Running is a great form of exercise and it’s an awesome calorie-burner. Incorporating running into well-rounded, sustained fitness program requires careful planning and patience. I liken it to building a house – it’s always best to start with a sound foundation. Whether you’re planning on participating in organized races or just running for health and fitness, I’d like to share a few thoughts on general conditioning that might be helpful as you adopt a new healthy lifestyle.
First Things First
Your exercise program has the best chance of succeeding if you start with a clear understanding of your current health and fitness status.
It’s always best to start any new exercise program with a visit to your doctor for a thorough physical and check-up. Let your physician know about your decision to include running in your fitness program and then discuss and listen attentively to any recommendations from your medical professional.
Be honest with yourself regarding your current level of fitness and activity. Start conservatively and know this endeavor is all about patience and staying with a gradual, well-planned program.
Treat Your Feet Well
Once you get the “all-clear” from your doctor, your first order of business should be paying a visit to your local running specialty store. If you have an old pair of running or gym shoes, take them with you. Those old shoes will provide the running store staff with information regarding your unique gait cycle and wear pattern. The most critical phase of any running or exercise program is the first 90-days and investing in quality footwear will help you avoid injuries during those critical early weeks of training.
Fuel In Your Tank
Healthy eating choices and proper nutrition habits are vitally important to a successful exercise program. Your food consumption should match your exercise activity. Think of your new, healthier body as an automobile with a gas tank. You’ll need gas in your tank when exercising – the more you exercise, the more fuel you’ll need. Starvation diets are rarely sustainable and the key to maintaining a long-term healthy body weight is to combine consistent daily exercise with a healthy diet. The topic of nutrition and its relation to exercise is a complex one and I highly recommend buying “Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook” (4th edition published by Human Kinetics). Ms. Clark does an outstanding job explaining why proper nutrition is important and she provides some really good, doable meal suggestions for busy people on the go.
The Importance of Time
If you’ve been out of the exercise loop for years, you’ll have to find the precious time to exercise. Most of us lead busy lives, including important commitments to our families and careers. Starting a new exercise program will likely mean re-allocating your time and priorities. It’s been my life experience that daily exercise has made me a more productive worker and a more pleasant person to be around. It will be important for you to have the support of your family, friends, and co-workers as you rediscover a healthy life balance. Can you give up a couple of hours of television each day or maybe wake-up 45 minutes earlier four times each week?
Putting Together a New Exercise Program
A well-rounded fitness program consists of four important fitness components: aerobic fitness, muscular fitness, body composition, and flexibility.
Finding your own unique balance of these fitness components is the key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Too much running can be a negative thing (overuse injuries) and the same can be said with just strength training. To maintain important orthopedic health, one needs to incorporate some strength and flexibility training in your weekly fitness routine.
If you’re an aspiring runner, maybe your goal is to one day complete a 10K race or perhaps even a 26.2 mile marathon. Those goals might seem near impossible as you start your program, but you’ll be amazed what you can achieve through consistent, disciplined training.
Easy-does-it the first few weeks. If you’ve been inactive for quite sometime, allow time for your muscles and connective tissue to adjust to the new activity. You might experience some moderate soreness, but this will subside as you continue to exercise on a consistent basis. Allow yourself a 48-hour recovery period between walk/run workouts. Blending running with walking is a smart approach when starting a new exercise program.
Always begin each and every workout with a gentle warm-up and finish your session with a gentle cool-down. I prefer exercise-specific stretching, which means I start my run at a very slow, easy pace, allowing my muscles and connective tissues to warm-up for more vigorous activity ahead. More on stretching a bit later.
Please note that aerobic fitness activities include various types of exercise – swimming, cycling, rowing, etc. I strongly encourage runners to include several different types of aerobic exercise in your healthy lifestyle program. This is what is referred to as “cross-training” and it makes great sense, both as an injury prevention strategy and as a way to continually challenge your body with different types of exercise.
An easy two-to-three times a week strength-training program can be a runner’s best friend. When we spend a good deal of time on one particular form of endurance exercise (i.e., running or walking) we tend to over-develop some muscles and under-develop others. A basic toe-to-head strength-training program can help maintain a healthy balance of muscular strength. This in turn makes us more resistant to muscular or connective tissue overuse injuries. Try to find some time in your exercise program for a couple of strength training sessions each week. It will be time well spent.
Simply put, body composition refers to the ratio of the body’s fat tissue to its lean muscle tissue. We all need to maintain a healthy body weight and if you consume a low-fat, healthy diet and follow smart portion control, you’ll notice a welcomed change in your body composition. Aerobic exercise burns the most calories, but recent research indicates that strength training might also contribute to an improved, healthy body composition.
Many of us are interested in losing weight, but the your long range goal should be to maintain a healthy body composition, i.e., low body fat, more lean tissue. As mentioned earlier, nutrition and training for an endurance event require careful planning and consideration. A great place to start educating yourself about healthy eating choices is by reading “Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook” (4th Edition published by Human Kinetics).
If we’re running and exercising, that means our muscles and joints need a certain degree of flexibility and range of motion. Improving your flexibility means you’ll put less strain on your muscles and connective tissue, as well as reduce the likelihood of incurring an overuse injury.
The current general consensus among fitness experts is that flexibility exercises are best performed immediately after an exercise session when your muscles and joints are warm and pliant. Begin all of your exercise sessions with a few minutes of gentle, “exercise-specific stretching”. I start off each and every run moving in a slow shuffle, gradually working my way up to a brisk running stride.
If you have the time, I highly recommend practicing yoga on a regular basis. I’ve been practicing yoga for over five years and my only regret is that I didn’t start earlier. Yoga helps us maintain a healthy level of flexibility and the core strengthening benefits are amazing. We run from the core muscle groups so it only makes sense that yoga is a great supplemental exercise for runners.
You can do this! Taking a thoughtful, careful approach during the early stages of your exercise program is a great way to maximize your training benefits. It might seem a little slow at first, but you’ll look back in a few months an be amazed at your progress.