Sep 15 / Warren Lucas

10 Critical Things Every Runner Should Know

1) Rest - an integral part of training

Rest in a training programme is relative to the experience of the runner. A new runner will require two or more days of no running per week to aid recovery from training, for training adaptation to occur and to prevent injury. As this runner gets more experienced, the number of rest (zero distance) days will decrease. Eventually, most runners on a well designed training programme, might just have one day of zero distance. A highly experienced runner is very likely to have no days of complete rest. A rest day for such a runner might be a 12km easy run. Every 4 to 6 weeks, the entire week of training should be easier, again to allow for proper adaptation and to prevent what is called “non-functional overreaching” and “overtraining”. Prior to a race, it is very important to reduce the training load in the last 2 to 3 weeks to ensure you arrive at the start line with legs that are not tired. During this tapering period, distance should be significantly reduced, but some faster workouts should be maintained (for example the weekly club time trial).

2) The power of sleep

If you want to improve your athletic and work performance and your general health and your mood- you might well need to add an extra hour of sleep each night. We are all different in terms of our sleep requirements but the latest guidelines (National Sleep Foundation in the USA) recommend that adults (18-64 years) obtain 7-9 hours of sleep each night. And once you add athletic training into the mix, you need even more sleep.

Tips on getting more sleep include:
  • Establishing a routine
  • Limiting caffeine intake to the morning
  • Not exercising or eating too late in the evenings
  • Limiting alcohol intake
  • Avoiding work or anything stressful just before bed
  • Avoiding excessive screen time in the evenings.
  • In the week leading up to your race – try to accumulate some extra sleep. Good news is that poor or little sleep the night before the event is unlikely to affect your race performance.

3) The value of a coach

While most track athletes appreciate the importance of a coach, for some reason this has not filtered through to the majority of road runners. Even some elite road runners do not have coaches. While this works for some people, in most cases it does not. The main reason for this is self-coaching makes an objective outlook difficult. The majority of club runners tend to “just run”, with no variety in the type or pace of workouts (other than perhaps a weekly club time trial). Almost every runner improves when they get onto a properly structured scientific training programme with regular expert advice.

4) Strength Training's Secret

Traditional strength training does not do much to enhance performance in “younger” runners. However, as we age, strength training helps prevent the loss of strength that occurs due to a process called sarcopaenia. This is the process that results in loss of muscle strength that gradually occurs after age 30. A specific type of strength training, however, can benefit all runners i.e Plyometrics. This improves running economy and performance. Although beneficial, it has to be carefully introduced into a programme and is a type of strength training for which expert assistance should be sought.

5) The value of cross training

Cross training can be useful if you are injury-prone and cannot do as much running training as needed. It can also be beneficial as an ad-on; if you are training (running) as much as you can tolerate, but want to up the training load a bit more. Two modes of cross training that work well for distance runners are the “stepper” and the “elliptical trainer” (cross-trainer), both of which are common in gyms. As with running, when this is introduced into your programme, it should be done in small increments time-wise, and the workload setting should be gradually and systematically increased for best results.

6) The secret weapon of speedwork

All runners, fast and slow, will benefit from speedwork. Speedwork can be described as any running performed at faster than “normal” training speed. There are many different types of speedwork, and all have their place in a properly constructed training programme. This varies from 400m, 800m, 1600m to 2000m “interval sessions” and time trials, and longer runs at “race” speed. Although the best place to do interval sessions is on a track, they can also be done on a flat section of road.

7) Underrated hill training

Hill training is another component of training that is often over-looked. Most runners will include some hilly routes in their training regimen, and while this is important, it is not the same thing as true “hill training” or hill-repeats. Proper hill training involves first doing an easy paced warm-up, finishing at the base of a hill of good gradient (as an example - the last part of Constantia Nek). You then run hard up the hill for a prescribed distance, turn, and jog slowly down. On reaching the starting point, you run hard uphill again. This is repeated for the prescribed number of times. As one adapts, the number of runs “up” are increased, and then the length of the hill.

8) The low down on injuries

Sadly injuries are part of our running journey but there are ways to try to avoid them.   Build up your training load and long runs with enough time for your body to adapt to the training loads (about 10% of your total running distance per week).   If you’re doing speed work, make sure you cut down on your weekly mileage. Training load = Time x Intensity. So if the intensity goes up, time (or volume) needs to come down, in order to maintain a balanced training load. Strength training is critical and it improves overall stability, muscle condition and prepares the body for the repetitive and high load-bearing nature of marathons. Flexibility and regular stretching results in better muscle conditioning, and lessens the strain on connective tissue elements during the run.

Correctly fitted and well-cushioned running shoes are very important. Cushioning reduces the risk of an overuse injury. When you have accumulated about 800-1000 km in your running shoes, it’s time to change them since worn out shoes can result in an injury. Equally important, don’t run in a brand new pair too close to the event, as this can also lead to discomfort and injury.

If you do pick up an injury, don’t try to run through it, as this will inevitably worsen the prognosis. Seek expert advice so that a diagnosis can be made, and a structured management plan put in place to ensure you hit the start line as injury-free as possible.

Ensure adequate recovery after each training block so as to allow adaptation to that training. This ensures improved adaptation, better performance, and injury prevention.Listen to your body and know your limits.

9) Nuggets of Nutrition

Since every runner is unique – giving general nutritional advice that will suit all -is impossible. It’s best to consult with a dietitian who is well versed in sports nutrition and who will consider your training programme, your lifestyle, what you like and dislike etc. They can also advise on pre-race, race-day and post-race recovery nutrition. That said – there is plenty of evidence to support including protein as an aid to improve recovery after a hard training sessions- usually in a ratio of 1:4 (protein:carbohydrate). 

Chocolate-flavoured milk seems to be the trending favourite and this will do the trick -as will a number of other food combinations. In terms of what to eat in the week prior to the race – ensure your carbohydrate stores are topped up – unless you have a very specific and successful alternative, tried and tested eating plan that works for you in a long-distance race.

On race morning, many runners can benefit from eating a small, high carbohydrate breakfast 2 to 3 hrs before the start if used to doing this. This could be cereal, toast, etc. Do not drink carbohydrate containing sports drinks in the last few hours before the race as this may result in something called “reactive hypoglycaemia” which will result in a worse, not better performance. Finally, those who usually consume carbohydrates for fuel; aim to drink a carbohydrate-containing drink during the race. This could be Coca-cola or Powerade supplied along the route, as well as supplements that can be carried in sachet form. The overall goal is to try to ingest approximately 60g of carbohydrate per hour.

Needless to say – this varies according to your body weight and what you are used to consuming. Sixty grams of carbohydrate can be obtained from 600ml of Coca-cola per hour, or 700ml of Powerade. Many energy gels contain about 25g of carbohydrate, so there are various combinations that can be used to get your energy.

10) The final weapon - mental toughness

“When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on” said American President Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

The aim is to get your mind right. Remember your mind and body are so well connected that to achieve optimally – you need to have a positive mindset. Physical training is a no-brainer – but you also need to do mental training to help yourself believe that you can realize your true potential. So powerful self-belief is required and positive energy can help to make your best performance a reality. Visualization is another excellent tool for developing mental toughness. Spend 10 minutes every day mentally rehearsing your race. Replay past races where you were mentally tough and how you were victorious and practise overcoming negative self-talk and tackling self-doubt when you are battling. Come up with some mantras that you can repeat when the going gets tough. Also learn to focus more on the direct task you face (the position of your body; the incline or decline) and then think of how well you have trained. There will be less room for negative thoughts to enter your mind and you can remain consistently mentally strong.
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