Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Jason Fitzgerald, a USA Track & Field certified coach.
Hey Skinny, looks like it’s time for some push-ups!
So, you live on pasta and bagels right?
Running isn’t a real sport!
After more than 14 years of running experience – in high school, college, and ever since – I’ve heard every insult and misconception that exists about the sport of distance running. Some are true (yes, our shorts are short), but most are false.
Running has a bad reputation that seems to be exaggerated by some fitness circles that don’t understand the right way to train for road races like the 5k, 10k, or even the marathon. Indeed, running is a one-dimensional form of exercise that has the potential to create specific weaknesses or imbalances.
Flash back about 40 years and you’ll see that runners ran a lot of miles at a slower pace – and did little else in the general fitness and strength departments. The conventional wisdom insists that marathoners are doing the same today.
If we look even further back in history – back to the 1950s when Roger Bannister became the first man in history to run a sub-4:00 mile – training looked wildly different. Instead of high mileage and sparse speed workouts, runners favored low mileage and high intensity. Track intervals were so common that they comprised almost every training session! This training style resembled the popular HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) or Tabata workouts of today.
As our understanding of training theory, physiology, and exercise science has matured over the decades, the training of today now takes a more balanced approach than both the 1950s and 1970s. And in turn, modern runners are more well-rounded and athletic than their predecessors. The dramatic improvement in world records as varied as the mile and the marathon is a testament to today’s state-of-the-art training.
Runners don’t just jog slow miles and eat platefuls of spaghetti. Nor do we shy away from lifting weights, sprinting, and working on coordination. In fact, these are skills necessary to successful distance running. These skills allowed me to (somewhat surprisingly) win the 2012 Maryland Warrior Dash, beating nearly 17,000 other CrossFitters, Parkour athletes, and runners.
Today I’ll dispel the popular misconceptions about runners, running, and the sport’s effect on your health. By the end of this article I hope you’ll be lacing up your running shoes and pulling on your short shorts (well, one step at a time).
MYTH #1: Running Decreases Muscle Mass
This myth is actually partly true – but for the majority of men there’s no need to worry. If you’re particularly bulky and don’t practice any aerobic exercises like swimming, cycling, or even hiking, then starting to run can slim you down.
However, running doesn’t “eat muscle” or break it down as fuel. To get to that level of catabolic activity, you’ll need to combine a diet almost entirely void of protein with a high mileage, high intensity running schedule. Like any extreme form of exercise, that combination will certainly reduce your overall muscle mass.
A more realistic running program – say an introductory marathon training plan – will instead just prevent additional muscle gain. Your weight will stay about the same and muscle mass can easily be maintained by most men who are doing complementary strength workouts.
The elephant in the room, of course, is the image of an elite distance runner who weighs 120 pounds when he’s soaking wet. With thin legs and even thinner arms, how can I say that their running doesn’t make them so scrawny? Simple: running doesn’t make them look that way, their genetics do. Elite runners are often natural ectomorphs with a slight build, an incredibly low body fat percentage, and a tendency of staying skinny. This body type is one of the pieces that make them so damn fast.
Ultimately, running will only reduce your muscle size if you stop lifting and start running significant mileage. Most men will find it rather easy to train for a road race without sacrificing their biceps. Plus, running is only going to help define those washboard abs.
Myth #2: Running Requires No Skill
Just put one foot in front of the other, right? Wrong.
Running is a skill-sport. There’s no question about it. Training consistently over weeks and months without injury takes coordination, strength, and athleticism. Indeed, this study shows that running economy (i.e., efficiency – or skill) improves as beginner runners naturally refine their gait.
When you consider that running is actually a highly coordinated series of one-legged hops, the importance of learning the proper way to run is underscored. Without a basic understanding of good running form, you’ll not only be slower but your risk of an injury caused by overuse will skyrocket.
So what are the fundamental aspects of running form that will help you be a more skilled runner? Stick to the basics:
- Increase your cadence to roughly 170-180 steps per minute.
- Land with your foot underneath your body, as opposed to “reaching” out with your foot and over-striding (this strategy will also reduce heel-striking).
- Keep your back tall with a slight forward lean from the ankles. No slouching or leaning from the waist!
- Try to land on your midfoot, though a slight heel strike isn’t necessarily bad.
- Keep your arms at roughly a 90-degree angle (though this will vary) and don’t swing them across your chest.
Those are the basics. Of course, there are some additional improvements that you can make, but most runners don’t need to get lost in the weeds of excessively tweaking their running form.
In fact, research has shown that consciously trying to change your running form can decrease your running economy – or in other words, when you try to alter your form, you become less efficient.
A better way to improve your form is to follow the first two bullets above and just run consistently. Your body will naturally develop the skills necessary to become a more efficient runner.
Myth #3: Runners Are Weak
Well, runners who only run are certainly weak! Just like weight lifters who only spend time at the gym aren’t very fast.
But a well-rounded training plan will include a lot more than just running. Most plans will involve warm-up drills, strength exercises, dynamic stretches, mobility exercises, and preventive exercises if you’re predisposed to injures.
Runners who avoid the weight room and skip their core work are bound to get injured. You can’t let your engine outpace your chassis. This analogy refers to your metabolic or aerobic fitness (endurance) vs. your structural fitness (bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles). You don’t want a Lamborghini engine in the frame of a Geo Prizm. That engine is going to tear the car apart.
Learning how to build a strong body is something that’s critical for runners. A great example is that of elite runners: some spend more time doing strength exercises and preventative work than they actually do running! Most of us aren’t elite athletes and can’t spend 2-3 hours working out every day, so instead there’s a solution for the rest of us.
Before you run, do a thorough dynamic warm-up. Most only take 5-10 minutes and are critical to increasing blood flow and range of motion, developing your coordination, and helping you gain flexibility.
After your running workout, spend about 10-15 minutes doing a comprehensive core workout (that targets the obliques, lower back, glutes, and upper hamstrings) or hip strength routine. Weak hips have been implicated in numerous overuse injuries – especially runner’s knee – so this is particularly important for distance runners.
Here are a few other ways to maintain a strong chassis:
- Core exercises work well, but remember to do some exercises while standing up to mimic the specific demands of running.
- Don’t ignore your legs in the gym – 1-2 weekly sessions including squats, dead lifts, lunges, and step-ups can do wonders to keep you healthy. You can lift on any running day, but make sure you have one easy day per week for recovery where you run short and easy or take off completely.
- Skipping a day of core or strength exercises isn’t a big deal. But remember: it’s more important what you do most of the time than what you do once in a while.
Core work, gym sessions, and body weight exercises should be a consistent part of your training to ensure you stay strong and athletic. If you’re a runner who’s more likely to get hurt, 5-10 extra minutes of strength work will go a long way in keeping you healthy, consistent, and ultimately, faster.
Myth #4: Running Increases Inflammation and Chronic Stress
Many athletes, particularly in the CrossFit or paleo circles, claim that distance running can increase “systemic inflammation” that compromises your immune system and promotes oxidative damage.
But even competitive marathon training with high mileage and grueling workouts won’t push you to that level unless you dramatically over-train. Keep in mind that effective training should increase inflammation to promote the adaptation response. Without it, you wouldn’t get faster, gain more endurance, or build strength.
The key is to balance hard training with recovery. Mark Sisson at Mark’s Daily Apple has a great overview of the relationship between exercise and inflammation where he argues that chronic inflammation and stress is actually the result of over-training as a whole, and not just running. You can over-train in a myriad of ways: too much fast mileage, too many reps in the weight room, or getting overzealous with CrossFit AMRAP workouts.
Over-training (however you do it) leads to too much oxidative stress, which is the result of your body’s production of free radicals. But this field of study is very new and unclear. Consider that:
- Hard running will increase free radical production, but that signals our bodies to produce more antioxidants! See this study and this study.
- Oxidative stress is not clearly linked to aging or cell damage.
- Exercise protectsyou from the oxidative damage of pollution.
So it’s much more complicated than simply “running causes inflammation and chronic stress.” Any exercise will (and should) but as long as it’s well planned, you’ll thrive.
And let’s be clear: some running – like racing a marathon – can be overly stressful. But these events are rare and recovery is the top goal as soon as they’re complete. So go run your marathon. As long as you’re adequately trained, properly tapered, and recovered post-race then you needn’t worry about inflammation.
Myth #5: Running Doesn’t Promote Fat Loss
Indeed, many folks think running just increases your desire for sugar and carb-heavy snacks without burning any fat. Let’s look at the training of distance runners to see if that’s true.
Arguably the most important workout for half-marathoners and marathoners is the long run, which helps increase endurance. One of the main goals of a long run is to train the body to rely more on fat as fuel instead of glycogen (the sugar stored in muscles). Indeed, fat utilization becomes more efficient as you run longer and as your carb stores start to dwindle. A more advanced long run includes a “fast finish” where the last several miles are run at an increasingly faster pace. This type of long run teaches your body to burn fat more efficiently (i.e., easily) rather than rely on carbs alone.
There are also several studies that point to aerobic exercises, like running, as the most efficient way to burn fat. Read this study that shows aerobic exercise burns more visceral fat (around your organs – the dangerous kind) and liver fat than resistance training.
Running is also better than strength sessions for weight loss according to this study. I’m not claiming you need to pick between the two – both should be key parts of your overall training program. And of course, a healthy, balanced diet is critical if fat loss is your goal. Running can help you get to your ideal weight, but it doesn’t give you a hall pass for eating half a dozen bagels a day!
The current research and my 14 years as a competitive runner and coach show that running is one of the best forms of exercise available to build fitness. No exercise is a miracle for weight loss, nor should any type of exercise be the only form you practice, but running has an important place in any fitness program.
If you’re taking up running or have been a runner for years, stick to a well-rounded training program that embraces variety, plenty of strength exercises, and a holistic approach to distance running.
And the next time you hear someone say, “Oh, runners only know how to run,” you’ll know better.
Be sure to listen to our podcast with Jason about distance running:
Jason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner and USA Track & Field certified coach. Get the latest training tips at Strength Running – or sign up for a free email series on injury prevention and running performance.