Our expert guide will help you become a better, stronger and injury-proof runner, whether you’re a veteran or just starting out
We humans rose to the top of the food chain because our big brains helped us out-smart both predators and prey. Stands to reason, right? But it might actually be our heart, lungs and legs that allowed our brains to get so big in the first place. As a species, we are really good at running. Indeed, our capacity to run for hours on end is incredibly rare in the animal kingdom, and it’s possible that we are only here today because our ancestors evolved this ability as a hunting tactic to exhaust even the bigger and stronger prey trying to escape them. The endurance running hypothesis, a well-studied field of anthropology and human evolution, claims it was our long-distance running ability that gave these small groups of hunter-gatherers the essential animal fats and protein that allowed them not only to survive, but to thrive.
These days our survival doesn’t depend on an ability to out-last a mammoth, but regular running will increase your life expectancy as well as your life quality. It will make you fitter, healthier and even happier – numerous studies have shown that running significantly reduces your likelihood of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, while improving mood and heightening feelings of energy and well-being.
In short, we should all be running more. After all, it’s the cheapest and easiest way to boost your health, your fitness and your mood – all you need is a bit of time and effort (and the right pair of running shoes). And thanks to these tips from some of the UK’s top runners, coaches and experts, you can now make that effort take you further – faster.
As with everything in life, it pays to prepare. If you’re getting into running with no long-term goal in mind, that could simply mean deciding how often you’re going to run – but if you have an event lined up, selecting a training plan should be the first thing on your to-do list.
1. Have A Plan
Whether your aim is simply to finish your first proper race or smash your marathon personal best, you need a plan or else you run the risk of getting nowhere fast. “You have two options: find a good off-the-peg plan, or ask a qualified running coach for a bespoke one,” says elite runner and coach Shaun Dixon (letsgetrunning.co.uk). “Generic plans are available for free and based on achieving a set distance in a target time and many runners have used them to good effect. Make sure it’s been put together by an expert and that you understand the rationale behind each session. This will allow you to make small changes based on your weekly schedule and how you progress.”
2. Get An MOT
Before embarking on your plan it can be worth getting a once-over to correct any minor niggles or running technique flaws that could develop into major problems, especially if you have a history of injuries.
“If you’re going to start running in a serious way, it’s essential you identify and correct poor habits as early as possible, which will make training much more beneficial and pleasurable,” says Dixon. Schedule an appointment with a physio or sports masseur who will be able to highlight any weaknesses, stiffness or imbalances. “Having an expert evaluate how you run will bring to light any weaknesses or idiosyncrasies that, if left unchecked, could end in pain or injury down the road.”
3. Consider A Club
Running solo can be one of life’s great joys but if you’re knocking out several runs a week as part of a training plan, doing some of them with other people is a great way to stay motivated, make friends, and discover new places to run. You’ll find free running groups in most cities around the UK now – many specialist running stores stage several group runs each week – or you can look into joining your local running club. Rest assured that you don’t need to be a speedster to join – they cater for all abilities.
The first item on your shopping list should be a good-quality pair of running shoes. That doesn’t necessarily mean spending a huge amount of money, but it does mean spending some time working out what the right pair for you is. This guide from the experts at specialist running shop Runners Need will help.
4. Get Gait Analysis
A free gait analysis service is offered at many specialist running stores, including every Runners Need store. You’ll be videoed while running on a treadmill for a couple of minutes and the footage is then played back (in freeze-frame if necessary) to assess your foot plant, stride and running pattern. This information is then used to find the best shoe for you, though it should be said that you shouldn’t value your gait analysis results over and above what your feet are telling you. Generally the best rule to follow is that if you really like how a shoe feels on a trial run, that’s the shoe for you.
5. Choose The Right Type Of Shoe
Consider where you’re going to be running and buy shoes that will be suitable for the terrain. If most of your training is off-road, then road shoes with built-up heels are unsuitable because you will be more unstable and could turn an ankle. Similarly, a pair of trail running shoes with deeply studded outsoles will be very uncomfortable on paved roads, because the studs will press into the soles of your feet.
6. Go For A Trial Run
Buying your running shoes is a big investment – so you should always test any shoes properly before buying them. Padding around on a carpet in the shop certainly won’t replicate how the shoes will feel when you’re running in them. Instead, you should “road test” them on an in-store treadmill.
7. Don’t Wear Your Shoes Out
Your running shoes will take a great deal of pounding across a wide range of surfaces and in all weathers, so they will need to be replaced fairly frequently. Generally you should replace a pair after 500-600 miles (800-960km). Exactly how often you need to buy new shoes will depend on your weight, running style and choice of terrain, but you should always avoid trying to squeeze a few extra weeks out of shoes that are evidently worn out, because the shoes won’t give you the protection you need and you’ll increase your chances of getting injured.
8. Select Smarter Socks
You should always wear the socks that you intend to run in when you go for a shoe fitting. The thickness of your sock can make a big difference to the fit and feel of your shoe, particularly as your feet expand in the heat. Runners should wear running-specific socks because they have extra padding across the ball of the foot, the toes and the heel area. This extra padding cuts down on impact and protects important areas that can blister. There’s also usually padding or a tighter area through the arch to allow the shoe to fit more closely and add better arch support.
9. Round Out Your Running Wardrobe
Once you’ve got your running shoes and socks sorted it’s time to focus on the rest of your kit. T-shirts and shorts are usually the staples of any running wardrobe and the key things you want your kit to be are lightweight, breathable and sweat-wicking. Beyond that it’s all about the weather you’ll be facing. If you’re training outside through the winter then a running jacket that protects you from the wind and rain is a worthwhile purchase, and base layers and running tights can also be vital allies in your battle against the cold.
When you first start running your aims will probably be simple and not focused on speed – to get fitter, or to spend more time outdoors, for example – but after a while you’ll almost certainly start considering how you can become a better, faster runner. These tips will help.
10. Run Your Routine
The key to becoming a better runner, whatever your distance, is consistency. “The more regularly you run, the sooner you’ll see an improvement in your cardiovascular fitness, an increase in both your sustainable pace and your all-out speed, and better recovery,” says Dixon, before adding a slight caveat. “This only applies if you follow a sensible, realistic and progressive training plan, and be smart with how you execute it. Schedule long runs on days when you are most likely to be able to fit them in. You need to be consistent, but you also need to be realistic.”
11. Get Stronger
“If you want to be speedy, first get stronger,” says Dixon. “Build strength in your glutes, legs and core, as well as improving your hip, knee and ankle strength and mobility, and working towards better flexibility. Start to think like an athlete and you’ll start to perform like one.”
12. Train Faster
Runners of all levels can benefit from adding speed intervals to their routine. Interval training not only helps you get quicker, it also sharpens up your running form and, crucially, livens up your training, because sticking to the same steady 5K for all your runs will start to get seriously boring after a while.
The length and speed of intervals you do will vary depending on your overall goals, and you can also do individual sessions in which you change up the length and pace of your intervals. Here’s a short, sharp interval session suggestion from Dixon.
“Short, fast interval sessions will quicken your sustainable speed,” says Dixon. “Intervals should last no longer than 90 seconds so you can maintain an intensity of around 85% of your maximum effort throughout. Rest between each interval should be three to four times the length of the drill, to allow you to maintain sprint quality.”
He recommends starting with ten reps of around 40 seconds. “If you slow down during a sprint, end the session because only quality reps improve speed,” he says. “You will experience a significant lactic acid build-up through these drills, which is ultimately the aim of the session. The better you are at tolerating lactic acid the quicker you’ll run.” Warm up thoroughly first.
13. Work On Technique
When you first start running you’ll find that you make huge gains purely by being consistent as well as increasing the frequency and quality of your training . Over time, however, you might also benefit from tweaking your running technique, though trying to change this without an expert on hand can be tricky.
“Your posture should be standing tall, holding your hips high, and leaning forward slightly from your toes,” says Dixon. “You should be able to draw a straight line through your ears, shoulders and hips. You want to minimise lateral movement at your shoulders and hips, and minimise torso movement by dropping your shoulders and driving your arms backwards from the shoulder joint.”
One thing you can work on easily by yourself is your running cadence – the amount of steps you take a minute. Most running watches monitor this for you, and the aim is generally to increase your cadence to improve efficiency and also reduce injury risk.
“Your goal is to spend less time in contact with the ground and prevent over-striding, because long, heavy strides are very inefficient – shorter and faster strides that include only a brief contact with the ground are far better,” says Dixon.
14. Run The Hills
Hill runs are the simplest form of speedwork session because they’re easy to plan, they don’t require much thinking and – while they hurt like hell – they’re over quickly. “Uphill sessions are great for the glutes, get your heart rate high and challenge your body’s ability to process lactic acid, a key factor in improving speed,” says Dixon. “Find a steep hill, run up it for 30 to 45 seconds fast, then walk back down and repeat for six to ten reps.”
Alternatively you could run down the hill. “Kenyan runners often use downhill sessions to improve foot turnover, because you have to keep your feet moving fast to prevent the heavy jarring of your joints,” says Dixon. “Find a hill with a slight incline. At the top stand tall, then lean forward with the hill as you start to run. Focus on picking up your heels quickly and employing short fast steps, making contact with the ground soft, light and fast.” Try six to ten reps of 30 seconds going downhill, jogging back up to the top after each one.
15. Run Strides
Strides are a training staple for elite runners – they can promote good form and get your legs ready to run a fast workout or race in the coming days.
“After a short easy-pace run, find a flat uninterrupted path or pavement between 80 and 100m in length,” says Dixon. “Run fast and smooth for the entire length. You don’t need to go ‘eyeballs out’ – aim for between 85% and 90% of your maximum effort while staying as focused and relaxed as possible.” Run six to eight reps with a slow jog or walk back to your starting position after each one, and do a stride session once or twice a fortnight.
16. Know Your Limits
“You don’t have to smash every run,” says Dixon. “Intense interval sessions and long runs are important pillars of a training plan but too much too often will fatigue you physically and mentally. Include some comfortable steady-state work and recovery runs to give your mind and muscles adequate recovery.”
Nutrition And Supplementation
Carbohydrate and fat are the key sources of energy for runners. You’ll burn more of the former when running at a moderate or fast pace, or running for a long time, and more of the latter when chugging along at an easy pace. It’s important to make sure that you are eating enough to fuel your training, and eating at the right times, especially in the build-up to a big race.
17. Don’t Delay Refuelling
Refuelling correctly after your run is vital, especially if you opt for a fasted run (see 19, below). “Your post-run meal will aid recovery so if you do run fasted, it’s vital to eat a proper meal containing carbs for energy replacement and a good source of protein for muscle repair as soon as possible,” says performance and clinical dietitian Renee McGregor, author of Training Food.
18. Eat The Right Carbs
“For any run lasting more than 90 minutes some easily digestible carbs – a smoothie, banana on toast or porridge with honey – in the hour or two before you start will improve performance,” says McGregor. “You should also ensure you eat enough carbs over the last 24 hours before the run so your muscles’ glycogen stores are filled. This is essential for longer, more intense runs so that your body has all the easy-to-use fuel it needs to perform consistently well for the whole session.”
19. Try Running Hungry
“I recommend running in a fasted state for slow to moderate runs lasting up to 90 minutes, which means not eating in the two hours before setting out, or running first thing before breakfast,” says McGregor. “This improves your body’s ability to tap into fat stores for fuel, which makes you a more efficient runner (as well as helping you lose weight). If you’re new to running you need to work up to training in a fully fasted state, because it can suppress your immune system if you don’t give your body time to properly adjust.”
20. Call On Caffeine
When you’re happy with the changes made to your nutrition and daily diet, you can select a few worthwhile supplements. The best supplements for runners are those that delay the onset of fatigue, such as caffeine. The active ingredient in your morning cup of pick-me-up is one of the most reliable endurance supplements available. Caffeine prolongs the length of time you can perform at high intensity and it also reduces your perceived rate of exertion, which means you feel as if a particular physical task is less demanding than it truly is. This in turn allows you to keep performing at maximum intensity.
You can get running gels and sports drinks containing caffeine, or stick with your morning coffee. However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention a possible side effect of taking caffeine before a run, which is that it can make you need the loo. Rather badly. So make sure you’ve tried your caffeine supplements before race day to ensure your PB bid isn’t scuppered by an unexpected trip to a Portaloo.
21. Eat Your Greens (And Reds, Purples And Yellows)
Runners rightly obsess over how they can best reduce their risk of injury, but illness can scupper a training plan just as quickly as a dodgy knee, especially if you’re training through the winter for a spring marathon. Make sure to eat five portions of fruit and veg a day at the very least, and look to get a variety of colours on your plate to ensure your body has all the nutrients it needs to stay healthy during a demanding training plan.
Running is your focus but it’s not the only exercise you should be doing. Strengthening your legs and core will help you run faster, longer and reduce your risk of injury, while other forms of cardio can improve your fitness while avoiding the impact that running has on your body.
22. Strengthen Your Legs And Core
Strength workouts should be on every runner’s training schedule, because a stronger leg is a speedier, more resilient leg. You don’t need to go all-out in the gym and suffer DOMS for days afterwards – four circuits of this simple bodyweight workout a couple of times a week will work wonders.
23. Take The Weight Off
“Swimming pools provide an excellent environment in which to conduct a recovery session,” says Nick Grantham, an elite coach who has worked with Olympic athletes and Premier League footballers. “Water provides buoyancy and resistance properties that allow you to complete training with minimal impact on the body. Many experts recommend completing a 20-minute pool-based recovery session the day after a tough training session or event.”
No matter how experienced or proficient a runner you are, rest days and recovery sessions are to be treasured. All the hard work you put in during tough training sessions only pays off if you give your body the chance to recover from that work. Warming down properly after each run and resting might seem like wasted time, but not doing so leads to fatigue, fatigue leads to injury, and injury leads to the dark side/not being able to run.
24. Always Warm Down
“A warm-down provides a period of adjustment between exercise and rest. It’s probably the most neglected part of a training session but you omit it at your peril,” says Grantham. “Implementing a proper warm-down will improve muscle relaxation, remove waste products, reduce muscle soreness and bring the cardiovascular system back to resting levels.” Spend ten to 15 minutes jogging, gradually reducing your speed every couple of minutes.
25. Invest In A Massage
“High-performance athletes are increasingly using massage in their recovery strategies, and it’s becoming more and more popular for recreational athletes too,” says Grantham. “The physical benefits may include increased blood flow, enhanced oxygen and nutrient delivery to fatigued muscles, increased removal of lactic acid and improving mobility. The psychological benefits should also not be underestimated – many report that it improves their mood.”
26. Get More Sleep
Yes, you can actually get faster while lying in bed. “Sleep is one of the most important forms of rest and provides time for you to adapt to the physical and mental demands of training,” says Grantham. “Sleep deprivation can result in a loss of performance, both from a single bad night’s sleep and from an accumulation of poor sleep over the course of successive nights. Cutting back on your sleep over the course of a week could push you into sleep debt and negatively impact performance.” Aim for at least seven but preferably eight or nine hours a night.
27. Easy Runs Should Be Easy
Slow, easy runs help you build and maintain your fitness while also allowing your body to recover from tougher sessions. It’s important not to let the pace creep up on these easy runs so you don’t work too hard. You should be able to hold a conversation while running (or if solo, sing along to the chorus of your favourite running song – quietly). If you use heart rate zones for training, stay in zones one and two during your easy runs.
Runners worry about injury a lot, and they talk about injury a lot, and they get injured a lot, but a few simple steps can greatly reduce your risk of suffering both minor and major niggles.
28. Scale Up Your Training Slowly
The fastest way to get injured is to suddenly ramp up either the amount or intensity of the training you’re doing. Following a training plan will help you to build the amount of running you do gradually, with one, two or, at maximum, three tough sessions like hill sprints or interval runs a week. As a rule of thumb, average out the distance you’ve run over the past four weeks, then plan your next week’s training off that number – you should be increasing your total distance by around 3-5km, not jumping 10-15km each week.
29. Focus On Your Feet
“Foot exercises are the most under-considered thing for runners,” says biomechanics consultant Travis Allan, who has worked with Olympic triathletes and elite athletes. “They’re important because if your foot isn’t hitting the ground properly you can develop common problems like runner’s knee or connective tissue pain.” Try these drills to improve your capacity to absorb the shock of each stride and prevent joint stress and strain.
Perform these exercises in order, either before a run or on non-running days. Some of the movements are subtle so to get the full benefit, follow the form guides and concentrate on the precise movements.
Foot eversion: Lie on your back with your knees bent and both feet flat on the floor. Secure an exercise band around your mid-foot (not your toes) on both feet so that there is a small amount of tension in the band when your feet are roughly shoulder-width apart. On one foot, tilt the heel and big toe inwards slightly, then sweep your foot outwards across the floor to create a stretch in the band. The movement will be subtle and you’ll know you’re doing it correctly if you feel a muscle contraction in the outside of your lower leg. Hold that position for a count of 6sec. Come back to the start position for 6-10sec and repeat that six times. Then do the same on the other foot.
Foot inversion: Lie on your back with your knees bent and both feet flat on the floor. Secure an exercise band around your mid-foot on both feet and cross one foot over the other. Let your heel roll outwards (but don’t tilt it so far that you’re on the side of your foot), then sweep your foot inwards until you feel a muscle contraction on the inside of your lower leg. Hold that position for a count of 6sec. Come back to the start position for 6-10sec and repeat that six times. Then do the same on the other foot.
Plantar flexion: Lie on your back with your knees bent and both feet flat on the floor. Take one foot back and place the top of that foot behind your other heel. Gently push the forefoot of your front foot into the ground, rotate your foot inwards slightly and pull it back in towards your other foot to feel your calf muscle engage. Hold that position for a count of 6sec, rest for 6-10sec and repeat that six times. Then do the same on the other foot.
Dorsiflexion: Lie on your back with your knees bent and both feet flat on the floor. Flex the toes on both feet to raise them off the floor but try to avoid pulling your whole foot off the floor. Hold that position for a count of 6sec. Come back to the start position for 6-10sec and repeat that six times.
Written by Joe Warner for Coach and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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