You’ve finished that 5k, now your sights are set on a 10k. Next thing you know, a half-marathon and marathon are on the calendar and *gasp* an ultra has been penciled onto your bucket list. This quest for more mileage is a common progression among runners and so is the desire to run those miles with more speed. Even if you don’t consider yourself a “competitive type,” most of us who are drawn to running have an innate drive to push personal boundaries and continually raise the bar on our goals.
Whatever your running goals, a training plan tailored for your desired race distance and pace ability is an essential tool that will help get you to the finish line. Cookie-cutter training plans are easy to find online, but because every runner’s needs are different, it’s most effective to work with a virtual or in-person running coach or at least a seasoned running buddy who can get you off on the right foot. If you don’t know where to start, join a running-related Facebook group, sign on with a local running club or ask a nearby running store for recommendations.
There is much, much more to running further and faster than just checking off miles as “run and done” on your training plan. Strategies that optimize your well-being beyond pounding the pavement or trails may also help you increase your endurance and overall performance. It’s a more holistic approach that promotes balance between running and other aspects of life, with the outcome being a well-rounded athlete better able to perform optimally from start to finish of an endurance event.
Strength Train & Plyometrics: Most runners notoriously avoid the gym even though strength training has been shown to improve speed, increase power and boosting cardiovascular fitness by creating a body that uses less energy for the same movements. Additionally, strength training reduces the chance of injury by fortifying muscles, ligaments and tendons. It’s not necessary to hit the gym every day or to workout with the weight or ferocity of an Olympic superstar. However, two to three workouts per week with moderate weight that focuses on legs, glutes, core and even arms (hey, you have to pump them hard to get to the finish line!) should yield positive benefits on race day. Also, explosive plyometric bodyweight exercises, such as box jumps, high-knee strides, squat jumps, can help to strengthen legs and improve stride.
Stretching & Yoga: Flexibility and range of motion aren’t attributes that pop into the mind when describing a runner. Runner’s bodies are often tight and unyielding due to muscles, ligaments and tendons that rely on the same repetitive motions for miles upon miles. In fact, genetic research shows that top runners actually have more rigid, less elastic muscles and this actually helps improve their running economy and speed. However, most of us aren’t world-class athletes, and letting legs and hips get overly tight and unpliable can be an open invitation to injury. Find a happy balance with flexibility by regularly stretching, using a foam roller on trouble spots, and even practicing yoga. Experts advise not to stretch cold muscles, so warm up with a light jog or jumping jacks before stretching, wait until after your run, or both! Great stretching and yoga poses for runners target hamstrings, hips and glutes – like the Pidgeon Pose, Half Splits, Forward Fold, Happy Baby and Legs Up a Wall.
Recovery and Rest: Runners just want to run, but recovery and rest days are equally important and shouldn’t be ignored if you want to bring your best game on race day. Depending on age, workout intensity and your body’s unique response to stress (much of it is genetic), you will need to take a break from running one or more days a week – usually after your hardest and/or longest runs. A rest day lets the body heal and recover from the physical stress of a high intensity or long-distance run, multi-day series of less-taxing runs, and gym workouts. You can also take an “active rest day” where you engage in lower-key activities such as hiking, walking the dog, playing golf, recreational bike riding or light swimming.
Without rest days, you set yourself up for injury and sabotage your next workout by coming into it taxed, tired and with little to give. To minimize downtime, focus on recovery right after your run or workout as well as during the rest day that follows. These recovery strategies may include stretching, rolling and yoga (as mentioned earlier); ice baths to reduce inflammation; taking in a 3:1 ratio carbohydrate-to-protein snack within an hour window of exercise; and getting enough sleep – aim for 7 to 8 hours EVERY night.
Compression: Compression socks are a great tool for runners, helping you run further and faster in a couple of ways. In simple terms, compression socks provide graduated compression from the ankles up through the calves and help to improve the efficiency of blood flow in the body, decreasing the rate of leg fatigue caused by continuous foot strike on a hard surface– possibly contributing to a better run. On rest and active recovery days, compression socks give legs and feet that extra little boost needed to feel refreshed from the get-go. In addition, compression socks provide a feeling of extra support to the arch and ankle and can be useful as a “shin guards” in the gym when lifting weights and doing box jumps or when out on a brushy trail or running obstacle courses.
Eating Well: Runners, especially those logging a lot of miles, tend to think they have permission to pig out on anything and everything. Of course, energy burned off in training needs to be replaced, but those calories should be targeted nutrition that optimizes energy, maximizes gains and promotes recovery. Most experts would agree that a balanced combination of heart heathy fats, lean proteins for muscle management and quality carbohydrates (through a combination of whole grains, vegetables and fruit) for energy makes a great “diet” for runners. Limit processed, sugary foods and instead look for nutrient-dense whole foods. This “real food” strategy will help you maximize the macronutrients (like vitamin, minerals, antioxidants and fiber) needed to stay healthy and perform at peak levels. Also, ensure your hydration level is in check, aiming for at least 8 to 10 eight-ounce glasses of water per day, or more based on the weather and your sweat output.
Jennifer Fisher is an award-winning recipe creator, food & fitness blogger, healthy cooking coach, mom of three young adult men and elite athlete who has been running competitively for more than 25 years. She also enjoys obstacle course racing, paddle boarding and yoga. Head to her blog, thefitfork.com for nutrition tips and healthy recipes to fuel an active lifestyle – and you can follow her @thefitfork on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.