We may not all be destined to become elite runners, but most of us feel pretty psyched when we see even small improvements. The older I get the more I look to small improvements for my motivation. The great thing with running, unlike many other sports, is that it's very simple to objectively measure progress. How are you progressing? Or have you got yourself into a rut?
The following check list may help you pinpoint areas of nutrition, training, motivation, injury prevention, or equipment to address that will help boost you to the next level.
1. Fuel right before runs - have a low fat meal or snack containing low glycemic index carbohydrates 1-3 hours before your run. I personally like oatmeal mixed with Cheerios before my morning run.
2. Core strengthening - Pilates, yoga or simply core strengthening weight workouts. Personalized programs help to strengthen core and major muscle groups important to running, as well as lengthen out tight areas. A more fluid moving, stronger, less injury prone body is the result.
3. Cross-train - even the worlds' fastest female marathoner-Paula Radcliffe-does some of her sessions on a Nordic track (a machine which mimics cross-country skiing). Water running and cycling are also useful to maintain cardiovascular fitness without the constant impact and injury risk. I finally bought a bike a month ago and I love it!
4. Refine your running technique - Your podiatrist or physical therapist can help you with gait analysis. Improving technique can not only make you a better runner, but you may feel less soreness and reduced injuries.
5. Aim to be a healthy weight - a BMI (body mass index) of 20-25 gives us a rough indicator. Running becomes more difficult when we gain weight, conversely, becoming underweight may negatively affect performance and health. I can admit that I actually have gained weight and became faster!
6. Increase milage gradually - the general rule is no more than a 10% increase in mileage each week. This decreases the injury risk, and gives the body time to adapt to increased stress and improve.
7. Wear appropriate shoes - that are comfortable and functional for your foot type; and above all learn to recognize when they are past their use-by-date to help avoid injury. Five hundred miles or 6 months are the expiration dates on running shoes!
8. Start runs hydrated - and carry sports drink or gels on runs that are longer than 60-90 mins. Losing even 2% of our body weight through sweat can affect performance. Providing carbohydrate and electrolytes during longer races, will also be a huge benefit to your final time. Weigh yourself before and after a run. Make sure you replace your fluids!
9. Run with a group - if you find it difficult to stay motivated, running with a group, or a running peep can give you a time and place to be consistent with your running.
10. Get in the zone - Load your mp3 with music that uplifts you. Buy run gear you feel great and comfortable in, or map out new run routes to stay inspired. Mix it up!
11. Find a great massage therapist - regular massage improves mobility and flexibility of the muscles, increases blood flow, and relaxes the muscle. All this means recovery from a hard session or race (normally 48-72 hrs) can be reduced by up to 50%! A good massage therapist can also pinpoint problem tight areas before they become injuries. I love mine although I scream when she hits my sore spots!
12. Learn to run faster - do 1-2 runs every week that challenge your pace. This may be an anaerobic threshold run where you hold a faster pace for eg 20mins during your normal run. Other options are hill fartlek sessions-where you run an undulating loop, pushing hard on the uphills-or interval sessions - where a shorter distance is run hard, with a few minutes of jogging between eg 5-6 x 1 mile or 6-8 x 800m.
13. Find a mentor or supporter - this may be someone you admire as a runner, or who makes you feel enthusiastic about your running goals. It may be your coach, partner, or another runner who you catch up with regularly to talk life and running.
14. Set goals with training and racing and follow a program. Like anything in life, we are more likely to be successful with a clear vision and tactics.
15. Eat right after runs - consume a meal or snack containing 1-2g carbohydrate/kg of body weight and some protein immediately after runs longer than an hour. I personally drink an Ensure or protein shake as soon as I stop sweating! Glycogen (the muscles main energy source for running) is replaced much faster in this period immediately post training.
16. Utilize and learn to love ice-baths - or cool water soaks, especially after long or hard runs. The effect on recovery is amazing.
17. Race - there's nothing like a race situation to push you to the next level, while also giving you a sense of accomplishment. It's amazing how the legs find a new gear to train at as well!
18. Learn to train easy - we are not invincible, and do not become great by running hard every day. In fact injury and chronic fatigue is the more likely outcome! Recovery runs or easy days are crucial to gain the benefits from our harder runs. Do a daily check...are you fatigued when you wake up? That's a day to pull out your bike or run easier.
19. Enlist specialists - get professional advice when needed from qualified and respected Sports Podiatrists, Nutritionists, Physical Therapists, Sports Physicians, Chiropractors, Exercise Physiologists, Coaches, and even Sports Psychologists!
We are unique individuals, and one formula will not be right for everyone. It takes time to figure out what works best for us, but the important thing is that you learn from experience, and enjoy the process of becoming a better, stronger runner