Whether you are preparing for a 5K, a half marathon, or the Army Physical Fitness Test, the road to improving your cardiovascular performance is relatively straightforward. There are many aspects of cardiovascular training that are often ignored and/or overlooked, but with the right approach you can avoid injury and become the runner that you always hoped to (or never thought you could) be.
The mental aspect of running can be the most challenging hurdle to overcome. Despite what you may have heard, the human body is built to run. Yes, this includes yours. It may feel like your body is not well prepared for running, and admittedly some of us do have more of a mechanical advantage than others, however that said, with the exception of those with permanent disability we all have the potential to become very successful runners. Physically we are capable of much more than we give ourselves credit for, and when you begin to run your mind will play tricks on you. Your head will be filled with frequent suggestions to slow down, alarms telling you that you are breathing too hard, and a voice devilishly reminding you that you can always head back a little early. I have found that the best way to overcome your running-averse inner voice is distraction. Find something interesting to do and take your mind off of the desire to quit. Try listening to music or podcasts, finding a beautiful outdoor route and focusing on the scenery, or even counting breaths and steps to make the time pass more quickly. Anything to keep your mind off of the desire to quit!
Now that we have discussed the mental aspect of running, let’s take a look at the physical aspect. There is a lot to consider, so let’s discuss things from the ground up:
- Foot strike. Your foot should land lightly and in a relatively neutral position when it strikes the ground. Avoid landing primarily on your heel or your toe. Also if you can hear your foot slapping against the ground you are wasting energy and causing undue wear and tear on your joints.
- Leg stride. Avoid bounding, as it is also a waste of energy. Your goal should be to move completely rectilinearly, and to spend no energy traveling up away from the ground or absorbing the impact of a dramatic downward descent. Also try to take long, smooth strides. Lengthening your stride is a great way to improve the efficiency of your run as it will ultimately take fewer steps to arrive at your destination.
- Hips. Positioning your hips can be pretty subtle, so you may need some help from a friend or the mirror. Running with dramatic posterior pelvic tilt (sticking your booty out) slows you down and can create hip and/or low back pain as you progress. Instead try and keep your hips directly underneath your shoulders by tilting them forward.
- Core. Another subtle point, one for which the mirror will be of no assistance. The importance of maintaining a strong core cannot be understated, although it is often ignored because it can be difficult to explain. For runners, good core position begins from the deep support musculature near your spine. You can practice maintaining a tight core by standing, contracting your pelvic floor, imagining a rope connecting your hips and your neck and pulling it straight up (to engage your multifidi) while also pulling your belly button in toward your low back (to engage your transversus abdominus). This should feel markedly different from “flexing your abs”, and while it is a lot to think about it is worth the practice as it will pay dividends down the road.
- Upper body posture. Keep your shoulders back as well as your shoulder blades seated to help lessen the intra-abdominal pressure on your lungs and make it easier for you to breathe.
- Lungs. Breathing is obviously critical to successful cardiovascular performance, but let me assure you that you can relax. You have enough oxygen and you will never run out. In fact, we are swimming in more oxygen than one would ever need to facilitate a cardiovascular workout. The limiting factor regarding oxygen is our body’s ability to utilize it effectively, not a lack of supply. Maximizing oxygen utilization comes from training, not from rapid breathing. All of that said, it is important to maintain a relaxed, rhythmic breathing pattern. The side aches that plague us arise for a variety or reasons, the most common of which is arhythmic diaphragmatic contraction (chaotic breathing). Take slow, deep, and even breaths throughout your run.
- Arm swing. Do not pump your arms. Pumping your arms is a critical aspect of rapid sprinting, but it will do little more than waste energy during a long run. Instead relax your elbows and wrists, and try to minimize their swing. Also take care to swing your arms in the sagittal plane (straight forward along your sides). Swinging your arms across your body lessens your ability to move rectilinearly and is inefficient.
- Head position. Hold your head high, directly over your shoulders to avoid neck stress and assist with good torso posture. Look straight ahead, but below the horizon. This will help assist with your rhythmic breathing and keep you moving forward safely without distraction.
So now you know how to run! Time to discuss the finer points of program design. Let’s take a look at how to decide where to start and also how to manage your workouts.
Selecting your start point is a very important aspect of making a successful running program. While we are all built to run, that does not necessarily imply that you have the ability to tie your shoes and go for a five-mile run this very moment. If you run too much or too fast without giving your body time to adapt injury is inevitable. For some, the best way to start preparing your body to run may be to begin walking on a regular basis. For some others, you may be ready to run but not prepared to go very far or very fast. Start off by running no faster or farther than you can handle, and focus on making cardiovascular exercise part of your regular routine. Once you are running consistently (at least three times per week without fail) then begin to work on increasing the volume and intensity of your workouts, but not before.
We also need to discuss the three big variables to consider when planning your runs: intensity, duration, and distance. Intensity can be measured in a variety of ways, the most common of which is via heart rate. For textbook cardiovascular improvement you need to keep your heart rate elevated at a level of 65% to 85% of your maximum heart rate throughout your workout. Measuring your heart rate throughout your workout can be difficult, and as such likely requires a heart rate monitor. Since not everyone has access to the equipment required I will leave it at that. If you want more information about how to use your heart rate monitor or calculate your maximum heart rate please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org). For the rest of us, intensity can be measured on the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale and with some commonsense. Using the RPE scale of 0-10, where 0 is no standing still and 10 is sprinting for your life; you should be working out between the levels 6 and 8. You can also measure intensity by paying attention to your breathing. During your workout you should be breathing hard enough to prevent you from maintaining a conversation, but you should not feel like you cannot catch your breath.
Duration and distance are both ways to measure the volume of your workout, and you should incorporate training that focuses on each. Some of your runs should be all about distance (e.g. running two miles as fast as possible), and some should be all about duration (e.g. running for 60 minutes). Incorporating runs that approach volume from each perspective will help you see steady improvement and avoid boredom. One of the biggest mistakes runners make in training is to train at the same intensity all of the time. To see improvement in your running performance it is important to vary your workouts. For example, if you are running three times per week and you can comfortably run two miles, it would be appropriate to plan three different runs: one one-mile workout at an RPE of 8, one 2-mile workout at an RPE of 7, and one three-mile workout at an RPE of 6.
Once you are performing cardiovascular exercise regularly and you have a handle on how to approach the requisite intensity, distance, and duration of your runs, it is time to think about progression. Appropriate cardiovascular progression is approximately 10 percent per week. I recommend you round to the nearest tenth-mile for ease of execution.
It is important to differentiate between increasing your workouts via percentage of distance and increasing via an absolute amount of distance. Using the example of three runs per week from before, an example of 10% progression is illustrated in the table below.
To prevent overtraining and give your body time to adapt to new levels of volume it is most effective to increase your volume in an undulating fashion, illustrated in the table below.
Lastly, here are a few general tips that you may find useful along the way:
- Pace yourself. While interval training can be an effective way to improve your speed, add variety to your workout, and break through those pesky plateaus, varying your speed during competition will burn you out during longer runs and ultimately reduce your performance. Instead try and set one brisk pace for your events – you will do much better.
- Warm up. Always warm up before you run, especially before you compete! Conduct dynamic movements like lunges and deep knee bends, and jog around a bit. Never conduct static stretching prior to a run, it reduces the ability of your muscles to produce force and increases your propensity for injury by creating micro-tears in your muscle fibers.
- Treadmill running. Treadmills are great tools, particularly when the weather is bad! However they create an artificially perfect running environment, which can be misleading. If you regularly train on the treadmill but conduct your test outdoors you may be disappointed with your performance. In order to mitigate the impact of the treadmill on your competition performance always run at a minimum of a 1% grade.
- Supporting activities. Although improving your run is best accomplished by running, resistance training and flexibility work will help you avoid injury and dramatically improve your performance. Resistance training (e.g. lifting weights) helps keep your joints strong, promote muscular balance, and makes you a more efficient runner as lean body tissue takes less energy to move around. Flexibility work (e.g. static stretching, yoga) will help improve your active range of motion and in turn increase your stride length, also improving your efficiency.
With the aforementioned approach and some dedication coupled with hard work nearly anyone can call themselves a runner.