Some of what you read here may sound clear. Some other things – more muddled. Let me know if it makes no sense so I can fix it. I try to simplify, but I know I tend to be verbose. All this is in random order:
1. Any workout you do should not ruin the next one. Workouts have a purpose and if you are too tired and sore to do them right, it reduces the effectiveness of that workout.
If you find yourself overly sore before a workout even starts “every now and then” it’s no big deal. But you might want to skip that workout, or modify it: shorten it or reduce the intensity. If it happens fairly frequently, then an adjustment to your training schedule is likely necessary, or you need to look at other factors like sleep, nutrition, and personal stress. If this happens many times in a short period, it might mean you need to take a few days (or longer) off from training. You need to be your own advocate, and you need to let me know if you’re too fatigued or sore to do an assigned workout. Stress (the workouts) are very important. Recovery is where you get stronger though!
2. Missing a workout should rarely be a big deal. You do lots of workouts and if you miss one now and then, it doesn’t matter. The more you miss in a row though, the more you’ll need to ease back into things. What happens SO often is that people miss workouts for 2-3 weeks, and then seem to just give up after that. Don’t give up! Get back on your horse and go again. It won’t take too long to get back to where you were.
How many days per week should you run? That depends. If your goal is to get into shape and have fun AND you also cross train (see below) with other cardio work, you might get away with two runs per week. Most folks will do at least three, and indeed there are ways to get pretty fast with three. Generally if you want to enter races and do fairly well, you’ll shoot for four or more runs per week. You need to communicate with me your thoughts on this, and your goals. We’ll make it work.
Having said that, I can’t think of any reason why anyone can not be *active* seven days per week. Our bodies were made to move. Being sedentary is something that we humans have only experimented with for a few decades, after we evolved to be constantly in motion. But you don’t need to *run* every day, or even *exercise.* Just move. Walk. Have fun. Don’t sit all day. Don’t even stand all day. Move about.
3. There are no magic workouts. Do the work, and your body adapts and you get better. Do too little and, well, that’s still not so bad. It’ll still make you more healthy. Do too much and it can be a problem, so listen to your body! You have to help me find the workouts that you enjoy. That doesn’t mean they are always easy or fun while you are doing them. It might also mean you just feel great after doing them. Don’t just do workouts because I said you have to do them. If you hate them, we can try to find alternative workouts. You can even vary workouts on your own, generally. (Let me know. I doubt I’d ever have a problem with it.) Have fun! You will not continue running if it’s not fun. If you find you hate running, find another activity to do.
4. Nutrition is a crazy science. There are tons of *experts* (often selling books/supplements) who are absolutely sure they know exactly what you should eat, and not eat. (I’m putting ethical veganism aside here. That’s not a nutritional thing per se.) They contradict each other and think the others are clueless. Eat meat. Don’t eat meat. Eat bread/grains. Don’t eat them. I don’t bother making any serious recommendations on your nutrition. I do, somewhat jokingly but also seriously, suggest that there are three nutritional facts(?) that it seems everyone agrees upon.
- Eat protein and fat. How much fat to eat varies from very little to tons of it depending upon the expert you’re listening to. Stick to saturated fats (butter, meat fats, avocados). Trans-fatty acids (French fries) seem bad. I guess. For now.
- Eat veggies. I actually think no one is against veggies. Yet. (Note: recently I’ve discovered “fodmaps” which implicates some veggies as problematic. Figures.)
- Junk food is, well, junk food. Avoid eating much of it. We mostly know what junk food is. (It tastes really good.)
What about the touchy subject of weight?
I’m going to play it straight here. No mincing words. But keep in mind I’m not a doctor or nutritionist. These are my thought geared toward Average Jane or Joe. Some folks have diseases/conditions that override anything I say below! Also, be sure to consult a doctor and/or nutritionist before making major changes in eating habits or if you want to lose weight.
First, if you are overweight (and frankly, most of us are) you need to try to slowly lose some weight. YES BIG IS BEAUTIFUL and no one should ever feel badly for being overweight, especially in advanced nations where it seems nearly impossible to eat well. But too big can be a health problem. As you transition to healthier foods, you may need to also consume less calories. Maybe just a little bit less. Some tips below. Again: I’m NOT a dietician!
- Shop right after you eat and when you’re full, so you don’t buy junk food. If you don’t have junk food at home, that really helps.
- Avoid eating out and avoid highly processed/packaged foods, most of the time.
- Avoid quickly clinging to any special (fad) diet and to *expert* advice. Make some of your own rules. Even if it works for most folks, it may not for you. Example: I don’t eat a real breakfast most days (I do before a harder morning workout). This is considered beyond horrible by most diet experts. But it works for me. I do eat lunch a bit early, usually around 11:00am. I don’t starve myself.
- If you find something really healthy you like to eat, eat lots of it! Variety is absolutely good, but not if it means you eat microwavable “buttered” popcorn as your “vegetable” to “add variety.” Personally I love broccoli. I could eat it daily. And that would not be a bad thing.
- Speaking of bad things: No you cannot exercise a lot and then eat all you want. It’s hard to exercise enough to truly affect your weight. Sorry about this. To be healthy, you have to eat well AND be active.
Second, for some of us, the best way to become a faster runner is to lose weight. Yes, all that training is awesome, but losing weight is often the best thing you can do first. If a highly overweight person just loses weight, they’ll get faster, without training. Even some of us who are *good* runners could stand to lose 5-10 pounds, rather than trying so hard to come up with the newest super training system or buying “faster” shoes or trying new race day nutrition strategies.
Obviously I am not condoning being underweight, which can cause a lot of problems. Please do not take any of this as a harsh criticism, but rather just as another fitness and health goal. And I do suggest involving doctors and nutritionists when you decide to lose weight.
5. Like I said in #3, there are no magic workouts. Some “experts” advocate almost all low heart rate running. Others advocate a lot of speed work. Others feel there is a magical formula: 80% aerobic (slower) running, and 20% fast running. It all can work! You need to think about what you like the most and what works best for you. I have clients doing completely different types of programs, depending upon their backgrounds and goals. You may train one way for awhile, and then switch things up. You don’t always have to do the same thing over and over. And no two people will work out the same way, unless you and a friend want to work out the same way. Then go for it, but realize that any approach may work better for one of you than the other, so you may need to compromise with each other so you both get what you need.
6. For those of you doing speed work, please note that you should usually finish each effort (repetition, or interval) with at least some energy to spare. This helps avoid injury. Generally you should be able to go longer if you absolutely truly had to. Yes they should be hard efforts, but they are not absolute maximum efforts, unless you are doing some test, or you’re in a race. I doubt that I’m training you to do a 100 meter dash so you may never need to do an “all out sprint.” The point here is that it’s probably too easy to run these too hard and fast. You will still get the good cardiovascular and neuromuscular adaptations even if you back off a little bit, and your chance of pulling a muscle decreases, and you’ll recover more quickly.
Another point about speed work: do NOT fret about your exact effort or pace. What zone are you in? Going too slowly or too fast? Are you at RPE (rate of perceived exertion) of 6, 7, or 8? Pfffft, no worries! You may never quite have it exactly dialed in, and even one day to another things may not feel quite the same. The point is that you’re moving faster when we want you to move faster, and slower went we want you to move slower, and even if your pace isn’t perfect, you still getting the benefits from the effort.
Speaking of running slowly, how do you know you’re running slowly enough? First, you should do a lot of slow running. Recovery runs (the day or two after a hard effort) are usually done slowly. Longer runs are often run slowly. When you’re starting out, every run should possibly be done slowly. There are four ways to ensure you’re running slowly. You can use any of them.
A. Perceived exertion. On a scale of 1-10, you would be running at a 3-5. (5 is pushing it a bit.) Of course it may be hard for you to *feel* this effort. Do your best and don’t be frustrated. Over time you’ll learn to feel it.
B. Conversation test. You should be able to easily hold a conversation. If alone, just talk to yourself. Recite something. If you can’t talk easily, slow down.
C. Breathe through your nose. If you can breathe through your nose, you’re likely running easily.
D. Use a heart rate monitor and try to roughly run at about 180 – your age. E.g., if you’re 40, run at a heart rate of about 140. Plus or minus 10-ish.
It’s best if you use a combination of the above to help you learn to run slowly enough. Remember, these slow runs do a LOT OF GOOD! You’re not wasting time running slowly. And you can do lots of it.
Yet another point: You are always burning fat and carbs. No matter WHAT speed you run at, you work EVERYTHING. Running SLOWLY will help you run FASTER. It will build muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, and your heart (and your brain!). On the flip side, running shorter faster sprints will enable you to run LONGER. Training at different intensities does stress certain physiological systems more than others, but it’s not trivial, or hugely important, to know exactly what intensity works what physiological system the best. Maybe the best reason to invent these particular intensities is that when you race, you will find yourself in one of them. Also it’s just a tricky way of saying, “Run easy today” or “Run moderately hard today” or “Run fast today!” Coaches generally believe running at different intensities is good, and they want to sound all science-y about it, so coaches have created these thresholds and zones. Your body isn’t fretting about these things.
Honestly, you can just go out and run, and while doing so, sometimes pick up the pace a little, or a little more, or run fast for minute or two, or run hard up a hill. That will probably work almost as good as a super-structured program, as long as you listen to your body.
Which brings me to another point: Never run fast/hard if something does not feel right. Calf a bit tight? Slow down or stop. Knee feeling off? Slow down or stop. Muscles just generally really achy? Slow down or stop. It’s when running hard that you’re most likely to be injured! Rarely do you get hurt running at low intensity, so do that most of the time. If you plan to run hard, be sure you’re warmed up well, and that you’re in a “all systems go” state. Do not be surprised if you find yourself running at low intensity for weeks on end when recovering from small injuries. That’s not a problem.
7. The flip side of speed work is running slowly, which includes recovery runs (usually runs the day after a harder effort). You should be able to easily hold a conversation while doing these efforts. For recovery runs, you should almost feel like you’re “wasting your time,” because you’re going so slowly. (Which you are not. There are NO junk miles.) Runners avoid the word “jog” a lot, but I like it. That’s what you’re doing here. And when you hit a hill, you might just walk up it. Imagine you’re just flushing out your muscles, moving blood around, feeling groovy.
And yes, sometimes you just don’t know if if you’re in a Recovery effort or a slightly harder effort. On top of that, within a single run you might bounce around. You can very easily start at low intensity, and after awhile SLOW down, and yet end up at a higher intensity. Because you fatigue! No worries. Do your best.
One final thought on this: There are myriad variations to each type of workout. For example, for a moderate distance/medium effort workout, maybe you really love doing 3 x 10 min with 5 min recoveries on the treadmill or on some particular course in your area. If so, that’s great, and we don’t need to also force you to do 4 x 8 min or 2 x 12 min or a bunch of other similar variations. That’s not to say we’d never want to vary things because we certainly can. But it’s nice to have these go-to efforts that you like. And then, even if you see “3 x 10 min with 5 min recoveries” you know you can do it, or modify it on the spot if you’re feeling groovy. So, do me a favor and start *starring* your favorite workouts. We’ll use them more often.
8. Injury? First, you need to start learning the difference between fatigue pain and injury pain. If you feel the same thing on both sides of your body, it’s probably just fatigue. You can usually keep going. If you feel something only on one side, it’s often an injury of some sort. If it’s minor or you’ll be done soon or it’s a race, you might just keep going. If it alters your gait (makes you run funny), you really do not want to keep running unless it is very important. The best way to rehab an injury? Active rest. Here’s another case of experts disagreeing. For any injury you have, you can find experts suggesting different ways to fix it and how long to rest. And what works for one person may make it worse for another. I’m not a doctor, so don’t hesitate to go to one, or to a PT or chiro or other health professional. But, do not just ignore it or it will get worse. Many runners are guilty of doing that!
9. Cross training? (Weightlifting, yoga, other sports) Guess what, yet again the experts disagree on this. Some say to do none at all. At the other end, some say to do more cross training than actual running. And yes, both approaches can work. My take is that if you like doing other things, do them. Realize that your cross training might make you faster or able to run longer, or it might make you slower or reduce your endurance – but it still might be worth it, especially if you’re not an elite athlete, which probably you’re not. Mentally, if you enjoy non-running activities, then go for it. Stretching is another thing everyone argues about. If it makes you feel good, do it. It might just be a way of loosening up for you. It’s probably not good to stretch too much just before a race or workout and/or when your muscles aren’t warmed up. You might check out Active Isolation Stretching. Note: I’ve recently come to a conclusion that if you have chronically tight areas, then proactively stretching them more frequently might be a good idea.
A bit more on strength work. I would prioritize it this way.
A. First, focus on upper body work. E.g., chest, back, shoulders, arms. Your legs get a lot of work from running, plus upper body work won’t hurt your running at all. And it’s just healthy to strengthen your upper body. You could do upper body work a couple of times each week.
B. If you want to do more, do some core work, which includes the abs, hips, lower back, and glutes, and can include bodyweight leg work like lunges, wall squats and calf raises.
C. The next step might be more serious bodyweight or low weight leg work. E.g., calf raises with weights, lunges with dumbbells, squats or deadlifts with low to moderate weight.
D. If you really want, you could do heavy leg work. You need to be careful with this because it will definitely affect your running. I would suggest first just trying to do one or two compounds exercises. E.g., squats or deadlifts with heavy weights. Once per week. If you do much more than this you probably want to have a real reason, and likely it’s beyond just improving your running. Which is okay if that’s what you want to do!
10. What shoes should you buy? I don’t know! This is such an individual thing. It can be a huge source of frustration. Do NOT be surprised if you first pair (or first ten pairs) of running shoes are just not quite right. Or if your *perfect* running shoes eventually stop working for you -ugh! If you’re starting out, get thee to a running store and see what they have. Here are a few little tips though:
- Find a pair that feels great right in the (running) store. You should be able to go for a short run right away, usually. Shoes don’t need to be broken in very much. One thing to really focus on is width. If you’re lucky you do not have wide feet. Be sure your feet do not slide around in the shoes when you run. And yes, DO jog around the store or even outside the store in them before buying them.
- If you’re running mostly on road, buy road shoes. They differ from trail shoes. “Trails” to runners means running on dirt or grass or gravel. A paved bike path is not a trail and you would use road shoes for that. Trail shoes should be more suited to handle running on rocks/roots and in mud. Some trails are so “smooth” that you can absolutely use road shoes. Some trails are difficult (“technical”) and you probably want trail shoes.
- Ignore price. Doesn’t mean anything.
- Unfortunately, running store salespeople are, well, salespeople. Even though they are great people (they run!), I think sometimes they can’t overcome going into “sales” mode. First, they want to sell you something, sometimes no matter what. Second, they may have their favorite pet shoes that they think everyone should consider, which may not work for you. Third, sadly, I’ve often discovered that they not only don’t have much of a grasp of running shoes, but that they don’t even know a lot about the shoes in their own store. So, you just need to remember all that.
- It’s NOT a bad thing to own multiple different types of running shoes. You might own two, three, or even more different shoes. You can then rotate through them depending on the situation. Roads vs. trails vs track vs treadmill. Long run vs. short run. There is ample agreement that this in fact is good for your body, to change up your shoe choice. Keeps the muscles/tendons/ligaments/bones in your feet/legs/hips adaptable and strong. So even if you end up with a pair of shoes you don’t think are great, you can use them periodically for, say, easier runs. Eventually you’ll still get your money’s worth out of them.
11. Absorb information, but take it all with a grain of salt. Just because the elites do it doesn’t mean it’s for you. One good source of scientific information is the Science of Ultra podcast by Shawn Bearden. He’s also a coach!
12. Eventually, I want you to know everything I know (or that I think I know!). My ultimate goal is to get you to the point where you do not need me anymore. That doesn’t necessarily mean a coach still will not be useful. No matter what you know, a coach provides two useful things: 1. accountability and 2. a more objective and alternate point of view. Surely most elite athletes know a lot about their sport, but they still find coaching useful at times. But the more you know, the better you will be able to train, I think.