This post is written by Jennifer Heidmann
First, a disclaimer. Though I am a doctor, I am not your doctor. I do not herein offer official medical advice. Read at your own risk. If you are new to running, or planning a great big new running feat, check in with your doctor first.
I have been thinking a lot lately about how to stay healthy while racking up the miles. Certainly, being a runner decreases the likelihood of developing the major diseases that plague our society.
The best medicine: diet and exercise.
And what better exercise than running? But being a regular runner also poses some health challenges.
How does one Avoid injury? Can you run a lot and get Beyond fatigue? And is it possible to Chase away illness when it threatens your training?
A) Avoid Injury
Some might say a runner who has never been injured is just not trying hard enough. Still, we all fantasize about having endless months and years of pain and injury-free running. As I age, I find this fantasy is, well, fantasy.
But there are some small but powerful practices that help keep me on the trail, road and track.
- Ice. If it hurts or even if you think it might start hurting, get out the ice pack. I keep one in my freezer and always carry one of those instant ice packs in my purse.
- Heat. After ice, heat is the next best thing. In fact, I often chase icing with a heating pad or a warm bath. I also recently discovered that those seat warmers in the car make excellent heating pads for the hamstrings and glutes!
- Stretching. There seems to be new advice on this every few years. Currently, stretching before running is out, but I believe stretching each day is key. I do a short session after a run, then a longer session later in the day, while watching TV or hanging out with my family (who by now consider this normal behavior).
- Foam Rollers. This is a love-hate relationship, me and my foam roller. It is a miracle though-it cured me of long standing IT band issues and it is painfully helpful with tight hamstrings.
- Massage. Mandatory. Go find a masseuse immediately, preferably one who knows athletes’ bodies. Massage schools are a great way to get an affordable massage. I credit massage with saving me from running-induced demise.
- Listen to your Body. This is not so important at age 16, starts to matter at 30, and after 40, do it or plan on several weeks per year on the injured list. If something hurts and not in that good sort of way, stop. A day or even a week off does not hurt your fitness, whereas a warning sign ignored can lead to things like the dreaded running in the pool with an aqua belt. Your body knows best, so tune in.
B) Beyond Fatigue
Long distance training, especially for a marathon or ultra, can be exhausting. Fatigue breeds injury, and can drain the joy from running. Being a little tired is normal, but constant fatigue is a red flag (see above re your body knows best).
- Good Sleep. This cannot be overemphasized. Have a routine to settle down your mind and body before bed. Go to bed and wake up near the same time very day. Take short naps whenever you can (20-30 minutes).
- Rest or Do Less. Some days you just need to not run, or to take an easy one instead of the killer workout you had planned.
- The Rest of Life. My work, like many people’s, is demanding. Family and friend time is important. Also gardening. Piano. Chores. Catching up on reading. Seeing the latest episode of Downton Abbey. If running is leaving you too tired to do the other stuff in life, maybe something needs to be modified in your training plan. Running should ultimately be an energizer. Sleep. Laze about. Take a day off. Run easy. It’ll make you faster in the long run!
C) Chase Away Illness
Everyone gets sick. Incidentally, FATIGUE is a big risk factor, as it likely means your immune system is not playing its A game. Besides adequate sleep, here are a few things that can reduce the chance of being sidelined by illness.
- Wash Your Hands. This is the single most powerful way to avoid getting sick. Also, avoid touching your face. I do not recommend obsessive behavior here, but remember that door knobs and other things people handle all day are full of germs. So, wash those hands. And throw a little hand sanitizer into your bag when going to races. Comes in handy after using the delightful porta potty.
- Run When Sick, or Not. Let your body be your guide. If you have a simple head cold, running an easy one or taking a walk may actually offer some sinus relief. If you have fever, body aches, or difficulty breathing, stay on the couch and sip tea (and see your doctor).
- Running Makes You Strong. Avoiding colds and other viruses is one thing, but more serious illness is something most of us will face in our lifetime. I believe running builds a good foundation for strength and endurance to face the challenges disease presents.
Health and running are like peas in a pod. Which brings me to nutrition. I am out of time and space today to attack that important topic, but the best advice I have ever heard on eating well comes from Michael Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” We’ll have more on that later!
By starting with the simple rules laid out above, you can Avoid injury, get Beyond fatigue, and Chase away illness when it threatens your training.
Happy and healthy trails!