The Complete Guide to Running for Health and Fitness
It is estimated, in a poll taken by the US a few years ago, that 1,648,273,000 people around the globe are runners. That’s an incredible number of people, but it’s really no surprise. There are good reasons so many people run for exercise, fun, fitness and health.
When you are sluggish or tired, running is a great way to boost your energy. Runners who run in the morning report that they have improved energy levels during the day.
In one meta-study, published in Psychological Bulletin, researchers analyzed 70 studies on exercise and fatigue involving more than 6,800 people.
More than 90% of the studies showed the same thing: Sedentary people who completed a regular exercise program reported improved fatigue compared to groups that did not exercise,” says O’Connor. “It’s a very consistent effect.
The results confirm that regular exercise increases energy and reduces fatigue.
The average effect was greater than the improvement from using stimulant medications, including ones used for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy.
Researchers say nearly every group studied, from healthy adults, to cancer patients, and those with chronic conditions including diabetes and heart disease, benefited from exercise.
When you run, you’re accomplishing something. Whether training for a race or trying to reduce weight, every step you take is an achievement and something to be proud of. Running motivates people for many different reasons. You may want to achieve a specific time or distance.
You may want to lower your blood pressure or cholesterol level. You might want to meet new people and have new experiences. Whatever your reason for running, once you take the first step, you’ll feel more motivated not only to run but to accomplish other goals and to have more adventures. The experience of running will infuse the rest of your life.
Wherever you start from, whether you’ve been exercising for years or are right off the couch, every day you run you have data to measure. If you start out your running program by walking for a mile for example, or alternating walking and running, then that mile and the time it takes for you to finish is measureable.
If you complete that mile faster the next day, then you can see your improvements. The ability to measure and track your results is one of the keys to success.
Personal Goals and a Feeling of Progress
Speaking of success, by learning how to set realistic and motivating running goals, you’ll create a pattern of success. Each day that you achieve your goals or make progress toward them will leave you feeling proud of your accomplishments and excited about your future.
You’ll also be surprised at how much running successes spill over into other areas of your life. You may find that your professional goals and other personal goals are easier to achieve.
There are a considerable number of health benefits that you’ll get when you start running. Among them are lowered blood pressure, lowered cholesterol, and a reduced risk of developing diabetes. It lowers your risk of osteoporosis and some cancers, also.
You’ll improve your quality sleep, boost your immune function, and rev up your metabolism. That increased metabolism will help you lose weight and burn fat. And if all of that isn’t enough, studies have shown that running helps improve your sex drive and your ability to focus and concentrate.
One of the cool things about running is that you need remarkably little equipment. Indeed, as long as you have the right shoes for your feet, the rest of the gear is optional. You can run in jeans and a button up shirt if you really want to. Not many people do because comfort is important. So let’s start with the shoes and work through the equipment you need, and probably want, to begin running.
There are hundreds of different types and styles of running shoes.
There are what are commonly referred to as minimalist or barefoot running shoes. These shoes are generally flat across the bottom, meaning the heel and the toes are at the same level.
Traditional running shoes have more cushioning in the heel than the toe, which ultimately places your heel higher than your forefoot.
There are also shoes that are highly structured and rigid. These shoes are designed to control the movement of your foot. They may have high arches and a heel that grips. They generally also have quite a bit of cushioning.
Note that minimalist shoes can have cushioning, too. Traditional shoes are designed generally to control pronation. Pronation is the direction in which your foot rolls.
For example, if you have high arches, then your foot may roll to the outside when it strikes the ground. If you have low arches, then you may roll to the inside of your foot. Neither of these is generally good for your feet, ankles, knees, and hips. You can even experience pain in your neck and shoulders if you have improper running form.
When you’re shopping for shoes, it’s important to find shoes that feel good on your foot and shoes that fit your style of running. For example, if you’re running on trails, you may want more cushioning for your foot and thicker tread on the bottom than if you’re running on a track. If you’re running on a track, you want light shoes that have a smoother tread.
It’s strongly recommended that you get a shoe fitting at a shoe store that specializes in running gear. They’ll video tape you running on a treadmill so they can get a firsthand view of how you run. They can then suggest a few running shoes for you to try on. When you’re trying on shoes look for shoes that:
• Feel comfortable through the toe box – not too tight or you’ll get blisters.
• Don’t slip in the heel.
• Provide the cushioning and support you want.
• Have wiggle room at the front of the shoe so your toes don’t hit the end.
• Bend in the right places. All shoes will have a bend across the top of your foot. However, if that bend is too deep it can cause pain and even damage to your foot.
• Have an appropriate heel/toe drop. This is the difference between the height of your heel and the height of your toe. The ultimate goal is for your foot to strike the ground in the middle of your foot. This is also called a mid-foot strike.
• You don’t want to heel strike or hit the ground with your heel first. You also don’t want to push off of your toes in the back. Both can cause overuse injuries like stress fractures as well as joint problems.
• You’ll want to experiment with different shoes to find the shoe that helps you have the best foot strike possible. This is why it’s helpful to head to a specialty store to get an expert opinion and to be able to try the shoes out on a treadmill.
Socks are another item you may need to experiment with. You’ll want socks that feel comfortable on your feet and don’t slip. Your socks should help prevent blisters, not cause them. Look for socks that wick moisture away from your feet rather than holding it in.
You may like socks that have added arch support. You may prefer socks that have lots of cushioning or no cushioning at all. You may also like toe socks. These are socks that fit like a glove fits on your hand. These socks can be good for helping proper foot strike as well as preventing blisters.
Shirts, Shorts, Pants and Outdoor Protection
The next store to hit is a store that provides a good selection of running shorts, shirts, and outdoor wear. Running shorts generally have briefs built into them. Some people like this but others prefer to run in looser fitting shorts.
You might even prefer to run in tights or Capri leggings instead. During the cooler months, you might enjoy wind pants or warm up pants. The key here is to find items that are comfortable. If you enjoy running in sweat pants, then that’s great.
On top, you might want a tank top or t-shirt. Men, you may also need to pay attention to your nipples. The friction from your shirt when you run can cause them to get chafed and even bleed.
During the cooler months, you’ll want a windbreaker and/or a vest to help keep your core warm. Outdoor protection also includes gloves. If you’re running in an area where the weather gets cold and you know you may be running in snow, then consider buying a hat as well as something to cover your nose and mouth when the temperature dips below freezing.
If running in the cold temperatures and inclement weather isn’t for you, then rest easy. You can run indoors on a treadmill and stay comfortable. We’ll talk about choosing a treadmill in just a bit.
Good Support Undergarments
Good support undergarments are essential. There’s nothing worse than having sore bits and pieces. Women need a jog bra that holds the girls up and men need compression briefs for their nether regions. Don’t skimp on these items.
Treadmills are an exceptional addition to your running program. You’ll enjoy having it during bad weather days. You may also find it useful if you have to exercise early in the morning or late at night. Running alone in the dark can be dangerous. There are treadmills for every budget.
If you have a small space, you might prefer a treadmill that can fold up. If you have joint problems, then you may prefer a treadmill with extra cushioning. And if you enjoy watching television or listening to music, then check out some of the many treadmills with added media features.
Measure your space before you head out to find a treadmill. You want to make sure whatever equipment you choose will fit your space.
Okay, now we’re getting into the ‘nice to have’ area. These items aren’t necessary. However many of them will help you not only create your running program but will also make sure you are on track to meet your goals.
GPS watch – There are many levels of GPS watches. Some track your average pace and distance. Others will show your real time pace as well as elevation gain. Many allow you to upload your run data to your computer. Many of them also have heart rate monitor functionality.
Heart Rate Monitor – A heart rate monitor literally shows you how fast your heart is beating. This is important because it helps you understand effort a bit more. For example, you may know that if your heart is beating at 120 BPM, then you’re at a low to moderate effort, and if it’s up at 180 you may need to slow down.
A heart rate monitor generally requires two pieces of equipment; a strap that wraps around your chest, and a watch. The chest strap measures your heart beat as electrical impulses. It sends that signal to your watch, which displays your heart rate. There are some jog bras that have built in heart rate monitors.
It’s important to stay hydrated when you run. However, if you’re running for less than an hour or you’re running a short distance, you may find that carrying a water bottle or waist pack is more trouble than it’s worth. If you start a short run fully hydrated, you should be fine during the run.
If it is particularly hot out, you’re running for more than 45 minutes or you are chronically dehydrated, find a hydration system that works for you. Your choices are to carry a water bottle, to find a waist pack that works for you, or to look into a backpack hydration system. These are generally quite heavy and work best for longer runs.
This list of gear is by no means a comprehensive one; however it covers the most important items to consider before you begin a running program.
The Three F’s of Running
Running is something that many people believe we were born to do. We learn to roll over, sit, then crawl, walk and eventually we begin running. However, it’s easy to argue that when we were younger we probably had better running form.
For example, do you remember when you were younger and you ran so fast you had difficulty keeping up with your feet? You may have even stumbled and fallen. Believe it or not, this was due to good running form. So let’s start there. Let’s begin this section talking about good running form.
What Is Good Running Form and Why does it Matter?
Learning to run properly means reducing risks of injury. It’s that simple. But what isn’t simple is actually learning good running form. It takes time and patience.
As a new runner, it’s important to start slowly and to keep the various elements of good form in mind as you take those first steps.
So what is good form?
Good running form involves several key elements:
1) Keeping your stride under control. Many people believe that to run faster, you want to stretch your leg out in front of you. This is called over striding and it can cause your heel to strike the ground first. It can also cause injuries, pain, and a slower running pace.
The goal is to keep your weight over your feet. In the beginning, this may result in shorter strides. As you improve your form, you’ll learn how to take longer strides and still keep your weight over your feet. You know your stride and form are on the right track if you’re hitting the ground with your mid-foot.
2) A short, low arm swing. Keeping your arms relaxed and bent at a ninety degree angle is the first step. As you swing your arms, keep the swing short. The more you swing your arms, the more you’ll rotate your hips. This throws your stride off by shifting your weight.
3) Head up, chest high. When you get tired it’s easy to begin to hunch over. Most people spend a good portion of their day sitting down and this causes a curve in the spine. Try to keep your chest up and open to help improve your breathing and to keep your weight evenly positioned over your feet.
4) The Forward Lean. Stand up and place your feet under your hips. Now lean forward at your ankles. Lean forward far enough, it won’t take much, and you’ll be forced to take a step or fall over. This lean is what gives you forward momentum when you’re running.
The more you lean, the faster you’ll have to move your feet to keep up. Remember the example of running too fast when you were a kid and falling over? It was because you were leaning forward.
5) Breathe. It may sound simple, but many people have a shallow breath when they run. Try to take deep breaths from the belly, not from the chest. A moderate running effort will have you taking a breath in every two to three steps and releasing your breath for two to three steps.
It may sound strange to think that you have to learn to run. However, it’s important to keep these five points in mind as you begin your running program. Keep your weight over your feet and strike the ground with the middle of your foot, not your heel. Keep your arm swings short, take belly breaths and keep your chest open and tall. It takes time but with practice you’ll improve and prevent running injuries in the process.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to overestimate your current fitness level and overdo it on your runs. You won’t enjoy yourself. It’ll take a long time to recover, which means you won’t be running and you can get injured. Do yourself a huge favor and take some time to estimate your current fitness level.
Here’s how to get a good idea of how fit you are right now and where to start with your running program.
Go walk for one mile. Walk fast. This is not a casual stroll; it’s a brisk walk. When you’re done with your walk, take your pulse. Count the pulses in your carotid artery or the artery in your wrist. Count the beats for thirty seconds and multiply by two to get your heart beats per minute. You’ll repeat this exercise in six weeks to evaluate your progress.
Find a target heart rate chart and find your heart rate for your age and weight. Where do you fall on the chart? If your rate was anywhere above warm up or a moderate level, then it’s a good idea to begin your running program with a walking program first. You’ll need to train your cardiovascular system before you begin a full scale running program.
Consider walking every day, a brisk walk, for two to three miles. Track your heart rate as well as your breathing and perceived effort. If you can’t catch your breath, then slow your pace down. You should be working hard enough that you cannot easily hold a conversation but not so hard that you cannot speak clearly.
Putting the Fun in Your Run
Any exercise you do should be fun. If you’re not having fun, then it’s time to find another activity or to take steps to make running more enjoyable. Consider the following tips and ideas to add fun to your run.
• Run with people – run with friends or join a running club. If you’re a social person, then running with others can be motivating and enjoyable.
• Run somewhere interesting – some people enjoy running on a track because they enjoy the structure and consistency. Other people enjoy running on trails because they love nature. Run somewhere that is appealing to you.
• Listen – Many people listen to music when they run. If you are motivated or inspired by music, then by all means grab your MP3 player and get going. You can listen to podcasts and audio books, too.
• Get competitive – Why not train for a race? If you’re competitive by nature, then consider adding this element to your runs.
• Take care of your self – You’ll quickly learn that it’s less enjoyable to run when you don’t feel well. Get a good night’s sleep; eat nutritiously, and stay hydrated. Your runs will inevitably be more enjoyable if you feel strong and healthy.
The three F’s are an important part of making sure your running program is effective. Keep them in mind as you move into the third and final section, where we discuss how to create your running program.
Creating your own Running Program
You are armed with the right gear and equipment. You know what proper form is, how to make your run fun and how to gauge your current fitness level. Let’s start with setting goals.
Creating Your Running Goals
Goals are important because they help you create a plan and a running structure. They provide motivation and a means to measure your progress. There are many different types of goals to set. If you’re just beginning a running program, you might consider the following goals:
• Working your way to running a predetermined distance without stopping. For example, you might alternate walking and running for three miles. As your fitness improves, the amount of time you walk will decrease as your running increases.
• Running for a predetermined amount of time each day/week. For example, you might decide that you’re going to run for thirty minutes, six days a week.
• Building up to run a specific distance. For example, you might decide that a 5k is a good distance to aim for. Each day that you run, you run a little further until you reach your goal.
• Running at a specific pace. You might start off walking and work your way to running a ten minute mile.
Your goals don’t need to be running focused. You might decide to run to lose a specific amount of weight or to run to reduce your blood pressure or cholesterol.
If you’re overweight or you haven’t exercised in a long time, it’s important to start slow and build your endurance. It’s a good idea to begin your running program with a walking one. You might walk for five minutes and run for one or two, and alternate between the two for two miles.
Learn to measure and understand your body. It’s important to know how hard you’re pushing your body. Push it too hard and go out too fast, you may suffer injury. It’s called perceived exertion. There are actually many ways to determine how hard you’re working. One is to use a heart rate monitor.
You’ll need to determine your target heart rate and work out at 60-70% of your maximum heart rate.
A general approach is to subtract your age from 220. So if you’re 20 years old, your max heart rate would be 200 beats per minute. Sixty percent of 200 is 120 beats per minute.
Another way to estimate your exertion is to pay attention to your breathing. If you are taking a breath more than every two steps, you’re running too fast. Slow down. You should be able to take two to three steps per each inhale and each exhale.
Finally, it’s important to know that some days will be easier than others. You will have great running days and you’ll have bad running days. Be patient. Be persistent and have fun. The following tips will help you create a motivating and effective running plan.
• Start slowly. Run no more than three miles in the beginning. It’s better to run two and slowly increase your distance.
• Warm up beforehand. Spend some time warming up your muscles. Walk, jump rope or jog slowly to get your muscles ready.
• Stretch afterwards. Mobility and flexibility are important. If your muscles become stiff, your legs won’t be able to perform the running motion correctly. Stretch afterwards and allow your muscles to cool down.
• Fuel your body well. Many people actually gain weight when they start a running program. The reason is because they have a poor diet and their body is craving nutrients. Eat vegetables, protein, fruits and whole foods. Skip starchy carbohydrates – carb loading is a running myth.
• Eat a light and nutritious meal at least an hour before you run. When your run is over, fuel your body with something nutritious but not necessarily high in calories. A glass of milk and protein powder is a good post run snack.
• Schedule your runs. The only way to make running a part of your life is to make it a priority. Schedule your runs so that they actually happen each day. Many people run first thing in the day to ensure success.
• Track your results. You have goals and you have a plan. Now what? Now you track your progress. There are many running applications you can download and use.
There are social sites, as well, that help you connect with other beginning runners and track your progress. You can also create a spreadsheet or grab a notebook and jot down your running results each day
For example, if your goal is to work your way up to running three miles, each day you run you’ll record your distance. You might also jot down any notes about the run. They can be helpful.
• A new running program should ideally include four days of running each week. Take one day completely off and walk two other days. Alternate running and walking days. When you’re “running”, you will likely have to alternate walking and running.
For example, you’ll walk for two minutes and run for one. You’ll continue this cycle until you’ve completed two or three miles. As your fitness improves you can lengthen the time you run.
Running is an extraordinary exercise. It is excellent for your body and your mind. It’s also fun and can help you find the health and weight loss you desire.
Start slowly. Allow your body to ease into it.
Take great care of yourself and your running progress will increase as will your health and fitness.
A good running program is part of an overall effort to live a healthier lifestyle.
Top Image by Kevin Dooley, Creative Commons 2.0 License