Running for fitness is a motto I fundamentally believe in. Running starts my day. A jog around the neighborhood is my time to shake the cobwebs off my mind, to get the kinks out of my muscles, to solve the problems in my universe. As my muscles warm to the chase and my heart begins to pump harder, I feel stronger physically and mentally. The sun rising, the cool air and the pear trees in blossom add to my euphoria. As I dash to my driveway, I feel successful, strong, and capable, all before 7am!
Many runners don’t want to run competitively, but begin by feeling a desire to be more physically fit. Perhaps they’ve just had a baby and want to lose a few pounds, or the rat-race at the office is creating a sagging midriff, or their doctor warns them that their cholesterol is too high.
As Owen Barder puts it, fitness is more than health. Health is freedom from injury or disease. Fitness.…is that they can expend energy efficiently.(1) The benefits of running for fitness are clear. Running improves your cardiovascular fitness. It increases the efficiency of your heart, lungs and arteries in delivering oxygen to the muscles. The muscles are the body’s “furnaces” where calories are burned. So the more oxygen delivered to the muscles, the more calories are burned, and the stronger and well-toned muscles become. This reduces the risk of injury to muscles and joints. Weight loss is a side effect of this process. The stress of running increases the strength of our bones, reducing the risk of bone diseases later in life. Runners report fewer back problems. Running also releases endorphins in the brain, reducing anxiety and stress and improving our mental outlook.(2) Metabolism increases, affecting all the body systems’ ability to function. Last but not least, running is the cheapest, easiest, best way to achieve overall fitness than any other exercise. Swimming, rowing and cross country skiing also show similar benefits, but they require special equipment and conditions not available year round to many people.
How often and how long should you run for fitness benefits? Experts recommend training at least 30 minutes a day 5-6 days a week. For general toning fitness, your heart rate should be over100 beats/min. To achieve aerobic or cardiovascular fitness, the heart should be working in the 125-145 beats/min range. If you are outside and do not have a heart rate monitor, use the “talk test”. Run fast enough to feel your heart beating, but you should still be able to carry on a conversation with a friend.
I began running in high school because my brothers were on the track team. Although difficult at first, I stuck with it and soon it became a favorite routine that has been a rhythm in my life for the past 3 decades. Anyone planning to run for fitness should do the following:
- Get your Gear—Running shoes are the only real requirement . Casual tennis shoes, hiking boots, and even cross trainers are not the best choice. Take some time at the shoe store and find good running shoes that fit right. A good shoe will be light and flexible, with a well-padded insole and heel support. Some runners favor shoes that are not built up at the heel because it helps them land more on the midsole of the foot, which reduces the shock to your joints.(3) Traction is also a good idea if you are running outside.
- Talk to the Doc—If you are over 45 for men and 50 for women or have never been active, a doctor’s checkup assures that you are healthy and free to run. Your life signs, blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol and blood sugar should be assessed.
- Choose your place and method of running. Level grass fields or dirt trails are better surfaces to run on than pavement or concrete. Some people prefer a treadmill at a gym or in the garage. It is safe, convenient and there are no worries about the weather. Ellipticals also provide aerobic training and toning benefits without the joint impact of running.
- Start gradually. Begin walking a distance, then jogging a distance for 30 minutes. Alternate, increasing the jogging gradually until you are jogging the whole 30 minutes. Run for time rather than distance. That way, your fitness goals will be realized.
- Stick with it. The first three weeks are the hardest, but just remember that it takes 3 weeks to form any new habit. Some people like to have a friend to run with. It creates that extra incentive to get out of bed when your friend is waiting on the front porch. Find the time of day best for you. Some folks like the break of day, and others prefer a break after work or to wind down at night. Exercise energizes me, so I chose morning. Know your own body rhythms and what will be most successful for you. “Running is the physical break between my work world and my evening that allows me to have personal time with my family and friends.” (Phil McCubbins) Reward yourself for sticking with it and soon running will be its own reward.
- Don’t run if you suffer injury or are ill. Take a rest day and do some yoga or other no-impact exercise. Swimming or machines like the elliptical or sidestepper are other no-impact exercises that can help an injured runner stay strong will healing.
A few reminders on running for fitness are:
- Go with a friend
- Use the talk test
- Count time instead of distance
- Stay hydrated. A drink of water is in order every 20 minutes.
- Strength training is important to include at least 3 times a week, especially for your core and upper body.
- Walk or jog a short distance to warm up. Stretch after your run when your muscles are warm to cool down.