If you had told me, when I was a gymnast full-time, that I would later on become a runner and run a half-marathon, I would've said, "Uhh, no way! I'm going to the Olympics like Dominique Muceano."
Well, interestingly enough...last year I ran my first ever half marathon at the Diva's Half Marathon and 5k in October AND I killed it (with a sprained ankle...oops)! I couldn't even believe it.
I still can't believe it...but, it happened.
Growing up as a gymnast, long distance running wasn't even a thought in my mind. Just doing sprints on the vault runway four days a week and occasional jog outside in the summer was enough running for me to get through a lifetime (or so I thought). It wasn't even a thought in my mind until I reached high school and tried out for the varsity track team, and that was only in the interest that my best friend and I wanted to try something new. That was the beginning of my running journey.
My coach knew I was a gymnast, so he at least kept me with what I knew and did well - sprinting. Aside from the fact he also made tiny, 4'11" me do pole vaulting (which I LOVED), the most I ever ran was a mile and even that wasn't very easy at first. Throughout my first season on the track team, I began to enjoy the running part - because I liked the new challenge. What I learned super early on was that running is a pretty tough gig, and definitely needs a lot of focus and attention in order to build up your game. I proceeded to take a Jogging and Fitness class my first year in college, for a physical activity credit, which taught me that becoming a runner doesn't have to be hard, either.
Here's where it gets juicy.
Aside from target heart rates and resting heart rates and calculating your max. and min. heart rate zones (it's so particular), running is definitely a practice and is certainly not for everyone. At the time I suffered from a deviated septum (whole other story), so the biggest part I had trouble with was my breathing. The most important part of a running practice is your breath. The best technique I ever learned from my jogging and fitness class had to do with breathing - it's a non-negotiable in my book.
But, that's not all.
WHAT I'VE LEARNED: My Top 10 Tips for a Stronger Run
Tip #1: Controlling your breath is essential to a runner's success.
There are many ways to go about this technique, but the most important is that you always, always breathe in through the nose and exhale out the mouth, allowing the ribs to fully expand and contract. I've found that counting your inhales and exhales through steps works best - whether its an even ratio of 3:3 (steps per breath) or slightly uneven with a ratio of 3:2 (starting at a 2:2 or 2:1 ratio is great for beginners - it's how I started). Basically, this means you breathe in for 2 or 3 steps and breathe out for 2 or 3 steps. Whichever works best for YOU, you'd want to make sure the inhale is equal or more than your exhales. Personally, I like to keep my breaths even so I'm getting the same amount of oxygen into my body and releasing an equal amount of carbon dioxide from my body. This is because your inhale promotes better oxygen flow to circulate the blood throughout your body for optimal performance in the muscles that are working while you're running. These basic techniques not only keep you from gasping for breath, they also help control your heart rate throughout your run without feeling like your heart is going to blow out of your chest (let's be honest, some of us have been there). When I first learned these techniques, I couldn't even believe what a difference it made in my running! Play around with the numbers and find what works for you.
Tip #2: Your posture and form means more than you realize.
A significant player in the consistency of your breath and your entire run is posture. When I first started running I had so much trouble breathing, not just from my nose issue, because I kept losing a lot of brownie points from my form. I would stay hunched over my toes, my shoulders would slowly turn in toward my chest and rise upward towards my ears causing me to have shorter, shallow breaths, my hands would stay clenched and arms stiff - I'd find myself losing control and having to stop or slow down big time to get my heart rate back to a normal pace (so not fun at all). May I remind you, I was a sprinter - all of this stuff was totally new to me. The problem with all of this is that once you let the shoulders come up and forward, and you stop using your arms, you're actually cutting off blood flow to your brain and the rest of your body by putting pressure on the blood vessels in the neck and in the hands, at the same time crushing the lungs by forcing the ribs in and closing off space for them to expand, not allowing air to come in. Let me tell you, once I started forcing my shoulders back and down and keeping my mid-body upright and loosening my grip, I immediately increased my capacity to run longer! Challenge yourself to keep your body upright and relaxed as you run and you'll feel the difference - I promise.
Tip #3: Go at your own pace and don't worry about speed.
Due to my competitive background, I always had the need to do things with everything I had right at the start. Once I started running, this habit was very short lived. Just because I was an athlete, didn't mean I could run a mile in less than 8 minutes on my first try. I learned super quick that wasn't the way to go (and the hard way). Don't get ahead of yourself and try to finish faster because others can. Going at your own pace is super important to your personal success as a runner, not just in miles, but also in your progress. If you're a beginner, starting with an 8-10 minute mile might send you running (or walking) for the hills in fear or make you never want to run again. If you're struggling to keep up with your running practice and keep falling off but wish you could stay on track because you really do love to run, this might be your problem, as well. Give yourself the time and space to run consistently in a time frame and at a distance that works best for you. I can't stress this enough! When I first realized this, I went back to the drawing board, grabbed a friend, went back down to running a mile at a good pace and slowly built on that by adding 1 lap at a time. I didn't worry about how fast or slow I was running, or how fast or slow the process of building up my stamina for running was taking me, I simply only focused on going at my own pace. This lead me to where I am now in my running practice - able to complete a half marathon and run, on my own, a minimum of 3 miles at a time. Stay focused, and you'll get to your running goal in no time!
Tip #4: Protect your body with a good pair of running sneakers.
This is a new one I learned last year when training for the half marathon. Keep your Nike's, or any other stylish sneaks you love, BUT get yourself a pair of running shoes that are strictly for running and give you the best support. Without my Brooks, I seriously don't think I would've gotten through my training or the actual run on race day (regardless of the fact that I sprained my ankle about 3 weeks into my training). The best thing I did for myself was find a local running shoe store and asked for help finding a good running shoe. Sure, Nike's are awesome and look great and I love them too, but they weren't ideal for me during certain runs, especially when training for a half-marathon - something was always missing. Check out these common myths about running shoes. Keep in mind, a local runner's store gives you a quality experience to finding a shoe that helps you optimize your running performance, but don't forget about bio-individuality and choosing which shoe works best for you. This can be an ongoing and changing process, but you might discover another brand that you wouldn't expect works for you better than the best looking pair of nike's, depending on the type of run you're choosing to do. By the way, I still wear my Nike's, just not for distance ;).
Tip #5: Cross-training offers diversity and builds endurance and stamina.
Whether it's interval training, resistance training, yoga, CrossFit, etc., cross-training provides balance in your body to optimize your overall performance. This helped me tremendously when building up my running muscle and is something I continue to use on a regular basis. Give your body some balance by adding in some cross-training techniques and you will see major progress in your running.
Tip #6: Always stretch before and after you run.
Ok. We all hate it, forget about it, whatever the case may be - we simply don't do it enough. I don't know about you, but when I run my hips and outer leg muscles get SUPER, ridiculously tight! The stretching techniques I use are: dynamic stretching (before), foam rolling (before or after), static stretching (after). Regardless of which stretching technique you choose, as long as it works best for you and you're doing it at all, is all I care about! Runners in particular can get very tight in the hip flexors, hip extensors (especially behind the glutes), and the IT band that lays on the outside of the thighs. Stretching helps the muscles repair and function better by releasing tension and strain on surrounding joints, and also helps prevent injuries.
Tip #7: Listening to music can keep you focused and motivated.
Lately, I've been seeing more and more people exploring this too. Not only do I love listening to good music while I run, without it, I wouldn't be able to stay focused or motivated during my runs. You might think music is a distraction, but it can also be a good distraction and also has some pretty cool benefits, like adding some extra oomph to your running game! It's especially important to find the music that speaks to you and lifts you up. Just for the hell of it, my favorite station to listen to when I run is Kygo on Pandora or Spotify. Check out these 7 Reasons You Should Listen to Music When You Work Out, by the Huffington Post.
Tip #8: Getting a running partner can add value to your focus and progress when starting out or even pushing towards a new goal.
I mentioned earlier that when I realized I was going too fast too quick I grabbed a buddy to restart my running process - one of my best decisions. Especially when you're just starting out, having a partner to run with not only helps keep you sane, it gives you the opportunity to push yourself and up your game. My friend and I would take turns lifting each other up and encouraging each other to keep up with the pace or even goals we wanted to reach. It's a great way to stay accountable and add value to your running practice.
Tip #9: Fuel is function.
There is so much information out there about what runners should or shouldn't eat before or after a run. So, how do you get past all the contradicting, confusing, head-aching info? Two things: eat real, whole, nutrient-rich foods and do what works best for you. Yes. It's that simple. Don't worry about getting yourself wrapped up in the never ending changes in what to eat or what not to eat, because frankly, it's only going to stress you out even more and mess up your flow. As far as the nutrition goes, that is your own unique process and you will figure it out as you go. As long as you replenish your nutrients, you can't really go wrong. What I can definitely say is an absolute must-have is hydration. Drink plenty of H2O, plus other hydrating drinks like coconut water. Bottom line: keep your body hydrated.
Tip #10: Start shifting your mindset and set an intention.
Running is pretty tough - I thought gymnastics was hard, well, I was in for a rude awakening thinking I'd be a runner in no time. It took me YEARS of building up my running muscles to finally run 3 miles at a minimum and then to register for a half marathon. The best possible way to keep your run game strong is to set an intention each time your prep yourself for a run. Whether your intention is to make it through a mile or stay at a consistent pace throughout your run, no matter what it is, as long as it supports you, intentions are a powerful tool you can use to create positivity and motivation for becoming a runner (or an even better one).
Stay on the look-out, I'm planning to create something awesome, FOR FREE and for you if you're planning to run your first ever half marathon!
Here's to becoming a [better] runner! <3