Running and cardio, in general, have gotten a lot of flack in our pilates and HIIT-centric culture. But running, when done correctly, has incredible health benefits: reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes, improved mental health, longer lifespan, and more.
I competed in cross country and track and field for 9 years, including in the NCAA. For years, I had early mornings and night runs, and at least two grueling speed workouts a week. And I loved it.
But all that wear and tear really did a number on my body. When I finally hung up my racing shoes, the absolute last thing I wanted to do was go out for a run, unless it was under four miles and the pace of a leisurely jog.
My body needed time to recoup, but after about a year or so, I started to get that itch again – the itch to compete and run fast. But I had taken so much time off serious training that I wasn’t quite sure where to begin.
I developed a simple routine I could stick to while maintaining my other responsibilities, and ended up running a decent 5k time of 20:35 at my local Turkey Trot. I was honestly shocked at how fit I was with such little effort.
No matter where you are in your fitness journey, these five tips can help you achieve any running-related goal for the new year.
First, you need to make a plan you can stick to. If you work 80-hour weeks, you aren’t going to be able to run 8 miles every day. If you overshoot your goals from the start, you’ll likely burn out in two weeks – or worse, you’ll be out for months with an injury. Instead, make reasonable, attainable goals from the start. You can always add to them later.
I used to run every single day and sometimes never took a day off. Now that I have a job and more responsibilities, I alternate running and strength training days and incorporate low-impact cardio. Even though I’m “doing less” running, I am near the same level of fitness as during my college days and feel way less tired.
There’s no such thing as too little when it comes to starting a new routine. Maybe your goal is simply to run a little every day, even if it’s only one mile. Maybe you can only run on weekends. The most important thing is to pick a plan and stick to it.
Nutrition is incredibly important when it comes to any fitness or physique goal. Your body will give back what you put into it. Make sure to eat consistently throughout the day, and balance every meal and snack with fat, protein, carbs, and fiber to keep your blood sugar happy. Also, make sure to drink enough water throughout the day, as dehydration can be detrimental to running performance.
Before a run, it’s best to stick to light, easy-to-digest foods that won’t weigh you down or cause gastrointestinal issues during your run. Bananas are my go-to, sometimes paired with yogurt or a little peanut butter. Crackers, cereals, potatoes, and toast are all great choices when paired with a little fat and protein.
Balance every meal and snack with fat, protein, carbs, and fiber to keep your blood sugar happy.
A light snack after a run can help kick-start the recovery process. Smoothies are a great option, especially if you aren’t particularly hungry after running. A sandwich is an easy way to get in carbs, protein, and fat in a quick, portable lunch.
Every person’s nutritional needs are different. Most of my college teammates guzzled carbs at every meal, while I’ve always felt better when I get more of my calories from proteins and fats. Don’t compare, just do what feels best in your body and what properly fuels your runs.
3. Don’t Neglect Weights
This one can be tricky for runners. I used to despise lifting, and dreaded every moment spent in a dark gym as opposed to running outside in the sun. However, I’ve grown to love my strength training sessions and appreciate everything they do for my health and running.
If you’ve never so much as looked at a dumbbell in your life, it’s important to start small. You may even consider just starting with bodyweight exercises, like push-ups, air squats, and lunges. Trust me, you will be sore.
When you do start lifting weights, it’s crucial to gradually increase your weight and be constantly in tune with your body. Starting too heavy could cause injury and put you out for months. Increasing weight by 5 pounds per week is a good rule to stick with. And if it feels too heavy, don’t be scared to drop the weights back down.
I like to do a combination of heavy weights/low reps and lower weights/higher reps, depending on the exercise I’m doing. For example, my squats and deadlifts are usually reps of four or five, while my upper body exercises are in the 10-12 rep range.
I also highly recommend finding a program you enjoy to ensure you are doing all the exercises properly and not overdoing anything. I love Stephanie Buttermore’s programs for women, and she frequently has sales.
4. More Is Not Better
I say this as someone who had five stress fractures within six years. Running more miles, or faster miles, does not mean they are better miles.
Runners tend to be overachievers, and we want to do anything we can to meet our goals as fast as possible and go above and beyond. Though this mentality can be very helpful in a race setting, it can be detrimental if not reined in during training.
Listen to your body. If you wake up exhausted, but you have a six miler on deck, consider skipping it or opting for some low-impact cardio on the elliptical or bike instead.
Your body can’t perform without proper rest.
Almost all of my injuries happened after weeks of pushing my body past its limits. I felt my metatarsal crack on a particularly grueling 10-miler that I had known I was too tired to run. Afterward, I couldn't stop thinking, “Man, imagine if I had just communicated to my coach how exhausted I was?” An extra few days of rest would have made all the difference.
Trust me, pushing through the fatigue and pain is not worth the 8 weeks on crutches. And your body can’t perform without proper rest.
5. Get Your Zzzzs
Building off the last point – your body cannot recover properly without ample sleep, which for most adults is somewhere between seven and nine hours per night. Getting enough sleep improves athletic performance, assists in muscle growth and tissue repair, and reduces the risk of injury and weight gain. If you try to burn the candle at both ends, you’ll likely fall short of your goals or end up injured.
Protect your sleep time and space. Your bed should only be for sleeping – not work, not emails, or scrolling endlessly through Instagram. Creating a bedtime routine that you start at the same time every night will help your body fall into a natural rhythm.
These tips will absolutely help improve your running performance, but also your overall health. Prioritizing yourself and your health is the first step in any fitness or wellness journey.
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