You can become a runner, even if the only sprinting you currently do is when the pizza delivery arrives.
Running used to be chic. A certain cachet surrounded the sport in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Even famous gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson got in on the athletic action, covering the 1980 Honolulu marathon for Running magazine, shining a light on what he then deemed a “strange new phenomenon”.
“Why do these buggers run?” he asked. “What kind of sick instinct, stroked by countless hours of brutal training, would cause intelligent people to get up at 4 in the morning and stagger through the streets of Honolulu for 26 ball-busting miles in a race that less than a dozen of them have any chance of winning?”
In an age where hybrid exercise classes have become the new normal (think “power yoga”, where eastern philosophy merges with strength training or F45 training, aka “The Wolverine Workout”), plain old running has fallen out of favour somewhat. But, just as flares, statement shoulders and oversized suits have made a comeback, it’s high time running did too.
“Running is a really easy form of exercise and you get so much bang for your buck,” says Dr Philo Saunders from the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). “You only need a pair of shoes and some shorts to go out. It’s cost-effective and you can do it anywhere.” Saunders has an exceptional CV: Australian Olympic and Paralympic coach, a top-ranked middle
distance runner in Australia over the past decade and a scholar with a doctorate on running economy under his belt. (Running economy is defined as the volume of oxygen required per kilometre, relative to body mass, to run at a submaximal speed).
“Exercise in general improves quality of life and life expectancy and prevents a lot of metabolic diseases that occur from lack of exercise. You also feel better about yourself when you’re fit and healthy.”
“The health benefits of running are huge,” he says. “Exercise in general improves quality of life and life expectancy and prevents a lot of metabolic diseases that occur from lack of exercise. You also feel better about yourself when you’re fit and healthy.”
For the benefit of any newbies, I grill Saunders on the biggest errors fledgling runners make. “The boom or bust mentality – trying to do too much, too soon. That’s the most common mistake,” he says. “A gradual build-up is the key to avoiding injury. Gradually build up your fitness levels and capabilities by ‘walk-jogging’.
“For the general population starting out, three runs a week is fine,” he advises. “Start with a walk-jog and, as things become easier, increase your running time. You might find yourself running faster each time – a natural progression in intensity.”
To break your training down, he recommends month-long blocks. “Build up to three runs per week with a walk-jog. The next month, you might build into four runs per week. Once you are doing that well, you can do two days on, one day off. To get right into it, work up to five runs per week to really improve your fitness.”
To mix up your training, Saunders suggests soft-sand running or hill sprints: “You’ll get your heart rate up higher running hills than flats,” he says. “If you have built up a bit of fitness, do a 10 to 15 minute jog warm-up, find a hill of medium gradient and do 6-8 runs up a minute followed by an easy walk or jog.
“Soft-sand running can be used for strength training because it’s a lot harder and if you run on any surface with bare feet, you will increase foot and lower-leg strength. When you run barefoot, you naturally go for a better foot placement because you don’t want solid impact on your heel.”
So does this mean special running shoes aren’t necessary? Saunders says that highly-structured, cushioned shoes can lead to poor mechanics because people rely on their shoes too much and land heavily on their heels. He recommends less-structured shoes with a small sole so runners can feel the ground better.
“But essentially, building good mechanics is the most important part of running and most people should be able to run in any pair of shoes,” he says.
What is absolutely essential, however, is stretching. “I find dynamic stretching more beneficial than a static quad or calf stretch,” says Saunders. “Stretching is more about muscle activation. For good running technique, you need to activate your glutes and hamstrings.
That’s the area where you generate a lot of power, so it’s important to activate these muscles with leg holds or some high-knee walks.”
What else should novice runners be aware of? “They have a tendency to overstride,” Saunders says. “Good technique is trying to pre-activate the landing. All the power comes from the ground and the kickback phase. So when you hit the ground, you’re pulling back on the hamstrings and glutes for power. You need to pre-activate that by landing under the centre of mass. Try to land [on the] mid-foot or ball [of the foot].”
It’s also important to relax your body and your breathing. “If you hunch up or hunch forward, you are affecting oxygen utilisation because your chest is compressed. Over-rotation of arms is also problematic – if your arms are going across your body as you run, it wastes a lot of energy, so try to minimise that and run in economy.”
Of course, what we all want to know is: will it help you lose weight? According to Victoria’s Secret Angel Adriana Lima it can. “It really does the trick. My body really transforms from just 30 minutes a day.”
But, as Saunders warns, all that exercise can make you hungry, so if weight loss is your goal, you need to find the right balance between energy in and energy out. He recommends consistency, patience and taking your time: “If you keep building and get into serious running, you can strip the weight off.”
As well as helping improve your physical fitness, running can also have a positive effect on your psychological well-being. Bill Rodgers, who won the Boston Marathon four times and penned The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Running, confirms the mental health benefits: “When I was at my depths, running gave me back my self-esteem.” He sums up the runner’s philosophy perfectly: “When you’re a runner, life is better.” Try it and see!
Words by Danielle Jackson
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