How to get better at running

Running is something that people usually either love or hate… But hate it or love it, there is something to be said for getting out of the house and feeling the wind on your face (not to mention the many health benefits and that runners high!). I’ve gone from HATING running to actually enjoying it almost every time, and I put that partly down to getting a lot better at it. It’s taken me about 5 years of running to actually look forward to my runs. Here are some bits of advice to help you improve too!

 

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The excitement is real

  • Ease yourself in to a new routine

Routine is very important when it comes to improving at anything and whilst in a moment of energised madness it could seem like a good idea to attempt a 10 mile run out of the blue, most of us would be put off by any programme that suggested that was a good idea. It is important to ease yourself into any new routine, and running is no different. Using different muscles can leave you with severe DOMS, and a new programme should allow for some recovery without leaving too long between runs. If you’re a beginner, it’s a good idea to start a programme such as a ‘couch to 5k’ or join your local running group for some motivation. Not every run you complete needs to be as fast and far as you can – leave room for enjoyment too, as 2 weeks of an intense plan before giving up is nowhere near as good as months of a slower plan that you actually enjoy.

Whatever plan you do, make sure it’s sustainable and feasible to fit into your everyday life, without allowing you to slack off and take it too easy. It should challenge you without you burning out. The key is to stay consistent week to week and then no matter how slow, improvement is still improvement.

 

  • Track your progress and set goals

As with anything, it is difficult to improve without keeping tabs on your current standard and setting goals within defined timeframes. Keeping track of runs and progress means you’re more likely to stick to your plan and be motivated for future runs, especially when you also measure how the runs made you feel.

 

  • …But don’t record every run

This is important to keep your love of the sport. Whilst it is often fun to have every analytic of your run, becoming obsessed with numbers can lead to disappointment. I used to only head out for runs if I knew I was going to smash it, which ironically led to avoiding running altogether for fear of ‘failure’. A bad run is better than no run, and a ‘bad’ run isn’t really a thing if you’re not tracking it! Enjoyment is as important as anything else when it comes to improvement.

 

  • Run FAST

Speed work is something often ignored by casual runners, because it is short-term painful and nowhere near as relaxing as a potter around the park on a Sunday morning. However, if you want to get faster, speed work is vital. In addition, mixing up your running routine is important to minimise plateaus, as your body has to work harder on every run. Speed work with active recovery also lowers recovery time, meaning that the more you do, the more you can do – it’s a positive cycle of improvement. Look up running intervals sessions and hill sprints. Some are possible to do on the treadmill (perfect for winter when it’s too miserable to go outside but you don’t want to take a day off) and others are better outside. Be strict – the point is that it pushes you as this is when you improve. Classes such as Barry’s or Best’s Bootcamps and 1 Rebel can help improve speed if you’re not sure where to start by yourself.

 

  • Stay consistent

Whilst not everything, a large part of improving your running is getting more time on your feet. After all, it’s hard to improve at something you rarely do! This means training consistently week after week, and doing as many of your planned sessions as possible. Depending on your goals, this can mean going out for a run everyday, or just doing a couple of longer runs a week. Set yourself a goal of running at least X miles/km per week to keep on track. Download Strava to keep track of your runs (and get route inspiration from others in your area). Consistency is key to improvement, and as you get better you can set yourself more and harder targets.

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Cross training is great for improving strength and reducing injury

  • Cross training

As with everything, it is possible to over-train when it comes to running. Everyone’s tolerance is different – I can’t run long distances 2 consecutive days without injuring myself! One of the best ways of improving running without over-training is to cross-train on non running days. Cross training is where you practise another kind of fitness training to complement your running, and is key to any running programme. Examples include cycling, weight-training, swimming etc. The advantages of cross training are many: it adds variety to training, which reduces chances of injury, prevents boredom and utilises muscles that aren’t used when running, building strength and stability.

The goal of cross training is to improve strength, cardiovascular fitness and/or speed up your recovery. The exercises you choose for your cross training should reflect these needs, and can vary over time. Getting the right balance of cross-training and running can be a challenge, and it’s important to remember that if you are training for a specific purpose, your training should be based around the runs, not the cross training. Too much or too little can lead to exhaustion and reduced progress with your running.

In general, you should complete 1-3 cross training sessions a week, including a lower intensity one, such as yoga or pilates if you are doing multiple sessions a week. Aim to strength train (lift weights) once a week to build muscle and strength.

Ultimately figure out what works for you, and don’t underestimate the power of recovery. Ensure your workouts are timed so you are still able to carry out your usual running routine (i.e. don’t do a heavy leg day before a sprint session). And enjoy them! Variety is the spice of life 🙂

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Whatever you do, just get out there and enjoy yourself!

What I’ve learned – uni vs fitness

Finally I’ve finished my three years studying biology at Bristol University! I get messages from people all the time asking for advice of how I balance uni and fitness, and I thought that (slightly ironically) there’s no better time to share how I balance uni and fitness than just after I’ve finished – after three years of learning to get it right.

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University is amazing – especially if you can find friends with similar interests

I understand when people say it’s hard to balance fitness, health and uni, and I get that it can be time consuming, but in all honesty, I think that if you can’t prioritise keeping healthy when you’re at university (or at least while you’re still young), when are you going to? For me I saw university as a good three years where I had a set routine, I didn’t have to worry about real life problems, and therefore it was actually the best time for me to focus on me.

 

I started university with quite a good baseline of fitness – I played squash competitively at school, but took a year out afterwards, so wasn’t very fit (comparatively) when I started university.

 

Year 1 – routine, routine, routine

Year 1 is when you want to start making good choices. If you’re on a budget (who isn’t), I would advise trying to get the best deal for the whole of your time at university – I got a 3 year contract with my university gym for three years for £550. The big one off payment is so worth it if you’re serious about your fitness! But definitely have a look around – the uni gym might not be the cheapest in your city. Make sure you get the best deal in the long run.

Being in a new place with new people is tough, but I really would recommend setting aside an hour 4-5 days a week to head to the gym – at this point routine is everything. It’ll also help you settle into your new life, as sometimes everything can seem a bit up in the air when you’re starting something new. This is the time when you’ll have the least work to do and the least pressure to do well, so make the most of it! Joining sports clubs at this time is also a great idea – it’ll help you meet new people, you might find a new sport you love and it’ll stop you getting bored of the gym.

In my first year I did two athletics sessions (one long run, one track session) and three gym sessions a week. I also met some of my closest friends at this time, so even if you’re a gym bunny, it can’t hurt joining cheerleading, boxing or netball even just for a term 🙂

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Achieving balance in second year – wearing sports kit on a night out

Year 2 – achieving balance

Things start to get academically serious in year 2. You’ve met most of your uni friends, got yourself into a routine and found a sport you enjoy. In my second year I continued running cross-country and track, but became more flexible with my sessions as I started to gym more. As work started to increase (I had 25h of lectures and practicals a week in my first term), I made sure to push myself to gym. For me, once I was on campus it was a lot easier to go to the gym, so I tried to work 10am-5pm every day and then head to the gym. If you make it a routine it’ll be easy. In my second year my old school friend came to Bristol on placement and we started to gym together, which was perfect because it forced me to head to the gym even if I wasn’t feeling it.

In terms of eating, I was much better in second year than first year, making my own food far more often and going out less. Remember if you’re going out: alcohol does contain calories, lots of sugar, and might make a 2am kebab/burger/whatever seem like a good idea (in my experience it rarely is). If you know you’re likely to have food after a night out, remember to budget for it – having a smaller lunch is ideal, as you don’t want to skimp out on dinner if you’re drinking. Again, planning is everything – eating after a night out is ok, but either plan by reducing your daytime meals, or make sure you have something healthy and carry waiting for you when you get back, like a bowl of oats instead of something fatty. And if you don’t eat it, you can just have it for breakfast!

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Veggie lasagne – perfect to make over the weekend for deadline week stresses

Year 3 – continuing the habit

Although work was a lot harder in my third year, the content was less diverse and there were fewer hours of lectures, allowing me to structure my day as I liked. I’m much better when left to my own devices but I know some people can find routine difficult without structure. I always worked 9/10-5 and then gymmed, since that was the routine I was used to. My housemate used to work until 10pm and then gym, but if you need 10h sleep like I do, it’s no use gymming late – the exercise will keep you up later. If you need to work late, either gym in the morning or gym before dinner and then head back to work afterwards.

My eating over the last year has been mostly good. I have proats or 2 eggs on wholemeal homemade bread most mornings, a protein shake or coffee at around 11, and try to make lunch (although realistically I am terrible and always buy a salad with some protein). I usually have to have something sweet mid afternoon before the gym and either go for a protein smoothie or 3 chocolate topped rice cakes (those Metcalf dark chocolate ones are the bomb). Dinner varies a little bit – either an omelette and veg, a stir fry with quorn or white fish or pan fried salmon and mixed vegetables (roasted or stir fried). All my dinners are very quick to make – after going to the gym at 5pm, I want to eat as soon as I’m home, so aside from roast vegetables nothing takes longer than 15 minutes!

Having some meals you know are simple to make but super good for you is the key to eating healthily when you’re exhausted from a long day at uni. If I know I’m going to be too busy to cook, I’ll make a veggie lasagne over the weekend and store it so I can literally just heat it up and have it with an egg when needed!

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Healthy snacking – easy if you plan! Try these post-workout energy bars

The busier you get over your time at university, the more you need habits and planning. Realistically, you’re not going to be able to do everything you want to do to keep healthy, but setting up a good routine in your first year and then planning your food week by week (I don’t necessarily mean meal planning, but having a rough idea) will keep you on the straight and narrow.

I definitely think having friends who are also into health and fitness has helped me throughout my time here – not only for heading to the gym, but also having healthy food in the fridge and not being grilled (no pun intended) about why I am eating fish and vegetables instead of a bacon sarnie. It can be really isolating being healthy if your friends don’t understand. Surround yourself with people who support you and encourage you and university can be an amazing time, without getting in the way of your fitness goals.

 

Most of all, university is supposed to be one of the best times of your life. Enjoy it!

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