Updated: Sep 17
Running can be hard: hard to do at the time, hard to keep doing consistently. In this article we look at how to stay consistent, injury free and, I hope, to keep running fun and sustainable.
I used to hate the word ‘jogging’ but now I embrace it. As a 20 something little did I know about the science behind running and the profound benefits of 'easy' running with 'hard running'. How we trained then – Hard All The Time - delivered results, except for those that got injured. Now the majority of my running is easy effort running - more enjoyable, more sustainable and, well, more fun. With the bulk of my running at an easy pace, enjoying the scenery, I can go into my hard sessions refreshed and ready to work, to gain maximum effect.
It is, however, middle to hard effort runs - where one feels strain - that many people seek when they go for a run. After all, harder effort equals quality, so all runs should get you panting, right? No. Easy running is an essential factor for aerobic conditioning, building a broad foundation of fitness and to develop the skill of running. Hard runs have immense value and finding the correct balance is the key.
Even once I understood the science and learnt from the experience of others, it took me a long time to learn to run easy, to run slow. However, the benefits are immense and the running has been, well, enjoyable!
Please note that whilst I am a keen runner, I am not a running coach. If you have any concerns about your health or are under treatment, please talk to your doctor or medical practitioner most familiar with your medical history before implementing any changes in diet, exercise or lifestyle.
The 80/20 Principle: Finding Balance
The 80/20 running principle revolves around the idea that 80% of your running should be done at a low intensity (easy 'conversational' pace, Zone 2 heart rate), while the remaining 20% can be dedicated to high-intensity efforts. This approach prevents overexertion and reduces the risk of injury, which becomes increasingly important as we age. Easy-paced runs are not a waste of time, in fact, they are the opposite. Meanwhile, high-intensity runs, such as interval training, HIIT training or tempo runs (Zones 5 and 4) improve cardiovascular fitness and speed.
Easy Does It: Low-Intensity Runs
As middle-aged runners, the allure of pushing ourselves is strong. But it is essential to recognise the value of easy-paced, Zone 2, runs. These runs promote recovery, strengthen the aerobic system (jogging is great for the heart, vascular and mitochondrial health) and provide a mental break from the demands of daily life. Space and time to think, to enjoy the scenery, to prepare for the day ahead or to reset from the day just finished. Running at a conversational pace, where you can easily chat or even to sing, allows the body to adapt and build a strong foundation before diving into more challenging workouts. Easy-paced running is sustainable and health-promoting, and is an exercise you can enjoy for years to come.
Jogging at a slow, comfortable pace is great for physical and mental health. If you are new to running, just keep it easy!
Embrace the Challenge: High-Intensity Workouts
With easy-paced runs as a backbone of one’s running routine, high intensity workouts (Zone 4 or 5) - bring significant benefits. Interval or HIIT training (very hard effort, VO2 max) is where short bursts of intense effort are alternated with recovery periods to develop speed and power. Longer duration tempo runs, where you sustain a 'comfortably hard' pace (Zone 4) for an extended period (say 30 minutes to an hour), enhance cardiovascular fitness, improve running economy and boost your overall speed.
Both workouts, HIIT and tempo, have their own benefits. It is crucial to gradually introduce these workouts and listen to your body to avoid burnout or injury.
Top coach Joe Friel explains further:
The Role of Recovery: Listen to Your Body
In the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle through exercise, recovery must not be underestimated. As we age, recovery becomes even more vital than when we were in our 20s. Adequate sleep, proper nutrition and active recovery days between intense workouts are essential. Middle-aged bodies require more time to repair and bounce back, so prioritising self-care aids in preventing injuries and maintaining consistent progress.
If you are still feeling tired from the last run, take a day off or slow jog for half an hour, no more. Consider recovery as an active part of training.
Use a Whole Person Approach
Listen to your body's cues and provide it with the respect that it deserves. If you are trying to manage your weight, don’t limit your calories and potentially burnout. Support your active lifestyle with proper nutrition and hydration. Sleep is a vital part of the recovery process, and likely the exercise will help you to sleep better too. This is all part of a positive, cascading effect in health, when one or two areas of health improve others are likely to improve as well.
Balance your running with strength training, consider mobility work or even learning a new skill like tai chi. For long-term health it pays dividends to have a well rounded exercise and activity programme. Dance, cycle, swim, climb, play tennis, shoot arrows - they all count towards health!
I cannot stress the importance of tracking your exercise, diet and how you feel on a daily or weekly basis. This information can play a pivotal role in achieving long-term goals. Don't simply rely on your phone or app to track your exercise data, it is worthwhile to keep a health journal to track your progress.
Running should be fun. At times hard work but never a chore. It takes time to develop running as a skill. Most people, when they start or restart, run far too hard for their level of fitness especially during the first month. Walking, jogging and not “pushing-it” is by far the safest way to proceed and find out if there are any underlying problems caused by years of neglect.
For me running offers a therapeutic escape, 80% of the time. A time to reflect, release stress and to enjoy. The remaining 20% is just plain hard (or, very hard) and that in itself brings a sense of accomplishment and, dare I say it, fun!
Running, cardiovascular exercise, addresses one of the pillars of health. What else can you focus on to maximise your health and longevity?
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