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This time last year you hated running. The thought of heading outside and pounding the streets, or circling laps of the local park, wasn’t one that seemed enjoyable. Then the pandemic hit and going outside became a luxury.
Daily exercise allowances have seen a boom in the number of new runners, with many taking up the sport for the first time. But that was a couple of months ago and lockdowns have eased now.
While the world has returned to some sort of normal, the newfound enjoyment of running may not have gone away. Here’s what you can do if you want to step your running up to the next level.
Running is very personal and what you want to achieve is totally up to you – not everyone has to want to run marathons or ultramarathons. Running can just be about feeling better physically and mentally.
However, if you’re wanting to improve your running, it’s good to have a goal in mind. This could be stepping up from a 5km to a 10km, getting faster, being able to run for a certain amount of time, or something as straightforward as being able to run to a friend’s house across town.
“Keep the goals achievable and short term,” says Susie Chan, an endurance runner for Japanese running brand Mizuno. Having a goal can increase motivation and is more likely to get you out running on a day when you don’t really feel like it. If you’re stuck for a goal, consider why you started to enjoy running. Working out why you want to do it can help determine what your goals should be.
There aren’t many races happening at the moment (for obvious social-distancing reasons), but plenty of companies are running virtual races. These involve signing up for a particular distance, in some cases over a week, and come with communities of people doing the same activity and motivating each other. Chan says: “You could try doing one a month as a benchmark of progress.”
Once you have worked out what your goal is, you need to figure out how to achieve it. This is, inevitably, going to involve more running. “Consistency is key,” says Alison Staples, a US-based running coach. “Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out.”
The best way to increase consistency is by following a training plan. These are essentially schedules that running coaches and experienced runners have devised to help people improve. You may have already followed the Couch-to-5km structure to get you started with running, and if you want to improve your distance or speed finding another plan is the way forward.
Following a plan that’s created by a professional is also likely to be safer than devising your own. A 2018 study from the University of Edinburgh asked 1,145 people completing parkrun events about their running injuries. “In the first year of running, runners using a self-devised training programme were more likely to be injured compared with using a structured programme,” the study’s results found.
If you’re looking for a training plan you should consider whether it is achievable. Runners shouldn’t be looking to vastly increase their training over a short period of time – jumping from running once or twice a week to five or six times will increase your chances of injury. “Distance is a good way to measure progress,” says Chan, who has run multiple 100-mile races. “It should always be done gradually. And every few weeks, have a lower mileage week to be kind to your body. One lower week out of every month is about right.”
How to run
While all training plans will be different there are a few common elements that can help runners improve. Broadly this is the amount you run and the type of runs that you do. One 2017 study of recreational runners who were taking part in a marathon concluded there were “profound” training differences in the participants training. The study, which was pretty small and only looked at 82 marathon runners, concluded that the number of runs a person does coupled with their speed are the best “determinants of race speed progression”. It suggested that runners looking to improve should maximise their running speed during some of their training while making sure their running reaches certain durations needed to reach their goals.
Both Staples and Chan say that easy running – at speeds where you can hold a conversation – should make up the bulk of your running. This applies whether you have been running for years or are just starting out. Professional runners spend a lot of their time running at their slower (easy) paces as it helps increase endurance and aids recovery. Runners World has some advice on finding what your easy pace should be.
Aside from easy running, there are a few types of other runs that can allow you to improve your running. These are the ones that will have the biggest benefits to getting faster, as they involve you running faster throughout.
Interval workouts can help to improve your overall speed. These involve running fast for a set period of time or distance, resting and then repeating. An example of an interval workout can be running as fast as you can for 30 seconds and then resting for one minute, then repeating this process seven to 10 times. Hill repeats also follow this same formula: find a nearby hill (either a short and steep one or long and steady) and run multiple repeats of this, either up or down.
Other types of runs that can help you to get faster include progression runs and tempo runs. Both of these are made easier by using a running watch or app such as Strava that can measure your distance and average running pace. Progression runs start slow and get faster. For example, each mile or minute may be faster than the last. In contrast, tempo runs involve running at a consistently hard pace for the entire run.
Practicing running drills can also aid your running. Drills are short exercises that can be added to a warm-up or in the middle of the run and are designed to improve your running form. These types of drills can include high knee movements and bounding.
Staples says that you should focus on your own running. “Do not get caught up in the comparison trap,” she says. “Never look at someone’s mileage and pace on social media and compare yourself to them.”
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It can be tempting to go out and run all the time – particularly if you’re new to the sport and excited to get outside. However, improving your running isn’t just about what you do while you’re on a run. Resting, nutrition and other types of training can improve how you run and help to prevent injury.
Rest is important. Running adds stress to the body and it needs to be given time to recover from a workout. This is particularly true if you’re new to the sport and your body hasn’t adapted to the added strain running puts on points and muscles. If you’re in pain, it’s best not to try and run through it, and if there’s constant pain you may need to consult with a doctor or physiotherapist.
The University of Edinburgh study we mentioned earlier found that running experience of more than two years could be protective towards the body and more experienced runners have lower rates of injury. “Rest days are very important,” Chan says. “These will help you run stronger next time. A rest will be as good for your body as a run.”
Equally important as resting is recovery. If you’re running more, you should try to sleep more. As people step up their running – particularly in summer and hot weather – it is advisable to drink greater amounts of water and take in more electrolytes, salt and potassium to replace what you lose while sweating.
What you do with your time when you’re not running can help you to become a better runner. The body needs to be kept fit to run and this should mean doing other types of exercise. Many runs – including those who should know better – can only focus on running and not caring for their body in different ways.
“A runner’s potential can only go so far by accumulating miles week-by-week,” Joshua Gooden, a fitness coach from the University of Cambridge says. “If you are a runner and haven’t incorporated strength training yet, it is fair to assume you have a lot of untapped potential.” Writing in a blog post during lockdown, Gooden produced these strength workouts for runners and points to the benefits of completing strength training. It can improve running economy, increase the speed you can run at because you can produce greater power each stride, and help prevent injury through better posture and greater ability to absorb the forces created through running.
You don’t just have to consider strength training: other types of cardiovascular exercise, such as swimming and cycling, can also benefit running. Yoga can also complement your running by loosening joints, stretching muscles and increasing flexibility. Australian yoga teacher and personal trainer Shona Vertue has a free (and not too hard) yoga session for runners here.
One of the benefits of running is that it can be relatively cheap – all you need to do is stick on an old t-shirt, pair of shorts and some trainers and head out the door. However, this isn’t always the best idea. While you don’t need pricey equipment or an expensive gym membership, buying some kit can be an investment.
“You must have proper footwear,” Staples. “You don’t necessarily need brand new shoes, but you will need a shoe that supports your foot while running.” Running shops can advise on the best type of running shoe for you and you should, if possible, attempt to try them out first. If you’re looking for some pointers of kit to get you started, here’s our pick of some of our favourites.
Socks: Injinji No Show
Toe socks may have a bad rep, but when it comes to reducing friction it’s hard to beat them. Injinji’s No Show ($13) socks spread out your toes so your toes can’t rub against each other and increased the chances of friction. Once you’ve tried them it’s hard to go back – even if they do look absurd.
Mens: $13 | Check price on InjinjiWomens: $13 | Check price on Injinji
Also consider: Stance’s Mix It Up Quarter (£17). Stance proves that running socks don’t have to be boring shades of while, they’re also incredibly comfy.
Unisex: £17 | Check price on Stance
Shoes: HOKA ONE ONE Rincon 2
There’s a few reasons why Hoka’s Rincon 2 (£105) makes it into our guide to the best running shoes: they’re relatively cheap, lightweight despite a lot of cushioning, and feel fast on your feet. There’s no carbon-fibre plate in these shoes, which is currently the trend for the highest performance racing trainers, but they do have HOKA’s MetaRocker design that’s meant to encourage you to land on your toes. The biggest downside is the sole can wear down pretty quickly.
Mens: £105 | Check price on HOKAWomens: £105 | Check price on HOKA
Also consider: If you’re looking for something a bit pricier but has the potential to go faster, Nike’s Pegasus Turbo (from £160) may be the trainer for you. It includes the company’s ZoomX foam, which it claims is its most responsive and fastest and also features in its shoes used to break world records. The price is a big jump though, and you may be best off waiting until they’re in the sale.
Mens: £160 | Check price on Amazon | NikeWomens: £160 | Check price on Amazon | Nike | JDSports
Running watch: Garmin Forerunner 45
The Forerunner 45 (£130) is our favourite budget running watch. As well as providing you with GPS tracking there’s also activity tracking for several other sports modes. There’s an emergency assistance mode that can send an alert to three contacts if the button is held down, and the battery life can span up to 13 hours of GPS tracking.
Price: £130 | Check price on Amazon | Wiggle
Also consider: In our opinion, the Polar Vantage V (£308) is the most complete running watch you can buy right now. Yes, it costs a fair bit more than the Forerunner above, but is a lot cheaper than some of the most sophisticated watches out here. It monitors the strain that each workout puts on your body and was the first watch to offer running power, too.
Price: £308 | Check price on Amazon | Wiggle
T-shirt: Inov-8 Base Elite Short Sleeve
Having a moisture-wicking sports top is one easy way to improve your comfort while running. The Base Elite (£45) from Lake District-based running brand Inov-8 is made from recycled technical polyester yarns and incredibly light (80g for men and 62g for women). Inov-8 says each top is made from “roughly” five 500ml PET bottles.
Mens: £45 | Check price on Inov-8Womens: £45 | Check price on Inov-8
Also consider: Adidas’ Own The Run t-shirt (£25). This adidas top is very soft and definitely falls into the affordable category when compared with other running clothing. Like the Inov-8 top above, it is also made from 100 per cent recycled polyester.
Mens: £25 | Check price on adidasWomens: £25 | Check price on adidas
Headphones: Jaybird Tarah Pro
The Jaybird Tarah Pro (£139) were built for runners of all types. They’re as adept on steep descents as while you’re running on flat terrain. A neat switching feature allows them to be worn over and under your ears, plus there are 14-hours of music playback that should allow you to get several runs in without needing a charge. There’s no active noise cancellation but a reliable connection and IPX7 water resistance rating are two of the reasons why these are our overall pick for the overall best running headphones.
Price: £139 | Check price on John Lewis | Jaybird | Currys
Also consider: If you’d like a truly wireless option then the Jaybird Vista (£159) are an excellent choice. They have a six-hour battery life (10 additional hours in the charging case), IPX7 water resistance and weigh just 6g.
Price: £159 | Check price on Amazon | Jaybird | John Lewis
Shorts: Lululemon and Nike
Finding a pair of shorts that are comfortable, have enough pockets and are still stylish can be a serious challenge. These women’s Lululemon Track That Short 5″ (£48) have zip-up side pockets that can accommodate your phone, keys and other essentials and added Lycra to help with shape retention. An added bonus is the continuous drawcord that’s designed not to vanish inside the short’s lining.
Price: £48 | Check price on Lululemon
Also consider: Who likes short shorts? We certainly do. Nike’s AeroSwift (£60) line, which comes in different lengths, are lightweight and include a ventilated waistband. The company says the shorts are “at least” made from 75 per cent recycled polyester but be wary about a potential lack of pockets.
Mens: £60 | Check price on NikeWomens: £60 | Check price on Nike
Matt Burgess is WIRED’s deputy digital editor. He tweets from @mattburgess1
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