This is a post I have been wanting to create for a long time. It will become my go-to guide that I will share with friends, family and anyone else who wants to become a stronger, healthier and happier runner. Hope some of you will find this helpful. Before we dive into this post, I want to give an exciting personal update. A few weeks ago I left my corporate executive job and joined PATH projects, a running apparel start up, as a Partner and Head of Marketing. Several months ago I ordered some items from their test site and was blown away by the high quality of the gear. These are the only running shorts, shirts and hats that I currently wear. Stoked to have a flexible schedule to run and to create more running content to share with you. Let’s jump right into the main post, available as a written blog, video and podcast.
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10 Ways to Improve Your Running for Absolute Beginners to Advanced Runners
Over the past six years I have connected with thousands of runners in person, and through Social Media via my YouTube videos, Strava, Extramilest Facebook Group, Instagram, etc. It is awesome to see how many people around me are getting into running, both on roads and trails. There is a lot of excitement around running, however I also hear many beginner and advanced runners with negative running experiences “I can run for 5 minutes and then it feels like my heart is beating out of my chest” or “I used to run but my knees, shin splits, plantar fasciitis etc don’t allow me to run anymore“.
Many of the same challenges kept coming up for runners, so I decided to write these 10 points below that are applicable for runners of all levels:
1. Slow down your running pace
I estimate that about 95% of the runners I get in contact with run much faster than they should given their current fitness level. This results in a high risk of injuries and not much enjoyment from their activities. I believe in a holistic approach to training, racing and overall health and do not believe in the “No Pain No Gain” mentality. You can run hard and become a faster runner, but if you get injured all the time what’s the point?
Many beginner runners should slowly build up their endurance and strengthen their muscles. I recommend walking for 5 minutes to warm up, then going for a very slow jog for 1 minute, then walking for 2 minutes (this will lower your heart rate and get your breathing under control), then back to 1 minute very slow jog, rotate this 5 times = 20 minute workout total. This might feel too easy for several runners, that’s the point. You want to finish your runs and feel you have energy left. Do this 3 or 4 days a week and over time you can start taking shorter walk breaks and longer jogs, eventually eliminating your walks all together.
Most Advanced Runners should slow down the majority of their training runs as well. You don’t need speed work to become a faster runner. That’s right, I just wrote that. You can progress for many months by only running aerobic miles, so running only at a low heart rate. The training approach that I recommend is highly influenced by elements from Dr. Phil Maffetone and his MAF training approach. I strongly believe all endurance athletes should start training with a GPS running watch with heart rate monitor. The 180 Formula created by Dr. Phil Maffetone calculates your ideal individual aerobic training Heart Rates. This MAF training zone is your optimal training intensity that burns mostly fat for fuel. Training at this MAF HR frequently develops your aerobic system, it improves your fat burning abilities so it teaches your body to use more energy from body fat and you improve your endurance performance. For much more details, recommendations on heart rate monitors, etc download the 30 page Fundamentals PDF. Most advanced runners struggle to slow down in their training, therefore this article should help: “Overcoming Frustrations with MAF Low Heart Rate Training“.
2. Improve your nutrition, you are what you eat.
Taking in the right nutrition makes a huge difference in how you feel, in your energy levels throughout the day, and in your fat burning abilities during a workout or race. Dr Phil Maffetone describes how there are 2 types of foods: healthy food and junk food. Healthy foods are real, naturally occurring, unadulterated and unprocessed, and nutrient-rich. If you can grow or raise it, it’s real. Consuming these foods provide immediate and long-term health benefits. Everything else is junk food, which contributes to increased body fat, most common diseases, hormone imbalance, inflammation, fatigue and more. In 2013 I significantly changed my nutrition, mostly by cutting out sugars and refined carbs. This has made a huge difference in my athletic performance, fat burning abilities and energy levels.
Nowadays my meals consist of: veggies like spinach, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, etc. Salads, Tuna ,salmon, chicken, beef, burrito bowls, guacamole, avocados, eggs, black beans, pinto beans, lentils, bananas, nuts and seeds (almonds, cashews, flax seeds, chia seeds, green tea and a lot of water. One way to eat a lot of vegetables is to blend them in a good blender like a Vitamix. The MAF site has many great free recipes.
3. Measure bio-feedback to get more in tune with your body.
Most advanced athletes are often more in tune with their bodies than athletes who are just starting out. There are several tools available that help get more in tune with your body. Two of these tools that I use daily are a Heart Rate Monitor and a Sleep Tracker. I have a Fitbit Charge 2 and really like it. Two of the key measurements I look at are my resting heart rate and the quality of my sleep. After you measure your resting heart rate for 4-8 weeks, you get a good understanding of your average heart rate and your standard deviation. For example for me, my resting heart rate is 45 beats per minute, with occasionally some days of 2 to 3 beats lower or higher. If my resting heart rate is 48 or higher, I start to pay extra attention to see what might be causing this and adjust accordingly:
- Am I drinking enough water, especially during warm weather months? Dehydration increases your HR, so drink more water and take in some electrolytes as well.
- Could I have an upcoming cold? If something feels off in my body, I’ll make sure to take in additional vitamin C to further boost my immune system.
- Am I getting enough hours of quality sleep? Deep sleep is important for the immune system and for physical recovery from workouts. REM typically occurs when you’re coming out of deep sleep and helps with mental restoration. When I sleep less than 6 hours for one or multiple days, I have noticed my resting HR increase sometimes.
- Am I taking in too much caffeine? This one often goes hand in hand with lack of sleep. Caffeine can increase your HR, so try limiting it especially when your resting HR is elevated.
- Have I recently done any intense training sessions or am I running higher miles and volume than normal. If my resting HR is elevated, I typically schedule a rest day or make sure to stick to a recovery work out.
- How am I feeling mentally, how are my stress levels at work and in your personal life? There are many ways to reduce your stress, such as breathing exercises, journalling about what’s causing your stress and what you can do about it, turning off your phone and going out in nature,
4. Meditate consistently to get more in tune with your mind
Meditation has made a huge impact in my life and I strongly believe that meditation has made me a better runner. My approach to running is holistic, making sure that all elements of my life are in sync. Meditation plays an important role in this and comes with many benefits: it increases happiness, benefits cardiovascular and immune health, changes our sense of self, reduces stress, improves concentration, and encourages a healthy lifestyle. Two great resources to get started with meditation are the Calm App that can be downloaded in the app store and also The Open Heart Project by my friend Susan Piver. I interviewed her previously on my podcast titled: “Meditation and Mindful Running with Susan Piver“.
5. Train consistently
Many runners from beginner to advanced set goals that are unattainable for a longer period of time. I have noticed this first hand with past coworkers. They would go from not working out at all, to feeling very motivated and working out 6 times a week or even 2 times a day. This was do-able for a few weeks and then the burn out symptoms, low energy, injuries, etc resulted in no motivation to work out anymore. Working out consistently 3 times a week for 20 to 30 minutes makes you a better runner than training 6 days a week for an hour, followed by no workouts at all. Rest days to recovery are an important part to become a better athlete.
6. Set clear goals
I’m a fanatic goal setter and recap the progress towards my goals on a weekly basis by writing in my journal. If you want to become a better runner, setting clear goals, writing them down and reviewing them on an ongoing basis will significantly increase your chances of success. 80% of Americans say they don’t have goals. 16% do have goals, but they don’t write them down. Less than 4% write down their goal, and fewer than 1% actually review their goals on an on-going basis. Guess which group succeeded most? If you have a clear goal of completing your first 5k run, losing 10 pounds or running a marathon PR, you will find more motivation to go out and put in the training runs consistently. The hardest part of running for many beginners, is to put on their shoes and getting out of the door. Once you’re moving, you’re glad you did. Clear goal setting can absolutely help make you a better runner.
7. Find a running partner
Training partners can help make you a better runners in many ways. There is the social element, I’m always amazed how time flies with good conversations on my run. Partners help keep you accountable, especially when you are not feeling like working out. Several of my weekly runs are on my own and although solitude is nice, having a partner counting on you to show up can help. Running partners can add an element of safety. Partners can be great pacesetters, in particular when you have a tough workout scheduled. Another great benefit is that running partners can review your training form and provide feedback.
8. The ChiRunning Technique
ChiRunning is a simple running technique that every runner can benefit from. The technique focuses to help you run as energy efficient as possible and keep you running injury-free. I discovered Chi Running in 2007 and found it very helpful, especially when I first started out with running. You get aligned, so you connect the dots from you shoulders, hip and ankles and you shift your workload to your core and relax everything else. You lean forward with a strong core and use your gravity to assist your running, so your legs can feel relaxed and run automatic. There is detailed video explaining the ChiRunning technique here on YouTube.
9. Make rest, recovery and sleep a priority
One of the most overlooked part of improving your running, is getting enough rest to recover properly. Many athletes don’t sleep and rest enough, so it becomes harder for your body to recover from workouts and improve in your training. Healthy sleep is about seven to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep. For advanced athletes running 50 miles (80 km) per week, 7 hours of sleep is probably not enough. Top athletes training 20+ hours a week will need closer to 9 hours to get the recovery. We get more training benefits from the recovery phase than the actual training. We need that recovery to allow our body to naturally progress, this is the case for both beginner, intermediate and advanced runners.
For all runners it’s very important to learn to listen to your body. Be extra careful if you’re noticing warning signs, such as very sore muscles, emotional roller coasters both up and down, an upcoming cold or illness, low energy or no motivation to train. Take a step back and analyze what your body and mind are telling you. Although consistent training is important, listening to yourself and adjusting your training schedule accordingly is important as well. Don’t under-estimate the importance of rest, recovery and sleep to improve your running.
10. Have a fun attitude and gratitude
You have been given an incredible gift of the ability to move your body and run. Never forget there are millions of people who would happily trade to have your healthy body and opportunity to run. We all sometimes have the tendency to overthink things and make it more complicated than it should. Running can be very simple, put on your gear, head out the door and get moving.
Have fun at all cost. If you’re not having fun, you’re doing it wrong. This was mentioned to me by one of my close friends Jimmy Dean Freeman from the So Cal Coyotes. Here is a great video that goes into more details about the Way of a Trail Runner that’s applicable for runners of all levels.
Hope you enjoyed this post. I would love to hear if you have any other ways to improve your running. Please let me know in the comments.
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