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For such a simple, innately human movement, running can be intimidating. Just the idea of lacing up may trigger feelings of inferiority. But devotees attest that no other form of exercise is as physically and mentally satisfying, and admittedly the rush of endorphins, aka “runner’s high,” can’t be beat. Neither can the calorie burn: The average woman blasts through more than 600 calories an hour when running at a 10-minute-per-mile pace. But before you burst out of the gates and run a 5K, there are a few things to know to help you progress and prevent injury.
Walk Before You Run
If you’re just starting out, you may be inclined to run like the wind, because after all, you already know how to run, right? And yeah, the calorie burn. However, it behooves you to be patient with your progress because going like gangbusters could do more harm than good.
“Like a car, your engine (your heart and lungs) is going to improve and get stronger quicker than your chassis — your soft tissues like your muscles, ligaments and tendons,” explains Danny Mackey, head coach of the Seattle-based Brooks Beasts Track Club. “What happens to a lot of people just getting into running is they get an overuse injury.” Common offenders include Achilles tendonitis (the inflammation of the tendon that connects the calf muscles to the heel bone), plantar fasciitis, which manifests as sharp heel pain, and “runner’s knee,” pain in your patellar area. While you should expect some soreness — since you’re literally building new muscle mass when you run — sudden or steadily increasing pain is your body’s way of telling you to back off. Rest until you’re feeling better, and adjust your training to incorporate fewer miles and more recovery time. If your symptoms persist or quickly reappear, get yourself evaluated by a medical professional.
Jason Karp, Ph.D., creator of the Revo₂lution Running certification program, encourages rookies to do what they can, using a walk/run approach, if necessary. “Run for 30 seconds, then walk for five minutes with intention, as though you are late to catch a flight,” he says. “Repeat that run-walk-run pattern until 30 minutes have passed.” Over time, he explains, your body will adapt, and you’ll spend more of that half-hour running than walking.
No matter what your level, the best way to improve your running — and avoid time warming the bench — is to adopt a carefully curated training plan that exhibits these hallmarks:
- A gradual progression of volume and/or intensity of no more than a 10 percent increase in mileage per week. So if you ran a total of 10 miles in week one, your mileage for week two should be no more than 11 miles.
- Variability in intensity from day to day. In addition to prescribing distances to run, your training program also should specify what kind of speed or effort you should apply.
- Inclusion of rest and cross-training days. Recovery is crucial for runners of all levels, and having the option to cross-train or take a day off will help you avoid overtraining.
Form for Function
If there’s one thing you don’t have to worry about, it’s achieving perfect form. “There’s not a right way to run — for anybody,” Mackey says. “We all have different mobility and ranges of motion, and optimal stride is unique to each person.”
However, you do need to consider a few general guidelines: Keep your chest up and your shoulders back to avoid slouching; swing your arms in a straight line forward and back, not across your midline; and with each step, aim to place your foot on the ground directly underneath your hips. “Running is about moving from one balance point to another, so your body must be properly aligned when the foot lands on the ground to create that base of support,” Karp says.
When it comes to motivation, nothing beats a specific goal such as completing a local 5K race, and in the beginning simply crossing the finish line is an admirable goal. But after a few events, you may want to better your time. Plus, revving your heart rate at high-intensity levels leads to excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, aka “afterburn,” which means your body is still cashing in calories long after your shower and post-run smoothie.
Shaving minutes off your time is a great goal, but you’ll need to adjust your programming to include more speed- and effort-based drills such as these below, according to Karp and Mackey:
- Add “strides” to the end of a long(er) run by running at a fast (but not all-out sprint) pace for 20 seconds, then walking back to your starting point. Repeat for eight intervals.
- In the middle of your longest run of the week, add six one-minute intervals running at a hard pace followed by running two minutes at an easy pace.
- Find a long hill (or crank up the incline on your treadmill) and sprint up it as fast as you can for 20 to 30 seconds. Jog back to your starting point and repeat for six intervals.
Upping the Ante
Already crushing 5Ks or ready to tackle longer distances? The 10 percent rule still applies. “A runner’s legs should be given a chance to fully absorb, adapt and habituate to the current workload before increasing that workload,” Karp says. And resist the urge to scrap all training variety in favor of long runs. Keep incorporating hill sprints, interval workouts and fartleks (“speed play”) runs into your rotation. Variability not only helps prevent injuries and overtraining but also bolsters your race-day performance. Running shorter distances can help you understand your pacing, which is clutch in longer races like half marathons and marathons. And training at different speeds and intensities will develop your slow- and fast-twitch fibers — both of which you’ll need to sail across the finish line.
As your distances get longer and your body spends more time under tension, you will need to adjust your fueling strategy. If your runs are about an hour, your body should have plenty of stored carbohydrates to give you the energy to sustain, and having a post-run snack or drink that combines carbohydrates and protein should be sufficient, according to Mackey. But if your workout is approaching the 90-minute mark, consider consuming some midrun calories in the form of drinks, bars, gummies or gels to replenish energy stores and prevent the breakdown of muscle tissue for fuel. Experiment to find a product that goes down easy and doesn’t upset your stomach.
Lastly, don’t ignore injuries. “Any sort of problem that you have in a 5K or 10K is just going to get magnified in a marathon,” Mackey says. Have any persistent pains, twinges and aches checked by a medical professional or movement specialist. Chances are, your issue is because of a muscular weakness or mechanical limitation, which can be addressed with strength training, stretching and mobility drills.
The Training Plan
This plan created by Danny Mackey includes two training tracks — Beginner and Advanced — and is designed to get beginners from the couch to the open road while offering more advanced runners an opportunity to become faster. On days that offer two different options, choose the one appropriate to your level. On cross-training days, do a full-body strength workout or another activity like yoga, cycling or a group fitness class.