“Fitness takes time.”
– Coach Greg McMillan
McMillan advises driven athletes from newbies to Olympic qualifiers who all have one thing in common: “They’re used to giving things 110 per cent, and they expect that’ll achieve fast results,” says the exercise scientist and running coach based. “But fitness should sneak up on you.” McMillan says performance gains come from training optimally, not maximally. That’s because “fitness” really refers to a set of complex biological processes that can’t be rushed.
Push too hard, too soon, and you’ll end up injured and discouraged. “But if you can stack up week after week of consistent training, you will see your fitness level go to places that you may never have thought possible,” he says. Here’s how to get there.
Honour your body’s timeline.
“Everybody’s ability to adapt and recover is different,” says McMillan. Training for 42K can take anywhere from 12 weeks to a year or more, depending on your age and fitness baseline. Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses – or anybody else.
Run by time.
McMillan likes to think of training volume in terms of minutes rather than KMs logged – it’s a more consistent way to prescribe increases to all levels of runners. “If your regular run is 30 minutes, increase by 10,” he says. Or bump up your long run by 15- or 30-minute increments. “That should challenge your body without overtaxing it,” he says.
Take time to prevent injury.
Fatigue or soreness should fade within a day, even after long runs. Lingering musculoskeletal pain – in muscles, tendons, bones, or ligaments – indicates that the body’s not fully recovering from each workout. The solution? Take a day off from running and maintain fitness on the elliptical, at the pool, or through yoga. “The ‘one more day of rest’ prescription works 99 per cent of the time,” says McMillan.
“A strong butt is the key to a happy life.”
– Dr Jordan Metzl
For years, Metzl ached as much as his patients: his knee (reconstructed after he tore his ACL) and hamstrings regularly complained about his running habit. “But I noticed that when I did lots of squats, they felt better,” says Metzl, an author, marathoner, and sports-medicine specialist who saw that even his strongest clients suffered from WBS (weak butt syndrome). Weak glutes not only make runners more injury-prone – they also hamper performance. “You can have great quads, but the butt is the engine,” says Metzl.
Try these three moves twice a week to build your buns. Says Metzl, “After about a month, you’ll have fewer aches and pains, you’ll feel a stronger kick, and you’ll fatigue less easily.”
Lunge one leg forward, keeping your trunk upright, your front knee directly over your toes, and your back shin parallel to the ground. Push through the heel of the front foot to return to standing, targeting both the quads and the glutes. Alternate legs for three sets of 12 repetitions.
Lunge forward as above, but instead of stepping back to standing, spring into the air to switch legs using a controlled motion and land as lightly as possible. Perform five sets of 15 repetitions on each leg (with 30 seconds’ rest between sets).
Squats from a Chair
Stand in front of a chair with feet slightly wider than hip-width. Keeping your back as straight as possible, slowly squat to sitting, then return to standing. Work up to six sets of 15 repetitions, then perform up to three, 15-repetition sets of single-leg squats.
“Eat delicious foods.”
– Chef Nate Appleman
Appleman, a James Beard Award-winning chef, weighed 113kg in 2007 when he became a dad – a role that inspired him to adopt healthier habits. So he took up running, shed 38kg, ran his first marathon in 2010 (New York City in 3:51), and came to realise that good food isn’t the enemy. “The biggest weight-loss mistake people make is eliminating food,” says Appleman, who found that denying himself every delicious edible on the table only prompted binge behaviours. “If you’re an overeater, absolutely reduce your intake, but running a lot gives you a pretty good pass.”
That’s why Appleman recommends that people establish a running routine first, then shape up their diet. “It’s human nature that when you make too many changes at once, they’re less likely to take hold,” he says. That advice applies to eating habits, too: incorporate one improvement, and once it’s established as habit, introduce another. Here are a few of Appleman’s favourites.
Eat a full, nourishing breakfast.
Appleman used to raid his pastry chef’s cookie jar every day at 3pm, but plumping up his breakfast cured his afternoon sugar cravings. Now he eats oatmeal with whole-fat yoghurt, nuts and a few really ripe bananas smashed in first thing in the morning. “It’s sweet, satiating, and starts my day off right,” he says.
Snack on filling foods.
When celery sticks don’t curb your cravings, reach for a hard-boiled egg or other snacks containing some fat, protein, or fibre. “If you don’t, you’ll become ravenous and eat anything and everything in front of you,” Appleman says.
Drink plenty of fluids.
“That’s a no-brainer,” says Appleman, who downs lots of water throughout the day. Other good choices are soda water or unsweetened tea.
Keep sugar in check.
Appleman doesn’t outlaw sweets, but he reaches for them last – after loading up on proteins, grains and vegetables. Even fruit (particularly juice) goes in the “watch it” category, because although the sugars give him a quick burst of energy, the subsequent crash leaves him lethargic – and reaching for more food. Says Appleman, “I go for vegetables first, fruit second.”
Boneless, skinless chicken? Fat-free yoghurt? Appleman says no to both. “They just don’t taste as good as full-fat foods, and they’re less satisfying.”
“If you’re not getting your period, that’s a problem.”
– Dr Laura Dunne
As a sports-medicine physician and a runner, Dunne often fields injury-related questions from women. But amid the talk of tendinitis, runners tend to ignore one less painful sign of overtraining: the lack of a monthly period. “Most runners don’t even recognise it as a warning signal,” says Dunne.
Unless they’ve gone through menopause, women should get regular periods. Their absence means that the body is not getting enough fuel for healthy reproductive life, says Dunne. The condition (called amenorrhea) can occur in any woman whose body fat levels dip below 17 per cent. And if you don’t have enough energy for reproductive health, you can bet your body’s not rebuilding muscle, either. “Post-workout recovery suffers, and injuries such as stress fractures become more likely,” Dunne says. That’s because the body borrows what it needs from bone tissue, which weakens the skeleton and may result in osteoporosis later in life. Once weakened by amenorrhea, bone density is not likely to rebound.
The solution? Take in more kilojoules, now.
Heavy training loads aren’t the culprit; if you’re at the peak of your marathon training and miss a period, you’re underfuelling. Remember: if you’re running more, you’ll need to eat more. If you’re playing catch-up, make those kilojoules heavy on healthy fats (which give your body the building blocks it needs to make hormones). Dunne recommends targeting nut butters, olive oil, avocado and fish-oil supplements.
“A little yoga goes a long way.”
– Yoga instructor Rebecca Pacheco
Runners tend to bring their competitive spirit with them to the yoga studio, says Pacheco, a yoga instructor and marathoner. But an hours-long asana marathon isn’t what most runners really need, because with yoga – as with running – consistency is key. “It’s better to do 10 minutes of daily yoga than an intense, 90-minute session once a month,” says Pacheco. Shorter, more frequent doses reinforce correct alignment and gently nudge muscles to relax. After your run and on your cross-training days, try these moves, which “support recovery and help prep muscles for your next workout,” says Pacheco.
“This pose lengthens the back of the body, including the spine, hamstrings, and calves – which are among runners’ most overused muscles,” says Pacheco. Starting on your hands and knees, lift your hips into the air, pointing your tailbone toward the ceiling while easing your heels toward the floor. “I encourage runners to move a bit in this pose, pedalling the feet to massage the plantar fascia,” she says. If the pose feels too intense for your hamstrings, it helps to bend your knees slightly. Hold for five to 15 breaths.
Legs Up the Wall
This pose “neutralises the spine and rests tired legs and feet,” Pacheco says. Lie down next to a wall, with your buttocks close to its base, and swing your legs up against the wall. Allow your arms to rest along your sides. Hold for up to 10 minutes.
Click here for Pacheco’s complete courses.
“Have a purpose for every workout.”
– Coach Jack Daniels
Two-time Olympic medallist Daniels has coached many elite runners to victory, and his proteges never just “go for a run”. Instead, the Daniels training philosophy (now offered to the public via the Run S.M.A.R.T. Project) assigns a purpose to every outing. All runners can benefit from giving each workout an objective – whether your goal is to build endurance for long events, ease into running after a layoff, or just socialise with a coworker, says Run S.M.A.R.T. Coach Mike Smith. If you can’t pinpoint what you’re trying to achieve, you won’t know when you’ve succeeded (or failed). For example, during a dress-rehearsal long run for a marathon, your focus should be on mastering your gear and fuelling strategies; nailing those constitutes a victory, no matter how light or heavy your legs feel. Here are the possible goals of some common workouts, and how to make sure you succeed.
|To establish an aerobic foundation, to recover from a hard workout, and/or to return from injury or illness
|“The run should feel comfortable,” says Smith. You should be able to talk in complete sentences at all times.
|To improve running economy and speed
|The faster you run, the longer you need to rest between bouts: Without sufficient recovery, form breaks down. Run 200- to 400-metre repeats at your current 1600m race pace, followed by an easy jog over the same distance.
|To build speed and endurance
|To reap the most benefits, these moderately hard-paced runs should be broken up with rest periods say, 60 seconds every 1600m of a 6.4km workout. “Faster is not better,” says Smith.
|To build endurance, to strengthen the musculoskeletal system, and/or to improve the body’s ability to burn glycogen and fat as fuel
|Don’t worry about running too slow, especially if you’re new to going long. “Your focus is distance, not pace,” says Smith. Run comfortably so you’re able to complete the entire workout.
“Train your gut.”
– Liz Applegate
“So many runners don’t train with fuel, yet they plan to use sports drink or gels on race day,” says Applegate, former Runner’s World columnist and director of sports nutrition at the University of California, Davis. The unfamiliar addition can wreak havoc on runners’ systems – and sabotage what might’ve been a great race. So Applegate urges runners to practice using mid-run carbohydrates during the month before any big race on runs lasting an hour or more. “Even if you can run without it, do it to give your gut some training,” she says.
Research in animals indicates that ingesting carbohydrates during exercise increases the number of transporters in the gut, enabling the body to absorb fuel more efficiently. “On long runs, take in 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour,” Applegate says.
If you get to race day and you haven’t practised, try rinsing your mouth with sports drink during the race. “Studies show that the mouth’s carbohydrate receptors are wired to the brain,” she says. Swishing and spitting a carbohydrate-rich drink (like you would with mouthwash) yields a boost and risks no stomach upset.
“Be in the moment.”
– Dr Darren Treasure
The sports psychologist for the Nike Oregon Project says that almost all runners – from the elites he works with to back-of-the-packers – experience racing-related anxiety. The key is to stay focused on the here and now, Treasure says. You can’t control how you’ve trained (or not trained), nor can you predict your results. But by directing your attention to factors that you can influence on race day, you’ll reduce your stress. Here’s how.
Focus on your process goals, not the outcome.
Remind yourself of your fuelling plan and how you plan to pace yourself – the things you can control. “You immediately feel a lot more relaxed,” says Treasure.
Repeat a mantra.
“Use a word that creates a sense of security,” says Treasure – among athletes’ favourites are “courage”, “fighter”, and “relax”. Repeat them during successful training sessions as well, to establish a connection between that word and your goal mind-set.
Treasure encourages his runners to log 10 minutes of controlled breathing each day, because “when you’re anxious, your breaths become very short and shallow, which actually precipitates more anxiety,” he says. Practise drawing in long, slow breaths that originate from the diaphragm and move up through the chest, expanding the shoulders. Then exhale. Says Treasure, “You can feel the relaxation response within just a few breaths.”
Just as runners can imagine moments of triumph during the race, they can also imagine themselves feeling peaceful and confident. “Visualisation primes your brain to be able to do something, whether that’s a job interview or relaxation,” Treasure says.
So you’re having negative thoughts? Don’t beat yourself up about feeling tense, says Treasure. “Just reframe your focus to get it back onto the positive.”
|“Think of the colour of a smiley face,” Hadfield says. “You should be able to have a conversation, talking in full sentences.”
|“You can still talk, but in one- or two-word responses,” she says. You’ll hear your breathing, but should still be in full control of your form.
|You’re moving into the anaerobic zone, so “you should feel like you’re breathing hard, reaching for air,” Hadfield says.
“Run by effort, not pace.”
– Coach Jenny Hadfield
As Hadfield, a 20-year veteran running coach, has seen watches evolve from analog to GPS, she’s noticed her clients becoming more and more tuned in to the feedback coming from their wrists. But her own running heroes– Joan Benoit Samuelson, Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers, to name a few – notched their benchmark performances sans gadgets. “We’ve gone from listening to our bodies to being guided by a number,” says Hadfield. Your goal pace doesn’t account for weather, terrain, mood, and other variables, so runners sometimes push themselves too hard while pursuing it. “It can also leave a lot of potential PBs out there,” says Hadfield, who’s seen runners balk at numbers that they’re capable of achieving. “The goal is to let your body do what it’s ready to do on any given day.”
So Hadfield created a three-zone effort spectrum that runners can visualise: yellow for easy, orange for moderate, red for hard (see chart, above). Here’s how to use the effort spectrum at your next race.
Newbies should spend the first three kilometres in the yellow zone before shifting into orange. Seasoned runners should warm up in the yellow zone, then split the race evenly between orange and red.
First-timers might run the whole race in the yellow zone. “Experienced racers will drop the yellow zone entirely, using it only to warm up,” Hadfield says.
First-timers should spend the first 11 kilometres in the yellow zone, increase to orange for kilometres 12 to 19, then redline it for the final push. Experienced racers can run the first 8 kilometres in the yellow zone and kilometres 10 to 18 in the orange zone, then redline to the end.
First-timers should stay in the yellow zone for the first 22 kilometres, orange for kilometres 24 to 38, then red. Experienced racers should spend the first 16 kilometres in the yellow zone, increase to orange for kilometres 17 to 35, then redline to the end.
“Hug it out.”
– November Project’s Brogan Graham
November Project cofounder Graham spends a lot of time on social media, but virtual community isn’t what pried him out of bed for morning workouts with his friend, Bojan Mandaric: “Real-life human connection motivated the duo to honour their early winter fitness resolution, and it’s what has prompted thousands of others to embrace – figuratively and literally – their group sweat sessions.” Before every November Project workout (held in cities in North America, Europe and Asia), everyone engages in a group hug. And in Madison, Wisconsin, US, the hug follows the run. “Sweaty hugs are pretty gross,” Graham says. Even dry hugs are too weird for some, who do one workout and never come back. “But for those who remain, it creates a good vibe between people who want connections,” says Brogan. That’s something online media can’t do, because it allows people to hide behind their screens.