When I first started training to run track; my coach took one look at me and told me I was meant to run middle to long distance. Being a runner for the past eight years; I’ve heard every insult and misconception that exists about the sport of distance running. Which I’ll admit some are true (yes, our shorts are short), but most are false. Here’s the truth behind five myths about distance running.
Running has gained a bad reputation that seems to be exaggerated by certain fitness circles that don’t adequately understand the correct way to train for races like the 5k, 10k, or even the marathon, and beyond. Of course, running is a one-dimensional form of exercise that has the potential to create specific weaknesses or imbalances.
Flash back to 40 years ago, and you’ll see that runners ran a lot of miles at an incredibly slower pace – and did little to nothing else in the general fitness and strength departments. Due to this, it’s still believed that distance runners still follow the same practice.
However, if you look back to 1954 when Roger Bannister became the first man in history to run a sub- four-minute mile – 3:59.4 to be exact – but training looked different back then, so much so many wouldn’t recognize it. 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.
Thankfully as we better understood the training theory, physiology, and exercise science has developed over the decades; the training of today now takes a more balanced approach than both the 1950’s and the 1970’s. Meaning runners today are more well-rounded and athletic than our predecessors. The dramatic improvement in world records from the mile to the marathon is a testament to today’s state-of-the-art training.
Runner’s no longer just jog slow miles and eat platefuls of spaghetti. Nor do we shy away from lifting weights, sprinting, and working on coordination. As a matter of fact, these are skills necessary to successful distance running.
Which is why I decided that today I wanted to focus on the common misconceptions about runners, running, and the sport’s effect on your health. By the end of this article, I hope you’ll no longer be afraid to lace up your shoes, pull on your short shorts, and go the distance.
Myth #1: Running Requires No Skill
After all, running is just putting one foot in front of the other repeatedly, right? Wrong.
Running is a skill sport. Training consistently over weeks and months without injury takes coordination, strength, and athleticism. 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 technically a highly coordinated series of one-legged hops; the importance of learning the proper way to run is commonly overlooked. Without the proper understanding of good running form, you’ll not only be slower, but your risk of an injury caused by overuse will skyrocket.
What are the fundamental aspects of running form that will help you be a more experienced runner? Stick to the basics, and go from there:
– 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 bending 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 depending on what stage of the gait cycle you’re on) and don’t swing across your chest!
Those are the basics. There are additional improvements that can be made, but most runners don’t need to get caught up in excessively tweaking their form.
Recent research has shown that 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.
If you want to improve your form, follow the first two tips above and just run consistently. Your body will naturally develop the skills necessary to become a more efficient runner.
Myth #2: Running Decreases Muscle Mass
This myth is unfortunately partially true – but for the majority of people, there’s no need to worry. If you’re particularly bulky/curvy and don’t practice any aerobic exercises such as swimming, cycling, etc.”, then running can slim you down.
However when people say “running makes you skinny,” they’re referring to the myth that your body after running out of glycogen stores turns to muscle for fuel. However, to get to that level of catabolic activity; you’d need to combine a diet entirely void of protein with high mileage, high intensity running schedule. Like any extreme form of exercise, that combination would certainly reduce your overall muscle mass.
Now to address the elephant in the room; which is the image of an elite distance runner who weighs 120 pounds soaking wet. With thin legs and even thinner arms, how can I say that their running doesn’t make them “scrawny”? It’s quite simple: running doesn’t make them look that way, their genetics do. Elite runners are often natural ectomorphs with a slight build, a low body fat percentage, and a tendency of staying thin. This body type is one of the key factors that make them so fast.
At the end of the day; running will only reduce your muscle size if you stop lifting and start running a significant amount of miles. Most will find it rather easy to train for a road race without sacrificing their biceps. Plus, running is only going to help define those abs that many work so hard for.
Myth #3: Runners Are Weak
Well… Runners who only run are weak! Just like weight lifters who only spend time at the gym aren’t very fast.
A balanced 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 prone to injury.
Runners that avoid the weight room and skip their core work are bound to get injured. You can’t let your engine outpace your chassis. This refers to your metabolic or aerobic fitness (endurance) vs. your structural fitness (bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles).
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 do running! Most of us aren’t elite athletes and can’t spend 2-3 hours working out every day, but there’s a simple solution for the rest of us.
Before you run, do a thorough dynamic warm-up. It only takes 5-10 minutes and is critical to increasing blood flow and range of motion, developing your coordination, and helping you gain flexibility.
After your running, spend about 10-15 minutes doing a comprehensive core workout (that targets the obliques, lower back, glutes, and upper hamstring) 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 your structural fitness:
– Core exercises are great, 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 help keep you healthy. You can lift on any running day, but make sure to have one easy day per week for recovery where you run short and easy or take it completely off.
– 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 healthy and athletic. If you’re a runner who’s more likely to get injured, 5-10 extra minutes of strength work will go a long way in keeping you healthy, consistent, and faster.
Myth #4: Running Increases Inflammation and Chronic Stress
Many athletes, not to name them… CrossFit athletes… claim that distance running can increase “systemic inflammation” that compromises your immune system and promotes oxidative damage.
Even with competitive marathon training with high mileage and grueling workouts won’t push you to that level unless you’re dramatically over-training. 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, which is the balance to any workout. You can over-train in a myriad of ways: too much mileage too fast, too many reps in the weight room… or getting crazy 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 still too new and very unclear. Consider that:
– Oxidative stress is not clearly linked to aging or cell damage.
– Exercise protects you from the oxidative damage of pollution.
Therefore, it’s more complicated than “running causes inflammation and chronic stress.”; any exercise will (and should), but as long as it’s planned, you’ll be better for it.
Plus, some running – like a marathon – can be overly stressful. But these events are very rare, and recovery is the top goal as soon as they’re complete. So run your marathon! As long as you’re adequately trained, properly tapered, and recovered post-race then you don’t need to worry about inflammation.
Myth #5: Running Doesn’t Promote Fat Loss
Many start running for fat loss, but they don’t run enough and overcompensate post-run for their post-workout snack/meal. Leaving many to believe that running increases your desire for sugar and carb-heavy snacks without burning a gram of fat. However, let’s look at any distance runner’s training plan to see if that’s true.
The most important workout for any distance runner is the long run, which helps increase endurance. One of the primary goals of the long run is to train the body to rely more on fat as fuel instead of glycogen (the sugar stored in muscles). Fat utilization becomes more efficient as you run longer and as your carb stores start to dwindle. An adavanced 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 numerous studies pointing 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 – they should both be essential parts of your overall training program. 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 doughnuts a day!
What’re Your Thoughts?
The current research and my close to 10 years as a runner 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 one type of exercise be the only form you practice, but running has a prominent 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.
Oh, and the next time you hear someone say, “Oh, runners only know how to run,” you’ll know better.
Ally Gonzales is the founder & editor-in-chief of RunningSoleGirl. Along with blogging she is also juggling attending college and majoring in Exercise and Sports Science with a Sports Management minor.