Last week I talked about the great feeling I get from running. It helps me clear my head and I've developed a slight addiction to the adrenaline. But running doesn't just happen. The time in between in between is just as important if not more to sustain running five or more miles a day for three days in a row, or to run for three hours at a time.
If you're just getting into running, you'll probably experience some intense soreness in your legs after your first big run. That's the healing and the strength building process getting started. Time will eventually heal your battered quadriceps, but you can help them along with the proper diet. Protein sports drinks taken within 30 minutes of your workout give an immediate boost to the healing process and help you recover more quickly. Taking in the proper nutrition can help you build muscle faster, give you more energy for your runs and in general, and help you recover more quickly. Former NFL tight-end Tony Gonzalez wrote an excellent book about this called The All-Pro Diet, which I highly recommend.
Aside from replacing the donuts and bacon with bagels and salmon, your muscles need attention while they are resting, both before and after a run. My favorite example of an activity I consistently lose track of is stretching. How many times have you been told how important stretching is? Yeah, me too. From junior high gym class to those coaches on The Biggest Loser, don't forget to stretch. The types of stretches you do are up for debate, and not all stretches are equal.
Stretching can be lumped into two categories, static and active. Static stretches are the ones you probably learned in gym class, like grabbing your foot behind your back to stretch your quads or leaning forward against a wall to loosen up your calfs. Recent studies have tested the effects of these types of stretches, and their effectiveness has mixed results, leaning toward not very. Getting your muscles warmed up is the better way to prevent injuries. This is where active stretches come in. They are movements like high-knees or butt-kickers. Simple, repetitive movements that get those core muscles warmed up. Personally, I like to start with active stretches, then incorporate a few static stretches before I run. Nothing so forceful it hurts, but just enough to start engaging those muscles.
After a run I do a few static stretches, simply because I can feel my muscles beginning to tighten, especially after a long run, and some basic stretching helps to keep them from cramping. There are some simple active stretches that also help, like pelvic rotations and even just walking. I also have a rolling stick that has become one of my favorite tools. These are inexpensive and are a great travel alternative to a foam roller, though not as intense. These help to promote blood flow through the muscles and reduce delayed onset muscle soreness. In short, they get you back on the trails quicker and make the time in between much less painful.
So, in between runs we're now eating better and stretching before and after, but what about the rest of the time? It is important to give your body time to recover, so don't feel guilty about taking time off, though sometimes it's hard not to. I sometimes feel the guilt creeping in, especially if my body doesn't feel sore and my training plan calls for a rest day. These are important in order to let your legs heal, so don't toss them away, but sitting on the couch or in front of a computer for 12 straight hours won't be doing you any favors either. I'll admit, I'm not great at remembering to do this all the time, but stretch. There are a number of simple stretches you can at your desk or in front of your TV to keep your muscles from tightening up. Also, walk. My rest days are there for a reason, to rest, but I still like to get out for a leisurely stroll on those days to keep my blood flowing and to keep my legs loose. I have a 1.5 mile flat course around my neighborhood that is perfect for a little pick-me-up. Thanks to a great tip from my colleague, James, I've even starting adding a little yoga for runners into my down time.
It's easy to lose track of these important parts of your routine once you've been doing them for a while and they are working. I have fallen victim to complacency syndrome more than once. When my legs stopped being sore after runs, I forgot that I still needed to stretch and stay loose. That's WHY they were not sore!
As the races get longer and more frequent, running becomes a part of your life in multiple ways. For some, it is a complete lifestyle, and I'm starting to understand that. The hours that go into marathon training far exceed the time spent in running shoes. Countless Friday nights are spent at home shoveling pasta into my face instead of going out and having a beer, so I can get up early on Saturday to run 19 miles in sub-freezing temperatures. Running three days during the work week takes the place of home repairs or other hobbies. Ultimately, though, it makes me feel good and I love it.