Why run? Live 6 years longer. How to run? Read on …
A runner friendly summary of the best new running science from Runner’s World, The New York Times, Running Science by Dr. Owen Anderson, and the latest academic research.
How much to run?
Run 20 miles a week for health, 40 miles a week for fitness, 60+ for serious competition. Of course 99.9% of us are never going to run 40 miles in a week, let alone every week. The important thing is to get moving. It pays off in health and happiness, with 14 hours more life for each hour of running!
If you’re a new runner please don’t start with a hard run. That’s an easy way to get hurt before you get into shape. While we’re designed to run, we’re capable of running more than an un-practiced body can handle. (Better than getting eaten by a lion, I suppose). If you haven’t exercised in years, give your body months to catch up.
Decide how much time you want to exercise a week. 15 to 30 minutes a day is great. Even 5 or 10 minutes a day works. If you’re starting out of shape, walk briskly most of the way, then run gently for a few minutes, then walk some more, then run a few minutes more. Every couple of days add a few more minutes of running. Gradually ramp up so that after a few months you can run the whole way. If you want extra motivation, sign up for a 5K race a few months down the road.
A little sore is OK. A lot sore is not, except after a race. If you feel like you need to recover, walk or do something else active that day. Don’t run (at least) one day each week. This will refresh you for the next week. Taken a few days off and still tired? Get out and run, even if just for 5 minutes. It won’t ruin your sleep. Running gives insomniacs 45 minutes more sleep!
Don’t just run. Strengthen your whole body.
How fast to run?
- If your goal is health, then pick any pace you like. Anything is better than sitting at a desk or watching TV.
- If your goal is to maximize fitness then faster is better. Up to 20% or 25% of your training time should be ‘quality’ running, that is running fast. According to the graph above, elites go fast a lot more.
- If your goal is a specific race time or pace, then some time running at that race pace and some time running even faster than that every week. The more you run at a pace, the more efficient you get at running at that pace. Running faster makes you stronger.
- To train to run faster, run faster (in shorter intervals). Purposely alternate between slow and fast. This is called interval training. Fast is as fast as you can run and keep running, for up to half of your workout time. Slow is slow enough to recover so you can go fast again. Start small, with a couple 20 or 30 second intervals over the course of a whole workout. Gradually add more or longer intervals.
The lighter the shoes, the faster you go: 1% speed up per 100 grams. Humans, like other mammals, are designed to run barefoot. If you want to try lighter shoes, be careful! It’s easy to get hurt when you make a sudden, big change to your training. Buy a slightly lighter pair. Spend a few months getting used to them and then repeat. If your foot or leg starts to hurt, immediately go back to your old shoes. Give your body months to adapt to big changes. If you didn’t grow up running barefoot, sorry, you missed your chance.
Cushions on your feet?
If you’ve ever thrown a ball against a wall you know that hard rubber balls bounce more than soft rubber balls. The perfectly designed bounce of the (trained) human foot and leg are unbeatable. Adding spongy stuff to your feet weighs them down and absorbs their energy. Not only do you have to bounce, you have to balance. Try balancing yourself on one foot on a hard surface in bare feet. It’s easy. Now try balancing yourself on a soft cushiony surface. It’s hard. Unfortunately safely changing a lifetime habit may take years.
Running apps, watches, heart rate monitors and fitness bands.
I like to see how far and fast I ran and how hard I worked. If you’ve got a smart phone, my favorite running application is Strava with Veloviewer. As for fitness bands, save your money. They’re toys compared to a GPS phone or watch or a heart rate monitor. If you want the best get a Garmin 620 with a heart rate monitor.
A cotton t-shirt is great dry but terrible sweaty. Spend some dollars and buy a running shirt. You’ll never go back to t-shirts. If it’s cold wear gloves. If it’s colder wear a hat, then a light jacket, then tights… Take them off as you warm up. Don’t over dress. Getting hot isn’t making you fit, just dehydrated faster.
Breast and Nipple Protection
Females need a good sports bra. Males, when cold and wet, need to make sure their nipples don’t get abraded. The cold makes them hard and the wet makes their shirts rub. Cover them with Bodyglide or 3M Transpore Tape before they hurt.
Weight, diet, calories, food and drink
You lift your entire body weight on every running step. Within reason, the less you weigh the easier and faster you can run. Every 1% weight loss is a 1% to 1.4% speed up, down the point you look like a fitness model (male ~8% body fat, female ~15% body fat). Thinner than that and you’ll look and feel unhealthy.
Running Science: “The best endurance athletes in the world – the Kenyan runners – follow a diet that is extremely rich in carbohydrates, moderate in protein and low in fat.” And up to 15% sugar! Of course they also stay extremely skinny (5% body fat for male champions, 10% for female) by exercising much without eating too much. Based on victories, their diet, not some fad, is the best for runners.
Calories (during and after a run)
Runner’s World estimates calories burned by running:
Calories = Runner’s Weight in Pounds * Miles Run * .63
That’s 95 calories a mile for a 150-pound runner. .63 is just the net calorie burn of running. If you want the total calorie cost (including the normal cost of being awake) use .75 k-calories per pound per mile (most published calorie calculators use this higher number).
Add more for climbing:
Climbing Calories = Runner’s Weight in Pounds * Height Ascended in Feet * .001
If a 200 pound runner climbs 1000 feet that’s an additional 200 calories. Of course if you come back down you’ll gain half of the energy back.
Subtract for descending:
Descending Calorie (savings) = Runner’s Weight in Pounds * Height Descended in Feet *.0005
Add more for air resistance:
Air resistance goes up with the square of speed. Running 12 minute miles has only ¼ the air resistance (1.5%) of running 6 minute miles (5.5% energy cost). Running calorie calculators ignore air resistance as “small and may be neglected.” If you’ve ever run into a 10 mph headwind, you know wind isn’t so easy to ignore. The reason most exercise studies ignore air resistance is because wind tunnels are expensive. Since the wind (earth’s average wind speed is 7.4 mph) combines with our running speed, even a slow runner can be fighting a 20 mph headwind (~20% extra energy cost).
Add more for after-burn:
After a run, your body must repair itself. That’s why you feel warm at night after a long, hard run. Since earlier calorie research did not extend past the actual workout, these calories have been ignored. To add them in:
After-burn calories = Workout Calories * .01 * Miles Run/Time to Run in Hours
Total Calories = Running Calories + Climbing Calories – Descending Calories + Air Resistance Calories + After-Burn Calories
Click on a yellow box to enter your numbers
Heat makes it harder to run fast and far, ~3% per 10 degrees fahrenheit above 40. Assuming calorie research is done at room temperature (~70°) you’ll burn more on a hot day, less on a cool day than what’s calculated above.
Food (just before, during and just after a run)
Don’t expect to digest food during a fast run; expect to burp. Even at a slow run 65% of the blood flow to your gut is redirected to power your legs. So eat your last meal a couple hours before you run. The bigger the meal, the longer you’ll need to digest.
If you eat just before or during a run, you won’t digest even running ‘food’ like sport goo’s or gels without an appropriate amount of water to dissolve them.
Of course the sooner you eat after a run, the sooner those nutrients aid your recovery.
You sweat a lot running (even when it’s cold). As you dehydrate you lose blood volume and its ability to move oxygen. You need to replenish three things:
- Energy (simple carbohydrates, if you’re running more than an hour)
The easiest way to do this is to drink sports drink – they have what you need in the right proportions. Yes, they really are better than water. Bottled or powder, they all work. (I like powder, it’s cheaper and easier to store).
Water doesn’t have electrolytes, so when you drink water, homeostasis will pull electrolytes from your body (bad while running). To avoid that, when you need to drink water (because there is no sports drink handy) eat just enough sports gel or goo to add the electrolytes back in (one 100 kCal goo per twelve big swallows, or 12 ounces of water).
Glycogen & sports drinks
Sports drinks are designed to give you as much glycogen as possible. They include maximum amount of energy you can absorb while running. That’s ~8% carbs [8 grams of carbohydrates per 100 grams (3.4 ounces) of water.] [8 grams of carbohydrates yields 31 kilo-calories, enough for ~1/3 a mile of running.] If you eat food with your sports drink you won’t increase energy absorption, just your chance of an unhappy tummy.
Drink to replenish what you sweat (if not during the run, then just after). Sweat depends on the weather and your speed, from 12-36 ounces per hour. The slower you run, the less you need to drink per hour. Don’t drink too much.
I should drink ~32 ounces per hour. That’s 32 gulps (or 12 tiny race cups) per hour, which is about triple what I actually drink in a race. Dehydration of 2-3% of body weight is considered normal. Elites lose up to 10%! I drink a big (28 oz.) bicycle water bottle filled with sports drink just before a long race, and drink more when I can.
Beware: A couple pounds of liquid in your stomach can be uncomfortable, so test this out (or anything else) before you race. You may have to train your stomach or come up with your own plan.
- Ramp up gradually.
- Follow Runner’s World‘s advice and strengthen your 5 spots most likely to get hurt.
- To better absorb shock, strengthen your core muscles.
- Try Pilates or Yoga, carefully.
- Make your miles count. There is a 0.1% – 0.2% chance of injury each mile.
The big risk factors:
- High body mass index >30 kg/m2
- Previous injuries. “50% of injuries occur in the exact spot where a prior injury occurred”
- Miles (~0.1% per mile!)
- Novice runner. Bad form
- Physical limitations. Imbalances. Poor strength. Poor flexibility. Weak core.
- Rear Foot Strike (5.8 injuries per 10,000 miles)
- Sudden changes to your training
To decrease risk (while maintaining fitness):
- Lower body mass index <20 kg/m2
- Fully rehabilitate from any previous injuries
- Shorter but faster runs or intervals
- Practice running smoothly. Improve form
- Find and correct inflexibility or imbalances. Running specific strength training. Core training.
- Fore Foot Strike (2.19 injuries per 10,000 miles)
- Gradually introduce changes
What if something gets hurt?
Runner’s World has a nice summary of the common running injuries, and what to do if they strike you. Injuries have causes: A previous injury or imbalance, bad running form, asking your body to do too much too soon; too many miles, too little rest, pounding down hill without enough strength, a sudden, big change in training habits … No amount of rest, ice, painkillers, cortisone, etc. will prevent reoccurrence of an injury. You’ll need some good physical therapy to find and then correct the root cause of the injury.
Medical science has limited therapies for many running ills, including the runner’s bane, Plantar Fasciitis. Doctors are quick to prescribe a pill or a cortisone shot even though these are more placebos than cures. If the doctor wants to cure the symptom and not the cause, find a sports medicine clinic, or ask your local track coach whom they recommend. Then work diligently with your physical therapist until you are fully rehabilitated. Don’t go back to running too soon, or face a quick trip back to square one.
Stretching, Warming Up, Cool-downs and Massage
Despite what your old coach said, don’t stretch before a run. This increases your risk of injury. There is also little or no evidence stretching helps after a run (if you have a good range of motion).
Cool-downs are in most coaching plans, but have little research to support them.
Pro’s massage regularly. Treat yourself if you can.
If you have an injury, stretching will be part of your physical therapy. If you don’t full rehabilitate from one injury you’re likely to get another (as one part of your body tries to do the job of the injured part), so massage out the scar tissue, stretch and strengthen religiously until you’re better and stronger than before.
A heart rate monitor (HRM) measures how hard you are exercising. Your HRM can coach you on how hard to push.
Measure your level of effort relative to your maximum heart rate (MHR). An easy, but unreliable way to estimate maximum heart rate is to use the latest (Dec 2013) aged based formula:
Maximum Heart Rate = 211 – (Age * 0.64), plus or minus 11. Example: If you’re 54 years old, your maximum heart rate typically should be within 11 of 176 beats per minute. The standard Maximum Heart Rate = 220 – Age formula is obsolete.
The hard (but accurate) way to measure heart rate is to warm up and then run up stairs faster and faster until you think you are going to die. Please check with your doctor before trying to kill yourself.
It takes about 10 minutes for your heart to ramp up to match your level of effort.
Once your heart rate is stable it can guide your training. Runners World has a nice summary, if you’re already a runner. If not, Table 6.1 (above) from the American College of Sports Medicine will get you started.
Cadence or Stride Frequency
Some runners, particularly new runners, run with a bit (~3%) too low cadence (too few steps per minute = too long a stride) for maximum efficiency. Coaches recommend at least 180 steps per minute, even going uphill. This may be too high if you run slowly, as optimal cadence increases slightly with speed. Buy a foot pod or count how many times your left foot hits the ground in 10 seconds. If it’s less than 9, your cadence may be too slow. Try a few runs with quicker, shorter steps.
This video is a nice introduction to efficient running.
The more stable you are running the safer and more efficient you are. Strengthen. Smooth out your bumps with a faster cadence. Some runners have strange movements as they run. Have someone check that you’re running smoothly.
A checklist for efficient running:
- Don’t reach ahead with your foot. Stepping too far ahead acts like a little brake – as you can feel when you run down hill.
- Lean a tiny bit (a couple degrees) forward from the ankles (not from the hips, back or neck). Don’t bend from your hips when you go up hill.
- Run with shoulders square (not hunched). This is called opening your chest.
- Run with a straight back and long neck (spine and neck that feels straight and as strong as a board). Keep your hips fully forward (by engaging the glutes). Coaches call this running tall.
- Look straight ahead.
- Minimize the amount of bouncing up, down or side-to-side.
- Arms balance each foot strike. Don’t swing them past your mid-line.
- Relax! Muscle tension burns calories.
It takes time to smooth out your running form, for me five years. Focus on one improvement at a time.
Hills and Strength training
Good runners use hills to improve their fitness. Hills are a natural form of interval training. When you run up a hill shorten your stride to keep your cadence the same as it was on the flats. Don’t increase your forward lean. Ultra-marathoners walk on long steep hills (>10% grade). It’s faster than running them. Top runners also do strength training. It increases speed and reduces injury.
To simulate air resistance, incline your treadmill at 1%. Make your treadmill time interesting. Try running barefoot. The treadmill is soft and safe. Try running at 5%, 10% or maximum slope. Try various paces and intervals. Plodding at the same speed and distance won’t maximize your brain or legs.
Many runners have difficulty breathing. While you might have asthma or allergies*, the main cause is being out of shape. Learn to breathe deeply to get into shape faster.
[Video]. Put your hand on your stomach. Take a deep breath. Your stomach should push out when you breathe in. Now put you hand on the side of your back at the same height as your stomach. Take a deep breath. Your back should push out a bit. Take Yoga to open your chest. Open your throat so the air goes in and out easily. Synchronize your breath with your step.
Give yourself a few months to learn to breathe deeply. Unplug your headphones and concentrate on breathing as you run. Focusing on your breath is very meditative and surprisingly rewarding.
Breathing deeper won’t instantly cure the awful feeling of being out of breath, but with a couple months of practice you’ll pull in more oxygen and enjoy your runs more.
* I found I had a problem with dust mites – the day after I replaced my mattress – and could breathe!
Too much food or drink in your belly, dehydration, a weak or tired core, or prolonged rapid, shallow breathing can cause cramps. If you get a side-cramp, exhale when the leg on the opposite side from the stitch strikes the ground. Your cramp is generally on your right, near your liver, which can tug your diaphragm.
Running clubs, running with friends, coaches
Though I have no data, most runners seem happier and faster in a group. The easiest (and nicest) way to improve your running (and motivation) is to start running with someone else. The bigger the group the better the chance you’ll find someone just your speed. If you’re serious, find a running coach. Sorry, no data on the effect of running coaches (or reading running blog posts).
|A few months before||Train! You can improve a lot in one month, and more in two, especially if you’re not in shape to start. If you’re game try some high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
|Two weeks before||Taper. Run your last long run. Reduce your miles. Keep doing some speed work.|
|A couple days before||Your legs should feel fresh. Figure out your race pace*. This can be based on your best training runs or your previous races using a Race Calculator. Figure out your hydration plan.|
|The day before||Don’t stay up late drinking :) Lay out what you are going to use in the race. Don’t eat, drink or wear anything you haven’t run tested.|
|Carbohydrate-loading||If you’re running a marathon or more, carb load the 36-48 hours before the race. One easy method is to warm up and sprint as fast as you can for 30 seconds the morning before your race. Then eat a pile of carbohydrates.|
|The morning before||Make sure you are well hydrated. If you’re going further than normal, lube your toes, thighs, nipples or anywhere else that might get abraded or blistered. If you like running caffeinated (test it out beforehand) load up on caffeine, ~5 milligrams per kilogram of body mass (about 2 NoDoz), one hour before the starting gun. More doesn’t help. You’ll still have half the caffeine in your system after ~5 hours, so no need to refill. For marathons, eat a few hours before the race. Closer to race time and you’ll get an upset stomach. One 2012 study suggests a 1000-calorie meal 4 hours before.|
|During the race||Run your race pace. Even power output is optimal, so slow uphill or into the wind, speed downwind or downhill. One exception, push harder up a climb if you’ll get an immediate rest after the crest (because the downhill is too steep to run at full race power). Don’t start too fast. For long runs drink sports drink according to your hydration plan and the day’s weather. If you’re running into a wind, find a big runner to draft (run on his or her heels).|
|When you’re done.||You’ll quickly cool down and tighten up. Relax. Replenish your lost fluids. If you lost two pounds drink two pints (a pint is a pound) of water. Enjoy a massage.|
|The next few days||If you pushed yourself to your limit expect to be sore, perhaps for days. Sleep, eat and hydrate well. Walk. Massage out tight muscles and stretch out tight tendons. Easy runs may aid your recovery. The harder the effort (and older you are) the longer to fully recover. It might take weeks to recover from an ambitious marathon.|
Your race pace is the speed you run when you are in a race. Since a steady pace is the most efficient way to cover ground, it helps to know what pace you can sustain during that race.
On race day try to run at an even pace, the same (fast, but not too fast) pace each (flat) mile. If you’re not sure what your race pace is, start a bit slow and speed up half way. Sustain the same level of effort, whether going flat, up or down. Slow down when you go up, and speed up when you go down. Keep your cadence up even when you slow down. If you rarely run downhill, the extra stress on your back, legs and feet can cause an injury, so be careful if it gets steep.
How fast can you run a race? Once you run one race you can use my favorite Race Calculator to estimate how fast you can run other distances. To modify for hills, each foot of elevation gain slows you down as much as running another ~4 feet, so 10 feet of elevation gain will slow you down ~3-5 seconds. Each foot of elevation loss speeds you up as much as running 2-3 feet less, so 10 feet of elevation loss will speed you up by ~2-3 seconds.
If you haven’t run a race before, you can push yourself harder than in training (say 20-60 seconds per mile faster, or a 5-15 beats per second higher heart rate) and hope for the best. If you have to slow down a lot before the end, start slower next time and keep the pace steady. Shoot to run the first and second half of your race the same speed, or the second half a tad slower (a slight positive split).
Marathons and ‘The Wall’
A marathon is different. Unlike shorter races, 40% of marathoners run out of glycogen and ‘Hit the Wall”
If you use up all your glycogen before your race is over your legs suddenly turn leaden and your body tells you to stop. To avoid the wall, set your pace or intensity just slow enough that you don’t quite run out of glycogen. Maximize your pre-race carb-loading and your in race refueling. Specialized training (fasting before long runs) may not help. However you can find your maximum fueling tolerance in training. 100 calories of sports drink or 1 gel/Gu + 8 oz. water every 3-5 miles?
New Fads and Old Myths
There are always new exercise fads. Ignore them until you see the professionals using them, and even then …
… plus old exercise fables for scientists to disprove and coaches to un-learn.
Placebos (Which work, even when we don’t believe in them!)
- >10mm of shoe cushioning. Replacing shoes every 300 miles
- Ibuprofen before a run
- Supplements, Mega Vitamins or special diets
- Minimal shoes or Barefoot running without risk
- One day of recovery per mile you race
- Compression socks
Running Science Old and New
The half life of old running science
In school we’re taught that theories evolve but facts don’t. Unless you go to medical school, where the medical school faculty are personally responsible for evolving medical science, and gleefully teach their young doctors-to-be not to kill their patients with out-of-date medical ‘facts’, we’re not taught that even facts change. The human physiology facts of 2014 are not the facts of 1964, or even 1994. 30% of medical ‘facts’ were overturned in the past 25 years. Running science will be different in 2024.
Facts have a half-life, long for clean subjects like physics, short for messy subjects like neurobiology. Any running book written before 2013 will include some ‘facts’ that have been already proven wrong, and more will be disproven next year. While running itself is timeless, running science is not. If your running coach hasn’t changed their coaching in 10 years they are out-of-date and getting more so each year.
I’ve done my best to present running science as of 2014. Unlike a book I can easily update this as the ‘facts’ change. Just let me know.
Coaching will move into the 21st century. Today’s coaching manuals only assume one piece of technology, a stop watch. Tomorrow’s coaching mobile applications will monitor every athlete by GPS and heart rate monitor. Under or over-training will be quickly detected by regular monitoring of heart rate. Every day the app will update the coach and athlete based on yesterday’s performance, and suggest what to do today to best prepare for the next race. The app will get smarter and smarter as it collects data from around the world.
New running science
The Internet Of Things will provide running science with vast, cheap data. Instead of studies based on two dozen college athletes we’ll start seeing research leveraging millions, enough to detect small, one second per mile differences.
Experiments, instead of requiring years to submit grant proposals, collect and train volunteers, buy and set up special equipment, process and analyze data, write up results, submit for peer review and eventual publication (with the results then only available by paying a significant fee to the publisher), will be invented, run and published to the world in days, just like web A/B testing. I hope to see running science based on The Quantified Self by 2015.