How to be a better runner: 10 ways to go faster for longer

Running is having more than a moment. Figures from the government agency Sport England have revealed that the number of people going running regularly has jumped by 73 per cent, from 66,000 to 2.1 million, in the past decade.

It’s a craze that has been fuelled by the growing popularity of mass running events, from ParkRun, the free, weekly Saturday morning 5km event held across the UK, to large city marathons. A record number of 247,069 people applied for a place in next weekend’s Virgin Money London Marathon, more than 55 per cent of them people who had not run that seriously before, and it’s a similar story with the UK’s biggest half-marathon, the Great North Run, in which its millionth finisher crossed the line in 2014.

And if you don’t get a place? Head abroad instead — more and more Britons are entering overseas events such as the New York marathon or the Great Ethiopian Run, in which 40,000 entrants run through the streets of Addis Ababa. Closer to home, many Brits are signing up for the marathons in Paris and Berlin and half-marathons in every UK town you can imagine — so there’s no excuse for missing out.

Of course, enthusiasm is all very well but it counts for nothing without proper training. Here are some common mistakes that runners make — and how to put them right.
You’ll get injured if you don’t stretch
Runners want to be agile, quick and injury-free. Yet many neglect the one aspect of training that is vital for all these things: regular stretching. There’s a debate about whether it’s more beneficial to stretch before or after running — latest findings suggest it’s better to stretch before a fast run and after a steady run. Regardless of when you do it, it is hugely important, says the trainer Matt Roberts, both in terms of running efficiently and avoiding injury.

“Never put on your running kit and head straight out without some sort of stretching warm-up,” he says. “If you are prepared to start very slowly to allow your body temperature and your joint mobility to increase, then you could reserve stretching for after a run. However, many people start their runs too quickly and would benefit from some stretching before they head out.”

It needn’t take long — ten minutes will do, according to Roberts. “Start with some gentle stretches for the legs and upper body, then do some exercises to warm up your joints, such as swinging your legs back and forward, lunges and swinging your arms to the ceiling — focusing on the hamstrings, gluteal, calf and quadriceps muscles that are mainly used during a run.”
Strong abs will improve your technique
Running isn’t all about your legs. “Having a strong upper body, arms and trunk will help to ensure you have a strong technique, leaving you less prone to injury,” Roberts says. “Weights and conditioning are really important for runners but often neglected in favour of more running.”

You don’t have to join a gym either. “Performing a circuit at home with body-weight exercises such as squats, lunges and push-ups will be beneficial, adding in dumbbell work for the arms and shoulders if you can,” Roberts says. “Aim to do this two to three times a week and the improvements will be vast.”

In fact, if you replace a couple of runs with strength sessions you might find that you get faster. A recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at the effect a six-week core-strengthening regime that included exercises such as crunches and Russian twists (twisting the torso side to side while in a sit-up position) had on a group of recreational runners. The researchers, from Barry University in Florida, suspected the conditioning would improve running technique. It didn’t but it did boost running speed, with the core-exercisers improving their 5km times by 47 seconds.
Always refuel straight after your run
While most runners focus on carb-loading with pasta before a race, many neglect their nutrition afterwards, which can lead to a longer recovery time. Part of the problem is that a hard run or interval session can diminish your appetite, reducing the motivation to eat immediately after you finish. However, you should replace at least some of the fuel you have used as soon as you can.

“Studies suggest that muscles absorb nutrients most efficiently within 45 minutes of a workout,” says John Brewer, a professor of applied sport science at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. “After a long-distance run or a particular hard training session you need to think about replenishing energy stores healthily in the following 24 hours.” Eating a range of lean protein foods, such as meat, fish, yoghurt and nuts, is vital for speeding up muscle repair.

Some runners choose to refuel with sports drinks. You need to remember, though, that commercial sports drinks are designed for a specific purpose — to support exercise lasting 90 minutes or longer. They are useful — even essential — for marathon running but unless you are training for a half-marathon distance or farther, you needn’t waste your money. When it comes to recovery, a diet high in healthy carbs such as vegetables, wholegrains and porridge will help to replace depleted glycogen stores as effectively as sugary sports drinks.

Or try drinking chocolate milk. In trials at the human performance laboratory of Indiana University, athletes given low-fat chocolate milk recovered just as well, or better, than those given Gatorade, or the high-carbohydrate sports drink Endurox R4. “Chocolate milk provides carbohydrate replenishment to your muscles — something they can metabolise,” says the researcher Jason Karp.
Leave the fitness trackers at home
Try leaving the gadgets at home at least once a week. Psychologists say that by focusing purely on statistics churned out by electronics you risk losing the ability to listen to your body, to tune in to how it feels when you run, which means that you could miss signs of injury. “Technology can enhance the enjoyment of a run but over-reliance on gadgets can also have negative outcomes,” says Dr Josephine Perry, a sports psychologist.

Psychologically too they can be a bad idea; if your tracker shows that you’re running slower or a shorter distance than previous runs, it’s easy to become disheartened and think you’re not making progress. What’s more, not all tracking devices are accurate. Recent studies show that many over or underestimate distance run by a considerable margin. The best fitness tracker may prove to be your brain, which, it turns out, is highly attuned to checking the passage of time and distance.

A recent study of treadmill-running rats at Boston University revealed that “odometer neurons” in the brain fired at regular intervals corresponding to how far the animals had run and for how long. Even though the laboratory rats were running on treadmills and had no visual cues such as landmarks or passing scenery to suggest distance, their brains recorded their progress accurately. The results would be similar for humans, according to the researchers. “I suspect that people who run on a treadmill every day can make a pretty good guess about how long and for what distance they have been on a treadmill,” says Howard Eichenbaum, the senior author of the study.
Don’t do the same route every time
Runners are creatures of habit. Often they will not only run the same route at the same time of day but in the same direction. Doing the same run day in, day out will sap your motivation and won’t challenge your fitness. Improved running speed relies on changes of speed and terrain, challenging the body and muscles on a daily basis. Varying the speed of the route by adding bursts of sprinting can help but it is not as effective as adding new twists and turns, hills and declines.

“As human beings, we thrive on variety. Research in sports psychology has found people find it easier to stay motivated to run when they have a great route with interesting sights on it,” says Dr Perry. This will help you when training for longer runs. “If you can find four or five different routes to switch between, with different things to look at and different terrain to run on, you can pick the one which best matches your mood that day.”

By changing your route regularly you will also become less predisposed to injury. “Always running on pavements can be hard on the body,” Roberts says. “If you vary your route you vary the terrain and the challenges. There is less repetitive stress from doing the same thing day in, day out.”
You have to run up hills
Selecting a flat route will slow your fitness progression in the long run. “Hill running burns 40-50 per cent more calories than running on flat ground,” Matt Roberts says. “And with hill sprints — where you sprint up a hill and walk or jog back down — the interval-training effect will have a huge fitness boost.” Experts say that hilly runs are as good as weight training in providing an intense workout for the gluteal and leg muscles. The extra effort required to run up a hill at speed makes your cardiovascular system — your heart and lungs — work harder than they would on the flat. In the long term, even short hill sprints will improve long-distance endurance and speed.

Indeed, in a study presented at the Experimental Biology conference this month, scientists from Simon Frasier University in British Columbia cited hill running as one of the most effective ways to boost a runner’s anaerobic fitness capacity, a key factor in predicting finishing times in long-distance races. “Typically, anaerobic capacity can be improved with high-intensity, shorter-duration training such as repetitive uphill sprint training,” says the lead researcher Michael Rogers.

Some mental preparation can help too, Matt Roberts, the trainer, says. “If you know that there are hills on the run, picture them in advance,” he advises. “Map out your run in your mind so that you know what the terrain you will encounter is like and it can really help you to stay positive.”
Ignore injuries at your peril (even minor ones)
Long-distance runners can be masochists but try to resist the temptation to keep running through the pain. Common running injuries include runner’s knee (irritation of the cartilage on the underside of the kneecap); achilles tendonitis (irritation to the achilles tendon); and muscle strain in the legs and buttocks. Whatever ails you is likely to take much longer to heal — or get worse — if you ignore it and keep running. “Seek professional advice from a physiotherapist if you have a persistent or acute problem,” Roberts says. “By running through an injury you could refer pain elsewhere in your body, making matters worse.”

Taking steps towards injury prevention is vital. “Strong hip and buttock muscles can lessen back and knee pain common in runners,” Roberts says. “And invest in a foam roller [a cylindrical piece of hard foam that’s used for self-massage to release muscle knots] for increasing blood flow throughout the body and relaxing tired muscles.”
Don’t train too hard if you’re a beginner
However fit or unfit you are, don’t think that you can go from couch to marathon in a couple of months. “Failing to respect the rules of progression is one of the most common mistakes made by runners,” says Professor Brewer, who believes it is wise to adopt the “10 per cent rule”. “This states that you should never increase your weekly running mileage by more than 10 per cent over the previous week,” he says. “It’s a gradual adaption principle that is backed by science and allows the ligaments, joints and tendons time to adapt to the training load.”

Roberts agrees. “It’s easy to get carried away with enthusiasm, only for your body to suffer the consequences,” he says. “Building up slowly is particularly important if you are taking up running in middle age. Build up to running a mile or two continuously before getting carried away with big distances.”
Vary your pace during your run
Just as running the same route every day can become mundane and ineffective as your body gets used to it, so running at the same pace will slow your fitness progress. “Some constant pace running is always going to be important but you need to add more variety to your training for convincing results,” Roberts says. “The body has different types of fibres inside each of your muscles that respond to different demands. Your running should incorporate as wide a variety of pace as possible to stimulate as many different muscle fibres as you can. Interval training, hill sprints and short ‘tempo runs’ lasting anything from 4 to 20 minutes at a sustained fast pace are ideal.”
Rest days are essential
Don’t assume you need to run every day to speed up your progress. “Neglect recovery days at your peril because they are vital to help you recover and perform well,” Roberts says. “If you keep running every single day, there’s a risk your body won’t be able to tolerate the sustained effort and you will begin to encounter niggles and strains. Much better to vary your exercise with active recovery days that include stretching, swimming, walking or yoga.”

Sleep is also vital. During deeper sleep, human growth hormone (HGH) produced by the pituitary gland is released into the blood. “It is HGH that enables essential recovery processes such as repairing muscles and converting fat to fuel,” says Professor Brewer. Consequently, too little sleep means the body produces less HGH and more of the stress hormone cortisol that will slow muscle recovery.
Top tips for marathon runners


Use surgical tape to prevent blisters

Blisters, caused by a combination of friction and moisture around the feet, are the most common problem suffered by runners in the London marathon. However, preventing them might be easier than you think. Last week a study revealed that distance runners who apply cheap surgical tape to their feet before a race get fewer blisters on those areas than on non-taped areas. “Paper tape is a very smooth, thin tape, it causes easier sliding at the skin interface so likely decreases the shear stress under the tape,” says the study’s author, Dr Grant Lipman, of Stanford University School of Medicine. “Also, it does not have a very strong adhesive quality so if a blister does form under the tape, pulling it off will not rip off the ‘roof’ of a blister.”


Protect your nipples with Vaseline

Jogger’s nipple is a scourge of marathon runners, more commonly affecting men than women and caused by the friction of sweaty clothing against skin. Stewards hand out 40kg of petroleum jelly to those who suffer painful chafing during the London marathon. “Lubricate the nipples and any area prone to chaffing before a run, either with Vaseline or a barrier cream containing zinc [such as those used for a baby’s nappy area]” says John Brewer, a professor of applied sport science at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. Or invest in specially designed cone-shaped NipGuards (£9 for ten, achillesheel.co.uk).


Eat porridge three hours before the race starts

Breakfast is vital. “Most people need two to three hours to digest a light meal so get up early on the morning of the event to eat something,” Brewer says. “Make sure what you eat is familiar — don’t try anything new on race day.” Porridge is ideal and a pre-run favourite of everyone from Paula Radcliffe to Mo Farah. Studies have shown that porridge made with oats, water and a little milk provides better sustenance than any commercially made energy-boosting product.


It is dangerous to set off too quickly on a warm day

If you set off at too fast a pace on a hot day, you are likely to get dehydrated (which can put strain on your heart), potentially suffer from heatstroke and will hit the wall far more quickly. A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at the effect of warm temperatures on marathon pace and found that men were more likely to suffer in the heat. “Women tend to have a larger surface-area-to-mass ratio than men, allowing them to dissipate a larger percentage of heat produced by running,” the researchers say.


Wear compression socks after the marathon

A study by Jessica Hill, a sports scientist at St Mary’s University tested two groups of marathon runners — one wore compression socks after the event, the other wore normal socks. Hill then asked them to hold a squat the day after the marathon. Those who had immediately and continuously worn compression socks reported significantly less muscle soreness compared with the control group. Hill says that wearing the socks for 48 hours seems to provide a reduction in soreness and muscle damage and boosted recovery, possibly by reducing inflammation.


Don’t bother with ice baths

A study by scientists from the University of New Hampshire found that taking a dip in a freezing cold bath after the run — hailed as a fast route to recovery by athletes — is overrated. It “doesn’t help you feel better and it doesn’t help you perform better,” says the lead researcher, Naomi Crystal.

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