You don’t have to completely overhaul your routine to become a better runner. Here are five small ways to make a difference.
Does your running suffer from a case of same old, same old: same routes, same workouts, same shoes, same fuel, same races? If so, no wonder you’re not improving. Though he probably wasn’t a runner, Albert Einstein supposedly said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Be sane – try something new.
That doesn’t mean you should make big changes. Suddenly doubling your long-run distance, lifting for an hour during your first gym visit in months, or cutting your kilojoule intake in half will only make you injured, sore, or starved. Instead, the answer is to strike that sweet spot between too much and too little, with a small step forward that ultimately leads to big rewards in your training and racing.
Any of the small changes here will yield measurable results.
1 Add One Strength-Training Exercise
Big reward: Injury prevention! Skipping strength training can hurt you – literally. “Strengthening lower-body and core muscles lets you handle the three to four times your body weight that’s absorbed with each step that you run,” says Jasmine Graham, a running and Team In Training coach. “A stronger runner is not only less injury-prone, but also a more efficient and potentially faster runner.”
Do it! No need to rush out and join a gym – these simple moves can be done, prop-free, at home. Add one to your routine whenever you’ll remember to do it.
How: Assume the push-up position, but with forearms instead of hands on the floor. Keep elbows under shoulders and stay aligned from head to heels. Keep abs and glutes tight while holding the position until you can’t maintain form. Try to do one plank a day.
Why? Strengthened core, quad, and upper-body muscles lead to improved running form and reduced injury risk.
How: Keeping right knee over right ankle and shoulders over hips, take a big step back with the ball of your left foot, bending the back knee. Push up to stand using your right leg. Do eight reps for each leg, five sets, at least twice a week.
Why? Besides lower-body and core muscles, this exercise strengthens the hip flexors, which are responsible for the entire stride cycle.
How: From standing, move as if you’re sitting down onto a chair. Keep feet shoulder-width apart, knees above toes, chest vertical. Do eight reps, five sets, at least twice a week.
Why? Strengthening your lower body and stabilising your core will give you a stronger, more efficient stride and make you less prone to knee injuries – knees absorb more road shock when your “running” muscles are weak.
2 Add A Kilometre To Long Or Tempo Runs
Big reward: Endurance. It takes just six weeks of covering the same distance on long runs before they start to lose effectiveness, says Troy Clifton, running/triathlon coach for C4 Endurance. “By adding a kilometre, you gain endurance as your lungs and muscles make new adaptations, and by teaching your body to hold onto the pace of those runs longer, you’ll also increase VO2 max, which helps you go faster at all distances.”
Do it! When you add a kilometre to a string of weekly long runs, drop back to your starting point every fourth week. “These breaks in mileage increases will allow the muscles to adapt to your fitness gains and rebuild,” Clifton says. For example, your long-run distances for eight weeks might be 11, 12, 13, 11, 13, 14, 15, and 13 kilometres.
Experienced runners who also do weekly tempo runs can apply the same pattern. Just don’t do this at the same time you’re lengthening long runs, because that can overload your mileage. And if you find your pace slipping on any runs – or if muscle soreness ever lasts for more than 48 hours – take a day or two off and switch to more gradual mileage increases.
3 Add One Daily Fruit Or Vegetable Serving
Big reward: Nutrients. Sorry, pancake lovers: “Though more than half of a runner’s kilojoules should come from carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables are the best sources because they’re so nutrient-dense,” says Jenny Maloney, dietitian and personal trainer. She adds that produce literally fills you up more than other foods. With less room in your stomach, it’s easier to resist low-nutrient and empty-kilojoule snack foods and beverages. And countless studies have shown that fruits and veggies protect you against upper-respiratory illnesses, heart disease, and many cancers.
Do it! A “serving” is a piece of fruit, a cup of raw leafy vegetables, half a cup of other vegetables, or half a cup of 100 per cent juice. Add one daily serving anytime, but Maloney says breakfast works well because you’re home and you can check it off your list early. Or replace a junk-food snack with a piece of fruit, which turns a bad choice into a good one. Due to the slow-digesting fibre content of fruits and veggies, however, avoid them in the last hour or two before running or sleeping (although juices are more easily digestible).
4 Add One Repeat
Big reward: Speed! Sure, you need to work toward doing your repeats faster, says coach Wilbur, but trying to drop time every week puts pressure on you. Sometimes it’s just as effective to add a repeat instead. “By upgrading speed and distance, you can step on the starting line thinking, ‘I ran my intervals faster and I did more of them,’” Wilbur says.
Do it! Wilbur offers a sample succession of eight workouts in the lead-up to a 5K race, starting with eight 400s that average out to 90 seconds each, with a 90-second recovery jog or walk. After improving by an average of one second per repeat for the next two weeks, add a ninth repeat (without speeding up) on week four, then go back to improving on the times. Adapt the times and distances to your own favourite workout.
- Week 1 8 × 400 at 90 Seconds Each
- Week 2 8 × 400 at 89 Seconds Each
- Week 3 8 × 400 at 88 Seconds Each
- Week 4 9 × 400 at 88 Seconds Each
- Week 5 9 × 400 at 87 Seconds Each
- Week 6 9 × 400 at 86 Seconds Each
- Week 7 8 × 100-Metre Strides
- Week 8 Goal 5K Race
5 Add One Nightly Half Hour Of Sleep
Big reward: You’ll be healthier, happier, and better prepared for your next run. Numerous studies have correlated more sleep with fewer illnesses and chronic diseases, plus improved mental performance and mood. And quality sleep helps you bounce back from workouts: “During deep, restorative periods of sleep, our bodies secrete human growth hormone, which can aid in muscle recovery following exercise,” says Matthew Buman, Ph.D., a sleep expert and assistant professor at Arizona State University, U.S.
Do it! “If you’re constantly tired, make your sleep a priority that’s on par with other aspects of your training,” says Cheri Mah, whose ongoing studies of athletes at the Stanford Sleep Centre suggest that athletic performance improves with greater sleep volume. The best way to add snooze time is to fall asleep earlier at night, because a consistent bedtime and wake-up time is key to getting into a good sleep rhythm. Set a daily alarm for 30 minutes before you want to hit the pillow as a reminder to start your winding-down routine. During that final half hour, avoid bright lights, laptops and TVs. Also, in the last two to three hours before bed, reduce liquid consumption and avoid caffeinated or alcoholic beverages.
For more tweaks, purchase a copy of Runner’s World magazine Australia & New Zealand (September 2014 issue).