The jury still seems to be out on whether running is really good for you, but I’m here to make the case that it is. With a well-balanced workout plan, running can provide tremendous health and emotional benefits for years (and years) to come.
Improve Cardio Health
Running is a fantastic way to improve your heart strength. As you run, your need for oxygen and blood flow increases, therefore making your heart pump harder and more frequently to supply the muscles with the energy they need to keep you moving. As you continue a running program, your heart, much like your other muscles, get stronger and more efficient. Also, running improves your immunity, which means less sick days.
Improve Muscle Tone
It’s a misconception among non-runners and beginners that running only works your legs and your heart. In reality, a proper running form engages a variety of muscles, helping you create tone and definition. Endurance running is great for achieving a lean look overall, but if you want to focus on different areas, you should try different workouts. Shorter intervals and sprint workouts can really help target more fast-twitch muscles, which are different from the slow-twitch muscles used in slow and steady long runs. Incorporating hill sprints will also target additional muscles you might otherwise miss. By its very nature, running also helps engage your core – how else would you stay upright? Pumping your arms triggers your back and shoulder muscles. So, focus on using everything you’ve got with every stride you take.
Lose Weight and Increase Bone Mass
Common sense tells you that in order to lose weight your calorie intake has to be less than your calories burned. If you naturally burn 2,000 calories per day, you have a lot more leeway than someone who only burns 1,200. Running is a powerhouse when it comes to calorie expenditure, even when walking the same distance.
“When you walk, you keep your legs mostly straight, and your center of gravity rides along fairly smoothly on top of your legs. In running, we actually jump from one foot to the other. Each jump raises our center of gravity when we take off, and lowers it when we land, since we bend the knee to absorb the shock. This continual rise and fall of our weight requires a tremendous amount of Newtonian force (fighting gravity) on both takeoff and landing,” says Runner’s World Editor Amby Burfoot.
It’s also worth mentioning that running, a weight bearing activity, is also great for increasing bone density, helping to decrease your risk of osteoporosis. As you run, your muscles pull on your bones to withstand the stress of the activity, thereby also making your bones stronger.
Improve Your Emotional Health
Being part of a social group may help decrease risk for depression. There is an enormous community centered on those who enjoy running. You may benefit from seeking out a run buddy, but even if you choose to run solo, you can be active socially with online and in-person running groups. Share your triumphs and tribulations with those who can relate.
Another positive aspect of running is the fund-raising sector. Train for and run in a community race that raises money for a cause you support. Running for a charitable event is a great way to feel a sense of worth and accomplishment. Plus, you may meet some new friends.
Running is also great for helping you sleep better at night, therefore giving you more energy during the day. It also increases endorphins, which are what prompts the runner’s high you may have heard of.
How to Prevent Injury
Running is an incredibly healthy sport, but as with all activities, there is always a risk for injury. Mitigate that risk with a few quick tips.
Follow a diet filled with lean protein and complex carbohydrates. Of course running is a great way to lose weight, but incorporating a healthy diet can also help get you to a manageable weight, reducing strain on your back, knees, hips and ankles.
Stay relaxed. While you run, try to focus on any tense areas, in your shoulders for example, and work on letting it go. Drop your shoulders, unclench your hands and relax your facial muscles.
Strengthen your running muscles. If you find you have achy knees, it may be an issue of hip strength. Try squeezing in a few sets of walking lunges, wall sits and planks into your non-running days. Increase foot stability and strength by spending some time barefoot and including some balance work. Also, try cross-training, like biking, which is a fantastic way to get stronger and faster.
Stretch and recover. What you do after and in between runs is just as important as your running and strength workouts. Warm up for a run with a fast walk, not by stretching cold muscles. You increase your risk for injury. Instead, save your static and dynamic stretching for after your run, when you’re warm and your muscles have loosened.
Also, use a foam roller – every day if you can – it will help you recover faster by getting at those really tight spots and reducing inflammation. Make no mistake; it will be painful – at first. But if you continue rolling every day, you’ll find the trouble areas will begin to melt a bit, and you will start to look forward to self-myofascial release.
If you feel a nagging pain, take time off from your workout. As always, prior to starting a new training program, check with your health care professional to make sure you are in good enough health.
So there you have it. If you have always wanted to try running, but have been afraid of the hype, fear not. Follow these tips for a healthy, happy running habit.