Ready to lace up your running shoes?
Whether you’re training for your first race, want to be more active, or seek to cut minutes off your run times, here are 10 tips from doctors in the know:
1. Set a goal
Setting a goal, along with a timeline to accomplish that goal, is key, said Matt Axtman, DO, a sports medicine specialist with Spectrum Health Medical Group.
Your goal may be running for 30 minutes straight without any walking, running a 5K in 25 minutes, or completing a marathon in five hours.
A specific goal is the first step toward a runner making strides.
2. Select a program
After setting a goal, selecting a program and schedule is the next major step.
“The Internet is a wealth of information,” Dr. Axtman said.
Whether it’s an 8-week plan to go from running to walking or beginner’s guides to running 5Ks or 10Ks, Google can help you find pretty much anything. Runner’s World, the popular international magazine and website, also offers a variety of plans for less than $10.
3. Cross training
On days when you’re not running, continue to do athletic activities, whether it’s lifting weights, hiking or other sports.
The most fit athletes are multi-sport athletes, Dr. Axtman said, citing Bo Jackson, a former professional football and baseball player, and Cal Ripken Jr., a baseball Hall-of-Famer known as “The Ironman” because he has the longest consecutive-games-played streak. Ripken was both a soccer and baseball player growing up.
“If you want to be an elite runner, it’s more than just running: It’s weight-lifting, it’s cross-training,” Dr. Axtman said. “We don’t like to see single-sport athletes, they tend to get overuse injuries and fatigue injuries.”
4. Listen to your body
“You’re going to have a normal soreness and achiness (after you run),” Dr. Axtman said. “That muscle fatigue is going to be there.”
But with rest and stretching, that should go away in no more than a few days, he said. If you have pain, apply ice to the affected area to reduce inflammation. If the pain lingers for more than a week, don’t push it.
And if rest doesn’t cure the pain, see a professional.
“Something that might not be a big deal initially, it could become a big deal and cause major problems if you don’t listen to your body and push it too hard,” Dr. Axtman said.
5. Proper shoes
Footwear is important, Dr. Axtman said. Having the wrong shoe can alter your gait, which can lead to more stress on the ankles, knees and lower back, and ultimately lead to injuries.
His advice? Get your foot and stride evaluated at a store that sells athletic footwear. They’ll help you select the proper shoe.
“Also, pay attention to the mileage,” Dr. Axtman said. “Shoes typically last from 300-500 miles. After that, the soles start to wear out, the cushioning starts to wear out, which can alter your mechanics and lead to injury.”
6. Outdoors vs. Treadmill
All running is helpful, Dr. Axtman said.
When coming back from injury, treadmills are recommended because they have more cushioning and bounce, which leads to less impact on the body. But running on the road tends to be more difficult because there are hills and the surface material is less forgiving.
If you choose to run on a treadmill, change the incline to 2 percent, which will approximate the difficulties of running outdoors and keep you on track with your training schedule, he said.
7. Weight lifting
“You don’t need to do intense weight-lifting—you don’t need to be buff and Arnold Schwarzenegger-like,” Dr. Axtman said. “But you want to be strong, and that’ll help you run better times and run longer distances.”
Weight-lifting allows the body to perform at optimum levels.
“It’s like driving in your car,” he said. “If alignment is off, your car is going to shake. And that’ll affect gas mileage (and) it’ll burn gasoline more quickly. If there’s one thing with your car, it affects all the other systems. Same with your body.
“When you’re running, you’re using core muscles to provide stability, along with your spine, and you use your shoulders and upper muscles to provide torque. It’s all important. It’ll all help you.”
8. Running partners
Unless you’re incredibly self-motivated, keeping to a training program can be difficult. Studies have shown, however, that running partners not only motivate you to show up to training sessions, but push you to run longer distances.
“They make you accountable, so you’re more likely to show up and give 100 percent during your workout because you know that someone else is counting on you,” said Andrew Allden, who coaches women’s cross-country at the University of South Carolina, in an interview with Runner’s World.
And as another Runner’s World article once declared, “Partners make the best alarm clocks.”
Knowing your “sweat rate” is important: Weigh yourself before and after a run, and calculate the difference and that’s your rate, Dr. Axtman said.
“And that’s typically how much water you can consume,” he said. “You don’t need to equal it, but get close.”
Water shouldn’t be chugged before running because that can cause sloshing, cramping and nausea while you run. It should be sipped in the hours before a run.
And for long-distance runners—say, more than two hours on the road, “we also recommend rehydrating with a sport drink or sport gel because you’re also losing sodium and minerals and want to replenish those,” Dr. Axtman said. “That’ll keep your body working optimally.”
10. Lifestyle changes
Training is wonderful, but significant barriers to serious improvement are diet and sleep habits.
“Altering your eating habits can take your weight down, which is going to put a lot less stress on joints,” says Dr. Axtman. Doctors recommend the Mediterranean diet, which is flexible and sustainable. The important thing is to eat whole foods instead of processed foods.
“If you buy it in a box, bag or can, it’s probably processed,” says Thomas Boyden, MD, a cardiologist with Spectrum Health Medical Group. “If you’re eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans and still a little bit of animal, the evidence is strong (your health will improve quickly).”
And so will your running times, Dr. Axtman said.