12 Healthy Habits to Embrace

Follow these everyday tips for a fitter, healthier and happier new you. 

Runners dream big. Tackling a new distance, posting a personal best, losing 10 kilos – we embrace grand challenges. But what happens after you accomplish your goal, or if your resolve weakens before you succeed? You risk stalling – unless you’ve changed your routines to those of a stronger, healthier runner. “Runners who are consistent with good habits have the most success,” says Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist, sports nutritionist, coach, and author of The Marathon Method. This year, consider resolutions based on process instead of outcome. That way, you can sustain momentum by celebrating small, frequent victories. And you’ll avoid the all-or-nothing thinking that triggers massive disappointment if factors beyond your control interfere along the way – for instance, if you wake up to a sweltering race day.

1.  Become a morning runner

You meant to log those eight kilometres today, but between family, work, and social obligations, it just didn’t happen. Or you find your digestive system rebelling – or your sleep disrupted – courtesy of evening runs. The solution: put running first on your agenda. “People who start to run early in the morning get hooked on that feeling of having accomplished so much before others are even awake, as well as the extra energy they get from that morning rush of endorphins,” says running coach Lisa Reichmann.

2. Strength-train regularly

Building muscle improves your health, reduces injury risk, and, according to a review in the journal Sports Medicine, improves your running performance. Across 26 studies of endurance athletes, strength-training programs (either plyometrics or heavy weights) boosted fitness, increased efficiency, and reduced runners’ times in 3K and 5K races. Design your own program by picking six exercises: two for each of your major muscle groups (upper body, core, and lower body), with one working the front side (say, planks) and one the back side (bridges), says Rebekah Mayer, whose background is in biology, personal training and coaching. Do them two or three days per week. And remember that intense strength-training DVDs or classes don’t always pair well with a running routine, says Sapper – if you do them, leave rest days between hard efforts.

3. Cross-train regularly

If you’re struggling to squeeze three or four runs per week into your schedule, you shouldn’t worry about adding in other aerobic activities. But once you have a steady running habit, workouts like swimming, cycling, or rowing can boost your fitness without the impact stress of running. And by engaging different muscle groups, you can correct muscle imbalances and net a stronger, more well-rounded body. “This can increase your longevity as a runner,” Mayer says. If you do get hurt, you’ll also have a familiar option for maintaining fitness.

4. Eat more vegetables

Low-kilojoule and packed with nutrients, veggies should be a staple in every runner’s diet. Their high-quality carbohydrates power your workouts, and their antioxidants help you recover. “Vegetables also keep you regular, and we all know runners don’t need any ‘surprises’ while on a long run,” says Conni Brownell, who serves as the Brooks Running Beastro Chef (cooking for employees at the shoe company). The benefits last long after your cooldown: each daily serving of produce (up to five) reduces your risk of early death by about five per cent, according to a new study.

5. Warm up before a run; stretch and foam-roll after

The repetitive motion of running tightens muscles, increasing your injury risk. Dynamic stretches before a run prep your body for more intense activities, says exercise physiologist Gary Ditsch. Afterward, static stretching can return your muscles to their pre-run length, even if you don’t actually gain flexibility, Mayer says. And foam rolling – either immediately post-run or later in the day – loosens tissue in ways that stretching alone can’t.

Ditsch advises a 10- to 15-minute warmup routine: start with leg swings (first front to back, then side to side), then walk, march, and skip before you finally run. Post-run, stretch your hip flexors and hamstrings (which tighten during running and sitting), calves (to prevent Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis), and your chest and shoulders. “We don’t think about using our arms during our run, but they can also get very tight,” Mayer says. Foam-roll any area that still feels tight, holding for a few seconds on tender points to help release them.

6. Unplug on the run once a week

For data-obsessed runners, occasionally ditching the GPS reconnects you with your natural pacing and rhythms. “You’ll learn what conversational pace feels like and what your breathing should sound like at different intensity levels,” Mayer says. And while no one doubts the motivating power of music, removing your earbuds sometimes offers other advantages. For one, you’ll stay safer in unfamiliar territory; plus, you’ll notice and appreciate your surroundings more without auditory distractions, Mayer says. And if you’re planning a race that forbids tunes, you’ll line up prepared.

7. Cook at home more often

Extra kilojoules, fat, sugar, and sodium lurk in restaurant dishes, so dining out adds extra kilograms that weigh down your running performance and your health. One study in the journal Public Health Nutrition found that two or more restaurant meals per week added up to an extra 113 grams of bulk per year on average. Research suggests that carrying just one excess kilo can add 12.4 seconds to your 5K time and one minute, 45 seconds to your marathon finish. You don’t have to transform into a top chef, but mastering kitchen basics has perks beyond weight control. “Preparing your own food teaches you what works for your fuel needs and what doesn’t,” says Brownell. “You’re in control of the food choices and also the cost.”

8. Add a weekly long run

Efforts of an hour or longer build endurance, grow capillaries that carry nourishing blood to your muscles, strengthen bones and ligaments, and prepare you for races of any distance. Newer or low-mileage runners first need to focus on running regularly three or four times per week, then building up to an hour on one of those runs, says Ditsch. Designate one day a week as your long day, even if that means 20 minutes of run/walk instead of your usual 15. Then add 10 per cent to your longest run per week, but never any more than a two to three kilometres at a time, Ditsch says.

9. Get enough sleep

Few habits have as much of an impact on your running and your health. “Everything is so much worse when you don’t have enough sleep; it not only permeates your running, it affects your work life, your family, your relationships,” Sapper says. While you snooze, your body and mind recharge, repairing the damage done from hard training, releasing human growth hormone to build muscles, and strengthening connections between nerves and muscles. Regularly shorting on shut-eye has been linked to everything from limits on your muscle glycogen storage to injury risk and moodiness, weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease. Most people need six to nine hours per night; if you regularly feel like you might nod off during meetings or if you conk out immediately when you hit the sack, you’re probably not sleeping enough.

10. Apply sunscreen before every run

In 2011 over 2000 Australians died from skin cancer, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics – and with long hours on the roads or trails, runners face a particularly high risk. In fact, an Austrian study found distance runners had more irregular moles and other cancer risk factors than nonathletes. Ultraviolet light also causes wrinkles, brown spots, and other cosmetic damage, says marathoner and dermatologist Robin Travers. Fortunately, sunscreen protects you from all these consequences, provided you use it properly. While visible sunlight dims on cloudy or winter days and at dawn or dusk, cancer-causing UVA rays still shine through – so unless your entire run will be completed with the aid of a headlamp, you need to slather up, she says.

11. Eat breakfast every day

Your muscles can store only about six to seven hours’ worth of glycogen for energy, so each morning you wake up depleted, says Stoler. A morning meal offers you a chance to replenish them and also sets the tone for the rest of your day. Studies of people who’ve lost weight and kept it off show 78 per cent of them eat breakfast on a regular basis.

12. Sit less

Even runners spend an average of 10 hours and 45 minutes per day with their butts parked in chairs. As you rest, your hip flexors and hamstrings tighten and your posture slumps, boosting injury risk, Ditsch says. And the research on the health harms of sedentary behaviour has grown so alarming that many experts call the problem “sitting disease”. An exercise habit alone won’t save you from consequences like weight gain and heart disease, but research also shows that standing or walking breaks can make a big difference.

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