Perhaps you know the type. Maybe you are the type. Every morning, she laces up her trusty worn-out sneakers, heads out along the same neighborhood route at the same sluggish pace. She’s satisfied to have gotten in her daily run, but for some curious reason, she witnesses no improvement, is developing nagging knee pain, and is bored to death!
This was me a decade ago. I’ve gradually learned that this obsessive adherence to routine is a recipe for stagnation and injury. So what is the key ingredient to maintaining a healthy and impassioned relationship with running? SPICE!
Overuse injuries, the kind that plague so many runners, such as tendonitis or stress fractures, arise from excessively repeating the same movement patterns. This problem is inherent to endurance running, which demands identical motions for hours at a time, day after day. But spicing up your runs with minor day-to-day variations can minimize the trauma associated with repetitive, high mileage. And by variety, I’m not suggesting going to such drastic measures as diversifying with (gasp!) cross-training. If you’re anything like me, as long as I’m physically capable of running, nothing can get me into the pool or onto the bike. Even sprint training and hill repeats turn running into work, which I will not tolerate. Of course, if you have the patience for such things, more power to you!
Rather, incorporating even small differences between runs can offer great returns. This has been a primary focus of my training over the past few months, through which I’ve discovered several easy ways to make each run feel fresh and exhilarating:
Distance. You may love that four-mile route, but doing it day after day mounts only to junk mileage. By mixing up the daily mileage, you’ll find that both the long hard runs and the short easy runs become indulgent treats. For example, on a given week I’ll often log one solid long run to fuel my endurance (25-30% of total weekly mileage), a couple of moderate distance runs to maintain my mileage (30-50%), and a couple of short, easy recovery runs (25-30%). Most importantly, listen to your body. If you had a ten-miler on tap, but are dragging by mile six, it’ll serve you better in the long term to call it quits. Likewise, if you feel like tacking on a couple extra miles or bursting into a sprint – even if your training plan didn’t call for it – go for it!
Terrain. Concrete will wreak havoc on your joints … The cant of a road will imbalance your stride … Grass and trails will make you trip or roll your ankle … We’ve heard it all. It appears there’s no ideal – or even safe – running terrain. Yet luckily, this is just one more fallacy with no scientific support. Rather, research has shown that although distinct surfaces alter our biomechanics (Tessutti et al., 2012), they are not differentially associated with injury risk (van Gent et al., 2007). (Okay, trails can sometimes be dangerous – but only for the exceptionally uncoordinated. See obligatory humiliating pic as proof.) So feel free to explore, venturing onto road, sidewalk, trail or grass and noting how your body adapts to each surface. For instance, I’ve found that running barefoot on even, smooth hard surfaces is wonderful for developing proper form. When I feel myself fatiguing during a long road run, switching over to grass or trail for even a few minutes can do wonders to rejuvenate my tired legs. Becoming an all-terrain-runner can open up a new world of running possibilities.
Footwear. I’m a firm believer that there’s no ideal running shoe, but there is ideal running footwear: none. As much as I embrace and encourage running barefoot, there’s absolutely a time and a place for shoes (burning pavement and sharp rocks aren’t fun, no matter what people say). The principal problem with shoes, however, is how they alter your gait in even the most subtle ways. We’ve all experienced the slight discomfort of running in a new pair of shoes to which we haven’t adapted. For this reason, most runners search for their “perfect” shoe and run religiously in nothing else. But running is all about adaptation. Minor challenges and stressors are what impart incremental strength and endurance gains over time. Alternating between various shoes (to the extent that your wallet can bear) forces you to work different muscle groups and prevents excessively stressing one particular area. For instance, my ankles tire easily when running barefoot, but my calves or hips tighten up in different shoes, depending on the support level. Therefore, I allow several days between runs in the same shoes, to ensure sufficient recovery from any shoe-induced aches or pains.
So is there one secret ingredient to running happy and injury-free? No, there are many! Go out and explore them all. Then share with me all the fun ways (that I’ve most certainly overlooked) that you spice up your runs.