Running has long been touted for its many benefits. It builds cardiovascular fitness, increases HDL, lowers HDL, and total cholesterol. It also improves body composition, and increases muscular strength and joint stability.
But did you know running…
…has also been known to have a dramatic effect on our mental health, cognitive capacity, and memory? In one study, positive associations between physical activity and happiness were found with as little as 10 minutes of physical activity per week. Another study found that because running activates reward pathways in the brain, it works as an antidepressant.
Running has also been found to increase creativity, helping us become more productive. Becoming more confident about our bodies is another positive effect that has been confirmed in a meta-analysis of 57 studies.
Moreover, it increases longevity and sustains health as we age. After following 1000 adults 50 and older for 21 years, researchers found that 85% of runners were still living. While just 66% of non-runners survived. Another study found that running is associated with fewer disabilities and a decreased likelihood of early death.
Fewer Sick Days
Running also improves immunity and contributes to wound healing, which both contribute to mental health. In one study it was found that a higher training volume was associated with fewer reported sick days. Another study found that aerobic endurance exercise, such as running, has a stronger impact on immunity than strength training.
Benefits like this are likely to contribute to the record number of people participating in marathons and half marathons every year. So, if now is the time for you to start the perfect program, here are five tips:
Running & Balance
Running is essentially an exercise of balance. For example, as we push off of one foot, we land on the other, recover, and push off again. We need to catch ourselves and regulate balance with each step. This helps to avoid falling from one side to the other, or too far forward or backward. When our balance is compromised, such as when we have one leg that is stronger, or we have old injuries to an ankle, knee, or hip, we are going to compensate when we run. We may lean onto the stronger side, tilting our midline and putting more pressure on one side than the other.
Similarly, if we have an imbalance in our anterior muscles, such as our abdominals and hip flexors, relative to our posterior muscles, such as our glutes and hamstrings, we are going to lean forward when we run, which, again, compromises our balance.
How to Check Your Balance
For these reasons, one of the most important things we can do to stay injury-free is to check our balance. One quick way to do this is to stand on one leg, and then the other. Notice which leg is stronger. By doing balance exercises to strengthen the weaker leg, we can improve our running form. It will also decrease our chance of injury.
We can also check our anterior/posterior balance by observing how we stand. When our shoulders are in front of our hips, our posterior muscles are weaker than our anterior ones. Conversely, when our shoulders are behind our hips, our anterior muscles are stronger. By doing exercises to improve a weaker side we can improve our chances of developing a healthy running style and staying injury free.
Build Your Core Strength
Because running requires regulating our balance, it requires us to stabilize our core with each step. When we fail to do this, the core of our body, may not be centered through our midline. Because of this, we may hold one hip higher than the other, tilt one shoulder off to the side, or allow our lower back to hollow – a position called lordosis.
All of these posterior changes that occur when our core is not strong lead to an increased chance of injuries. Because we are not operating in balance, we place more pressure on one side of our body than the other. Building core strength then becomes essential to pain and injury-free running.
Exercises such as planks, hip lifts, crunches, and pelvic tilts are just a few ways to build core strength. By working with a professional fitness trainer, you can identify the areas where you need to build more strength. Furthermore, any muscular imbalances that contribute to poor core strength.
Get The Right Shoes
The effect of good running shoes cannot be underestimated. For one thing, our foot balance affects the entire balance up our leg, into our hips and core. When your foot balance is off, it affects every part of your balance. Moreover, the purpose of shoes is to cushion our feet from the impact of running, as well as provide proper support for the foot.
Shoes come in numerous styles, from those that mimic barefoot running to fully cushioned and wide sole shoes to offer a cloud-like feel. Shoe sizes also vary widely, from wide toe boxes to more narrow versions.
Getting the right shoes first depends on an educated analysis of your foot. By measuring your foot length and width, as well as the arch, a running specialist can help you find the shoes that will meet your specific foot needs and offer you the support needed for your body type and running style.
Do A Gait Analysis
Unless you are a competitive runner, it is unlikely that you are aware of your running form or gait. However, running form can be the difference between efficient running and running that simply feels hard. Correct running form can also be the very thing that keeps you injury free.
There are many factors that contribute to correct running form, from arm swing and foot landing pattern to stride length and joint mobility. By working with a certified running coach, you can first determine your running style. Once you are aware of the weaknesses in your running form, you can work with your coach to find ways to improve. By adopting the correct running style, running not only becomes a lot more enjoyable, but also less likely to lead to injury.
Build Endurance Before Speed
One of the quickest ways to make running unpleasant is to go too fast. If you are struggling to breathe, and feeling like you can’t hold a conversation, it is hard to think that this is something you could maintain. Yet this is exactly what most people do when they first start running. The end result is that running simply feels impossible.
Unless you are training for a 100-meter race, running is an endurance sport. What this means is you find a pace that you can easily maintain for 20 minutes or so. If you haven’t already been running, begin with a walk-run routine, such as one minute of running, followed by one minute of walking. Once you feel comfortable, you can increase your running intervals to 90 seconds. Conversely, you can decrease your walking intervals to 30 seconds. The goal is to build the endurance to stay out there for 20 minutes or more.
Running and the Need for Speed
Once you have developed sufficient endurance to run steadily for at least 30 minutes, you can then focus on going faster. However, many people find that running is much more enjoyable when they don’t focus on speed. It is quite acceptable to simply enjoy the time spent running to let their minds wander.
By first checking your balance, building core strength, getting the right shoes, doing a gait analysis and building endurance before strength, running can become not just a great way to exercise, but also mitigate stress, improve cognitive function and cardiovascular health, but significantly boost your mood. And that should be enough reason to get started!
AUTHOR: Claire Nana, LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in post-traumatic growth, optimal performance, and wellness. She has worked with the recovery population developing wellness programs, in residential fitness camps as a clinical therapist, and in private practice counseling individuals and families. She has written over thirty continuing education courses on a variety of topics from Nutrition and Mental Health, Wound Care, Post-Traumatic Growth, Motivation, Stigma.
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