“Fitness takes time.”
– COACH GREG McMILLAN
Coach Greg McMillan advises driven athletes from newbies to Olympic qualifiers who all have one thing in common: “They’re used to giving things 110 per cent, and they expect that’ll achieve fast results,” says the exercise scientist and running coach. “But fitness should sneak up on you.” McMillan says performance gains come from training optimally, not maximally. That’s because “fitness” really refers to a set of complex biological processes that can’t be rushed.
Push too hard, too soon, and you’ll end up injured and discouraged. “But if you can stack up week after week of consistent training, you will see your fitness level go to places that you may never have thought possible,” he says. Here’s how to get there.
Honour your body’s timeline.
“Everybody’s ability to adapt and recover is different,” says McMillan. Training for 42.2 can take anywhere from 12 weeks to a year or more, depending on your age and fitness baseline. Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses – or anybody else.
Run by time.
McMillan likes to think of training volume in terms of minutes rather than kilometres logged – it’s a more consistent way to prescribe increases to all levels of runners. “If your regular run is 30 minutes, increase by 10,” he says. Or bump up your long run by 15- or 30-minute increments. “That should challenge your body without overtaxing it,” he says.
Take time to prevent injury.
Fatigue or soreness should fade within a day, even after long runs. Lingering musculoskeletal pain – in muscles, tendons, bones, or ligaments – indicates that the body’s not fully recovering from each workout. The solution? Take a day off from running and maintain fitness on the elliptical, at the pool, or through yoga. “The ‘one more day of rest’ prescription works 99 per cent of the time,” says McMillan.
“A strong glute is the key to a happy life.”
– JORDAN METZL, M.D.
For years, Dr Jordan Metzl ached as much as his patients: His knee (reconstructed after he tore his ACL) and hamstrings regularly complained about his running habit. “But I noticed that when I did lots of squats, they felt better,” says Metzl, an author, marathoner, and sports-medicine specialist who saw that even his strongest clients suffered from WGS (weak glute syndrome). Weak glutes not only make runners more injury-prone – they also hamper performance. “You can have great quads, but the glute is the engine,” says Metzl.
Try these three moves twice a week to build your buns. Says Metzl, “After about a month, you’ll have fewer aches and pains, you’ll feel a stronger kick, and you’ll fatigue less easily.”
Lunge one leg forward, keeping your trunk upright, your front knee directly over your toes, and your back shin parallel to the ground. Push through the heel of the front foot to return to standing, targeting both the quads and the glutes. Alternate legs for three sets of 12 repetitions.
Lunge forward as above, but instead of stepping back to standing, spring into the air to switch legs using a controlled motion and land as lightly as possible. Perform five sets of 15 repetitions on each leg (with 30 seconds’ rest between sets).
SQUATS FROM A CHAIR
Stand in front of a chair with feet slightly wider than hip-width. Keeping your back as straight as possible, slowly squat to sitting, then return to standing. Work up to six sets of 15 repetitions, then perform up to three, 15-repetition sets of single-leg squats.
“Eat delicious foods.”
– CHEF NATE APPLEMAN
Nate Appleman, an award–winning chef, weighed 113 kilos in 2007 when he became a dad – a role that inspired him to adopt healthier habits. So he took up running, shed 38 kilos, ran his first marathon in 2010 (3:51), and came to realise that good food isn’t the enemy. “The biggest weight-loss mistake people make is eliminating food,” says Appleman, who found that denying himself every delicious edible on the table only prompted binge behaviours. “If you’re an overeater, absolutely reduce your intake, but running a lot gives you a pretty good pass.”
That’s why Appleman recommends that people establish a running routine first, then shape up their diet. “It’s human nature that when you make too many changes at once, they’re less likely to take hold,” he says. That advice applies to eating habits, too: Incorporate one improvement, and once it’s established as habit, introduce another. Here are a few of Appleman’s favourites.
Eat a full, nourishing breakfast.
Appleman used to raid his pastry chef’s cookie jar every day at 3pm, but plumping up his breakfast cured his afternoon sugar cravings. Now he eats oatmeal with whole-fat yoghurt, nuts, and a few really ripe bananas smashed in first thing in the morning. “It’s sweet, satiating, and starts my day off right,” he says.
Snack on filling foods.
When celery sticks don’t curb your cravings, reach for a hard-boiled egg or other snacks containing some fat, protein, or fibre. “If you don’t, you’ll become ravenous and eat anything and everything in front of you,” Appleman says.
Drink plenty of fluids.
“That’s a no-brainer,” says Appleman, who downs lots of water throughout the day. Other good choices are unsweetened tea, and black coffee (in moderation).
Keep sugar in check.
Appleman doesn’t outlaw sweets, but he reaches for them last – after loading up on proteins, grains, and vegetables. Even fruit (particularly juice) goes in the “watch it” category, because although the sugars give him a quick burst of energy, the subsequent crash leaves him lethargic – and reaching for more food. Says Appleman, “I go for vegetables first, fruit second.”
Boneless, skinless chicken? Fat-free yoghurt? Appleman says no to both. “They just don’t taste as good as full-fat foods, and they’re less satisfying.”
“Have a purpose for every workout.”
– COACH JACK DANIELS
Two-time Olympic medallist Jack Daniels has coached more elite runners to victory than almost anyone else, and his protégés never just “go for a run.” Instead, the Daniels training philosophy (now offered to the public via the Run S.M.A.R.T. Project) assigns a purpose to every outing. All runners can benefit from giving each workout an objective – whether your goal is to build endurance for long events, ease into running after a layoff, or just socialise with a coworker, says Run S.M.A.R.T. Coach Mike Smith. If you can’t pinpoint what you’re trying to achieve, you won’t know when you’ve succeeded (or failed). For example, during a dress-rehearsal long run for a marathon, your focus should be on mastering your gear and fuelling strategies; nailing those constitutes a victory, no matter how light or heavy your legs feel.
“Train your gut.”
– LIZ APPLEGATE
“So many runners don’t train with fuel, yet they plan to use sports drink or gels on race day,” says Liz Applegate, Runner’s World columnist. The unfamiliar addition can wreak havoc on runners’ systems – and sabotage what might’ve been a great race. So Applegate urges runners to practice using midrun carbohydrates during the month before any big race on runs lasting an hour or more. “Even if you can run without it, do it to give your gut some training,” she says.
Research in animals indicates that ingesting carbohydrates during exercise increases the number of transporters in the gut, enabling the body to absorb fuel more efficiently. “On long runs, take in 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour,” Applegate says.
If you get to race day and you haven’t practiced, try rinsing your mouth with sports drink during the race. “Studies show that the mouth’s carbohydrate receptors are wired to the brain,” she says. Swishing and spitting a carbohydrate-rich drink (like you would with mouthwash) yields a boost and risks no stomach upset.
“Be in the moment.”
– DARREN TREASURE, PH.D.
The sports psychologist Darren Treasure is best known for helping elite runners manage their confidence crises. But Treasure says that almost all runners – from the elites he works with to back-of-the-packers – experience racing-related anxiety. The key is to stay focussed on the here and now, Treasure says. You can’t control how you’ve trained (or not trained), nor can you predict your results. But by directing your attention to factors that you can influence on race day, you’ll reduce your stress. Here’s how.
Focus on your process goals, not the outcome.
Remind yourself of your fuelling plan and how you plan to pace yourself – the things you can control. “You immediately feel a lot more relaxed,” says Treasure.
Repeat a mantra.
“Use a word that creates a sense of security,” says Treasure – among athletes’ favourites are “courage,” “fighter,” and “relax.” Repeat them during successful training sessions as well, to establish a connection between that word and your goal mind-set.
Treasure encourages his runners to log 10 minutes of controlled breathing each day, because “when you’re anxious, your breaths become very short and shallow, which actually precipitates more anxiety,” he says. Practice drawing in long, slow breaths that originate from the diaphragm and move up through the chest, expanding the shoulders. Then exhale. Says Treasure, “You can feel the relaxation response within just a few breaths.”
Just as runners can imagine moments of triumph during the race, they can also imagine themselves feeling peaceful and confident. “Visualisation primes your brain to be able to do something, whether that’s a job interview or relaxation,” Treasure says.
So you’re having negative thoughts? Don’t beat yourself up about feeling tense, says Treasure. “Just reframe your focus to get it back onto the positive.”