Running is more important than you might think for your health. While all kinds of exercise are good for the constitution, in terms of overall fitness running is better than walking and shorter bursts are better than a long plod. Plenty of studies have suggested that runners live longer, but recently it was confirmed that even moderate amounts of the activity could add as much as three years to your life. It is also the ultimate fat burner and will leave you with buns of steel and legs as lithe as an A-lister’s. On your marks…
Indoors or out?
There are two types of runner - those who like treadmills and those who don’t. As someone who falls firmly into the second category, I could never bear the hamster-wheel confinement of a mechanical running belt. Outside, blissfully unaware of how quickly (or slowly) I am moving, I can keep going for an hour or more. There are benefits to braving the outdoors.
Several studies have shown that outdoor running burns about 5 per cent more calories, partly due to the lack of wind resistance indoors and partly to the fact that a motorised belt propels you along slightly. But it’s not all bad news if you prefer the treadmill. A study in the journal Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise showed that watching your reflection in a gym mirror as you run will help novice runners to co-ordinate their limbs and run more smoothly.
Treadmills are definitely in the ascendecy with New York’s first dedicated treadmill running studio, the Mile High Run Club, opening recently and classes such as V-Tread at Virgin Active in which you race against other treadmill runners, and Precision Running at Equinox London making it more attractive even to the previously anti- brigade like me.
What’s your style?
A common misconception is that there is a perfect running style, a ‘correct’ way to run. In fact, any running technique can be right or wrong. What matters is that your body adopts a way of moving that works for you and does not leave you prone to injury.
“The key to successful running comes down to a relaxed style, even if it is slightly ragged,” says Berkshire-based UK Athletics coach Paddy McGrath. “Try to keep your head still, your arms at around 90 degrees and your hips and shoulders square to the front, but don’t become too obsessed about it. Tension can make your technique worse.”
Researchers at the University of Exeter’s human performance group showed that we actually self-adjust, eventually settling into an efficient technique just by running more. They studied a group of women who had recently taken up running and gave each a pair of running shoes fitted with motion capture sensors, heart rate monitors and other measuring devices. They then filmed them running on a treadmill. By the end of the trial, their technique had improved. Compared with their first run, the subjects were bending their knees and flexing their ankles slightly more, meaning their legs became more flexed as they left the ground in the toe-off portion of each stride - all good news for injury avoidance.
Buying the right trainers is littered with confusion and contradiction, more so than ever in the last two years as the trend for ‘ barefoot running ’ has taken hold. What proponents of shoe-shedding claim is that bulky trainers with excessive cushioning force us to land in a way nature never intended when we run - on our heels, causing shock to reverberate through the body and increase the risk of injury.
Most experts agree there was a time when shoes were cushioned to a fault. But don’t ditch them, is the message. Leading running coach Martin Yelling of Yelling Performance thinks the benefits of barefoot running have been overplayed and that wearing shoes with zero cushioning is a recipe for disaster for many people. However, he says that some running shoe manufacturers are responding to the current trend by launching shoes that are mid-minimalist, a step up from the foot-glove variety and a step down from regular trainers when it comes to cushioning. “There’s definitely a place for lighter, less structured shoes than we’ve worn in the past but even these require some getting used to,” Yelling says. “The best approach is to vary your shoes as much as you can. Wear a shoe with good traction on trails, a more cushioned shoe for longer runs and a lighter trainer for short distances.” My shoes of the moment? The Saucony Triumph (£125.99) and Adidas Supernova Glide Boost (£130) both of which offer an incredibly comfy ride.
What else to wear
It may be the simplest form of exercise, but there has been an explosion in accessories, clothing and gizmos aimed at runners, many of which are bafflingly high-tech. There are heart rate monitors, sweat-wicking clothes, anti-vibrational running socks and compression vests designed to make you run faster by improving the way your muscles work. And that’s before you enter the minefield of shopping for new trainers. You can choose from features including extra cushioning or anti-pronation, ultra-lightweight and waterproof materials, or shoes that are suitable specifically for road, trail or treadmill.
Does it need to be this confusing and costly? Of course not, says Dr Ceri Diss, a senior lecturer in sports biomechanics at Roehampton University’s Sports Performance and Assessment Centre. “You need a good basic shoe and a good sports bra, but that’s about it,” she says. “You could spend a fortune on gadgets and fancy clothing, but they won’t make much difference to your performance or your enjoyment of the sport.”
Check your progress
Runners love recording their routes and plotting statistics and there are plenty of ways you can do this for free. Free apps like Map My Run incorporate GPS devices that track you as you run and even offer encouragement. If you want to make an investment, then running watches with in-built GPS systems are available from around £100. They allow you to download your achievements to your computer to see how you are progressing. Garmins are popular, but my personal favourite is the TomTom Runner (around £219) which has large numbers that are easily visible as you run.
Stretching after a run is essential, says John Brewer, professor of Applied Sports Sciences at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. “It has been shown to be more effective in injury prevention than if you do it before you start,” he says. Active flexibility, such as skipping-type running drills, are great to do before you start if you are planning to run fast. But generally a slower pace at the start will prepare your body for running, Brewer says. He says that over-enthusiastic newcomers can risk damage by doing too much too soon, so take things steadily and make sure you schedule in rest days. “Tired, over-used muscles simply don’t repair themselves as quickly, especially as you get older,” Brewer says.
Join a club
This is by far the best advice I can give. Running is easier, not to mention more enjoyable, when you do it with others. And there are plenty of beginner groups where you can get expert (and often free) advice to help you plan for that next step in a runner’s life: the race. Visit runengland.org for a list of beginner groups backed by England Athletics that are free to join.