We humans rose to the top of the food chain because our big brains helped us out-smart both predators and prey. Stands to reason, right? But it might actually be our heart, lungs and legs that allowed our brains to get so big in the first place. As a species, we are really good at running. Indeed, our capacity to run for hours on end is incredibly rare in the animal kingdom, and it’s possible that we are only here today because our ancestors evolved this ability as a hunting tactic to exhaust even the bigger and stronger prey trying to escape them. The endurance running hypothesis, a well-studied field of anthropology and human evolution, claims it was our long-distance running ability that gave these small groups of hunter-gatherers the essential animal fats and protein that allowed them not only to survive, but to thrive.
These days our survival doesn’t depend on an ability to out-last a mammoth, but regular running will increase your life expectancy as well as your life quality. It will make you fitter, healthier and even happier – numerous studies have shown that running significantly reduces your likelihood of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses, while improving mood and heightening feelings of energy and well-being.
In short, we should all be running more. After all, it’s the cheapest and easiest way to boost your health, your fitness and your mood – all you need is a bit of time and effort (and the right pair of trainers). And thanks to these tips from some of the UK’s top runners, coaches and experts, you can now make that effort take you further – faster.
1. Have a plan
Whether your aim is simply to finish your first proper race or smash your marathon personal best, you need a plan or else you run the risk of getting nowhere fast. “You have two options: find a good off-the-peg plan, or ask a qualified running coach for a bespoke one,” says elite runner and coach Shaun Dixon (letsgetrunning.co.uk). “Generic plans are available for free and based on achieving a set distance in a target time and many runners have used them to good effect. Make sure it’s been put together by an expert and that you understand the rationale behind each session. This will allow you to make small changes based on your weekly schedule and how you progress.”
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2. Get an MOT
Before starting a new plan, especially if you’re new to running or coming back from an absence or injury, it’s worth getting a once-over to iron out any niggles or fix any other potential problems. “If you’re going to start running in a serious way, it’s essential you identify and correct poor habits as early as possible, which will make training much more beneficial and pleasurable,” says Dixon. Schedule an appointment with a physio or sports masseur who will be able to highlight any weaknesses, stiffness or imbalances. “Having an expert evaluate how you run will bring to light any weaknesses or idiosyncrasies that, if left unchecked, could end in pain or injury down the road.”
3. Run your routine
The key to becoming a better runner, whatever your distance, is consistency. “The more regularly you run, the sooner you’ll see an improvement in your cardiovascular fitness, an increase in both your sustainable pace and your all-out speed, and better recovery,” says Dixon, before adding a slight caveat. “This only applies if you follow a sensible, realistic and progressive training plan, and be smart with how you execute it. Schedule long runs on days when you are most likely to be able to fit them in. You need to be consistent, but you also need to be realistic.”
Specialist running trainers fall into one of five groups: motion control, cushioned, stability, lightweight and trail. Pick the right pair for your feet and training needs with this guide from the experts at specialist running shop Runners Need.
4. Choose the right type
Consider where you’re going to be running and buy shoes that will be suitable for the terrain. If most of your training is off-road, then road shoes with built-up heels are unsuitable because you will be more unstable and could turn an ankle. Similarly, a pair of fell running shoes with deeply studded outsoles will be very uncomfortable on paved roads, because the studs will press into the soles of your feet.
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5. Select smarter socks
You should always wear the socks that you intend to run in when you go for a shoe fitting. The thickness of your sock can make a big difference to the fit and feel of your shoe, particularly as your feet expand in the heat. Runners should wear running-specific socks as they have extra padding across the ball of the foot, the toes and the heel area. This extra padding cuts down on impact and protects important areas that can blister. There’s also usually padding or a tighter area through the arch to allow the shoe to fit more closely and add better arch support.
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6. Get gait analysis
A free gait analysis service is offered at many specialist running stores, including every Runners Need store. You’re videoed while running on a treadmill for a couple of minutes and the footage is then played back (in freeze-frame if necessary) to assess your foot plant, stride and running pattern. This information can then be used to find the best shoe for you.
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7. Go for a trial run
Buying your running shoes is a big investment – so you should always test any shoes properly before buying them. Padding around on a carpet in the shop certainly won’t replicate how the shoes will feel when you’re running in them. Instead, you should “road test” them on an in-store treadmill.
8. Don’t wear them out
Your running shoes will take a great deal of pounding across a wide range of surfaces and in all weathers, so they will need to be replaced fairly frequently. Generally you should replace a pair after 500-600 miles (800-960km). Exactly how often you need to buy new shoes will depend on your weight, running style and choice of terrain, but you should always avoid trying to squeeze a few extra weeks out of shoes that are evidently worn out, because the shoes won’t give you the protection you need and will increase the chances of you getting injured.
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9. Build running strength
Do this at-home bodyweight circuit to improve outdoor performance. “This circuit works one leg at a time, which will strengthen the glutes, hamstrings and quads of each leg equally,” says Shaun Estragó, senior trainer at Ultimate Performance Marbella. “It also increases the hamstrings’ ability to produce force, which contributes to power output. The final two moves are core-focused so you can better support your torso when running.”
How to do it
Do all the moves in order, only resting for 60 seconds after the last move. For the first four moves do the first set and third set with your right leg, and the second and fourth with your left leg. For the side lunge do the first and third set on your right side, and the second and fourth on your left. Do four circuits in total.
Reps 12 Start on one leg with both hands straight in front of you. Keep your chest up and bend your standing leg to squat down. Stand to return to the start.
Reps 12 Stand on one leg. Bend forward from the hips, keeping your standing leg straight, so your opposite hand travels towards your toes. Reverse back to the start.
Reps 12 Stand tall, then take a big step forward with one foot. Keeping your chest up, bend both knees to lunge down. Reverse back to the start.
Single-leg glute bridge
Reps 12 Lie on your back with knees bent and feet together. Raise one leg and straighten it, keeping your glutes and core braced. Lower to the start.
Time 30sec Lie on one side, resting on one elbow with your other arm flat against your side. Brace your core, then raise your hips up so you’re straight from head to heels.
Lying back extension
Reps 15 Lie on your back with legs straight and fingers at your temples. Use your lower back to raise your chest. Pause at the top, then lower back to the start.
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10. Train faster
Dedicated speed sessions make you a more efficient runner by improving your neural pathways (the way your brain communicates with your muscles), so your muscles contract quicker and harder for more power output per stride and greater running economy. What’s more, they’ll also get you used to dealing with lactic acid so you can run faster for longer.
“Short, fast interval sessions will quicken your sustainable speed,” says Dixon. “Intervals should last no longer than 90 seconds so you can maintain an intensity of around 85% of your maximum effort throughout. Rest between each interval should be three to four times the length of the drill, to allow you to maintain sprint quality.” He recommends starting with ten reps of around 40 seconds. “If you slow down during a sprint, end the session because only quality reps improve speed,” he says. “You will experience a significant lactic acid build-up through these drills, which is ultimately the aim of the session. The better you are at tolerating lactic acid the quicker you’ll run.” Warm up thoroughly first.
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11. Run strides
Running strides are a staple of elite runners to improve neuromuscular pathways and get your muscles firing faster. “After a short easy-pace run, find a flat uninterrupted path or pavement between 80 and 100m in length,” says Dixon. “Run fast and smooth for the entire length. You don’t need to go ‘eyeballs out’ – aim for between 85% and 90% of your maximum effort while staying as focused and relaxed as possible.” Run six to eight reps with a slow jog or walk back to your starting position after each one, and do a stride session once or twice a fortnight.
12. Work on technique
Without good technique you’ll hit a speed ceiling. “Your posture should be standing tall by holding your hips high, and lean forward slightly from your toes,” says Dixon. “You should be able to draw a straight line through your ears, shoulders and hips. You want to minimise lateral movement at your shoulders and hips, and minimise torso movement by dropping your shoulders and driving your arms backwards from the shoulder joint.”
You also want to keep a high turnover of steps. “Your goal is to spend less time in contact with the ground and prevent over-striding, because long, heavy strides are very inefficient – shorter and faster strides that include only a brief contact with the ground are far better,” says Dixon.
13. Run the hills
Hill runs are the simplest form of speedwork session because they’re easy to plan, they don’t require much thinking and – while they hurt like hell – they’re over quickly. “Uphill sessions are great for the glutes, get your heart rate high and challenge your body’s ability to process lactic acid, a key factor in improving speed,” says Dixon. “Find a steep hill, run up it for 30 to 45 seconds fast, then walk back down and repeat for six to ten reps.”
Alternatively you could run down the hill. “Kenyan runners often use downhill sessions to improve foot turnover, because you have to keep your feet moving fast to prevent the heavy jarring of your joints,” says Dixon. “Find a hill with a slight incline. At the top stand tall, then lean forward with the hill as you start to run. Focus on picking up your heels quickly and employing short fast steps, making contact with the ground soft, light and fast.” Try six to ten reps of 30 seconds going downhill, jogging back up to the top after each one.
Nutrition And Supplementation
14. Run hungry
Nutrition should be a key part of your overall training plan, not just the build-up to a race. “I recommend running in a fasted state for slow to moderate runs lasting up to 90 minutes, which means not eating in the two hours before setting out, or running first thing before breakfast,” says performance and clinical dietitian Renee McGregor, author of Training Food (eatwellfeelfab.co.uk). “This improves your body’s ability to tap into fat stores for fuel, which makes you a more efficient runner (as well as helping you lose weight). If you’re new to running you need to work up to training in a fully fasted state, because it can suppress your immune system if you don’t give your body time to properly adjust.”
15. Don’t delay refuelling
While running in a fasted state can offer many performance benefits, it means refuelling correctly immediately after your run is even more important. “Your post-run meal will aid recovery so if you do run fasted, it’s vital to eat a proper meal containing carbs for energy replacement and a good source of protein for muscle repair as soon as possible,” says McGregor.
16. Eat the right carbs
“For any run lasting more than 90 minutes some easily digestible carbs – a smoothie, banana on toast or porridge with honey – in the hour or two before you start will improve performance,” says McGregor. “You should also ensure you eat enough carbs over the last 24 hours before the run so your muscles’ glycogen stores are filled. This is essential for longer, more intense runs so that your body has all the easy-to-use fuel it needs to perform consistently well for the whole session.”
17. Call On Caffeine
When you’re happy with the changes made to your nutrition and daily diet, you can select a few worthwhile supplements. The best supplements for runners are those that delay the onset of fatigue, and caffeine is the pick of the bunch. The active ingredient in your morning pick-me-up is one of the most tried and tested endurance supplements available. Caffeine prolongs the length of time you can perform at high intensity and it also reduces your perceived rate of exertion, which means you feel as if a particular physical task is much less demanding than it truly is. This in turn allows you to keep performing at optimal intensity. Doses of around 1-3mg per kilo of bodyweight appear to be most effective. If you weigh 80kg, that equates to 80-240mg of caffeine. If you’d rather go with coffee than a supplement, you’ll get around 125mg from a double espresso or a cup of regular filter coffee.
18. Train to reduce injury risk
Injury will mess up your training plan so it’s advisable to take preventative action by doing some injury-proofing exercises, focusing on your feet. “Foot exercises are the most under-considered thing for runners,’ says biomechanics consultant Travis Allan, who has worked with Olympic triathletes and elite athletes. “They’re important because if your foot isn’t hitting the ground properly you can develop common problems like runner’s knee or connective tissue pain.” Try these drills to improve your capacity to absorb the shock of each stride and prevent joint stress and strain.
How to do it
Perform these exercises in order, either before a run or on non-running days. Some of the movements are subtle so to get the full benefit, follow the form guides and concentrate on the precise movements.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and both feet flat on the floor. Secure an exercise band around your mid-foot (not your toes) on both feet so that there is a small amount of tension in the band when your feet are roughly shoulder-width apart. On one foot, tilt the heel and big toe inwards slightly, then sweep your foot outwards across the floor to create a stretch in the band. The movement will be subtle and you’ll know you’re doing it correctly if you feel a muscle contraction in the outside of your lower leg. Hold that position for a count of 6sec. Come back to the start position for 6-10sec and repeat that six times. Then do the same on the other foot.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and both feet flat on the floor. Secure an exercise band around your mid-foot on both feet and cross one foot over the other. Let your heel roll outwards (but don’t tilt it so far that you’re on the side of your foot), then sweep your foot inwards until you feel a muscle contraction on the inside of your lower leg. Hold that position for a count of 6sec. Come back to the start position for 6-10sec and repeat that six times. Then do the same on the other foot.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and both feet flat on the floor. Take one foot back and place the top of that foot behind your other heel. Gently push the forefoot of your front foot into the ground, rotate your foot inwards slightly and pull it back in towards your other foot to feel your calf muscle engage. Hold that position for a count of 6sec, rest for 6-10sec and repeat that six times. Then do the same on the other foot.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and both feet flat on the floor. Flex the toes on both feet to raise them off the floor but try to avoid pulling your whole foot off the floor. Hold that position for a count of 6sec. Come back to the start position for 6-10sec and repeat that six times.
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19. Always warm down
“A warm-down provides a period of adjustment between exercise and rest. It’s probably the most neglected part of a training session but you omit it at your peril,” says Nick Grantham, an elite coach who has worked with Olympic athletes and Premier League footballers. “Implementing a proper warm-down will improve muscle relaxation, remove waste products, reduce muscle soreness and bring the cardiovascular system back to resting levels.” Spend ten to 15 minutes jogging, gradually reducing your speed every couple of minutes.
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20. Invest in a massage
“High-performance athletes are increasingly using massage in their recovery strategies, and it’s becoming more and more popular for recreational athletes too,” says Grantham. “The physical benefits may include increased blood flow, enhanced oxygen and nutrient delivery to fatigued muscles, increased removal of lactic acid and improving mobility. The psychological benefits should also not be underestimated – many report that it improves their mood.”
21. Take the weight off
“Swimming pools provide an excellent environment in which to conduct a recovery session,” says Grantham. “Water provides buoyancy and resistance properties that allow you to complete training with minimal impact on the body. Many experts recommend completing a 20-minute pool-based recovery session the day after a tough training session or event.”
22. Get more sleep
Yes, you can actually get faster while lying in bed. “Sleep is one of the most important forms of rest and provides time for you to adapt to the physical and mental demands of training,” says Grantham. “Sleep deprivation can result in a loss of performance, both from a single bad night’s sleep and from an accumulation of poor sleep over the course of successive nights. Cutting back on your sleep over the course of a week could push you into sleep debt and negatively impact performance.” Aim for at least seven but preferably eight or nine hours a night.