Heather* is 50 years old, well educated, and has spent most of her adult life in desk jobs. In high school she was intellectual and basically unathletic. She has a family history of high cholesterol. Five years ago she was in chemotherapy for breast cancer. Now she's an avid runner.
She started running three years ago. Since then, her "bad" cholesterol levels are about half what they were before and her "good" cholesterol levels have risen. Her resting heart rate is in the 50s, and she feels great.
"People say I'm addicted to running because I talk about it all the time," Heather says. "I guess I am a bit, but it makes me feel so good I want to share it with others. People have this idea that running's unpleasant. But they're thinking it's like running for the bus. Just getting out for an easy jog is surprisingly pleasant, energizing, and scenic."
Three of the most important reasons people who like to run give for running are that it keeps them healthy, they do it to do well in races or achieve other personal goals, and it feels great. And all of these are good reasons to do it.
The health benefits of running are well established. Running, like all regular exercise, is known to give the following benefits:
- You're less like to die prematurely.
- You're less likely to die of heart disease.
- You're less likely to develop diabetes, colon cancer, or high blood pressure.
- If you have high blood pressure, it will help reduce it.
- It helps control weight.
- It helps build and maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints.
- It helps improve mood and coordination.
- If you're an older adult, it helps you to be stronger and better able to move without falling. It will also reduce bone loss associated with osteoporosis.
And while regular aerobic exercise such as running might seem to be something that would leave you feeling tired, in reality it improves your energy levels. You'll feel less sluggish, not more, if you're hitting the trail a few times a week.
The feel-good component also has a real basis. The so-called "runner's high" isn't just a legend - running really can produce higher levels of beta-endorphins, "feel-good" hormones, in the brain. But the benefits extend well beyond that. Running, like all regular exercise, promotes psychological well-being and reduces stress and feelings of depression and anxiety. A fitter body has been found to help you have a fitter mind, and you will feel better about yourself - and sleep better, too.
Naturally, if you're competitive, running is a great sport for you. If you live near a major urban center, you're within an easy drive of the start line for dozens of races each year with distances from 5 kilometres to a marathon (42.2 km) and even farther. And because of the variety of people running in each, and because races categorize runners by age and gender, you're guaranteed competition at your level, whatever your level is.
And if you're not a "jock," then you're in the right crowd with runners. A surprisingly high percentage of runners were not athletic at all when they were in school, and a much larger-than-average portion of them were gifted or top-of-their-class students.
*Heather is based on a real person. Minor details have been changed.
How do you start running?
"I have been a couch potato my entire life," says Heather.* "I was never very athletic in school and was happy when PE classes were over."
Although she wasn't overweight, Heather realized that a sedentary lifestyle was going to get her into health trouble later on. After moving closer to work, she decided to use the extra time to incorporate some exercise into her lifestyle. Earlier, she had been told by her doctor that she had experienced some bone loss, which put her at risk for osteoporosis.
The final straw was when a study was published that proved that regular exercise reduced the risk of recurrence in breast cancer survivors. "That was it," Heather says. "I was a 5-year cancer survivor and I wanted to do everything in my power to remain healthy."
To start, Heather chose a 9-week run/walk program that she found online. It incorporated ever-increasing lengths of running into a 30-minute program, ending with running for 30 minutes solid. Just after she started the program, a friend convinced Heather to sign up for a 5k race. "I ran/walked the race in 41 minutes and 45 seconds and I was hooked!"
So how do you start? Do you just go out and hit the street? Some people do that, but there are risks from doing too much too soon (see "Isn't running bad for you?"). Heather's advice for people who want to try incorporating exercise in their life is this: "Start slow, exercise for short periods regularly, and have patience. I didn't see the results of my efforts for 6 weeks. It's not a quick fix by any means."
You may think that your body will tell you when you've done too much, but the truth is that it might not tell you until you've done some damage that will take time to undo. Following a program is a better plan. You can buy a book or a magazine, find a reliable website, or join a program operated by a local running club or store.
A common way to start is to alternate one minute of easy running with one minute of walking for, say, 10 minutes, gradually adding time up to a half hour and increasing the proportion of running until you're doing 10 minutes of running for every minute of walking. Some runners never eliminate the walking component entirely. Even very fast and experienced runners may find it works better for them to have a one-minute walk break for every 10 minutes of running.
One thing not to do is set unrealistic goals. Don't even think about doing a marathon in your first year of running. Build up more gradually. That will ensure a longer and happier running career. And remember: all races are worthy. 5 kilometres is also an Olympic distance! Simply by getting out there you're doing more than most people. So enjoy it, don't push yourself, and you'll do much better when - if - you get to the longer distances.
And if you don't like to compete? Then you don't have to. You can just go out and run and see the scenery on your own time and at your own pace. If you're a people person, there are many running groups you can join and several active online forums for the running community. If you're not a people person, there's hardly a better activity for letting you get away from others - literally run away from them!
*Heather is based on a real person. Minor details have been changed.
What kind of running should you do?
Many people who take up running assume that the best thing to do is to go out and run as hard as possible for as far as possible, and keep doing that. In fact, that's a great approach to take - if you want your running career to be surprisingly short. (See "Isn't running bad for you?" to find out about doing too much too soon.)
The first thing you should do is warm up. Don't go full speed as soon as you're out the front door; your muscles and tendons aren't ready for it yet and don't have enough give. For the same reason, don't stretch your muscles before warming up. It doesn't matter what you did in high school; recent research has found that stretching cold weakens the muscles. Go for an easy jog for 5 to 10 minutes, gradually increasing the pace. Then you can do some squats, lunges, and "form drills" such as kicking your heels up to touch your butt.
And once you're warmed up, then do you go full tilt as though you were being chased with an axe? Most of the time, still no. Speed training should only be a minor part of your workout - not more than about 15%. A good half of the time or more you'll be running at a fairly easy pace.
In fact, if you're not especially competitive, you can make quite a lot of your running easy. Training techniques that build up speed and power are less necessary if you're not planning to compete in a race, although they still do offer benefits. The most important thing is just to build up distance, and to do it in a way you can recover quickly from. You need to allow the body's muscles, tendons, and joints to adapt and strengthen.
There are many physiological changes that need to happen in order to train your body for long-distance running, including increased lung capacity and many muscular function changes right down to the cellular level. These changes only occur through time as your body adapts and strengthens. And you have to increase gradually - don't add more than 10% to your distance each week.
An average runner's week might have 3, 4, 5, or even more runs. Usually most of these will be for what is a moderate distance for that runner, which of course will increase as the runner's total distance increases. Often this doesn't ever get to more than about 8 kilometres; even people training for a marathon may stick around 10 kilometres for most of their runs.
The exception is the one long run each week (or each 10 days or so). This run will be twice as far or even more, but it should not be more than the total of all the other runs of the week. And it's normally run at a moderate pace (you may hear of "LSD" - long slow distance).
But running faster for shorter distances is also good for building up your fitness and endurance. For the runs that aren't slow, there are a few different options:
- tempo runs: runs at a "comfortably hard" pace
- hills: repeated runs up a hill about a half kilometre long, with recovery in between, adding more repeats each week
- intervals: sets of short, fast runs with cool-down periods in between
- fartleks: bursts of speed of varying length and intensity during a moderate-paced run (from Swedish for "speed play")
Take the time to get in-depth information on these different kinds of running as well as other exercises that you can do. There are many books, magazines, and websites on running with plenty of tips and techniques. Pick a program and work with it rather than trying too many different things all at once. You may also find it helps to join a running group or even take a "running clinic" - going for runs with a group and an instructor once or more a week.
Isn't running bad for you?
Pumped from her first race, Heather* started running too hard, too fast. She began running hills at the end of her run to try to build her fitness faster. One day, after a particularly hard run, she woke up in the night with a pain deep in her left ankle.
She made an appointment with a sports medicine specialist, who diagnosed her with a tibial stress fracture. She had to take 6 weeks off from running and see a pedorthist, an individual specializing in providing footwear and devices to correct deformities or misalignments. The pedorthist noticed that Heather's left foot rolled over towards the right (called pronation) and recommended motion stability shoes and orthotics.
"Despite the fact that I was devastated that I couldn't run, that was the best timing for me," Heather notes. "I learned early on to take it easy and run correctly."
Why do stories like Heather's happen? Isn't running supposed to make you healthier? Yes, but there are wrong ways as well as right ways to do it. If you push yourself the wrong way, you can end up with a stress fracture like Heather - or with plantar fasciitis, iliotibial band syndrome, shin splints, or any of several other possible pains in the leg.
The rule of thumb for runners increasing their distance is to add no more than 10% each week. Any more and you risk overtaxing your muscles and your immune system. What's more, you need to make sure that you're running right. Many people have poor posture, or their feet strike the ground in a less-than-best way. This is why it's important to get the right shoes for you. Don't just go pick up whatever's cheapest; get a proper fitting and try-out in a store that specializes in serving runners. And, if you're running with a group, you can take advantage of the expert eye of your instructor to tell you small adjustments you can make to your posture and gait.
But it doesn't matter how many uninformed people will tell you that running will wreck your knees. The simple fact, as scientific studies have demonstrated, is that they're wrong. As mentioned in "Why run," running is a great way to maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints and help prevent osteoporosis. Studies have shown no link between running and developing osteoarthritis of the knee, and some even suggest that running might help prevent osteoarthritis.
And how about those runners who drop dead? Every so often you'll hear about someone dying while running a race. But in nearly every case, it's due to preexisting heart abnormalities or heart disease. Overall, people who run live longer and stay healthier longer. If you don't have heart disease, running can help you prevent it. But if you do have heart disease, of course you should be careful.
Any athlete at any time can go too far and push too hard, and a person with a health condition needs to make sure not to overtax the body's resources. If you are unsure about what kind of running you should try, or even what type of general exercise program would be good for you, check with your doctor. After performing a physical, your doctor can have a better idea of your fitness level and what the best starting point would be for you. People who rarely or never exercise have up to 50 times the risk of suffering a heart attack during vigorous exercise compared with those who exercise 5 or more times a week. And fit men are half as likely to die of heart attacks as couch potatoes are.
Some people like to point out that the great popularizer of running in the 1970s, Jim Fixx, died of a heart attack at age 52. However, Fixx was a chain-smoking overweight couch potato until he was almost 35. His father also died at age 42 of a heart attack. Fixx added about a decade to his life - a healthy, enjoyable decade. Fixx used to say, "I don't know if running adds years to your life, but it definitely adds life to your years." It turns out it does both.
So run... for your life!
*Heather is based on a real person. Minor details have been changed.