In my 20 years of working with runners, there are some questions that crop up time and time again.
These are undoubtedly the five most commonly asked questions, especially by beginners. However, as the years have gone by, my answers have changed in line with research and advances in sports science. Here’s the current thinking:
Where to start? This is probably the number one question I get — and the hardest to answer. Knee pain in runners is common; a review paper in the BMJ in 2007 actually found that rel="noopener noreferrer" the knee is THE most common site of injury in runners, but hugely varied in presentation and cause.
However, unless you have had a fall or acute injury to the knee itself, “vague” knee pain is usually a symptom of overdoing mileage, the wrong shoes, or some sort of imbalance, tightness or weakness elsewhere.
Beginner runners are especially vulnerable due to a lack of general conditioning and muscle strength.
But don’t panic if you’re a new runner and have developed knee pain — it’s unlikely to be arthritis; a study in 2014 actually found that running may actually help prevent osteoarthritis caused by “pounding” the pavement.
You also do not need a referral to an orthopedic surgeon or to spend a great deal of money on orthotics.
More often than not, most cases of “knee pain” in runners can be easily addressed with a combination of Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation; corrective exercises (usually for the glutes, abductors and hip rotators); the right shoe choice; soft tissue release of the quads and hip flexors through massage and foam rolling (ideally every day); and a bit of patience.
In the future, be careful with how, and try to include pilates and some strength and conditioning exercises to supplement your running. The use of kinesiology tape may help too.
There’s no simple answer to this one either.
What you eat before a run depends on many things — the time of day, your food preferences, the distance and intensity of your run, your weight management strategy, and your personal physiology.
The timing and volume of what you eat needs to vary depending on how far you plan to run and your personal response to feeding.
If, for example, you plan to run for 2-3 hours at 7 a.m., you will need to fuel with a carb-rich meal the night before and then top up with some of the foods listed above around 2 hours before your run.
A short evening run might only require a mid-afternoon snack (a yogurt and banana, for example) 90 minutes beforehand and then your normal dinner afterwards.
My advice to runners has always been to keep it fairly simple; do not overeat carbohydrate in general, and try to time food intake accordingly.
Like all things in running, research findings are constantly changing the goal-posts. Whilst not exactly new, the concept of “train low, race high” is popular in some running circles.
The theory being that exercising in a glycogen-depleted state will stimulate an improved training adaption and ability to burn fat. The research is far from conclusive, but if you want to try it, keep the intensity low and duration short; only restrict carbohydrate before and during the run itself, eating normally the rest of the day.
The bottom line?
Experiment and find meals and snacks that work for you — both in terms of practicality, but also in your gastric response, energy levels for exercise and recovery.
My simple rule of thumb? Never train “stuffed” or “starving.” Keep things simple and eat what you enjoy!
Again, this is another grey area!
How often you run will depend on your exercise background, “running age” (how long you have been running for), your chronological age, history of injuries, ability to recover and lifestyle.
I have known fit dog walkers who take up running in their 50s quite easily manage 4-5 runs per week without any problems.
On the other hand, sedentary office workers who are overweight and have no background in fitness may need to restrict their runs to twice a week to begin with.
However, for the vast majority of competitive recreational runners (even marathon runners) who also have busy lives, families and jobs, I recommend building up to running no more than 4 (maybe 5) times per week as a maximum.
It is important to supplement these runs with cross training, strength work and pilates. You will still be exercising 6-7 times per week, but the variation of training will reduce risk of injury and maintain more consistency.
For complete beginners, I recommend no more than twice per week to start with (supplemented with brisk walking and cross training), building up to 3 times per week.
Start gradually and “test” out your tolerance. Run twice a week to begin with. After two months and no injuries, then increase to three times per week and see how you go.
Keep monitoring your body for niggles and injuries and drop back accordingly. As you get fitter, you will find you can run more frequently. But start gradually and build up slowly!
Improved “recovery” — not necessarily performance — is a great indicator of improving fitness. The faster you recover between sessions, the fitter you are becoming. Mix it up with cycling, swimming and strength work for better consistency and keep running in balance.
When you first start running, you will see rapid improvement; the personal records will come thick and fast.
However, most people hit a plateau after a little while, and the question of “How do I get faster?” inevitably crops up.
It is at this stage that frustrated runners do one of three things (1) run more miles (2) race more often or (3) do loads of speedwork…or all three! Which usually ends in disaster.
Getting “faster” isn’t an exact science (is there ever?), and there are a number of factors to consider. Training harder and faster isn’t actually one of them!
Having a good aerobic baseline is critical, but too many runners — thinking it’ll make them quicker — run too fast all the time, leading to burnout and frequent injury.
It may sound weird, but to run faster, you might actually have to slow down — at least for a while.
Aim to run around 80% of your mileage at a slower pace (especially your long runs) — where you can chat easily and you’re not out of breath — and the remaining 20% doing some harder workouts.
Spend 2-3 months building this easy base; the speedwork can come after that.
Consistency is the golden rule and will lead to more solid results in the long term.
What I mean by “consistency” is staying injury free, recovering well from workouts and progressive regular training, rather than peaks and troughs of hard training/time off with injury or fatigue.
I’m also a firm believer in mixing things up with cycling, rowing, swimming and strength work; which will feed into the consistency “theory.” It’s always better to do slightly less running but stay healthy, well and injury free, than break yourself and have to take time off.
This is the one, right? Speedwork will make you faster. Well, yes, to a certain extent it will, but only as part of the overall “running jigsaw puzzle.” Check out our post on 3 ways to sneak speed into your training plan.
Consistency, recovery, injury prevention, overall mileage and speedwork are all in the “pot,” and you need to work out your own personal recipe.
Speedwork can be great, but treat it with a touch of caution. Start with a speed workout every 10-14 days and monitor fatigue and pain closely. You could try one of these workouts.
Runners by nature aren’t patient. We want results and we want them now! But running is a lifelong activity, and it’s not always about speed and how fast you can run. Learn to be patient and allow the results to come to you instead of chasing them too hard.
Stitches are a common problem — not normally medically serious, but annoying and painful.
A classic stitch is a sharp stabbing pain or ache in your stomach just below your ribs. It’s usually on one side (normally the right) and often accompanied by a pain in your shoulder.
Some runners seem more prone to them than others, and it’s often beginners who seem to suffer the most.
“Unfortunately, no one really knows what causes a stitch,” explains Dr Mark Wotherspoon, Sports and Exercise Medicine Consultant at Perform Southampton in the UK. He said, “It’s likely to be some sort of spasm or cramp of the diaphragm, a feature of not being fit enough or poor conditioning, since stitches usually affect beginners or runners increasing intensity or load too quickly.”
If you do suffer from stitches, you need to try and identify what causes them and then find ways to prevent them. This is often not an easy task, as stitches often come on without warning, and it’s hard to link them with anything specific.
However, there is a general consensus that beginner runners seem to suffer the most, indicating that stitches are possibly linked to fitness.
In addition, runners pushing the pace or gearing up for speedwork are often struck down with a stitch. It’s likely that as you get fitter, you’ll be less likely to get a stitch.
In terms of getting rid of it, there are lots of theories: massaging the site of pain, pushing your fingers into your belly or deep breathing. However, I’ve developed a breathing technique that seems to work 9 times out 10. Next time you get a stitch, give it a try:
It might not be a pretty technique, but it seems to work 90% of the time!
*One final note on stitches. If you have ongoing abdominal or chest pain that’s not going away, do get checked out by your doctor, as it may not be a stitch and may be more medically serious.
Hopefully, these tips have been helpful to you, particularly if you are just starting out as a runner.