I think I first started running when I was about 17; although I have a terrible memory, I do remember going regularly around the hills near my home town, and the coincidence of geography and age only really works if it was when I was in my late teens. Then there was a significant period of time off (there’s literally no way my weed-and-booze-smudged lungs could have coped with a run during uni, although we did play squash – drunk – once, which resulted in a scar for me and a detached retina for my friend…), but then I picked it up again (extremely intermittently) for many years following that.
For the past 5 or so years I’ve been much more consistent, trying to run several times a week, with my basic ideal of “every other day” with a mixture of 5 and 10k distances (~3 and ~6 miles), which gives me round about 50-70 miles a month.
Over this time, I’ve picked up a few useful tips and techniques that I thought I’d share here. Some of these are blindingly obvious and you’ll find them with any half-decent web search, but others are a little bit niche and have taken me years to figure out. Bear in mind that I’m no ultra-marathon weirdo, I’m just a relatively fit 50 y/o guy – and that all these things work for me, but (as they say in the disclaimer handbook) – please let your own circumstance / age / fitness / sense be the guide here, not mine!
Warming up / down
At least half the internet says you absolutely must warm up but don’t bother about warming down. The other half says the opposite. The third half says don’t do anything. The final half says do both. There is no consensus, and after years of trying All The Things, my advice boils down to: do whatever works for you. Try each / any / all and see what works for your run, your post-run fatigue, strains, etc. Be very gentle, whatever you do (you’ll see me say this several times here!) – so if you are going to stretch (for instance) your Achilles then don’t bounce, instead ease into a stretch gently. You’re much more likely to pull something nasty if you overdo a stretch by going at it too hard. Be kind to yourself.
For what it’s worth, I find what works best for me is a gentle pre-run stretch which focuses on ankles and calves (these are the muscles I have learned are a little weak for me!), and then sometimes I need a bit of a yoga moment post-run, but quite often I don’t bother with any post-run stretching at all.
This has been perennially good advice which has worked for me since way back, and is coupled to the above. However fit I am, I always regret a fast start. It works much better for me (and it seems for many others too) to start off gently and for the first 1-2 miles to just stay really slow, right at the bottom end of my training heart rate (Zone 1 or 2). Even if you feel good, force yourself to stay at a nice slow pace. I find that after this time I can pick the pace up if I feel like it, and this will then do me well for longer runs. If on the other hand I start fast, I’m most often regretting it by mile 3 / 4!
Think about cadence
I didn’t properly research or understand cadence until about 2 years ago – it was probably when I got my first Garmin running watch that I did some reading and then discovered it is actually a widely talked about thing. Cadence (or SPM – strides per minute) is a posh way of saying “how fast your legs are going” which is itself a way of describing how often your feet hit the floor.
The “ideal” cadence often quoted is 180 bpm, which if you try it is extremely fast. When I first went out on a run and used my Garmin (which measures / displays cadence) to try and stick to anything even close to 180 I found it really quite weird – if you’ve never done this before then you have a natural “rhythm habit” to your running which is very hard to break, and it feels very unnatural at first to try and alter it. You’ll probably find that you have to change your stride length considerably in order to make your pace something reasonable for you, and you end up sort of tottering along feeling very strange about the whole thing 🙂
The obvious first question is why? Why alter your cadence anyway?
Well, for me increasing my cadence has had two obvious impacts. Firstly, it makes hills easier. If you’re taking tiny little steps, you’ll just feel better when you’re on a gradient. Secondly – and probably the thing that has had most impact on me – it radically reduces post-run strains and likelihood of injury.
Strains and urgh
As you get into a regular routine, and into understanding how best your body reacts to stretches / pace / cadence you’ll also probably start getting some twinges, and if you’re unlucky, some strains. You’ll find that there are some muscles that you are particularly prone to pulling. The biggies to watch out for in my experience are Achilles injuries (can range from a little twinge all the way up to something nasty enough that you have to give up running for 3-6+ months…), knee stuff and calves.
For Achilles, there’s an amazing (but also amazingly painful…) trick which can help with minor Achilles pain – sit down, cross your affected leg over the top of the other and then (gently now!) pinch your Achilles. Do it gently at first and move from top to bottom of the Achilles tendon. Now pinch a bit harder, and again move from top to bottom, pinching as you go. Do it as hard as you can bear – it can be insanely painful and the stuff of torture nightmares – but you will find that ultimately this really helps ease off an Achilles strain.
For calves, a physio roller is your friend. I mean, it isn’t, it’ll hurt like buggery, but it will help!
For knees, there are various supports – I find the tubular cloth ones a bit weedy but have found something more substantial quite helpful.
Misc final bits
One of the biggest learnings for me as I’ve got fitter is not to overdo my pace. I can comfortably do 8:30 minute miles (be gentle with me, I’m not as young as I once was!), and from a purely aerobic point of view, I can also push myself up into 7:30 minute miles or faster – but – this is when strains happen. So although my aerobic fitness is plenty good enough to sustain this speed, my limbs and muscles just don’t like it. In other words, it’s easy to get carried away with your pace when you feel good, but you’ll probably regret it! Instead, if I’m feeling good and want to extend myself, I tend to do it by pushing out the distance rather than the pace.
I’ve also learnt to avoid running on one side of a road for too long if I can help it – cambers and “micro mountains” (kerb slopes), although slight, can be really quite straining – so I’d suggest alternating sides or avoiding where you can (stay safe, obviously!) so that your feet get a bit of variety.
I’ve spent no time at all talking about shoes. It’s a whole other post, but really as per above – do what feels ok for you. Find a running shop where you can put on the shoes and go take a trot around the block. Get advice about what suits your particular instep / foot width, pronation, etc – but just try stuff wherever you can. A good shoe will cost you north of £100, and it’s worth getting it right. I run a lot of variety underfoot (quite a lot of road / canal / footpath but also hills, coastal paths, etc) so my current favourite is a Hoka Challenger which is a good multi-use running shoe, but honestly – do whatever suits you. Just don’t cheap out!
That’s it. Happy running 🙂