn’t feel like they’re pushing themselves to maximum capacity (unless you want to have a tough session). Or at the very least, run with someone faster who you can trust to slow down and run at your pace; they could always use your session as a recovery run.
18 Push the boundaries
Sign up for a race you’ve never done before. If trail or obstacle events don’t appeal to you, how about doing a race abroad or tackling a particularly hilly course? Pushing the boundaries will boost your fitness and keep you motivated.
19 Take up yoga
Even if you’re not the spiritual type or you don’t think you’ll enjoy it, do it anyway and you’ll reduce your injury risk. Join a beginner’s class at your local gym if you’re a bit nervous and be patient with how long it takes you to become more flexible. It does take time, but doing yoga regularly will help reduce stiffness.
20 Run a marathon
If you haven’t already done one, it should be on your bucket list. Running a marathon is a great life lesson – you learn a lot about yourself and your capabilities and quite often you end up realising that you’re capable of so much more! Don’t rush to sign up for a spring marathon – there’s plenty of summer or autumn marathons you could go for. But everyone should do at least one! You may only do one, or you may get the marathon bug…
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