It’s important to warm-up and cool-down before and after a running session. Warming-up loosens your muscles and increases blood flow to your muscles, preparing them for intense periods of activity. For running the best warm-up activity is generally walking, which uses all the same muscles in more or less the exact same way. A 3-5 minute period of walking is a great way to start your warm up, but you should progress to a gentle jog and gentle stride before you finally commit to your run.
In terms of stretching a lot of the advice available is misinformed. An intense bout of stretching before running has actually been linked to greater risk of injury. Whilst stretching improves the condition of muscles, joint and tendons in the long-term, in the short-term it stresses them and makes them weaker.
However that doesn’t mean you need to abandon stretching altogether. Rather you should switch from static stretching to dynamic stretching. Static stretching is the type of stretches where you hold a position for several moments, whilst dynamic stretching are flowing movements that loosen the muscles.
For example the hip flexor stretch is a simple dynamic stretch where the knee is raised towards the neck until the thigh is at a right angle towards the floor and the calf points down. It is hardly an exerting stretch, yet it nonetheless loosens the muscles in the leg and hips.
The leg extensor stretch is a similar dynamic stretch, bringing the foot up towards the buttocks, bending the leg at the knee. This stretch also helps improve your balance.
The planar flexor stretch involves keeping the leg straight and raising above the ground then bending the foot upwards at the ankle. Keeping your arms held around the waist can help you maintain balance whilst you flex.
The hip extensor stretch is a slightly more advanced dynamic stretch. In this stretch the back is bent forward and the leg is raised with the knee pointing forward and the calf facing the floor. Whilst leaning forward bring the raised leg behind the body.
There are many more simple dynamic stretches that can be practiced.
In addition to pronating correctly there are numerous aspects of running technique that you can practice to help improve your sessions.
The first is to focus on stride frequency rather than stride length. For runners, the speed of their run is determined by the length of your running stride multiplied by the frequency of your strides. To improve running speed it’s better to focus on the number of strides rather than the length of the stride, at least as a beginner.
Taking longer strides is harder on your muscles and increases the amount of impact between your feet and your ground, which can be arduous for beginner runners. Furthermore beginner runners who increase stride length tend to compensate by lowering stride frequency, counteracting the benefit of longer strides.
You can measure you stride frequency by simply counting the number of your strides for 20 seconds and then multiply this by three to produce your stride frequency per minute. If you measure or approximate your stride length you can even estimate how far you travel in a minute.
Similarly, as a runner you need to develop an understanding between the position of your hips and your feet. When your feet are planted in front of your body you cannot push of the ground effectively. Your hips must be above or in front of your feet for you to push off the ground. Therefore a tendency to produce a long stride results in an excessive amount of time where the feet are either airborne or behind the body. Short, efficient strides are simply better until you can produce powerful, swift longer strides.
It has been suggested you can practice proper stride length and running technique through minimalist running – running with either minimalist shoes or no footwear. Of course, running across a pavement with no shoes is a bad idea, but practising across grass or soft ground for a few minutes can give you an impression of how you ‘should’ run. When practising this way, try to run fast or outright sprint, because this will force you to position your feet efficiently.
Another technical flaw is keeping your upper body tense whilst you run. When running there should be a natural rhythm to your upper body, with your arms being gently pumped back and forward and your shoulders accompanying them. You should also ensure that your jaw is not tensed and your back is not upright but not rigid.
If you realize that your upper body is tensed whilst you run, a method you can use to relax your body is to deliberately tense your upper body muscles for a moment. After you have tensed your muscles, the sensation of relaxing the muscles should come more naturally. Alternatively another method you can use to help your upper body relax is to lock your hands together and rest them upon your head. Locking your hands and your arms in this way ensures that your shoulders, arms and back are relaxed (or if you tense your muscles they will tire very quickly).
When running, you should also focus on ensuring that your foot strikes the floor directly beneath your knee. If your foot strikes the floor in front of you, you increase the risk of injury and place a greater level of strain on your muscles and bones. When pushing upwards you should push up from your toes rather than your heel in a spring-like motion. Your feet should never slap the floor but collide with the floor gently and smoothly in a rolling-like motion.
Similarly you should keep your elbows bent at around a 90 degree angle and below your chest. This helps ensures the efficiency of your run but also ensures that you are not tensing your muscles without realizing.
It can also help to exercise and strengthen you core muscles whilst working on your running. Strong glutes and abdominal muscles can help keep your back upright and keep your form correct without having to explicitly think about these factors whilst you run.
When running you should keep your head and your chest facing forward. When endurance running, especially when your stamina is starting to flag, it can be easily to sag downwards and let your head, neck and chest sink towards the floor.
Running Up Hills
To run up hills you should shorten your stride even more and increase the frequency of your strides to compensate. It can be tempting to lengthen your stride further but this is incredibly harsh on your muscles and your bones and joints which you connect to the sloped ground at an angle. A slight lean forward with your entire body is fine but you should be leaning forward above the waist and this will compromise your form and make it harder to run.
Also, raise your knees slightly higher than usual, using the lifting power of the thighs and glutes – you need to raise your leg higher in order to give your feet room to land. Whilst running up hills you will push up using the front and mid-sections of your feet rather than the sole but ensure that you raise your legs behind you to compensate.
Overall running up hills is great to work the glutes and hamstrings harder than usual and to think about your form in greater depth. However be careful not to overwork your calves as this might limit your ability to run normally.
Running Down Hills
Running down a hill is easier on the respiratory system and your muscles are aided by gravity instead of fighting it. Nonetheless, running down a hill challenges your legs in a unique way, forcing muscle movements and joints into positions that do not normally occur when running. Due to this it can be easy to injure yourself when running down a hill if you employ the wrong technique.
Running down a hill actually causes more muscle tear than running normal. When you run straight the muscles in your legs contract and shorten as you push of the ground. However when you run downhill your legs actually elongate and extend, creating small tears in the muscle fiber. This is a good way to challenge your calves and hamstrings if you find yourself at a growth plateau, but be aware you will feel the tiredness and fatigue in the morning.
Running down a hill at any considerable speed requires training the muscles in advance. You will need to find a hill to run down that has a gentle incline (try no more than 10% – you can use GPS and map data to help) as sharper inclines will produce higher injury rates. Likewise try to avoid running on concrete or harder surfaces; favour gravel or grass which absorb impact.
Instead of leaning back you want to keep your posture upright with a specific focus on keeping your gaze and chest facing forward. You will also want to shorten your stride and increase your cadence, using the front and midsection of your foot to absorb impact frequently, rather than harsh jarring longer strides where you use the heel to slow down.
The trick to long distance running is pacing. If you start too fast you will exhaust your reserves of energy and run out of breath before you finish your run. You can also build up the waste products of exercise in your system faster than your body can deal with them, resulting is muscle fatigue which forces you to slow down.
Furthermore you can also deplete your muscles glycogen stores, which will cause your body to start burning fat – a process which is slower and results in an energy lag. Finally you can also raise your core temperature to a particularly high amount, causing you to sweat more than you need and exert your body to cool yourself down. However, conversely, go too slow and you will not challenge yourself enough or feel the benefits of your run.
So how do you achieve the correct pace? Well one way is to warm up before your exercise period, which helps acclimatize your body to the level of exertion it can be comfortable with. Although it might sound strange, the shorter your period of exercise is, the longer you should warm up. For large periods of running such as half-marathons and marathons, you can’t afford to waste too much energy pre-workout. Furthermore your body has plenty of time to warm up during the activity itself and achieve a pleasant pace; essentially the first few miles of a marathon are your warm-up, where you start slow and gradually increase your pace.
Conversely for a shorter period of exercise you don’t have to worry about wasting your glycogen stores or fatiguing your muscles. Likewise you don’t have time during the running session itself to warm your body up – you need to be ready to go from the moment you start, hence the longer warm-up.
Another tip for achieving the correct pace is simply experiment. There are many different gradients and paces between a lethargic jog and a full paced sprint but we tend to only stick to these extremes. Instead you should try going for a run, starting the first mile or designated length at your lowest pace and incrementing your effort upwards by a little bit each length or mile. Using this method you will soon start to understand your body and the difference between a gentle pace, a comfortable but challenging pace, an unsustainable pace, a fast pace and so on.
In addition to experimenting, another way to keep your pace in check is to be mindful of your body as you run. To a certain extent ‘zoning out’ is how many people cope with the mental aspect of running – ignoring the pain and uncomfortable sensations in their body by thinking about something else or listening to music.
However when you are distracted you are not moderating your body and your pace. You need to frequently ask yourself if your breathing is too fast or too slow, if your muscles feel tired, if your form is correct and so on. By constantly staying on track with how you want to pace yourself, you prevent yourself from burning out or going too slow simply due to not being aware.