If you’ve ever met a pro runner and get them chatting candidly, they’ll eventually admit that, even for them, not every run is a joyful excursion. Quite the opposite. For them, training runs can be grueling. Think burning lungs, burning muscles, burning joints — you get the idea. And yet, there must be a reason for the madness of running. The simplicity of moving your body. Pride from how far you’ve come. A drive to improve and conquer. And all of the personal reasons people bring to running.
And in those ways, professional runners aren’t so different from the rest of us. Perhaps the stakes are a bit lower for weekend warriors, who deal with a host of challenges in their own right. First is running itself. It’s hard. Add to that bad weather, a level-up in your training program, stuff going on in your personal life that throws you off schedule — lacing up isn’t so easy.
But let’s give running the props it deserves. It’s a great cardio workout that challenges your heart and lungs. It’s a do-anywhere sport and all you need is a pair of sneakers. Go out alone, run with a partner, or find a group — it can be as solo or social as you want. For women, all of the pounding that the legs go through is one way to stave off osteoporosis. And there’s all the mental growth, too.
So if you’re trying to make running a habit, or even find yourself out of a running rut, we’ve got some science-backed tips that’ll keep you running full speed ahead.
- Define your goal.
Most of us, when we think about running, are using it as a challenge of endurance. Runs can last just a few minutes or many hours. So if we may be so bold, we’d like to offer you a first goal: Running a little more every week. Let’s say you’re running twice a week, and one run is pretty standard — something like a neighborhood run that nets a mile and a half. That’s going to help provide a basis for fitness, and is a good time to play with speed work or use it as a recovery run. This second one could be a weekend morning outing when you are working on building endurance. That means increasing either your distance or running time every week. Can you tack on a half mile? A mile? Can you add five, 10, 15 minutes? That’s how you’ll build endurance, when your heart rate stays consistent for longer periods of time. Now, notice we didn’t say to use that weekend run to work on speed. That’s something you’ll create during auxiliary workouts, like that weekday run or during cross-training (you can find a list of different workouts here).
After a few weeks or months of this, you’ll find that the workouts help feed each other. The weekday runs will feel easier, and the weekend runs will get speedier.
If you’re a person who likes discrete goals, try this. Pick a distance you’d like to achieve. Maybe it’s a race distance like 5K (3.1 miles), a 10K (6.2 miles), or something like 4 miles. Pick a course and do a time-trial, finishing it however you need to, including walking as much as necessary. After 6 weeks, do another time trial, and again 6 weeks later. If you are sticking to a plan that includes running, cross-training, mobility, recovery, and rest, you should see that number come down over the three months.
Related: how to make running fun
- Take the speaking test
A lot of newer runners are concerned with pace. Yes, you could set your sights on a certain number — maybe you really want to be running 10 minute miles for 6 miles, for example. But when you’re first starting out, there are other metrics that might be more helpful. One is called “the speaking test.” If you can hold a conversation while you’re running, you’re going at a sustainable speed. If you tick up the speed, you could probably chat in bits and spurts. Speed up again, and talking isn’t going to happen. Play with going back and forth with speed and see how long you can sustain the run.
Of course, you can always get a heart rate monitor or use a smartwatch to figure out what exertion zone you’re working in. Either way, working across comfort zones will increase your overall endurance, fitness, and speed.
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- Run with music
If you’d never dream of leaving for a run without your headphones, you’re in good company. And there’s even research that says music can make high-intensity endurance training feel easier. For instance, a study asked two cyclists to go hard, and recorded a bunch of metrics, which included how much time the workout lasted, the rating of perceived exertion (basically, how hard the workout felt), heart rate, and breathing frequency. The ones who had been listening to high-tempo music, at 130 beats per minute, exercised almost 11% longer and had a higher heart rate than those who hadn’t been listening to music, according to researchers at Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada. And one more bonus of tunes: listeners’ heart rate recovered — i.e. returned to resting — 13% faster than their radio silence peers.
“Listening to music has been repeatedly shown to have ergogenic benefits during various modes of exercise, including endurance, sprint, and resistance-based activities,” writes Christopher G. Ballmann, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. There are a few reasons why this seems to be the case. For instance, people seem to feel better when they listen to music when they exercise, including “improvements in positive feelings, mood, and subjective fatigue,” Ballmann writes. And music may have physiological differences, including the way the brain responds to exercise while listening to music, and metabolic responses, including its oxygen expenditure and how quickly it clears muscle-tiring lactate from the system.
What the research also suggests is that you have to be listening to something you enjoy. Here’s one thing to consider. Listening to high-octane music with a high beats per minute may increase your own heart rate. That’s a good thing when you’re trying to work hard and fast, but may not be the best when you’re working on endurance. Some people find it’s easier to listen to chiller music, or even a podcast, when they’re doing endurance running, and perhaps save poppier music for the last bit of their outing when they’re trying to make it to the finish line.
- Listen to your body
Last but not least: listen to your body. Even if you have found the right running speed in theory, practice can look different. Heart rate, fitness level and well-being depend not only on numbers, but above all on everyday factors:
How well were you able to recover after exercising? How has your diet changed since embarking on this running program? What else is going on in your life? Are you sleeping better — or worse?
Always keep the option open to do less if you feel like it. Try to avoid overtraining and take regular breaks. Reducing your jog speed to below 60% of your maximum heart rate is ideal when you want to actively recover. Even if that might mean walking.
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