How can I prepare myself for a charity run? What are expert-approved running tips? How can I make runs really count for fitness?
I have a charity run coming up next month, and since I rarely run these days, I thought it was time to research running properly. I want to understand how to prepare my body for a run, how to avoid injuries and how to get the most out of running that I can for my fitness. Here is what I have learnt.
What distance could I run?
In case you are concerned about your ability to commit to a run but know how long you can run for, here’s a rough guide:
5km: 20-40 minutes (this is what I shall call the “no excuses zone”. 5km runs are fun runs. I would happily sign up all three of my children to do one of these knowing that worst case scenario, I could carry the 3 year old!).
10km: 40-80 minutes
½ marathon: 1 -3 hours
Marathon: 2.5 hours (elite runners) to 8 hours (walkers)
There is a great chart here that you can use to calculate the time that it would take you to run any given distance.
If you are an absolute novice runner, there is a section at the end of this post especially for you.
Warm up and warm down
Don’t just sprint out the door – you are much more likely to acquire an injury. Warm up your muscles (especially your calves, hamstrings and quads) with stretches. Spend a further minute on mobility moves to prepare your joints (ankle rotation, hip flexors etc.) with moves like ankle swings. Before you start running, do some walking lunges and build up your speed gradually. A slow and steady build-up dramatically reduces the risk of injuries. At the end, cool down by running slowly or walking the last ten minutes and end with some static stretches. Here is a great post run stretch guide. If you are doing regular running and training for a long run, don’t forget to foam roll with a product like this. Rolling out sore muscles, especially calves will be more important to recovery than lung capacity. On longer runs, it is the physical soreness that is likely to stop you before your cardiovascular fitness.
Vary your runs
Mix up your routes, surfaces, locations, speeds and inclines. If you don’t ever change how you run, your body will reach a plateau and you won’t see any positive changes. I’ve heard many a PT say the words “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you”. This is true for running as much as any other type of training. Different surfaces engage different muscles in your legs which not only helps challenge you but also can help prevent injuries (many running injuries are repetitive strain injuries). Integrating short sprints into a run is one of the easiest ways to increase your fitness level because it is much more of a challenge for your heart rate. Spot a hill – do an uphill sprint! A whole session based on hill sprints is great for increasing your fitness. Do 10-15 sprints up and recovery walks down. Adding a HIIT element to your running will burn calories faster, increase your basal metabolic rate and increase your level of fitness faster. Having read about HIIT principles, I will never simply jog or run again: mixing up speeds and inclines gives you a heart pumping more effective workout in much less time. N.B. Since I mention incline, never ever accelerate down a hill. The breaking forces on your body can destroy your knees. I learnt this the hard way as a cross country runner in my teens and one of them has never completely recovered.
Don’t just run (and don’t forget your bum)
It sounds counter intuitive but all top runners will tell you this. Mixing it up with strength work (bodyweight training or weights exercises) will increase your fitness faster and help you on all aspects of your running, including speed, agility and endurance. Zanna’s park bench workout or any of the moves from the TMA lower body workout guide are great ones to fit in prior to or during your run. It really increases the value of time spent doing cardio to activate muscles first. I always do some preceding glute activation to prevent my running becoming quad-dominant. The gluteus maximus is arguably the most underused running muscle. A lot of knee issues arise from weak glutes so help strengthen these in gym sessions. Core and leg training is also crucial for runners. You need strong legs to be able to carry you. Your core keeps you stable as you run, and a strong core can help prevent the lower back pain that arises particularly in City-based runners from pounding the pavements. Pilates is a great way of working the core and if you have access to a reformer machine, they are great for hamstring stretches and hip opening movements for runners.
If you are training for a run, especially one that is beyond your comfort zone distance, it is crucial to set yourself a training timetable – how many times per week you will run, the distance etc. and then actually diarise it. Stick to the plan. If you have to miss a session, try to fit it in some other time that week. Consistency is the key to any successful fitness program. It teaches your mind and integrates it into your life. We have written a whole piece on fitness motivation: read it here if that is something you struggle with.
Having a reason to run is very motivating – if you are running a charity run, keep in your mind who, why or what you are running for when the going gets tough. If you struggle with training plans, remember those fighting health battles for whom your bad moments and bad days would be a blessing; more positively, think about how some people might survive in part because of the money you raise for research or care. These are the thoughts I put in my mind when I am at the bottom of a hill that I am planning to sprint up (and I’m not always that angelic. Imagining Ryan Gosling at the top of the hill with an ice-cream or fitting into skinny jeans may well be as much a motivator as charity some days). So much physical struggle can be overcome by mental strength, positive affirmations and motivation.
Track your progress
Keep a running log that tracks your distance and time. It is both rewarding and motivating to see your mileage and speed increase. I am trialling a piece of wearable tech to track my training at the moment. I will let you know how I get on with Misfit Shine in due course. So far my thoughts are this: where have you been all my life? I am so motivated to beat myself yesterday every single day. My only competition has only ever been with myself so this is fun. Shona last week is history; I have thrashed her today.
Talk about it and get support
Tell people your running goal. Post about it on social media (but please only once or every so often or I will totally un-follow you!) Share it with your partner or parents or kids or colleagues. Putting it out there keeps you accountable. You can ask them to get involved too! Running does not need to be a solitary pursuit. It is so much easier to keep motivated with a running buddy. There are many Running Clubs in every major city. I have not tried it myself but have heard good things about Run Club London which offers professionally coached run sessions, marathon and half-marathon training. There is also a free club called London City Runners which even offers sightseeing running trips (great for tourists!). Serpentine Running club in Hyde Park has a busy training schedule and is a great resource for London marathon training.
Get kitted out
De-layer: When I run, I am pretty cold for the first few minutes as I am under-dressed for the weather. Without wanting to encourage hypothermia, you should dress as if it is 10-15 degrees warmer than it is. Once you get moving, you’ll be happy you didn’t wear so much. Even on December runs, I don’t want more than one layer beyond the first few minutes.
Wear the right shoes: Running shoes and training shoes are different. You must have shoes that are geared for the right activity. Running shoes are engineered for heel to toe motion, so they tend to be more flexible. Runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis, and early-onset arthritis are just a few problems that arise from exercising in the wrong shoes or over-worn shoes. The right shoes for your feet and your running style will improve structural alignment and performance as well as help prevent injury, and it is best to get advice from a specialist running retailer who can assess your feet. I know that I am a supinator (or underpronator) – I have high arches and my feet are prone to rolling outwards (tell tale sign: the top outer edge of my running shoes will be worn down first). I need cushioned running shoes for shock absorption. I am trialling the Adidas Pure Boost X, which are designed specifically for women with high arching. So far so good: my feet feel so more supported and somehow feel better aligned with my legs. I am enjoying running even more than I used to, but that might be because I am fitter now. When do running shoes need retired? The shock absorbers on trainers reduce over time and shoes should be replaced every 250-300 miles. If you haven’t kept track, check the midsole (the cushion-like layer between the treads and the mesh upper): If there are any deep set wrinkles or cracks there, it is time to go shopping.
Pre-caffeinate but don’t post-caffeinate
Some seasoned runners swear by a pre-run coffee, and research shows it can boost performance and even reduce muscle soreness during workouts. Post-exercise coffee is arguably not such a good idea (this is controversial – you will find arguments both ways). Our view is that it is best avoided. During workouts, our cortisol levels increase, and consuming caffeine after exercising further stimulates cortisol (the stress hormone) when we should be prioritising reducing catabolic hormones and clearing byproducts from the body. Instead: hydrate and snack. After running (or any exercise), consuming a combination of protein and carbohydrate will help reduce cortisol and provide fuel for muscle protein synthesis. We’ve written more on this here.
Avoid over-training and don’t forget rest days
Most running injuries are caused by repetitive overuse. Always build up gradually (in terms of speed, distance and incline) to allow your body time to adjust. Too much too fast too soon is not a good idea. Working on good running form is one strategy for easing the strain on muscles and joints. In order to get stronger, your body needs time to rebuild. Mix easy days with tough ones. Avoid pushing when your body needs a break. Running every day = bad idea, especially for your knees.
No pre-race partying
Avoid alcohol in the few days before your race. It significantly impairs your sleep quality (even if you aren’t aware of this), as well as hydration and recovery. Save the champagne for post-race.
Race day tips
Eat a good breakfast. Porridge prepared with an extra dose of protein and healthy fats such as ground seeds, almond butter and vanilla protein powder is our favourite.
Remember that you will always be quicker on race day due to adrenalin and crowds of people doing the same thing. Focus your mind on setting a steady pace, rather than tearing off at top speed to get to the front of the pack.
Tips for running novices
If you are an absolute beginner and not fit at all, try the walk-run method, which combines intervals of walking with increasing intervals of running. There are a lot of resources available on the internet about starting out, and I think the best one is the NHS which has created a whole “Couch to 5K” plan with weekly podcasts that you can read all about here. My one piece of advice I would love to give to anyone wanting to try running for the first time is to try to give it a few weeks. You will slowly increase your fitness, build your confidence and after 3 or 4 weeks it will suddenly become effortless and you’ll start to enjoy yourself. If you lose spirit after a week or two, you’ll never get there which would be a real shame! I cannot describe how liberating it is enjoying running. The freedom to exercise anywhere at no cost! (When I mention cost, I think of time as much as money, if not more so: there is no time in getting to the gym, arranging classes or booking anything: I take exercise time wastage really seriously. It is an unfortunate reality of being a working mother that you have to manage your time really effectively if you want to approach anything remotely like “having it all”). Also, never compare yourself to others. Compare yourself with yourself. There will always be someone faster or who “looks like more of a runner”. If this is de-motivating for you, make sure to keep reminding yourself that. Focus on the improvements you want to make for yourself. The only race that ever matters is that against yourself and your own mind.
Happy running everyone!
P.S. Want a goal? Join me! I’m running the Lady Garden 5km in Battersea Park at 9am on Saturday 23rd April. 5km is not far at all – this is a fun event, so there are no excuses not to get involved! Sign up here. Please come find me and say hi if you sign up because of reading this post. I will motivate you and hold your hand the whole way if you need it! All money raised goes towards the Royal Marsden Gynaecological Cancer Fund. N.B. This event is open to women only but the boys and kids are welcome to come and watch. There is a team from Sharkey & George there to entertain them, as well as plenty of food, drinks and fun. If you are unable to run but want to sponsor mine, you can donate here at the page I have just set up: Thank you so much!