Endurance nation. That's the title of a recent Sports Illustrated article discussing America's second running boom, which has been inspired to a large extent by Christopher McDougall's Born to Run (aided by the preponderance of races available to browse and enter online). And the timing of the SI article couldn't be more fitting, as today is National Running Day. We don't know when this commemorative date originated, but here it is, sprung seemingly out of nowhere. And it's about time!
It used to be that running and other endurance events were for an exclusive group of elite athletes, the prevailing notion being that if you couldn't run a marathon in under 3 or 3 1/2 hours, you had no business signing up. That mindset has changed, and it's reflected in the number of U.S. road-race participants, which has tripled since 1990, hitting nearly 14 million finishers in 2011 alone. And endurance racing is no longer the male-driven, testosterone-fueled endeavor it may once have been. In fact, race fields have gone down from 75% male to 55% female, meaning these days women make up the majority. Does this mean that the fairer sex is now the fitter as well?
Today, the prevailing mindset in endurance racing is this: everyone's invited, and the goal is as much to have fun as it is to get fit. The focus is now less on competing (placing in the top 3) and more on completing the event, and maybe picking up a little mud or spray paint and definitely some laughs and cheers along with the blood, sweat and tears.
That being said, competition is the spark that ignites the fire in many people, arm chair warriors just as much as former and current athletes, and a little competition can be healthy, especially if the rival is you. If you compete against (we prefer the pronoun with) yourself (say, to achieve a personal best) there is the added benefit that there are no losers. Everyone wins! And that's a motto we stand (and run) by.
And consider the three major endurance events - running, multisport (triathlon), and obstacle races - that have experienced huge booms. What do these three events have in common, other than being fun and an exhilarating adventure to complete? They all involve running, and lots of it. Even shorter distance triathlons - the sprint distance, for example - finish up with a 5K run, and obstacle courses like the Spartan litter tests of strength and agility over courses that span 8 or 10 miles, sometimes more!
Making running a regular part of your life and a cornerstone of your fitness routine can help you meet many goals, not just come race day, but also your ideal weight and other measures of health. And bringing ourselves back to McDougall's book, age groupers and masters participants will love to note that though many athletes achieve their running peak in their mid to late 20s (which coincides with the peaks seen in the major sports, basketball, baseball, and football), runners in their sixties are just as fast as many runners in their late teens, proving that running may be the fountain of youth, or that running is so natural to our evolution that we can do it with enjoyment and efficiency well into our golden years.
So here are a few running workouts you'll want to make a mainstay in your fitness regimen.
1. Fun Run
The most important type of run is the one where you step outside and just enjoy moving your body, being in nature, breathing deeply, feeling the wind whoosh around your skin. This is the run that should be the focal point.
After you've run for a while and are considering signing up for an event, set a target pace based upon your fun runs and run that pace, whether it's 5, 6, 7 miles per hour or faster, over a distance half as long as the race you plan to complete. If your goal is a 5K, run at your target 5K pace for 1.5 miles, or 6 times around a track.
These are many fancy ways of saying this: do the same thing several times over, as fast as you can. Visit your local track and run 400 meters (once around), then walk/jog the same distance, and repeat 3 to 5 times. These intervals or repeats may be thrown into the middle of a fun run, by sprinting to the distance of, say, the next stop sign, in which case they are called fartleks (Swedish for "speed play"). One of our favorite ways of throwing repeats into the mix is by visiting our favorite hill and sprinting to the top. Vary the distance, from a distance which requires 3 or 4 minutes to cover, down to sprint distances of 10 seconds. Check your heart rate at the top and try to get as close to your maximum heart rate (220 - your age) as you can. Note that this value varies by runner. Even runners of the same age will have different maximum heart rates. For instance, our maximum heart rate is supposedly in the 170s range and we've hit as high as 180 on some sprints.
4. Long Run/Recovery
Running gurus recommend including a longer run once a week, preferably on weekends, when you have more time, feel more relaxed, and will likely encounter less traffic. A target is 25% of weekly miles. So if you get up to running 20 miles a week, running 5 miles (25% of 20) doesn't seem like much. This yardstick applies more if you run 60 miles or more, in which case the long run will be 15+ miles. A simpler method of calculating the distance for your long run may be to use the distance you plan to cover on your target race, and exceed it by 10%. Half marathoners would therefore run a distance of 14 or 15 miles on their long runs. Remember that longer runs should be covered at speeds of 1-2 mph slower than your race pace, which helps to flush the metabolites from your muscles, helping you recover from yesterday's run as you grow stronger for tomorrow.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends five 30-minute cardio sessions per week, and even on the barest fitness schedule you can easily achieve this goal, which is equivalent to running 15 miles a week at a 10-minute-per-mile pace. (Note that recommendations also include 20 sets of strength training per week, our favorites being bodyweight exercises including pushups, squats, pull-ups, dips and burpees, and swimming provides enough resistance to double as both cardio and resistance if you find yourself pressed for time.)
Slowly build up to a base of 15 miles per week and practice all or some of the above workouts, tempo, speedplay, long and fun runs, and you'll be ready to tackle the event of your choice, be it a 5K run, a sprint triathlon, or a short obstacle course. Experienced fitness enthusiasts with races already under their belts may opt for events of longer distances, and here the sky is the limit, from Ironmen triathlons (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, 26.2 mile run) to ultramarathons whose distances range from 50k (31 miles) to 100 miles or more.
So get out there and celebrate the new holiday. And don't forget our other motto: