Regardless of your ability, speed or body shape, the greatest challenge almost all runners face is a simple one: Staying healthy. By the very nature of the aerobic benefits of running, we are certainly healthier than our sedentary counterparts, but runners tend to pick up all sorts of niggling injuries. Fortunately, usually it’s nothing serious. But little things tend to slow us down, especially as we approach a key marathon or half marathon. But, those troublesome little things that can be avoided if you follow the rules of healthy, injury-free running.
1. Stretch after every run.
Running tends to shorten and tighten the primary running muscles of the legs, hips and back. Over time, the muscles contract and if you allow this to occur, sure enough, you will get injured. That’s guaranteed.
Conventional wisdom used to suggest you stretch before you run. Baloney. Stretch after each and every run. I’ll say it again: Stretch after every run. Stretching before a run does little or no good. Stretching afterward, does plenty.
Consistency is what counts. Set up a routine of stretching all the major muscle groups, including the hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors, Achilles and calf muscles – and devote at least 15-20 minutes of gentle, relaxed stretching within a few minutes after finishing your run.
If you don’t know how to stretch properly, join one of the many local yoga classes. Some classes in Austin are even geared to runners. A qualified instructor will show you the proper poses, how to hold them and what to do. Once you learn the poses and stretches, you need to practice on a daily basis.
2. Wear a high quality running shoe which you rotate every 350-400 miles with a new pair.
It is absolutely essential to your running health that you buy a quality running shoe which fits your foot, gait and biomechanics. To find that shoe, you must go to one of the top notch running specialty stores in Austin such as Ready to Run, Luke’s Locker, Rogue Running or Texas Running Company. There is no other reliable way to determine which shoe is the best one for you other than to get analyzed.
Once you have that perfect shoe, stick with it. Don’t buy the latest shoe with all the cool gizmos just because your friends like them.
But even the best running shoe will wear out over time and lose its ability to cushion and support the foot. Once that happens, it’s time to buy a new pair. Any delay in replacing a worn out shoe places you at risk to injury.
But when is a shoe worn out? Hard to say. Each shoe, each runner is different and the maximum mileage each one of us gets out of a shoe differs greatly. Suffice it to say, a good pair of running shoes should last at least 350 miles and as long as 500. But not much more. Best bet is to only wear your primary pair of running shoes only for running. And it’s much better to replace a pair of shoes a little too early rather than too late.
How can you tell when your shoes are worn out? There’s no set answer, but you should be able to notice a lack of cushioning. A normal easy run in a worn out pair will result in abnormal aches and pains (due to reduced cushioning). Monitor how your body feels and think back to when you bought the shoes. Once a shoe reaches 300 miles, closely monitor how your legs feel after every run.
Better yet, mark on your training log when you bought the shoes and first began training in them. Or mark on the tongue of your shoes the date when you first started running in them. Calculate your miles per week (that’s why it helps to keep a training log) and multiply them by the weeks you’ve been running in a particular pair. If the mileage approaches 300, it’s time to consider buying a new pair within the next few weeks. If the mileage exceeds 4-500, buy a new pair immediately.
A couple of more tips: Don’t choose a shoe because it’s the lightest or the most minimal. A heavier shoe means more support and cushioning. Colors don’t matter; protection, fit and comfort do.
3. Walk in, walk out.
Every run should start and finish with a walk. Whether I’m leaving for a run from my front door or on the Butler/Lady Bird Lake Trail, I begin every run by walking a minute or two. When I finish, I do the same.
Walking accomplishes a few things. It’s a brief transition from being at rest to moving (running). During this short walk, I check out my various aches and pains, warm up my legs, adjust my shoe and laces and determine if I have to add or shed any clothes before taking off on a run.
The walk out is a little different, longer and more enjoyable. I loosen my shoes, take off my sunglasses, cool off a bit, grab some water and bask in the endorphin rush of yet another satisfying run. It’s a moment or two to celebrate the run with friends, enjoy the sweat, the effort and the glorious day. When my long group finishes up, we always walk 4-5 minutes just to cool down and enjoy the moment.
4. Avoid tracks and sidewalks.
Sidewalks are hard, cracked and full of pedestrians. They are an awful place to run. Sidewalks are made out of concrete and concrete is so hard (eight times harder than asphalt) that – over time – it will crush your legs. No surface is worse. Avoid sidewalks at all costs. If you have to drive a short distance to a park or trail, it’s worth it in the long run.
Tracks? What’s wrong with tracks? B*O*R*I*N*G. Going around and around in 400-meter circles is about as interesting a place to run as it is for a lab rat on a treadmill. And not only is it incredibly monotonous, running in circles places way too much stress on the inside leg and can result in an injury.
Don’t get me wrong. Tracks are generally a safe place to run, but if you can limit yourself to just a day a week of speed work, you’ll be better off.
The best surface for running is a smooth, dirt trail such as the Butler/Lady Bird Lake Trail, but there are plenty of other good trails around town. Nothing is better than running on dirt.
5. Uphills are great; downs are not.
There’s no question that running hills is an integral part of any runner’s training program. Hills provide quick results in terms of strength, stamina and lung power. That is, the uphills do. The downhills don’t.
Obviously, uphills are much harder to run than the flats or downhills. The problem with running down the backside of a hill is it places way too much stress on your back, knees and shins. The pounding your body takes on a downhill is a killer. And since there isn’t much of a training effect going down, it makes good sense to gently and slowly ease your way down. Or simply walk the steepest parts (such as coming down Mount Bonnell or Exposition) to save wear and tear on your body.
6. Ice is cool.
Years ago, I learned a valuable lesson from a wondrous New Zealander by the name of Jack Foster. Jack died several years ago, but at one point he was the fastest masters marathoner (2:11) in the world. And his secret? He finished every run by hosing down his legs with icy water drawn from a well. Foster said that’s what horse trainers do for their thoroughbreds after every workout and race. He theorized, “If it’s good enough for horses, it’s good enough for me.”
Too right. Foster’s right because a cold compress applied right after a run and your stretching immediately reduces the muscular inflammation that results from any run. Left unchecked, this inflammation can worsen into a full blown muscle strain or tear. Ice keeps the inflammation under control.
It doesn’t matter what you choose to use as long as you use something – ice cubes in a plastic baggie, ice baths, commercial frozen gels, frozen veggie packages – within a half hour of running. Ice baths are tough, but frozen peas on my calf muscles and hamstrings feels wonderful. If you don’t like peas or ice baths, just use your garden hose for a few minutes on your legs while watering plants and vegetables. In winter, the water is cold and feels so soothing that it can quickly become a part of your post-run routine whether your legs are hurting or not.
7. Take one day off a week.
Writing a zero down in my training log used to kill me. I would go months and months without ever missing a day off from running, but that type of dedication was hurting me in the long run. I hated to take a day off and rather than rest after a race or long run I would dutifully slog out a few miles to avoid having to write a zero in my training log.
Then I learned a lesson from my good friend and Brigham Young University coach Ed Eyestone. He told me he never trained on Sunday even when he was training for the Olympics or Olympic Trials because of church and family obligations (he has six daughters) and because his body needed a rest. So does mine.
While I used to be too stubborn to take a day off, I try to do so now. Saturday is always a special day for me because I’m either going long and hard or racing on the weekend. Because I want to run well and be fresh, Friday is my day of rest from running. Typically, I’ll just run easily for 20-30 minutes on grass which doesn’t tax my mind or body. That way my legs are fresh and my motivation is high for the weekend.
8. Run by time, not miles.
Here’s a newsflash: Your body doesn’t know the difference between a 5-mile run and a 45-minute run. You might, but your body doesn’t recognize the distinction. But here’s the problem: We’re addicted to mileage. What sounds better: I went for a long run of 20 miles or I went for a long run of three hours? Of course, the 20 miler.
But thinking in terms of miles is counterproductive because we tend to become obsessed with the weekly and monthly mileage totals as if that is an end in itself. It’s not. Getting in shape and completing our goals is the important task, not padding our training logs with impressive mileage totals.
Many years ago, I went for a short run in Boulder with 1980 Olympic marathoner Benji Durden and when I asked him how far we went, he said, “45 minutes”. I already knew that as I wore a watch too. When I rephrased the question by asking him how many miles we had just gone, he said he didn’t know, didn’t care, didn’t matter. It was a 45-minute run. It wasn’t a 6-mile run; it was 45 minutes.
Durden refused to give into the mileage syndrome that plagues so many runners. Durden’s weekly mileage wasn’t important to him; running well was.
9. Pause that refreshes.
I grew up in the era when football coaches refused to allow players to drink during practice. The belief was going without water somehow made them tougher. Unfortunately, such ignorance didn’t make them tougher, it made some players dead.
The same held true for running. Not any more. Now everyone recognizes the importance of proper hydration in football – and running. We have Dr. Robert Cade of the University of Florida (who graduated from UT) to thank for that. He developed Gatorade (named after the Florida Gators) and as coaches, football players and runners soon found out, a properly hydrated athlete is a better athlete.
But I take it one step further. A properly hydrated runner is a healthier runner. Especially older runners who are more susceptible to running injuries. As you age, the blood and oxygen supply to your muscles isn’t as good as when you were in your teens or early 20s. If you are dehydrated during or after a run, it can only aggravate the situation. That’s one reason older runners have more muscle strains, spasms and pulls as they age. They’re dehydrated.
I’ve had to learn this lesson the hard way. As a young runner, I never drank in races, long training runs or even marathons. For many years, I trained with my colleague Amby Burfoot and he never drank. Whatever he did (or, in this case, didn’t do), I followed. He didn’t drink so I didn’t see any reason why I should. Now I know better. So does he.
As I aged, injuries began cropping up. After hard, hot runs, I experienced muscle cramping which would worsen into spasms. Often, I would miss a week or two of running as a direct result.
Finally, I started bringing a cooler of ice water and Gatorade to my workouts. I began drinking before, during and after workouts. The result? The workouts weren’t quite as grueling and I recovered much quicker. The muscle spasms disappeared and so did many of the minor injuries that used to plague me.
10. Have fun.
This is a no-brainer. If running isn’t fun, enjoyable or at least a satisfying experience, why even bother? Sure we all want to stay healthy, fit and trim but you can accomplish that on a stationary bike in a health club. But that’s not much fun. Running is.
Having said that, running isn’t quite as high on the adrenaline-rush, fun scale as say, downhill skiing. Or wind surfing. Or sky diving. Running’s different. A good run, a completed marathon gives you a sense of accomplishment, an inner glow, a feeling that you’ve done something for yourself and only yourself.
If you doubt that, watch marathoners stream across the finish line. The time doesn’t matter; the accomplishment does. That’s what lingers, that’s the memory. That’s what keeps us coming back for more.