Healthy Living: Warming Up to Running
If you can walk 30 minutes a day, four to five days per week, for at least two weeks, then the pundits at Runner’s World magazine say you’re ready to run.
But running—one of the most natural and fundamental of human movements—has become a bit more complicated than that. It is still a very good, convenient and cost-effective way to stay fit, yet it’s also one of the most overanalyzed forms of exercise. And, according to Running USA, a trade association for the industry, it can be pricey. Americans are participating in running events at record levels, and in so doing spend billions on shoes, apparel, gear and entry fees every year.
Runners run for all sorts of reasons (now that we no longer need to chase down dinner): They do it to get fit, lose weight, build confidence, compete and sometimes, just to get away from it all.
“The interesting thing about running is that people, when they get the bug to run, usually take it to an extreme,” says Dr. Matthew Hall, a sports medicine specialist at the UConn Health Center in Farmington. “We don’t know why exactly, but they tend to run not just for fitness. There’s a culture of training for a race, whether it’s a 10K or a marathon. It may be something that’s on their bucket list, or as they get older, just something they feel a need to prove.”
That determination often translates into a much larger goal than just getting one’s heart rate up. “From a financial standpoint, it can get very involved, with people buying high-level sneakers, clothes, watches—doing all of that stuff. No question, running generates a lot of income,” says Dr. Hall.
But at the end of the day, running is basic, and all you need to get started, he adds, “is a fairly new pair of comfortable shoes.”
Fits and starts
Running, jogging (running at a slower pace) and even walking require a minimum level of fitness: Don’t expect to roll off the recliner and run a marathon, even if you consider yourself to be reasonably fit. “If someone has not done a lot of activity, then it’s really important to have general heart-health screenings to determine if they’re fit enough, and that no other testing is recommended,” says Dr. Hall. “This is especially true of men in their 40s and 50s, to determine the risk of a cardiovascular event.” Those with known heart conditions, a prior heart attack, with diabetes or uncontrolled hypertension or high cholesterol don’t need to stay on the couch. “It just means they need to take it easy,” says Dr. Hall.
In fact, pacing yourself is one of the most important things every runner, new or seasoned, should do.
Julia Wholey of Canton participated in sports and ran, although not competitively, from 9th grade into adulthood—until she had a child. “Then I took a 15-year break,” she says, laughing. When Wholey, now in her mid-50s, retired from her job as a counselor for the state of Connecticut, she got back on track. Literally. “The Monday after I retired I decided to start running again,” she says. “It was hard. I went a quarter of a mile and I could barely catch my breath. I had to take it very slowly. After a while, I could go a half mile, then a mile. It took a good three months before I really started to feel comfortable and could run three miles straight—without pain.”
Ready to take the next step, Wholey signed up for the Canton Lobster Loop, a 5K fun run. She was quick to let people know. “Telling people you’re running is very affirming,” she says. “You can’t back down. That was my first little goal, and I set the bar pretty low. I told myself I just didn’t want to be the last person crossing the finish line. And I wasn’t. In fact I did okay for my age and group, I came in smack dab in the middle of the pack.”
For Wholey, running is a personal undertaking, as it should be for most people—even if it seems that everyone around you is always talking about his or her new shoes, latest race, best time.
In the beginning it can be both counter-productive and dangerous to compare yourself to others. Dr. Hall advises newbies to “know yourself. Know who you are.” Be honest in determining your current activity level and if you’re truly sedentary, take baby steps.
Choose a flat, safe surface, like a high school track, because it’s best to take traffic and rocky, rutted roads out of the equation at the start.
Walk briskly for 30 minutes every other day. When you feel comfortable with that pace, move up to a jog. Alternate walking and jogging until you’re able to run at a slow pace for the entire time.
How will you know if you’re moving at an appropriate pace? Recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Can you get to the end without huffing, puffing or gasping for breath? Good. This common “talk test” is a convenient and widely used methods of determining if you’re exercising too hard. The idea is that you should be able to carry on a conversation while running. If you can’t then you’re taxing your cardiovascular system and you need to slow it down.
Dr. Hall further advises that you “listen” to your body. If after a run, you’re very sore, then take a day or two to recover.
You want to avoid injury at all costs. “It’s really great to see people getting out. It’s the best thing we can think of,” says Dr. Hall, “but it’s not so good to see them coming in with so many overuse injuries.” Being overzealous can get you in trouble.
While 30 minutes a day is a good rule of thumb, it’s not an exact science. And remember, if you’re running for heart health or on the recommendation of your doctor, it may be enough to just get your heart rate up, to sweat and to burn calories. The goal is not the distance, but the time spent out there.
David Hall is an engineer and running coach from West Hartford who knows how important it is to work your way up to competitive running. Hall had run in college and while in the military, but his interest was renewed when he started to officiate soccer in 2002. His occasional runs in the off-season became more frequent and in time he developed a passion for the sport, so much so that he started informally coaching family and friends. He’s now certified (by USA Track & Field) to coach athletes in all running, jumping and throwing events. He’s also certified by the Road Runners Club of America as a distance running coach. Hall works with runners with varying degrees of intensity. For some, he simply develops a program based on their fitness level, time commitment and overall goals. Others want a digital analysis and professional opinion of their form and a more rigorous training regimen. Some just want someone to run with. At least 75 percent of his clients are women: “Most guys say they don’t need help,” says Hall. But those who do seek out his expertise usually have an “ulterior” motive.
Jon Chlebowski is a public safety officer at Fairfield University who was struggling to qualify for the police academy when he met Hall. Try as he might, the 40-year-old father of three couldn’t reduce his time from the required 1.5-mile run to make it to the next qualifying level. “I took the test three times,” Chlebowski says. “The first time, I started running on my own a month ahead of time. I thought my lungs were gonna pop out of my mouth. I figured I just needed to get conditioned, but it wasn’t enough.”
The next time he took the test, he aced the other fitness skills, but not the run. Says Chlebowski, “my nerves were crazy and I missed it by a good 40 to 50 seconds.” After that, he says, “I had something like 17 people giving me advice, and I just didn’t know who to listen to,” he says, “until I started training with David. He assessed my condition and came up with a plan.” Chlebowski made swift progress but he wanted to be sure he’d pass, so he delayed taking the test for another month and stepped up his cross-training instead.
“Every week he’d send me new routines and kept me on track. That gave me confidence. When I finally took the test again I shaved 52 seconds off my time,” he says. “It was tough. I was working a late shift at the time, so I had to bring my stuff and run at midnight, at a nearby track with a headlamp on.”
Being accountable to Hall and letting people in on his mission made all the difference to Chlebowski: “I really recommend that you let people know you’re going to do this. Nobody wants to say ‘I’m starting P90X on Monday,’ and on Thursday, say ‘yeah, um … I’m not doing that anymore.’ The most important thing though, is to have a plan.”
These days Julia Wholey has gone from the kick of a community run to the euphoria induced by distance running. But it hasn’t been easy and she’s been met with more than a few injuries along the way. “It’s not all fun and roses,” she says. “I’d pull a muscle in my calf, have to rest and ice it. Then soak and stretch it. Then something else would go wrong.”
Wholey made a habit of toughing things out until she developed a serious injury—a stress fracture in her hip. Her doctor told her there was nothing she could do but take the winter off, so she did. When she got the okay to start walking and working out on the elliptical machine, she promptly did.
And when she got an invitation from relatives to run a half marathon this spring, she cleared it and then said yes.
“There absolutely has to be a strong motivation or desire to want to run because it is an arduous process,” she says. “But stick with it and you will reach that wonderful point where all of your muscles are moving properly. It’s not painful. You’re breathing and all of a sudden it comes together, and you think, ‘this is really, really good.’”
Serious runners have a language all their own, tossing around words like anaerobic capacity (a runner’s maximum ability to run very fast) and fartlek (bursts of speed in the middle of a workout) with abandon. But as a newbie (a beginner who often learns the basics by training for a short race, like a 5K ) here is all you need to know:
• warm up Getting loose for a run by increasing your heart rate and blood flow to the muscles in order to reduce the risk of injury. You can do this by walking or jogging for 10 minutes, or by stretching.
• stretching There are two basic types: Static stretching is when you hold major muscle groups in their most lengthened positions for at least 30 seconds. Dynamic stretching involves controlled movements that increase flexibility, power and range of motion (lunges, squats and leg kicks).
• form This is your running technique. In brief: You should try to keep your upper body relaxed but upright and swing your arms back and forth at low 90-degree angles.
• foot strike This is the way your foot hits the ground (mid-foot, toes or heels). In general, light steps that land directly under the hip help minimize impact and reduce injuries.
• pace Commonly used to describe the time it takes to clock one mile. It’s also used with reference to the length of a run (marathon pace, 5K pace, etc.).
• cadence A runner’s cadence is the number of steps taken per minute while running. This is sometimes also known as stride turnover.
• cool down Just as important as the warm up, this is a way to transition your body to a resting state after a run. You can cool down by slowing your pace or by stretching.
Healthy Living: Warming Up to Running