When it comes to running our message is simple: start as you mean to go on and do it right from the beginning
We all know runners who repeatedly do the same things over and over again, then wonder why they’re always injured or don’t make the progress they’d like. Don’t be one of them. Even when you’re a beginner you can give thought to how you train, your running technique and nutrition – then learn from what works and what doesn’t.
Most runners have never been ‘taught’ how to run. For some reason, running isn’t considered a ‘technical’ sport in the same way as swimming, for example. We tend to just put one foot in front of the other and give little thought to how we move, what we do with our arms or how our feet land on the floor. But when you’re a beginner this is actually the best time to learn good technique and style. You can avoid picking up bad habits by focusing on good style and form right from the start.
Watch the lead runners at a race and listen carefully – what can you hear? What can you see? It’s a wonderful sight as they glide effortlessly past, their feet hardly touching the ground. Then watch the rest of the field come through, feet slapping the ground, heads lolling from side to side, arms flailing and expressions of pain on faces. How would you rather run? OK so we can’t all run as fast as the elites, but we can try to emulate their technique.
Key points for good technique:
There are many aspects to good running form, but here are some basics to focus on. It doesn’t have to be complicated, so keep things simple to begin with.
- Listen to how your feet hit the ground. Can you hear them slapping or shuffling?
- Try to run with light quick feet – think ‘fast fairy feet’ and avoid making any noise as they land.
- What are your arms and hands doing? Do they move from side to side? Cross over your body? Flap about? Do you have clenched fists? Ask someone else to watch you and give you some feedback.
- Good running technique comes from the arms. Get the arm drive right and the rest will follow. So start by relaxing your shoulders. Your elbows should be at 90 degrees with your hands relaxed. Swing from the shoulder and aim to drive your elbow backwards – which in turn drives your body forwards. Your arms should move backwards and forwards, not sideways. They shouldn’t cross your body in front, nor should your elbows go out to the sides. Think about trying to elbow someone behind you!
- Imagine for a minute that you have two sets of headlights, one on your nipples and one on your hip bones. Where are they pointing? Down to the ground? Up in the sky? Your aim is to point them forwards. This will encourage you to run with good posture, with your hips lifted and chest open. Think about pointing your ‘headlights’ forwards at all times – if you find they’re dipping down, then re-focus and lift up again.
Don’t neglect the warm up!
Warming up properly will help you avoid injury, get more out of your run and engage your muscles to run with good technique. We all know the importance of warming up, but how many of us do it? Chances are it’s because you’re not sure what to do or feel awkward, so it’s easier just to head off out of the door and get going. But the warm up is an ideal opportunity to incorporate some balance and co-ordination drills too, which in turn will help make you a better runner. Try this before your next run; it will only take five minutes.
- Stand on one leg – thinking about your balance – and rotate the ankle of the other leg. Do 10 in each direction
- Again standing on one leg, swing the other leg backwards and forwards like a pendulum from the hip – do 10 on each leg. Concentrate on your balance and fluid movement.
- Get your pelvis mobile with 10 hip circles in each direction
- Roll your shoulders 10 times to get rid of the stress of the day and encourage them to relax
- Starting with your arms above your head, do 10 large circles with each arm
- Do 10 small lunges on each leg, stepping forwards then pushing back to standing and repeat
- Finish off with 10 ‘butt kicks’ and 10 ‘skipping’ drills bringing your knees up to waist height as you’re walking into your warm up.
…or the cool down!
Spend five minutes walking at the end of your run to lower your heart-rate and cool down. Never sprint back to the gate or door, but give yourself a ‘finish-line’ which might be 400m up the road. Then go through some stretches. Get into a routine of the same stretches which will make it easier to remember. Start with hamstrings, then calves, quads and adductors (inner thigh); piriformus (in the bottom muscles) and some upper back stretches and shoulder rolls can be included too. Hold each stretch for 20-30 seconds.
Many beginners take up running to lose weight, but you still need to fuel your body for exercise. Try going for a run when you’re ravenous and see how hard it feels. Carbohydrate is your fuel for exercise so eating a diet that includes foods such as pasta, rice, potato, bread, grains, fruits, yoghurt etc, will give you the energy you need.
Timing of eating is important and something that many beginners find hard. You need to re-think your eating habits so you eat smaller meals ‘sandwiched’ around your runs. It’s a balancing act between eating enough to fuel your training, and not overeating, which may sabotage your weight loss efforts.
Planning is key, so think ahead about when you’re going to run, what you’re going to eat and when. There’s nothing worse than trying to run with a rumbling stomach and feeling weak and tired. Equally trying to run on a full stomach after a large dinner isn’t ideal either. Meal choice, portion size and timing are the key and it just needs a little thought.
There are two golden rules:
Golden Rule 1 – There is a window of 30-60 minutes after a run when your body is most responsive to refueling, so try to eat or drink something as soon as you can. Aim to have either your main meal, or a smaller snack (cheese on toast, banana and custard or scrambled egg and a crumpet) to replace the lost energy. You’ll run better the next time and refueling will protect your immune function too.
Golden Rule 2 – Never run when starving hungry. Not only will you struggle for energy, but your immune function will be depleted and you’ll be more likely to get injured or ill. If it’s happening regularly, you just need a rethink on your food timing and meal sizes. A small snack, 60-90 minutes before your run will give you enough energy.
When to eat?
Run at 7-8am? It’s hard to eat a big breakfast before a run, but if you can eat a banana and maybe a sports drink 20 minutes before your run, you’ll feel more energised and run better. Have your normal breakfast after the run.
Lunchtime run? Have a larger breakfast and small mid morning snack. Making sure you drink plenty during the morning. Plan your lunch ahead of time, so it’s ready for you after your run.
Run at 7-8pm? Eat a large lunch, then smaller snack at 5.30pm (banana and custard for example), followed by smaller supper (beans on toast) after your run.
Word on weight loss – It’s not good practice to run when hungry or to skip meals in the hope you’ll lose weight. Your immune function will be depleted and you run the risk of injury or illness and reduced recovery from training. You need to support your training with correct fuelling both before and after a run, which in turn will enable you to run more consistently and stay healthy. Consistent running and healthy eating will lead to weight loss – skipping meals and trying to run on thin air will not.
Your secret weapon – The Foam Roller
Every runner should have a foam roller. Essential for self massage of the ITB, quads, calves and adductors, regular foam rolling will head off any injuries and iron out any tight spots before they become a problem. The ITB in particular is very difficult to stretch, so foam rolling is the best solution. Get one from www.strideuk.com along with instructions.
Too much too soon?
Enthusiastic beginners are a wonderful breed, but that enthusiasm can often be their downfall, leading to injury and illness. When you’re new to running and progressing in leaps and bounds, it’s difficult to listen to reason. Doing too much too soon though is probably the biggest mistake new runners make – but it’s an easy one to learn from. Keeping a running diary is a good way of being able to look back at what you did wrong and where you did too much. But how much is too much?
Consistency is the key to running success, and so little and often is better than one long run each week. Build up the ‘frequency’ of your runs first, then work on the length. A rule of thumb is not to increase your weekly mileage by more than 10-15 per cent to begin with.
This shows how an enthusiastic beginner might try to progress, but inadvertently do too much too soon:
Week 1 – Monday 3 miles, Friday 3 miles = Total 6 miles
Week 2 – Monday 4 miles, Friday 4 miles = Total 8 miles
Week 3 – Monday 4 miles, Wednesday 3 miles, Friday 4 miles = Total 11 miles
Week 4 – Monday 4 miles, Wednesday 4 miles, Friday 6 miles = Total 14 miles
By week 6, this beginner will probably be sidelined with injury.
A more realistic and safe progression might look something like this:
Week 1 – Monday 3 miles, Friday 3 miles = Total 6 miles
Week 2 – Monday 3 miles, Friday 4 miles = Total 7 miles
Week 3 – Monday 3 miles, Wednesday 3 miles, Friday 2 miles = Total 8 miles
Week 4 – Monday 3 miles, Wednesday 4 miles, Friday 3 miles = Total 10 miles
How to Avoid Injury – Top Tips
- Be patient and progress slowly – follow a sensible training programme and don’t be tempted to jump ahead too far, too soon
- If you feel any sort of niggle or discomfort, stop running and seek treatment from a physiotherapist or sports therapist
- Get fitted out by a specialist running shop for a pair of proper running shoes – don’t just buy from the Internet
- Think about trying to ‘injury proof’ your body with core stability exercises and specific stretching. Most running injuries are down to postural or overuse problems. Get advice from a physiotherapist or personal trainer.
- Think about good posture even when just walking around, sitting at your desk or driving. It’s often what we do when we’re not actually running that is the culprit.
- If you know you have an old injury (typically from skiing, rugby, football etc) which might flare up, get advice from a physio before you start running.
- Always stretch properly after a run and pay extra attention to any tight spots.
- Make sure you have two-three days off between sessions
Get down to your local running club
The benefits of joining a running club are endless. Group training sessions will keep you motivated and provide structure and many clubs will have a coach to give you some guidance. The social aspect of most clubs is a big draw, and you can expect to make some great friends, find new running partners and have a whole host of new social occasions to fit into your diary. Most clubs will welcome you with open arms and provide the encouragement you need to take your running to the next level, and membership is usually extremely cheap. There are literally thousands of running clubs and groups all over the UK. Check out www.uka.org.uk to find one near you.
Perseverance is key! It might not be easy to begin with, but stick with it and you’ll reap the rewards. Don’t give up at the first hint of injury or difficulty, but work out what you need to do differently and stay positive. And don’t expect too much too soon. Keep plugging away and you’ll get there eventually.