By John Andersen
This past year was a pretty incredible year of running for me personally. Lots of running, quality racing, no significant injuries, and many new friendships and experiences. Above the actual running itself, it’s the relationships and experiences I gain that keep running a special part of my life.
I was very fortunate to be able to race seven mountain trail ultramarathons, all of them competitively. That may seem extreme; however, I managed to stay injury-free and truly enjoyed running and racing throughout the entire year. In the process, I have learned that the actual running is the easy part. It’s all the other stuff (life, taking care of your body, nutrition, sleep) that is the challenge when it comes to staying injury-free and improving performance.
As a running store owner, running form coach, and ultrarunner, I feel I have a pretty good perspective in what “works” to make running fun, easy, and successful. My passion is sharing that experience with new runners, those starting for the first time, returning to fitness after a long layoff, or those committed to a lifestyle change. This stage is actually when you’re most likely to get injured and derail your fitness plan. It simply takes some experience, and mistakes, to learn what works best for your body. But you can always learn from others, so here are some “lessons learned” from 2014 that are perfectly applicable to anyone looking to start running, improve at it, or just finally lose the injury bug.
Have a goal and don’t be afraid to Go BIG! To get out the door at 5:30 a.m., you have got to be motivated by a goal. For many, that is simply long-term health and fitness (that should ultimately be everybody’s goal!). For many more, it is a race that you’ve signed up for. For others, it’s losing weight. Whatever it may be, there’s no better time than the beginning of a New Year to set a goal. Something! Anything!
Probably the biggest thing I learned last year was that sometimes you’ve got to ‘go big’ when it comes to your goals. Setting a goal outside of what you think you may be able to achieve certainly can set you up for failure and disappointment. But it can also reap great rewards, and often the path to that big goal will take you somewhere new altogether.
Listen to your body! Before several races, I had some pains/tweaks that I knew could very easily progress to a full-fledged running injury, right when I was supposed to be in peak training mode! But I listened to my body, reduced my training intensity, or sometimes just took a week off. The result? Two wins, two top-tens, and consistent training all year long. I am convinced that any of these issues could have blown up into an injury that would have caused a DNS (did not start) if I hadn’t listened to my body and been patient.
For newer runners, it can be difficult to distinguish between “big deal” and “not a big deal” pain. My advice is just to go slow. Don’t ever pigeonhole your fitness into a 12-week program. Look long term and your decision-making will be much better. I also hear from newer runners all the time about being anxious to miss a few days of training. Experience tells us to be patient, and the fitness will come.
Form matters. For everyone. That means you! Poor running form is probably the biggest culprit in new runners getting injured. Nobody is born with poor form; it’s just that after 20-60 years of life, with work, sitting, having kids, etc., we’ve forgotten how to run like we did when we were kids. I may sound a bit obsessive by saying this, but I think about my form on every single run I do. Mostly because I want to get the most efficiency out of my body and stay away from injury. I used to run with terrible form and get injured a lot. Years ago I made a conscious effort to revamp my gait and foot strength and it’s been smooth sailing ever since. Getting assessed by someone trained in gait analysis is the best way to move forward. I’m not talking about whether your feet pronate or not. That doesn’t matter; pronation is good and normal. Important things to consider are your cadence (steps/minute), posture, and foot strike.
Recovery IS training. When you are out there exercising, you are essentially causing trauma and breaking your body down. It’s when you’re not exercising that your body actually repairs this damage and gets stronger – i.e., recovering! So do this part right! Sleep well. Limit stress. Don’t run if you’re sick or overstressed. Really pay attention to what you eat and avoid bad things like sugar and processed ingredients. So many times we focus on the miles, but we forget to focus on the recovery. This also takes patience. Your body isn’t going to lose fitness if you need to take a week off because of illness or injury. In 2014, the harder I trained, the harder I focused on my recovery, and what a difference that made!
Run Slow. Slower! No really, SLOWER! Despite being faster than I ever have in my life, my easy runs are much slower than they ever have been. There are so many benefits to running slow: you improve your body’s ability to burn fat, you put less stress on your legs and decrease your injury risk, and you finish your run refreshed rather than beat up. As legendary running coach Jack Daniels preaches, “You should know the purpose of EVERY workout.” I’ll translate this: if you’re not doing speedwork at the track or hard tempo runs, you should be running slow and easy. Most people run their slow runs way too fast, limiting the benefit of the fat burning adaptions and putting extra strain on the body with no additional benefit. Slow runs should be slow and newer runners should be doing almost all of their runs slowly. This may involve some walking up hills around here!
Everyone should be running trails some – To the displeasure of physical therapists everywhere, I do zero cross training or strength training to supplement my running. However, I make it a point to get out on the trails at least twice a week. Trail running makes you stronger, especially around Crozet because of all the hills. The constantly varying, technical terrain as well as the prolonged descents and climbs really strengthen your core and hips. Newer runners and masters runners should especially get in some time on the trails because the need for core and hip strength is greatest in these groups. And besides, trail running is fun and relaxing, which is part of what it’s all about.
Home PT is NOT optional for healthy running, unless you are 18. Okay, you’re 38 and ready to get back into fitness. You’ll find out soon enough that you’re not 20 anymore! Running does put a lot of stress on our muscles, especially when we are getting back into exercise. We can actually do a lot to keep things working properly, stretching our hip flexors, rolling our quads, calves, and feet. A great start is to go see a physical therapist (and also a massage therapist) to see where your body is tight and what you can do to keep it supple. If you’re like 80 percent of us, stretch your hip flexors and roll your calves every single day.
I am 38 and in 2014, I was doing some type of PT at home once or twice daily all year long. I consider this my “pre-hab”, avoiding injuries before they happen. Doing things like daily stretching and rolling also teaches you a lot about your body and allows you to be more intuitive if you are heading down the road of to possible injury.
Nutrition is really, really important. Both what you eat and when you eat. In 2014 nutrition played a vital role in my training, recovery, and performance. A few quick rules:
Try not to eat before a run – don’t start a run with an insulin spike! Be a better fat burner, and force your body to start using it. Unless you are diabetic, we all have plenty of sugar stores in our muscles for 1.5 hours of activity. Even if you’re waking up to do a speed workout, don’t eat!
Eat within 30 minutes of finishing a run. Your body can resupply muscle glycogen at an accelerated rate for about 30 minutes post-exercise. Prepare for your next run by eating right after you finish this one.
Avoid sugar like the plague. Consider it for what it is–-a toxin to your body. Water only, limit carbs and processed foods —try a two week no sugar/no simple carbs (bread/pasta/processed foods in packages) challenge!
Be thankful and grateful. This year, I learned what it truly felt like to run with gratitude. Be thankful for your family. Be thankful for the opportunity to be outside improving your health. Be thankful for this great community, our beautiful mountains and wildlife, and our miraculous bodies. No matter if it’s raining outside, your shoes came untied, or your iPhone just died—live and run with gratitude.