It still does. They call AS the ‘young person’s arthritis’, and when I heard that, I hated it. I associated it with being limited, and I wanted to be unlimited. I’d travelled to Switzerland to compete for Australia, I’d won Australian and Oceania XC running titles, made the all time Australian fastest 5k and 10k list in 2018, and was on the podium at nordic ski races, I’d gathered the support of various sponsors and eventually made the move to the US to run in D1 NCAA. I really wanted to grab life by the horns.
AS affects 1-2% of Australians, that’s around 520,000 people, and is 3 times more common in men than women. (Empowered – Arthritis Australia, n.d.) 3.2 Million people in the US have AS. It’s most commonly diagnosed between 15-40, however 80% of patients will experience symptoms before the age of 30. (Ankylosing Spondylitis : Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment, n.d.) On average it takes more than 3 years after symptom onset for the diagnosis to be made in a teenager or young adult. It’s a small percentage of the population, and my chances of having it were small, but I did. The reality is the emotional and physical impacts are immense, particularly if you’re yet to be diagnosed (this condition can be tricky to spot), or having trouble obtaining treatment (it’s a lengthy process, as without government or insurance support, the injections cost around 60k a year).
I’ve forever known myself to be a go-getter, and somewhat of a perfectionist. Being diagnosed with AS challenged parts of who I am immensely. It was both a physical and emotional thing. The constant pain lingering felt like a constant ‘hum’, that at times made me feel like I should just give up. Then it would suddenly disappear for a couple of days and I’d really get moving again. The unpredictability of the pain made me feel unstable, and I really struggled with that. I love planning and chipping away at something, but AS didn’t allow for that. I had to learn to find stability in the instability. It was a microcosm for living life in general.
I spent from around the time of diagnosis, October 2021 to September of this year in disbelief that I actually had the condition. It sounds stupid right, like, if multiple doctors are pretty convinced, you should definitely think so too. There was always the chance it wasn’t, and that my anxiety around having potentially ‘ruined’ myself in my early years and being a washed up junior athlete would become the truth. Early treatment wasn’t working, which didn’t give me any further hope. All I could do is what I’ve always done, keep persisting and doing what I can do. I just knew it wasn’t what I had the potential to do; I felt limited. I’d known something wasn’t quite right long before the diagnosis, but neither I nor any doctor could pinpoint it. It took 4 years to really find out and more recently to begin to make a turn for the better, to feel like I could be that high-level athlete again.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when things started. However, we are pretty sure it was late 2018 at 20 years old, when very atypical tendon pain and other inexplicable injuries started to ravage my training and performance. I’d only been running properly for 2 years, coming from a nordic skiing background, and I hadn’t explored high volume training yet. I felt like I ‘survived’ through 2019 with some success on the Boise State University XC and Track NCAA program, however, things were never quite right, and by the time I started to feel a bit better, COVID hit and the next 2 years were spent living in a grey sort of state with my sport. I was stuck in the US with strict COVID laws in Australia preventing me from returning, and needing to finish my Master’s. It wasn’t until I returned to Australia in 2021 that things calmed down and I was properly diagnosed.
There currently isn’t a cure, however there are medications which can improve quality of life drastically. I began fortnightly injections called ‘Biologics’, in September this year and they have changed the game for me. I didn’t trust that they would, but I have less and less days in pain, less flare ups, and my mental health and performance has improved as a result.
Sometimes I still let fear get the better of me and wonder if I’ll ever compete as I did before this condition crept its way into my life. I recognize that this isn’t a helpful way to think, and that I have to actively practice living in the now more than trying to predict the future. I do know, whatever the case, AS has taught me to persevere and get myself out of the weeds, no matter the challenge. I believe I can handle it. I will keep persisting and being resilient. Things tend to work out in some way or another, even if it’s hard to see when you’re caught in the weeds. Uncertainty, fear, anxiety – they are all easily magnified by the world around us. If we can learn to ride out the storms, ask for help, and simply do what we can do in these times…’chop wood, carry water’, it usually will work out.
It was in learning to deal with the realities of Ankylosing Spondylitis that I learnt how to handle disbelief and fear as an athlete. It honed my skills to find stability in instability.
“A person does not grow from the ground like a vine or a tree, one is not part of a plot of land. Mankind has legs so it can wander.”
2023 is either here for you, or right around the corner. Life will continue to be like a moody ocean. Some days will be calm and clear, you’ll be able to see what’s beneath you, and likely what’s ahead. Other days will be a storm, with persistent waves that feel like they’ll never settle. If you can ride out the occasional storm, and harness the restorative energy in the calm, you have found stability in instability. You’ll get better at getting yourself out of the weeds. You’ll be like a tennis ball, you can bounce back.
Recovery is the key to success. Many athletes can master training as such, especially over years and years, however, beneficial adaptions will not occur to their most optimal standard unless recovery is also understood and ‘mastered’ in a sense (to use that term loosely). It’s pretty simple when we get down to the nuts and bolts of it – sleep and nutrition are king, and outweigh things like foam rolling and active recovery in the long term.
Also, I don’t think I’ve said this before, but when I write these articles I am attempting to do so in a way that makes these topics comprehensible to anyone who decides to give them a read (thank you for being here!). I don’t intend on getting too deep into scientific concepts and the applicable research because I think it would miss the point for my audience reading this and the simplicities of practical application.
It is hard to say what will work best for each individual – to understand this takes testing the practical application of recovery methodologies on yourself. However, there are a few well-known ‘best’ recovery methods for runners derived from both research and, as I mentioned, practical application and positive response.
I wrote a post in mid-2021 on ‘how to have more energy for running’ (click here to read). I bring this up because this article has a lot of cross-over with this current one. Why?
The key is – you get stronger when you recover, not whilst you’re ‘doing’ the said activity. That’s when we apply stress and strain to the body. When we recover well, we adapt well. I really wish someone had explained this to me as a very young athlete with this type of simple wording. The typical athlete is very driven, and quite often it is not a matter of telling them to do more, but more so to train smarter not harder, and recover even better. Another important thing to note, is “stress is stress”. An athlete will hinder their recovery in an environment inducing stress overload. For example, if work is stressful, and the university is stressful, then there isn’t much room for training to be a large stressor too. This is where the balancing act begins.
How Can I Recover Faster From Running?
This is the golden question, and funnily enough the top ‘googled’ question around this topic. Everyone wants to recover faster so they can get back to it faster, right? The goal is to recover well enough to stress the body again (consistency), with the occurrence of adaptions targeted to optimal performance in the activity, and likely, an event/s. If we don’t recover we risk overtraining, which can lead to unfavorable adaptations, or a limit on adaption, illness, injury, etc. You want just enough stress to elicit a favorable response, consistently.
The good news is that there are a few tools that can optimize recovery and therefore elicit optimal performance benefits. However sometimes there’s no ‘magic’, it’s simply a matter of time to allow the body to adapt. This reigns true particularly if training has multiple stressors such as environmental stressors on top of load (heat, altitude, humidity – to name a few). I’ll explore that a bit more below.
Recovery Nutrition For Runners
We need to think of food as energy availability. The food you eat fuels the activity you do and the life you want to live. I like to remember that energy intake has to equal (and better for athletes) energy output. This will ensure not only optimal performance but adequate general health.
We don’t need to track food unless we have specific goals or are guided by a medical professional as that can pose its own issues. However, we need to always eat enough. Food is fuel and the building blocks of repair from our training load. It’s likely you’ve heard of RED-S by now – Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport, which will eventuate in adverse health and performance in athletes. RED-S occurs when energy expenditure is not being met adequately with energy intake over a sustained period of time. The adverse effects of underfuelling can impact both male and female athletes, however data trends highlight that, ‘1 in 3 female athletes has 2 or more symptoms of underfuelling’. From a data collection standpoint, it seems that women are more ‘prone’ to this issue, however, it can be easier to tell if a female is under-fuelling.
Well-timed and adequate food intake is a crucial component of recovery. Ideally, endurance athletes will intake a 3:1 ratio of CHO (carbohydrates) to protein within 30 minutes of exercise particularly over an hour in length. If your exercise duration is > 60 minutes, bring fuel with you. This could be gels, liquid nutrition, waffles, or a combo of a few. I personally like Tailwind, Spring Energy and Maurten. I avoid preservatives (sorbates, benzoates, MSG, nitrates, flavour enhancers) at all costs, and these nutrition brands are perfect in that sense. Look out for 200 and 600 numbers on ingredient labels (not including food acids etc.) if you’re trying to be wary of these artificial additives.
Long story short – find food that you enjoy eating, always eat enough, and find what works to fuel your training + life! Nutrition should be a fun part of recovery.
Sleep Recovery For Runners
Sleep is the only time the body fully recovers, so for the runner, (and anyone) sleep is going to be a key component of recovery. I could write a whole piece on this, and I will at some point, but here are the nuts and bolts of it… If you can’t get enough sleep in a night, try for a 20-minute power nap around lunchtime or mid-afternoon. This can elicit beneficial responses. Steve Magness, author and performance coach, recently posted about a NASA study. NASA found that just one, “twenty-five-minute nap improved judgment by 35 percent and vigilance by 16 percent.” The data is clear, short naps do work. Longer naps, not so much as that’s when our nighttime sleep can be negatively impacted. My personal favorite which I was introduced to by my good friend Bastein is to drink a coffee right before the 20-minute nap, and by the time you wake, the coffee will work. It’s a double whammy in that sense!
A properly planned training program
A well-structured training program is a plan, and a plan needs to be flexible. This allows for realistic changes due to life, needing extra recovery time, events, etc. Athletes should have a range of interests that aren’t just work and training, to maintain a healthy mental and physical state. Flexibility allows for this. It’s important to remember that mental fatigue can be a source of physical fatigue (stress is stress), so we must account for this.
Further, the training load needs to be balanced appropriately with recovery time, to ensure favorable training adaptions are made. This means the next time we do ‘said workout’ or activity, we are able to handle it better, push ourselves a little further, and likely elicit another positive training response.
Environmental Stressors Impacting Recovery for the Distance Runner
I decided to include a section on environmental stressors as external to the training load itself, environmental factors can impact our recovery and therefore need to be considered.
If an athlete lives in an environment of high altitude or intense heat, per se, this needs to be considered in the training program and predicting ‘total-training stress’ (TTS). Training Peaks track this (sans environmental stress) which can be useful to gain a rough understanding when tracked over a few training cycles of general fatigue. I won’t go into this too much, but you can check it out here.
I live at a moderate altitude, around 2350m – so it’s fitting for me to discuss altitude as environmental stress on physiological systems. You’ll hear of athletes adopting varied training protocols such as live-high train-low (LHTL) or live-high-train-high (LHTH) in an attempt to gain favorable adaptions for their specific events. ( Generally agreed as, High (8,000 – 12,000 feet [2,438 – 3,658 meters]), Very High (12,000 – 18,000 feet [3,658 – 5,487 meters]).
However, adaptions will vary depending on the type of exposure the athlete has. For example, are they chronically adapted (they have lived for an extended period of time at said altitude)? Do they expose themselves to altitude in acute episodes? A series of encounters consistently over time? Even then, the athlete’s response will likely be highly varied from individual to individual. There’s decreased oxygen availability and therefore higher cardiac output. Adaptions to better oxygenate tissue in the body include a higher hemoglobin (Hb) count. Increased Hb levels allow the body to better oxygenate working muscles. To explore this a little further, EPO (a hormone) production from the kidney in response to hypoxia will spike (peak) within 48hrs of exposure to elicit bone marrow-produced red blood cells (red bone marrow), to increase oxygen carrying capacity of blood in the body to the tissue. Red blood cells use Hb to transport oxygen around the body. Having a higher red blood cell count will boost Hb count. You’ll perform at a higher level the more efficiently your body can oxygenate tissue in response to the increased demands. Think of it like a repeating cycle in the body’s fight for better blood oxygen levels at altitude. Why am I discussing this in an article about recovery? Because this environmental factor, and the type of exposure, need to be considered when planning training load and recovery time. Stress is stress. Severe Hypoxia is a large stress on the system. Account for it with extra CHO (carbohydrate intake) and food intake in general, watch your fluid and electrolyte levels, and ensure you are putting up your feet enough!
Next, just make sure you’re fit. You can buy all the gadgets in the world, but fitness and overall health will win out in the end. If you will be racing at altitude and you don’t have the chance to train at a similar height often, follow an acclimation protocol. I won’t go into detail here as that is very individual and race-based.
What Drinks Help Sore Muscles?
I personally wouldn’t resort to ‘drinks’ as a sole aid in muscle recovery, however, there are a few which can assist in the recovery process. Before I briefly write about this, can we give a big shout-out to water first and foremost? Water is your friend! Extra bold this if you have heightened environmental stressors too.
Tart Cherry juice, such as my favourite, Cheribundi, aids in sleep and therefore can assist in recovery. This is due to the higher melatonin content in tart cherries. Magnesium powder such as this one by Natural Vitality has helped my sleep and inflammation, although I’m not a regular user. I prefer to get most of my nutrients from food (macro and micro!)
You’ve probably heard heat, in the training context, referred to as ‘the poor man’s altitude’. The context behind this is, altitude camps and taking the time off (generally from work, family duties, etc) is costly. There’s truth to the poor man’s altitude. You can use heat to train for altitude (cross-adaptation), and clearly, use heat to train for heat. To prepare properly for an environmental extreme such as heat, a protocol period of acclimation or acclimatization can be undertaken to elicit favorable adaptations. This is particularly important if you are going to:
Race in hot environments
Need to maintain heat adaptations over the winter for hotter races in warmer climates
Are racing at altitude but don’t have access to altitude training (cross-adaptation for runners)
The goal should be to expose yourself to the minimal dose of heat possible to elicit the most significant adaptation. This is because too much extra environmental stress can impact the most important thing of all – RECOVERY!
Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.
– Albert Einstein
If you need to introduce heat training, it’s important to identify which heat protocol will work best for you given your goals, finances, and lifestyle. Working with a professional and understanding this for yourself would be advised here. The most effective protocol for an individual with a high training load, as research indicates thus far, is a passive dry sauna after an exercise session.
Is heat training good for running? And does heat make running harder?
Yes, heat training is good for running, but only when done sensibly in a planned manner, with a goal in mind. Heat Training is especially important for athletes who will race in hot and/or humid conditions. When you exercise in a hot environment, the body will undergo a series of processes to thermoregulate, in order to maintain homeostasis. If our physiological systems fail to maintain homeostasis in a really hot environment, it can result in hyperthermia. The body has failed to compensate for the environment. This is the same with hypothermia in the cold.
You’ll notice on the first hot run of a season that you’ll probably sweat more, and your perceived exertion will be higher (elevated HR). The good news is, even without a specific heat training protocol, after roughly 10 days you’d likely notice that your resting and active HR have returned to normal. A few other adaptations you’ll notice if you pay attention are an earlier onset of sweating, how much you sweat (volume), and a lower core body temperature.
What about heat training strategies for both shorter and longer trail running events?
The goal of heat adaptation will differ from trail runners to track runners, given that trail running events are often longer. This makes pre-race cooling strategies, such as ice packs on the places where you lose the most heat (head, neck, wrists, underarms, groin, etc.) effective for shorter track events. For trail running, it is best to mitigate heat as much as possible, supporting the event with an appropriate prior heat training protocol. A few good examples of trail running events you’d want to heat train for would be the Western States Endurance Run (100 miles), and Bandera 100.
How do you learn to run in the heat?
You have to get out there and run in the heat if you are in an environment that enables you to do so. Otherwise, a professionally guided heat protocol will be your next best bet. Take it easy for the first few days. Maintain hydration by drinking regularly. It’s important to remember to hydrate (electrolytes specifically) in hotter environments. Interestingly in a virtual symposium for The European College of Sports Science, Lewis James explained that “dehydration of >2% body mass degrades endurance and cognitive performance, and the effect increases with increasing ambient temperature.” What does this mean? Practice drinking during exercise, and if you’re inevitably going to face dehydration, practice for it. It also means that it doesn’t take much to impair performance. For perspective, for a 70kg/154lb male equates to 1400mls.
You can monitor urine concentration – this might be TMI, but it’s very useful. You want to be peeing pale urine rather than concentrated bright yellow. It may be helpful to monitor weight, as weight loss will indicate dehydration as well.
In around 7-10 days of running in a hot climate, you’ll likely notice a better tolerance to the heat. For trained individuals, adaptations will occur quicker, compared to the untrained individual which, after continual exposure will usually see benefits after 2 weeks. As discussed below in more detail, some helpful signs that indicate heat adaptation include an earlier onset of sweating, more sweat, and less time to fatigue conducive to a lowered HR (by this, I meant it is closer to your usual HR for the specific activity, compared to an initial spiked HR upon introduction to the heat).
How do you adapt to running in the heat?
It takes at least 10 days for adaptations to occur, but as with anything, it can differ from individual to individual, and for male and female. It’s important to make sure you prepare enough time ahead of the event.
Various adaptations occur, including a higher volume of sweat and an earlier onset of sweating. The sweat itself is more dilute than at more temperate climates. The athlete’s Heart Rate (HR) increases, and stroke volume (SV) increases (HR x SV = CO) CO, being cardiac output. Peripheral vessels will vasodilate – all changes which result in heat loss.
Heat loss is vital as the body is only as efficient as a light bulb. About 75% of the energy made during exercise is used by the muscles – the rest is lost in heat. If the body can lose heat quickly and efficiently, it can continue to exercise at its best capabilities. – hence the adaptations it makes to lose the increased heat made in hotter climates.
However, if the body cannot lose heat to the environment either due to high ambient temperature, or high humidity, or the person is not adapted to the heat, then the body will store heat, with the core temperature increasing – and this will initially impair performance but can eventually kill from severe heat stroke. (temp >41 degrees).
Long story short, it’s important to prepare for your race properly.
Some other benefits of heat training include an improved VO2 Max, Lactate Threshold (LT), lower HR under higher stress and workloads, increased fat oxidation, and therefore increased chances to lose weight (if that’s a goal). Since endurance performance is largely determined by running economy, VO2 Max and LT, heat training can help!
What are some passive methods of heat training for endurance athletes?
Sitting in a dry heat sauna is likely the best option for a heat training protocol where you don’t have access to a naturally hot environment. This is done (passively, so sitting, not exercising) straight after concluding your exercise and doesn’t have to exceed 20-30 mins in time.
The Hot Tub method requires you to be fully emerged (past shoulders) for a very similar length of time.
You’ll elicit beneficial adaptations without having to exercise in strenuous conditions or run around in a sauna suit, or more clothes.
It’s important to note that you should always undertake protocols under the guidance of a professional – this is of crucial importance if you are doing ‘active’ heat training such as running in a sauna suit or spin biking heated chamber or room. Since the benefits of a post-run dry sauna session (sitting, passive) for 20 odd minutes elicit very similar adaptations, this is the path I’d choose. You’d want to hop in very soon after exercise. A hot tub immersion for heat training could work, however, to elicit the best response you’d want to be immersed right up to your neck, and for a similar amount of time to the sauna. The sauna simply seems more comfortable and practical to me. Besides, utilizing a sauna frequently is great for reducing the risk of all-cause cardiometabolic fatalities.
Some important timing things to note:
You will begin to lose adaptations after more than 2-3 days away from heat, so it’s best to follow a protocol with a minimum of 1 dose every 2nd-3rd day
Periodize your training load around the heat protocol and/or training load, to ensure you don’t have a high training load week paired with a high heat training week.
Work with what you have available to you!
How do you recover from heat training?
It’s really important to remember that we could do all these things to try to maximize performance, but the reality is, sometimes in trying to do too much or be a perfectionist about it, we end up shooting ourselves in the foot. It is meant to be fun after all, and it isn’t meant to take over your whole life. In saying this, the goal should be to find the minimum dosage to elicit the most beneficial adaptations for the event/races you’re training for.
In applying this principle, you’ll set yourself up for more optimized recovery, and in turn, a (hopefully) better performance come race day.
Sleep is really important, as it is the only time we fully recover – optimize this. Chronic stress such as an environmental one is just that, a ‘chronic stress’. We need to account for this. The stress could be long periods at a high altitude, or training in intensive heat. If you don’t sleep enough to account for this, it could result in maladaptations, the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.
More often than not, you can elicit beneficial physiological and cellular adaptations with shorter, smaller bouts of heat in the lead-up to an event, and this can be the most convenient thing for your training, time and total stress. Be smart!
Heat Training For Altitude: Cross-Adaptation For The Runner Racing At Altitude.
Does heat training help with altitude?
Heat training can help endurance athletes perform at altitude, particularly if the athlete does not have access to altitude or other mechanisms to mimic this environment (such as a chamber, an altitude tent, and actual higher-altitude environments, to name a few). Hot environments, let’s take, a dry-heat sauna, elicit stress on the system whilst it’s in a resting state, particularly if the individual spends a decent amount of time in the dry-heat sauna. Note, to elicit favorable adaptations, as mentioned earlier, 20-30 mins in the sauna post run or ride can have a multitude of positive benefits. The reason being is your core temperature is already elevated, corresponding with an elevated HR. At altitude, the physiological systems of individuals not acclimatized to the environment will experience elevated levels of stress at rest and exercise. Heat acclimation protocols can assist with attenuating this strain altitude. As discussed above in the beneficial adaptations of heat training and/or heat protocol, there will be an increase in plasma volume, and a lower core body temperature to elicit better oxygen delivery to working muscles. Better oxygen delivery to working muscles is a very favorable adaptation for an endurance athlete looking to perform at altitude.
However, as discussed in the intro of this post, stress is stress, and if an individual is living and/or training at a high altitude, and does not need to prepare for a race in the heat, heat training and protocols may not be necessary. The key pillar to successful training is even better recovery. These tools should be used under the supervision of a specialist, and the minimum dosage to elicit positive adaptations should be given. Further, the added stress of heat training and/or heat protocols should be in harmony with the training load of the athlete. For example, don’t schedule the highest volume week with the largest doses of heat training. That’s a sure way to burn out and impact recovery. For those out there that are interested in a cellular level, below I will briefly discuss heat shock protein (HSP) responses when exposed to altitude.
Heat Shock Proteins (HSP), altitude, and heat acclimation for endurance athletes.
Exercise induces stress on the cellular homeostatic mechanisms of the body. This exercise-induced challenge on these mechanisms will result in adaptations. Adaptations, both short and longer-term, are our physiological systems that maintain homeostasis in extreme environments. When cells are exposed to heat there’ll be an increase in heat shock proteins (HSP), particularly if it is in the early phases of heat introduction.
Importantly, HSP40 is activated in cells in response to physiological stress (not unlike other factors that induce HSP expression such as glucose deprivation). These HSP proteins respond to protect cell integrity and maintain homeostasis – for example, a response to hyperthermia (body temperature is well above normal, not to be mistaken for hypothermia, which is the opposite). Interestingly, for those athletes at altitude, HSP40 specifically, assists in the preservation of HIF-1 alpha which has an increased cellular response at altitude. HIF-1 plays a crucial role in the body’s response to hypoxia. This is important to note as HIF-1 acts as a dominant, “regulator of numerous hypoxia-inducible genes under hypoxic conditions.” (1) The HSP40 induced in cells as a response to heat stress is likely beneficial to performance in hypoxic environments. To put it simply, an individual who has heat trained or followed a heat training protocol prior to training or competing at altitude (such as a dry heat sauna protocol) and therefore is heat acclimated, will likely respond well to the increased physiological stress experienced at altitude. This is because, on a cellular level, heat adaptations have reduced HSP response when in a hypoxic environment.
However, there is still a need for further research into the role of HSPs, as this research could serve to benefit the likes of athletes, patients, and the general population. If you’re interested in reading more about HSPs, check this journal article out here. Further understanding of the role of HSPs in exercise physiology may prove beneficial for therapeutic targeting in diseased patient cohorts, exercise prescriptions for disease prevention, and training strategies for elite athletes. It would be interesting to monitor recovery via heat shock proteins through blood-based testing, however, this at current is not viable on a mass scale due to costs.
I hope this made you think about how you can better prepare for your next race in a strenuous environment. Whether you use a cross-adaptation technique, an intervention protocol, or outright training in the environment, preparation, timing, and harmony with the training load + other stressors and recovery are key!
Is heat training the same as altitude training?
In a literal sense, of course, heat training is not the same as altitude training. However, heat can be used to enhance performance, including endurance performance in hypoxic environments. Heat acclimation can improve our cellular and physiological functioning when exercising at altitude. Hence why earlier I mentioned the common saying, heat is the ‘poor man’s altitude.
A study by Fregly, 2011(2) noted that exposure to one environmental stressor can produce the same protective physiological adaptations needed to benefit performance in another environmental stressor. For example, moderate hypoxia and high levels of heat exposure elicit the same heat-shock response (cytoprotective HSP72). If an individual is acclimated to heat or hypoxia (focusing on longer-term exposure here), they’ll have more favorable gene expressions for increased cellular resilience to these environments. (Hutter et al, 1994) (3)
So whilst heat and altitude training are not the same in a literal sense, the cross-adaptations elicited by a sensible exercise protocol in heat are favorable to performance in a hypoxic environment (altitude).
Does heat training help with altitude?
Yes, different stimuli, including heat training, can help with running performance in hypoxic (altitude) environments. Long-term heat training protocols and exposure lead to what is called ‘acclimatory homeostasis’, where the body functions more capably in the environment; i.e. physiological systems and cells are more resilient to the environment.
I discussed some of these adaptions and responses earlier in this article but I’ll touch on it again briefly as it relates to heat and altitude cross-adaptations. Some favorable adaptations include:
Reduced exercising HR at altitude (longer-term acclimation protocols)
Increased SpO2 (oxygen saturation in the blood, a good thing to have higher levels for general health and altitude performance) (Heled et al., 2012)(4)
Greater cardiac output, therefore physiological efficiency (aka. work harder, for longer, more efficiently)
Increased HSP72 baseline levels, indicating increased resilience of a cell in stressful environments. A heat-acclimated individual (can be acute dosage/short term) will likely have an attenuated HSP response due to these increased baseline levels of HSP72. Elevated levels of HSP72 indicate that the individual has greater levels of adaptation to handle environmental stress (Lee et al., 2015)(5)
Please note that the optimal dosage of “heat” to improve the HSP72 baseline levels in the sense of long-term adaptation is still under investigation
(1) Lee, J. W., Bae, S. H., Jeong, J. W., Kim, S. H., & Kim, K. W. (2004). Hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF-1)alpha: its protein stability and biological functions. Experimental & molecular medicine, 36(1), 1–12. https://www.nature.com/articles/emm20041
(2)Lee, B. J., Miller, A., James, R. S., & Thake, C. D. (2016). Cross Acclimation between Heat and Hypoxia: Heat Acclimation Improves Cellular Tolerance and Exercise Performance in Acute Normobaric Hypoxia. Frontiers in physiology, 7, 78. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2016.00078
(3) Hutter, M. M., Sievers, R. E., Barbosa, V., & Wolfe, C. L. (1994). Heat-shock protein induction in rat hearts. A direct correlation between the amount of heat-shock protein induced and the degree of myocardial protection. Circulation, 89(1), 355–360. https://doi.org/10.1161/01.cir.89.1.355
(4) Heled, Y., Peled, A., Yanovich, R., Shargal, E., Pilz-Burstein, R., Epstein, Y., & Moran, D. S. (2012). Heat acclimation and performance in hypoxic conditions. Aviation, space, and environmental medicine, 83(7), 649–653. https://doi.org/10.3357/asem.3241.2012
(5) Lee, B. J., Mackenzie, R. W., Cox, V., James, R. S., & Thake, C. D. (2015). Human monocyte heat shock protein 72 responses to acute hypoxic exercise after 3 days of exercise heat acclimation. BioMed research international, 2015, 849809. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/849809
How To Have More Energy For Running: The ROI’s of Sport
Written in conjunction with a sports medicine specialist, ex-elite athlete, and consulting of a variety of accredited sources.
ROI in digital marketing means the return on investment. We calculate ROI by figuring out how much we have invested in ads, and how much revenue we’ve made as a result of those advertising investments. If our ROI is low, we have to figure out why, and a solution to improve. It’s a matter of updating, refreshing, and/or rethinking, most often. In training the other day, I thought about how similar this is to being a competitive athlete. What we put in, including the 1%’s like sleep, nutrition, and forms of recovery all add up to a better ROI for the athlete.
This inspired me to write an article on Energy, Fatigue, and Running. How can we increase our ROI, whilst maintaining a healthy balance between sport and life outside of sport.
For many individuals, exercise can increase energy levels, but did you know that there are many other ways to do this? For athletes that train in high loads, a buildup of fatigue is very natural, and quite often exercise won’t be the best source of ‘gaining’ energy.
I will go over some easy tips for running more efficiently and how they can help you have more energy for running and other training in general. One way is by setting a goal for yourself that has nothing to do with how many miles you intend to cover during each jog. It could be a location destination, a sunset observation, planning to meet up with a team or a friend, or a podcast you’ve been waiting to listen to.
Setting goals related specifically to what kind of pace you’d like to achieve (i.e., faster than normal or average) can also help you have more energy when running. You don’t have to look at splits, you can go by feel as well. In fact, I often think this is the better approach when leading a busy life outside of training demands.
Why Do I Have No Energy When I Run?
This is a loaded question. There are a large array of reasons why someone may feel as if they have no energy when they run. Often, if medical issues are ruled out, it can be a result of one or a combination of sleep, nutrition, and recovery.
When you wake up in the morning, do you feel like jogging around your neighborhood or taking a spin class at the gym? It’s easy to get motivated when it’s still dark outside and all you can think about is coffee. But what happens after lunchtime rolls around? Often at times, people will skip a workout because they are tired or feel too lazy to exercise. Get it done early, before the distractions of the day set in.
A lack of energy can also be a result of a calorie deficit. If you haven’t fuelled enough the day before, and wake up hungry, you’ll lack energy for your workout. I am a big fan of the pre-training snack. This can be something as simple as a banana, or a small bowl of cereal 1hr to 30 minutes before training, depending on intensity and time constraints.
Keep easy days easy, and hard days hard.
Athletes are often given programs by their coaches, which have the various sessions set out to ensure adequate recovery after high-intensity sessions, and longer slower sessions factored in. However it’s very common to see athletes who during their long slow sessions become bored, and speed up, turning it into a long hard session, or who, for example, whilst cycling in a group, see someone going off the front, and can’t help themselves by chasing – and so, the session turns into a fartlek/sprint session. This will then drain the athletes’ energy systems so that they may not recover adequately for their next session, and over time can result in burnout.
How Can I Increase My Energy For Running?
Sleep and Running
Sleep is the only time the body entirely recovers. I would be as bold to say it is the best thing you can do to put an extra edge on your physical performance. If you are having trouble sleeping, then this can lead to decreased energy levels when running. Put simply, a lack of sleep often causes your body temperature and heart rate to change so that it is more difficult for the muscles in your body to function as they should during exercise. While you may want to catch up on rest during the weekend, it is best not to break your normal sleeping schedule too much.
Getting quality REM sleep and (Rapid eye movement sleep) deep sleep are important in order to have more energy when running. These are two different stages of sleep. High REM sleep quality allows us to perform better mentally, and a lack of REM sleep is often the cause of that common feeling of sleep deprivation.
If you know someone who tends to have insomnia or stays up late at night working on a computer or watching television, then you may want to consider getting them blackout curtains for their bedroom. You could even take it a step further and download f.lux to adjust the lighting on your laptop, and wear blue light filtering glasses in the evenings to promote the production of melatonin. A good night’s sleep will help keep energy levels even throughout the day and make training much more enjoyable overall.
Blue Light and Melatonin – Get outdoors in the morning!
Make sure you step outside in the morning when daylight or sunlight is up. Our body is designed to wake up better with light, and even better if you look at the ‘blue’ in the sky. It signals that it is the beginning of the day and to halt the production of melatonin.
If you’re an evening runner or have a double, although you may be tempted to go home and take a nap after work instead of going on your run, there are some ways to make exercising at this time much easier and even fun!
Vitamin D for Runners – Natural energy from the sun.
Many people report a boost in energy when exposed to direct sunlight. What is the connection between Vitamin D, sunlight, increased energy, and improved mood? There are many studies that show the link between Vitamin D levels and depression. People living with chronic pain conditions like Fibromyalgia often report symptoms of depression because their condition can be very difficult to manage and has a poor prognosis that makes it feel hopeless. The good news on this topic is quite encouraging!
Vitamin D is a great supplement to existing treatment plans for depression, chronic pain conditions, and fatigue. However, if you can get your daily dose of vitamin D naturally – from sunlight (even 10 minutes is great!), and foods such as oily fish, red meats, egg yolks, and cheese for example that is even better. For vegans, some food sources high in Vitamin D are mushrooms, fortified plant milk, and cereals. Mushrooms are the best natural plant source of Vitamin D. Ultimately, sunshine is king.
Some people do feel better after taking a single dose of Vitamin D consistently. It’s important to realize that taking Vitamin D on an ongoing basis will have continuing benefits on your mood.
Some people like to have a cup of coffee before heading out for training. If timed well, this can be extremely beneficial. In fact, I wrote an entire article on coffee for runners. This article included how to time your caffeine intake, how caffeine can be taken in different forms and some of the negative side effects of coffee. Give it a read by clicking the link here: https://larahamilton.com/coffee-for-runners/
While coffee may help boost your energy levels, if you are not used to caffeine before high-impact activity, it can be a cause of GI problems which can shut down your run entirely. It’s important to train yourself to eat and drink before you run, so when race day comes along, it’s like clockwork.
Considering this, some people prefer to only have caffeine around race day. If you’re like me, I chose to drink Matcha (green tea powder), green tea or Decaf coffee the weeks leading up to a race, and only drink coffee close to race time for a potential performance enhancing effect.
Build up energy for running long distances
For runners starting out, setting small goals will make exercising much more manageable because they are easier to achieve (i.e., walk around a block one time). Once these smaller tasks feel easy enough, then move onto another goal until finally working up toward whatever big fitness wish list item has been on hold for so long. You can even start with run-walks, as athletes returning from injury must do.
This can look something like 1-minute walk, 1-minute run, repeated 10-20 times depending on where you’re at with fitness or recovery.
Also, remember not to be too hard on yourself when you don’t reach an initial goal right away. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
For seasoned runners, energy increase and fatigue resistance comes with consistency in training and scheduled recovery periods. Be patient, and it will come. This is why it is called training or practice.
Strength Training for Distance Training
If you want to reduce fatigue and get faster, lift weights. I’m sick of hearing about injured distance runners who do no resistance training.
Think about it like this – if you’re pounding your body as a high-level runner for 50 miles a week, that’s a lot of stress through the whole system. Muscular, skeletal, and even cellular. You want to be doing everything within your control to make sure you can sustain that load and rock up to the start line uninjured….. and beyond the start line through the race.
If you are looking for a way to have more energy when running, then consider adding strength training into the mix. If guided correctly by a knowledgeable strength and conditioning specialist or exercise physiologist, this will allow you to gradually build muscles and therefore build up muscular endurance so that running doesn’t become difficult halfway through every workout session. Strength training can also be done in conjunction with various forms of cross-training exercises like biking, paddling, or swimming because they work in a variety of muscle groups and go through different ROM (range of motions).
Strengthen your bones for running
Our bones love different stimuli – that is how to strengthen bones. Repetitive sports, such as distance running, only strengthen your bones on a certain plane. Adding in a variety of sports will strengthen them on different planes and vectors.
This is why cross-training should be included in a running program. It has a purpose, not just for recovery from injury.
So how important is it to stretch before a run?
Yes, stretching is an important part of any workout routine because it helps you warm up and prepare for exercising at higher intensities so that your muscles don’t feel as tired when running. However, what is more, important is using the right muscles and then you’ll find, you won’t need to stretch as much. For most people, the deep postural stabilizers, also known as your “core” are not firing correctly. I’m not talking about the superficial “6-pack abs” here, these muscles are much deeper than that.
You can have visible abs and little “core” strength. These are deep muscles that can’t be seen. This is a very complex topic which I will explore in a future post. If you’re interested in reading more on this and improving your biomechanics and body alignment, head over to TIE (The Invisible Exercise) by clicking here.
What will give me energy before a run?
How To Have An Energy Boost Before Running – Take a rest day or a down week!
Recovery is a part of your training program – it is just as important as the training!
You’re not a machine. You’re human, and you have to respect the body. Give it the time to strengthen and recover. Gains are made when we rest and repair.
If you feel as though your body needs a day off from exercising, then don’t be afraid to take one. Your mind and muscles will thank you for giving them the rest they need before starting up again with another training cycle.
In fact, having a down week every 4-6 weeks is super important to ensure the body absorbs the work you’ve put in, and decreases the risk of injury. Time it up with your key races if you can, working with your coach and team commitments if you have one.
There was an article on this in the recent issue of Australian Trail Running Magazine, if you can get your hands on a copy.
How Diet Affects Energy For Running
This is very simple. Energy intake has to equal energy output.
The biggest mistake long-distance runners make is not realizing the high level of calories they need to balance the energy equation. Most long-distance runners have low energy availability. This doesn’t just affect the body in its appearance.
It affects every single system in the body. Here are a few examples:
The gastrointestinal tract, causing slow transit time
Psychologically, with interrupted sleep patterns
Neurologically, it reduces coordination and strength
Changes the metabolism, so instead more fat is stored in the liver
It affects bone mineral density
Increases risk of injury
A healthy balanced diet can be obtained from a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables, carbohydrates, alongside healthy and diverse fat and protein sources. We don’t actually need to spend gazillions of dollars on fancy supplements.
So, low energy input equals low energy output. I’m a big fan of eating before training in the morning. It doesn’t have to be a full meal, but working out fasted isn’t helping me achieve my goals of high-quality workouts and speed, strength, and endurance gains from these workouts.
What should runners eat for breakfast?
People who run regularly in the morning are often advised to have a healthy and balanced breakfast before heading outside for their daily jog or workout session. This will help keep blood sugar levels even throughout the day so that energy is sustained with each passing hour. This is even more important for insulin-resistant individuals, like me. I wrote an article about my normal pre-race and pre-session breakfasts here, including examples: https://larahamilton.com/5k-meal-plan/
The Impact of Alcohol On Running
While having a few drinks might seem like the perfect way to unwind after work, it can have some negative side effects on your body for running. Alcohol can dehydrate your body and cause muscle cramps if you have too much, so it is best to avoid drinking /running (especially if you are thirsty and need to replenish your body’s water levels).
Further, drinking will impact sleep. You may be able to achieve deep sleep, which can help muscular repair, however, the mentally restorative stages of sleep (REM) following the deep sleep stage, are rarely reached as the body is working overtime to process the alcohol consumed.
In conclusion, there are many ways to increase your overall energy before and after a run. I hope you take these tips and incorporate them into your daily regimen!
The top tips, summarized.
Nutrition during exercise > 60 minutes
Adequate CHO (carbohydrates) in the first 15 minutes after an endurance race
Sleep 8 hours minimum per night
Understanding that mental and physical recovery is as important as training strategies.
Ensuring there is a balance in life with some social and recreational activities, specific recovery actions such as massage, sports psychology, ice baths (if you are into them) stretching, and appropriate strengthening work.
Work-life balance and recovery are particularly an issue in long-distance triathletes, ultra runners, and adventure racers.
In athletes who participate in tournaments and regattas, ensuring adequate hydration and nutrition between bouts and races will diminish feelings of fatigue.
Overall though, making sure that one has a range of interests, not just work and training, to maintain a healthy mental state. Mental fatigue can be a major source of physical fatigue.
If the idea of meditation running or running as meditation seems like a foreign concept to you, consider the fact that you’ve probably already participated in it. Many of us like to pop in the ear buds and check out while logging our miles, especially for long distances. For some, this is the easiest way to “get through” a workout.
However, the idea of meditation running is not to “get through” your run, but rather “get into” your run. Meditation and running do not have to exist as separate entities. In fact, for those of you who prefer to proverbially “kill two birds with one stone,” meditation running can save time allowing you to benefit from both at once.
Running as meditation can turn what sometimes feels like a chore, or something you’re forcing yourself to do, into an adventure. It offers deeper meaning, mental clarity and healing on top of your physical fitness routine. In the state of today’s world, who doesn’t need a little clarity and healing?
If you’ve ever gone out for a run in a new neighborhood or on an especially craggy trail, chances are good that you’ve participated in meditation running. Meditation in itself is not meant to clear your mind, but instead to become present in the given moment. In a new city or on a rugged trail, you must be vigilant and focus on where you are and the ground beneath you. This action causes you to be present in the moment and to concentrate on right now.
This is just a simple and common example of how you may have already used running as meditation. You can set out to purposefully participate in meditation and running, and I will tell you how in the following sections. Of course, distracting thoughts are going to pop up now and then. That’s normal and expected. Acknowledge them and come back to the moment. Put a pin in those recurring thoughts for later, and be careful not to follow them down the rabbit hole.
How to Meditate While Running
Meditation while running is not necessarily hard, but it may require some practice. This is especially true for those who prefer to zone out with some tunes while running instead of tuning into your zone. The following ideas are a good starting point for learning how to practice meditation while running. Later, I will give you a few more resources to help you use running as meditation.
Counting Breaths or Footfalls
Counting your breaths or foot steps can help keep you grounded in the now. Make up a pattern such as a 1, 2, 3, 1, 1, 2, 3, 2 count or count by twos or fives. You can even incorporate counting breaths to footfalls and take note of which foot lands on what numbers each time.
Acknowledge Pain or Discomfort
Obviously, intense pain means you should end your workout immediately, but I’m talking about the normal running aches and fatigue that sometimes appear. Don’t ignore these tinges, but don’t focus intently on them, either. This also goes to uncomfortable or stressing thoughts. As mentioned, put a pin in those, save them for later, and come back to now.
Use Mantras or Devotions
Whether you choose a quote from Rocky or prefer a Bible verse, mantras can help keep you focused and present in the moment. Simply repeating positive phrases like I am strong and bold, I can do all things, or I am tougher than this trail can keep you focused. The key is concentrating on what you are saying and repeating it.
Be Aware of All Sounds and Sights
It may be a bird chirping in a tree or a simple stop sign—just take notice and focus on it for just a moment. Perhaps you choose to run as the sun rises and sets. Focusing on the grandeur of the setting and which senses are being triggered can offer a feeling of relaxation—even when you’re running. It may be easier to focus on things by stating what you see, hear, feel, or smell. For example, you could say to yourself I see a tall, green Oak tree, or I feel a gust of cool air on my neck.
Mindful Running: Being in the Moment
Running Meditation has many benefits beyond maintaining your physical fitness and health. For example, let’s go back to rugged trail running. You have to constantly scan the terrain ahead of you and make decisions about where your foot should fall to reduce the risk of injury. You might be dodging low-lying tree limbs, circling around mud pits, or hopping over roots and other natural debris.
All this focus directed at the trail in the very moment you are running it keeps other thoughts and worries at bay. There simply isn’t time to think about problems such as how difficult the run actually is when you are running with the mind of meditation. Instead, you are able to explore the world around you, reflect on it and connect to it.
Not only can running meditation offer practice in meditating, it can also help you improve your running. Perhaps you want to run faster or longer distances. Most often, the only things holding us back are the thoughts we have. Meditation can also help to increase your response inhibition, or ability to ignore the instinct to slow down or stop due to muscle aches or fatigue and keep running.
Another highly-rated running meditation book I found is Still Running: The art of Meditation in Motion, written by Zen-practitioner and long-time runner, Vanessa Zuisei Goddard. Like Running with the Mind of Meditation, Still Running offers instructions on practical ways to practice meditation and running. Additionally, it focuses on the power of being still and how that can lead to “wholehearted” living.
Running Meditation Apps
If you are interested in guided meditation while running, try out a running meditation app. When I went to the app store, I was inundated with meditation apps for relaxation. However, with continued research, I stumbled across Headspace, a website and an app that focuses on meditation for focus and relaxation.
Additionally, Headspace has partnered with Nike to provide a Mindful Running Pack within the Nike Run Club (NRC) app. Choose the length of time you want to run and pick from runs with titles like “Don’t Wanna Run Run,” “Breaking Through Barriers,” and “Mindful Miles.” Then, you simply set out on your preferred route and listen in. This running meditation app does all the focusing for you.
Final Thoughts on Meditation While Running
As you can see, meditation can coexist with running, or other activities. You do not have to be sitting still to reap the benefits of meditation, and practicing meditation while running has its own benefits including lowering stress, easing depression or anxiety, and making your runs easier.
It may take even the seasoned runner some practice, but I’m certain with the help of this article and the resources I discussed, anyone can do it. If you want a little more guidance, don’t hesitate to try a running meditation app. Happy trails!
Cross Training Workouts should be a part of any runners training program. Cross Training Workouts for Runners provide a more holistic approach to training. By holistic, I mean that we learn to use different muscles, different combinations of muscles and ligaments, different patterns of movement (biomechanics), different mental proprioception, and challenge the body in different ways. Essentially, we keep it interesting and I believe that the athlete becomes more well-rounded.
It is really tempting to simply want to run as the sole activity of training. It makes sense right? You are a runner, and to get better at running, we have to run. However, cross training workouts are the difference between what we want and what we need.
This is about listening to your body. Whilst engaging in various forms of cross training does not use the same biomechanical patterning as running (as in a running ‘stride’ or form), the heart is still beating, and therefore you are still improving the amazing engine that is your body.
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”
– Ryan Sandes (Pro Salomon Trail Runner)
Trying a new form of training can be daunting. You can feel vulnerable from the feeling of ‘newness’ after being comfortable in one or a few sports for a while. I personally hadn’t been on a mountain bike or road biking (other than commuting) for a while. Today I decided to take what is a very dodgy, extremely old model mountain bike that I use as transport in Boise and go for my first mountain/road bike ride. Why? I felt like it and I had a curiosity to explore the contagious stoke that the biking community of Boise and Idaho have. I am having a small break from running for physical and mental health purposes. I also wanted to challenge myself a little bit.
It was a blast. I caught the bug, and I will be trying it again. All it took was one ride. I truly believe this is the same for others, so I encourage you to try a cross training workout next time you are unmotivated to run, feel a little niggle occurring or simply want to experience something else (and still keep the heart beating). I even got to experience the beautiful golden hour in the Foothills of Boise. See my photo below.
This is my favourite photo I have ever taken. I’m not entirely sure why, and it was a bit rushed honestly. My hands were freezing and my heart rate was through the roof after climbing a hill in the cold air. It was exhilarating though. I think it is the colours and obscurities of the sunlight.
Cross training benefits are numerous, particularly the benefits of cross training for runners.
“The Struggle was real, but every second was worth it”
-Nouria Newman (French Slalom Canoeist, Red Bull)
When runners get injured (and I am speaking for myself here too), it can be quite amusing to observe their habits of self-diagnosis before they actually get a diagnosis. Often they’ll use Dr. Google, the usual rehab methods involving tape and ice, maybe they’ll even be wise and take a few days off. However, we can prevent injury often by cross training, and learning to move our body in many different ways, utilizing many different muscles, in different coordination and patterns of movement.
To put it simply, we allow our body and mind a break from the repetitive movement of running. Often this allows the muscles, ligaments and tendons to heal a bit so you’re better prepared for your next run.
My mum who is a sports medicine physician in Australia once shared with me some very wise words about cross training for running. The heart is still beating. It doesn’t know the difference between a long swim, long run or long ride. She explained this to me whilst I was recovering from one of many sprained ankles. Whilst our musculoskeletal patterning may differ, we are still getting a very valuable training effect.
We are also training our mind differently. We are building mental toughness. For example, when I choose swimming as a cross training workout, I am inflicting myself (or am I actually benefiting myself?! That’s the paradox!) staring at some pool tiles and a black line for a significant amount of time. This is difficult when I have the privilege of looking at stunning mountain or seaside landscapes when I run outside.
Personally, my biggest cross training benefit has been the comfort I have in knowing that if I get injured, I am fully capable of throwing myself into a variety of other sports. In these sports I am distracted from my running injury, yet finding joy in a new and refreshing activity. Again, this is why I’d encourage you to integrate cross training workouts into your running schedule.
Below is a list of cross training examples I can think of. Maybe you could integrate a cross training session in instead of a second run, or even in replacement for a recovery run. Looking to increase endurance training load? Why not pop in a cross training workout.
“This is your life, live it with passion”
-Thabang Madiba (Salomon Trail Runner, South Africa)
Cycling as Cross Training For Running
The hardest part about going for a road bike is simply getting on the bike in the first place and starting (at least I find). Whether it’s the cold, the heat, or preparing the bike for the ride. As always, be cautious of vehicles, animals, pedestrians, weather conditions etc. I suggest doing a hilly route and sprinting up the hills, floating the flats, and relaxing on the downs for a solid endurance workout.
Spin biking can be a blast, especially with music. I like to create playlists where each song/track has a specific workout purpose allocated to it. For example, there is a mix of sprint songs, high RPM (revolutions per minute) songs, out of the saddle climbing songs, and in the saddle climbing songs, plus recovery songs. It can make for a great workout. If you have the option, you could even try a spin class for some extra motivation.
Mountain Biking as Cross Training For Running
Mountain biking as cross training for running is great as it challenges your proprioception and reaction time, along with continual changes in leg and body movement to navigate the natural changes/variations on the trails. The uphill climbs can really challenge you, as often you’ll be navigating around rocks, facing patches of sand or mud, or avoiding other cyclists and pedestrians (if you’re unlucky). The downhills are simply a hoot.
“I think the mountains have helped keep me alive, keep me going, and keep me focused on this is what I’m doing right now”
– Jim Morrison (The North Face Mountaineer and Brand Ambassador)
Swimming as Cross Training For Running
Swimming is one of my favourite forms of cross training for running. I feel like it works every part of your body, and challenges you to control your oxygen capacity and therefore the breath. To work with the breath when physically exerting yourself is very humbling, and in its own unique way, grounding. The silence of being underwater, and swimming being a solo activity, is also quite meditative. There are so many swim workouts searchable online. I like doing a warm up, cool down, sprint and distance mixed sets, and in the pool fartlek style workouts.
Elliptical as Cross Training For Running
The elliptical trainer is one of the simplest forms of cross training for runners as almost every gym has one, and it doesn’t require you to own any extra equipment. It’s also quite similar to the action of running, without the impact. Many runners I know and train with will supplement running with a session on the elliptical.
Nordic Skiing as Cross Training For Running
This is a challenging cross training activity but the benefit is the miraculous fitness benefits you’ll receive from investing time into skate or classic cross country skiing. It is truly a total body workout. Some of the highest recorded VO2 max levels come from nordic skiers. They have to use both their arms and legs uphill, ski downhill without edges, sidestep corners and maintain a very good sense of balance. Also, altitude is often involved, which means altitude training benefits as an extra.
I guess what I am trying to communicate, or the moral of this post if you like, is don’t be afraid to try something new, or take some time off if you need it. Running will always be there for the most part. We don’t want to be risk-averse, as this doesn’t equal an enriched and life fully lived. If we don’t take a risk here and now, we can’t expect to learn new things about ourselves.
Running Nutrition: A Guide to Fueling for Performance
Fueling to perform at your physical and mental best is a very different cup of tea than simply fueling to be a healthy individual. Running nutrition is one crucial piece of being a good runner, and we are constantly learning new things in the area from both scientific research and from tuning in with our own body.
A couple of things inspired me to write this post. The first was my teammate Bella (@bella_brickner), who wanted some ideas on what to eat before running (we often run in the mornings together), and asked me what my personal race nutrition strategies were. The second was experiencing some altitude effects on a recent ascent and descent of Mt Superior in Utah I completed. To be the complete athlete, you can’t skimp on nutrition. It’s fuel. There are a lot of diets out there (not the kind that involves needs based on food allergies or intolerance purposes) – keto, paleo, gluten-free etc, however, whilst these may work for the occasional athlete and ones we hear promoting their nutritional choices on social media, more often than not, a well-balanced and diverse diet will suit best. A good friend said if you’re driving yourself crazy planning and overthinking food, you’ll often make worse choices in the long term because it’s not sustainable to be in that mindset. I’ve learned this the hard way as a younger athlete, but lessons are there to be learned. The earlier, the better.
What to eat before running?
Nutrition can improve an athlete’s performance immensely. For example, maintaining optimal fluid balance levels, and providing the body with more fuel (carbohydrate) to perform better and help with “lactate accumulation from anaerobic efforts”. Anaerobic meaning the high-end, very high-intensity efforts.
I always eat before I run, normally a bowl of cereal or toast. It tides me over to breakfast, I don’t get distracted mid-run by sudden onset hunger, and I feel more energized. After all, if it is a morning run, you’ve fasted all night, so your body will thank you when you give it a little boost. Thus, I tend to get up a bit earlier to have some digestion time and sip my coffee or tea.
It’s recommended that you eat before you run if the session falls into any of the following:
Over 60 minutes in length
A long run of some sort
Training at higher altitudes
You have multiple sessions or events across the day
Note: This list is not limited to the following, just a quick guide.
I typically eat any of the following before a run…
Dry oat, quinoa, or wheat-based cereal. My favorite is pumpkin and flaxseed granola (you can often get this in the bulk food section or Nature’s Path brand in a box, which you can get at Winco, Wholefoods, Albertsons, Trader Joe’s etc). I eat it dry because the extra liquid or dairy can sometimes cause stomach upset). You could even make your own.
Cornflakes or oats with almond or another type of non-dairy based milk. In my overall eating habits, I normally have a mix of dairy milk for some things, and non-dairy based for others just to ensure my calcium levels remain in check. Before a run, I go for a non-dairy based option. I don’t need to explain why!
Whole-wheat or white toast (Sourdough is the better option here) with jam/jelly or peanut/almond butter. Here you get a little bit of protein and healthy fats mixed in with the necessary carbohydrates to top up the muscle glycogen stores pre-run. Being very easy to make, it’s a no-fuss option.
Rice cakes with nut butter, jam/jelly, or honey and butter. If you’re celiac, gluten-free, or don’t typically pick a bread-based option pre-run, rice cakes can be a good alternative.
2+ hours before:
You can generally eat a more substantial meal if you have more time before you head out for a run. Some of my favourite options are:
Oatmeal with banana, peanut butter and cinnamon. This is my pre-race go to meal, as I can replicate it at home, and it is always at the event hotel buffets. I’ll generally do 1-2 cups of oatmeal, a scoop of almond or PB, slice the banana on top, and dash with cinnamon/maple syrup. It’s delicious, and it ticks the boxes in terms of endurance training based nutritional needs.
Scrambled eggs on toast (maybe with some sneaky sides like avocado, mushrooms, salsa, arugula or spinach)
Bagel with cream cheese/nut butter/avocado etc – Bagels are a great source of quick carbohydrates and with the amount of bagel flavor varieties on market, there’s something for everyone.
Want to know some handy tips and tricks for your next grocery shop? Check out my post on Grocery Shopping For Runners – Click here.
What to eat the night before a run?
Deciding what to eat the night before a run will be dependent on what type of running session you have the next day. If it is a more endurance-based session, make the ratio of carbohydrates to other components on the plate slightly higher.
For a shorter, intensity-based session, you can keep it a bit more balanced.
My all-time favorite dinner time meal if I have to run early the next morning is homemade pizza with a side salad such as Caesar Salad, see photo below. Yes, there is a glass of pinot grigio to accompany because we all need a bit of fun and indulgence- Barefoot does an affordable, decently tasting option. This hits my CHO, Protein, Fats, and taste requirements on all levels.
Home-made Pizza Night + the works!
The great thing about the meal a night before a run is that you don’t have to stress as much about pre-planning it, due to the digestion time you’ll have. The morning is slightly different.
However, if we are discussing a pre-race dinner meal, I follow the KISS method (Keep it simple stupid). What works best for me personally is:
Rice (white, long-grain) – I want a source of carbohydrates that doesn’t upset my stomach but gives me a good bang for my buck. I was told by my sports dieticians in Australia many times that Rice has more bang for your buck than pasta. I stick true to this.
Shredded chicken with light seasoning, or canned lemon tuna in oil. I like to keep my proteins on the lighter side of things.
A mix of roast vegetables. I chop up a bunch of broccoli, beans, a variety of purple, white and sweet potatoes and mushrooms, drizzle with a bit of olive oil, salt, and bbq seasoning, and chuck it in the oven.
I throw all these ingredients together, and sometimes have a side of Italian season, sweet chili sauce, soy sauce (it just depends on the mood I’m in).
Remember to practice your meals prior to race day, as this is the best way to avoid stomach upset. You can afford to have a few uncomfortable sessions here and there, to learn what works for you, rather than make a mistake on the important event day.
What to eat after a long run, and what to eat during a long run?
A long run can be the most energy-draining session of the week, especially if you’re running beyond the 80-90 minute mark, where the body’s glycogen stores are depleted. It is recommended that the athlete intake some form of carbohydrate and fluid to rehydrate if running longer than this. SDA states that generally, you won’t need fuel (CHO) “during exercise sessions lasting less than 60 minutes.”
So why do we need to top up our carbohydrate stores after the 80-90 minute mark?
Keep blood glucose levels on track as this “fuels your muscles and brain during exercise”
“Get the most out of your training session by sustaining intensity for longer”
Curb simple sugar cravings later in the day, as the metabolism is likely to be high for the rest of the day post long run
Many runners don’t top up their carb stores, but establishing a common practice or habit could benefit you in the long term, and create a more tolerant stomach. Food for thought. This reigns especially true if you are training for a half marathon distance or further, where taking on fuel whilst on the run is essential.
Hiking up Mt Superior, Snowbird, Utah
Some quick carbohydrate top up food ideas that I have tried and tested:
CLIF Shot Bloks– There’s no crap in these, no preservatives or additives, which is a must for me. They come in lots of flavors and you can get caffeinated bloks too. My favourites are the ginger ale, citrus flavor, or orange flavor with caffeine. There are 33 calories per blok, and I tend to pop 3 bloks before I run, and 3 at the 80-90 minute mark, and I’m right to go.
Chopped up CLIF Bars– I also enjoy CLIF Bars because there are no preservatives or added artificial ingredients. These bars pack a punch in terms of energy provision and can be hard on the gut if digested all at once, without water. That’s why I chop them up into around 6 smaller pieces. I used this nutrition method on a half-marathon XC Ski race, and a 22km hilly trail race, and never had a stomach upset or issue. My favourites are the Cool Mint Caffeinated bar or the White Choc Macadamia flavor (non-caffeinated).
Tailwind Nutrition Endurance fuel – I love putting this in my water, no preservatives or nasty added ingredients. My favourite is the lemon flavor. Not only does it hydrate and replace necessary electrolytes, but there is 25g of Carbohydrates per scoop. Tailwind recommends: “For endurance workouts, mix 2-3 scoops per 24 oz of water per hour.”
Banana Chips– you can get these at pretty much any good supermarket. Think Trader Joe’s, Winco, Albertsons, Wholefoods, Safeway etc. I’ve included the link to Bare Snacks simply Banana Chips if you want to bulk order them online.
What to eat after a long run
Every runner I know looks forward to the post long run refuel. Many of us finish this final session of the week on the hangrier side of things. I have a few key go-to’s which really hit the spot. I’ll generally choose one over another based on what time of day it is. For example, if it’s closer to brunch/lunch, I’ll make a savory option, whilst if it’s in the morning a sweeter option works better for me.
Oatmeal with the works.
Mixed in egg whites x2 (yes, it does work, it doesn’t taste bad, and you’re gonna get some extra protein for your fatigued muscles)
If you’re not into trying what I just mentioned above, you could always stir in a scoop of protein powder. Just watch that it is in accordance with WADA (World Anti-Doping Guidelines) in your sport. You can check your substances on GlobalDro. Just be aware, that sometimes substances can be contaminated.
Peanut butter or almond butter stirred in.
Fruit: Chopped banana and berries on top – I like to always keep frozen berries and bananas in the house
Finished off with a dash of cinnamon, honey, brown rice syrup or maple syrup.
Omelet with the works + toast or roast potatoes
I normally do a 3 egg omelet, which I make by combining it with a dash of milk and TJ’s “nothing but the elote” seasoning + Chilli Lime seasoning, and a handful of Mexican cheese blend or mozzarella. I’ll then stir it with a whisk, then pour the mixture into a small preheated skillet with oil. Put it on medium-high, and keep an eye on it.
In a separate pan, I’ll be roasting/frying up the veg to put inside the omelet. Bell peppers, corn, a green de-seeded jalapeno, mushrooms, onion, tomatoes, and spinach are my normal go-to’s.
Seasoned veg in the skillet
Once the omelet is looking well cooked on the outside and starting to cook nicely in the middle, pop the veggies from one pan into the omelet pan, on top of one side of the omelet, and fold the omelet over. Top with more cheese or whatever you like.
I honestly never make these myself, I always buy them, but they’re delicious and really hit the spot. If you haven’t tried a Gyro, you haven’t truly lived.
Smashed Avo on toast with feta, tomatoes and poached eggs, with a drizzle of sweet balsamic and olive oil. Exactly what it says, no need for further explanation.
These are just a few of my favourites. All provide a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, and good flavour for optimal post-long run recovery. Timing-wise, I tend to have a snack 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein within 30 minutes of running, and a meal from above within the hour. I’ll probably be hungry again in 2-3 hrs time and have another meal. Listen to your body here.
Want to know some handy tips and tricks for your next grocery shop? Check out my post on Grocery Shopping Tips For Runners (especially good if you’re budgeting too!) – Click here.
Coffee For Runners: The Benefits of Caffeine for Athletes
If you participate in sports competitions regularly, it’s likely you would’ve heard athletes discuss the use of caffeine for performance-enhancing benefits. Just walk down a busy street with coffee shops near popular running or biking trails on a weekend morning, and you’ll often find cycling or run groups having a brew. Coming from Australia, coffee is a big deal. In Melbourne and Sydney in particular, Coffee is an art. You could spend a whole day exploring different coffee roasters and the varied eclectic atmosphere they create for you to sit and enjoy your brew. I’ve enjoyed exploring coffee shops in my new city, Boise.
Caffeine For Runners: Is Caffeine good for runners?
Caffeine is often recommended for runners as it can have a slight performance-enhancing effect if the individual times their ingestion correctly to their race/event start time and correctly for the duration or distance of the race. Caffeine can cause an upset stomach, better known as G.I distress for runners if the athlete is not used to coffee when training. However, if the individual is able to take on board coffee, their awareness, alertness, the focus can increase and their perception of effort may be decreased. What’s not to love about that? I’m personally a big fan of coffee before racing.
Here’s an even niftier trick you can consider which I came up with whilst out on a long run one Sunday morning. I practice this regularly to get the optimum race-day advantage. As a regular coffee drinker, many would agree that we become slightly immune to the effects of coffee over time. Considering this, I only drink decaffeinated coffee and tea, or no coffee at all, up to 5 days before a race. Whether it is a placebo effect or not, I can’t be sure, but I know I definitely feel the effects of the caffeine when I drink coffee on race day after no coffee for a few days (a temporary coffee fast, you could call it). On the day of the race, if it is an early start time, I take on board 2 shots, and if it is in the evening, up to 3. I’m buzzing and ready to go!
The only drawbacks of using caffeine is the risk of GI distress, the need to urinate and potential jitters. Getting the jitters isn’t such a big issue for distance runners, as our sport doesn’t require us to be still to execute a good performance (unlike an archer, or 100m sprinter on the start-blocks, for instance). To avoid GI distress, we train the stomach in practice to be able to handle varying amounts of caffeine, well before race day.
Should I drink Caffeine before a run?
For many runners in particular, including myself, coffee is a big part of my morning routine before training or races. One study evidently highlighted that more than two-thirds of Olympians use caffeine as a pre-workout supplement. In the hotter months, particularly when temperatures can hit 45 degrees C or 100+ Fahrenheit here in Boise, I’ll reach for the cold brew pre-run. In winter when it is significantly cooler, it’s a double shot latte or Americano. Investing in a coffee machine is your best bet for convenience and financially, especially if you’re a student or student-athlete.
I love how my morning cup of coffee increases my alertness and awareness. Most of the time I find myself running in the mornings within 30-1hr after hopping out of bed (especially in the summer). I’ll pair my coffee with a small snack to help with the digestion of the coffee and satiate my hunger during the training session. A pre-run snack that pairs well with coffee is normally a bowl of cereal with non-dairy milk or toast with jam/honey or nut butter.
If you’re an individual who believes they can’t eat before or close to a run, I urge you to train yourself to be able to take on board something, including a coffee. Training is time to practice for race day – you can survive a few uncomfortable running sessions in the short term, to invest in optimal long term nutrition.
Does Drinking Coffee make you run faster?
There’s evidence to support the benefits of caffeine in endurance-based sports. Most caffeine supplements are 2-3 shots dense (80-120 milligrams), as this is believed to be the best amount to consume to improve performance. Many online sources discuss using 5mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. With 1 cup of coffee containing around 95-120 mg of caffeine, you may have to have a double shot or two cups to get the full effects.
Coffee works to improve your performance in a few ways. Most notably, it can reduce your perceived levels of exertion during difficult endurance activities, including running.
Caffeine has a pretty short-acting effect, so from personal experience, I like to have 1 shot an hour out from the race, and another shot 30 minutes before. I take these in caffeine strips such as Revvies (https://www.revviesenergy.com/) in which each strip is equivalent to one shot of coffee. This reduces any chance of stomach upset which might be experienced if a coffee, particularly one with dairy milk, is ingested too close to the gun time. I’ll have 1 strip 30 minutes before the race, and 1 just before I line up for the race if I’m using Revvies.
The stomach can also be trained to take caffeine on board close to a race. I can have a black coffee with a dash of milk up to 45 minutes before an event, as long as I ensure I get to the bathroom before the start, this is no issue for me. I’m firing and ready to run fast!
The best way to practice caffeine intake and experiment with supplements is during training phases/periods. You can afford to make mistakes during these times – this is why it is called practice! Mastering your nutrition needs as an athlete doesn’t happen without trial and error.
Best Caffeine Supplements for Runners
For a great, convenient pre-race option (especially for Aussie based athletes, as this brand is AUS based), I use Revvies Energy Strips. They are super simple to take, simply place a strip on your tongue and allow it to dissolve. It and can be taken during a run, and right up until the start of a race. Talk about convenience! If you’re sensitive to caffeine, 1 strip is generally enough, however, if you’re a regular drinker, 2 strips are better. Revvies don’t recommend consuming more than 5 strips a day. They have 2 flavors – Arctic Charge and Tropical Hit. I personally like Arctic Charge best as it reminds me of a piece of mint gum.
Run Gum is a popular worldwide caffeine supplement used by athletes. Unlike Revvies, Run Gum is exactly what it says it is…a gum. You chew it for 5-10 minutes to effectively absorb the caffeine, b-vitamins, and taurine ingredients in the gum. Run Gum states that this immediately boosts alertness and energy, without causing stomach upset.
In terms of general caffeine supplements, I really like Tailwind. They pride themselves on natural, organic supplements that are anti-doping approved (remember to always check your supplements on GlobalDro – this is the responsibility of the athlete). For a recovery based option containing caffeine, I have used their ‘Caffeinated Coffee Rebuild’. This is great for post-session when you need a kick-start to your day. It helps to replenish depleted glycogen stores, rebuild muscles, and restore electrolytes to your body. I like to blend my sachets into a smoothie to go on my way to work, class, or morning errands. This sachet is made with organic rice protein, healthy fats from coconut milk, and a few carbohydrates added for recovery purposes (3:1 ratio of protein to carbohydrates within 30minutes of exercise is the optimal timing for recovery according to Accredited Sports Dieticians). Get yours here.
Gels containing caffeine are a great way to consume more caffeine on top of your normal cuppa pre-run or top up your caffeine stores whilst you’re out running, biking, swimming etc.
From personal experience, I would practice in training and sessions using different brands of caffeinated running gels to ensure you don’t have a stomach upset on race day, and train the body to digest it effectively. This is because the rate of caffeine absorption and the effects vary from person to person. Maurten, a reputable sports nutrition company state that this varies based on weight and how used to caffeine the individual is.
Maurten is an extremely popular brand, with Eluid Kipchoge to thank for a large amount of promotion when he used the brand to fuel his victory in the 2018 Berlin Marathon. They recently released a gel known as GEL100 CAF, containing 100mg of caffeine per serving, and 25g of carbohydrates for some extra fuel whilst you’re on the run. The great thing about this caffeinated hydrogel is it is preservative, artificial flavor and colorant free. All these nasty additives can cause stomach upsets which are unwelcome come race day. Get a box of 100 servings here.
Smart running is how you get the most bang for your buck. It involves the time, mileage, and intensity of your training load each week, recovery time between sessions, how often you race, and what cross-training activities you do to assist with fitness and/or strength. In light of the recent world events which have injected a lot of stress and uncertainty into society and individuals alike, training smarter, not harder, is the way to go for now I do believe. I call it baking a cake. I want to bake a really good cake right now – my base. Then I’ll get ready to ice it later for race season when it eventually comes back around.
I’ll admit, it took me a while to get to this headspace of tuning in with my body, and not being so rigid or structured with training. I would be lying if I said I didn’t use running as a form of coping mechanism when COVID-19 altered the way we live our lives. I was able to keep up the early mornings, harder sessions a few times a week – basically my normal training load and intensity I was doing during the collegiate season. However, onsetting fatigue and gradual discontent with a high focus on running at this time wasn’t making me happy. Instead, I decided to completely tune in to my body and use my times of higher energy to work harder, and lower energy to settle into long and slow mileage.
I now run at the time of day I best feel like it, not necessarily first thing in the morning like I usually do during school or season. I don’t put pressure on how many sessions a week I do. I’m happy if it’s just 1, and what day it is, doesn’t particularly bother me. I do a few runs with team-mates and friends for the social aspect and pure joy of getting out on the trails. I am fit, not necessarily top end fit, but I don’t need to be right now – that’s not what it is about. I’ll get ready to ice my cake when the time comes.
This is a lesson for life. Coping mechanisms are unsustainable and will result in fatigue, which then takes time to recover from. If you keep it up, it becomes a bit of a vicious cycle – like a Catch-22. I hope you get the opportunity to cash in on this advantage COVID-19 has given us to build solid values and foundations around what we do and love. All the hard work and base-building, and the personal introspection this time has ignited, will pay off later. I’m certain of it.
Smarter Running and training load: how do you manage your milage?
Mileage is something that should be gradually built, based on your background and skill level in the sport, and your injury history (because an injury is a part of any sport you compete in, at a high-level). Working with a coach who monitors this, and adapts it to suit your goals and personal needs is the best path to success and reducing injury risk. The general rule of thumb is don’t increase your mileage by more than 10% a week, sometimes 15%. You should have down weeks too, particularly after harder training ‘blocks’.
Training ‘blocks’ can be period of a few weeks (mine were generally 4-6 weeks), where there is a focus on something for a particular race or season. I know I can build the top-end speed fitness in 4 weeks that I need for faster track races, for example. My coach, team-mates and I work closely at this with race-specific workouts when the key races of the season are coming up.
This is also known as ‘periodized training’. We can’t keep extremely high levels of intensity up all year round, as it is unsustainable. So we have times of base building, speed building, endurance building, strength…you get it.
I’ve never been a particularly high-mileage runner and personally have had success with this approach, and minimal injury particularly from increased running load-induced stress. My ultimate running training schedule involves 5-6 days of running, with 1-2 doubles (25-30 mins each), a swim session, and 2 running strength- specific sessions. I’d rarely go over 100km a week. Off this training, I’ve managed to qualify and compete in some pretty cool events, and run some nifty times. There’s no doubt I will creep my mileage up in the future at some point – try it, give it a go, test my limits. I don’t want to be left wondering. It’s a bit like Mario Andretti’s quote:
“If everything seems under control you’re not going fast enough” – Mario Andretti
Sometimes it is good to take some risks. Just know when it is the right time to test the waters here.
What is Smart Running?
Smart running is all about tapping into your personal needs, training and race goals, goals, and desires in life external to running and sport, injury history, and the context in which you are living in. To have the smartest approach to running, your program should be individualized and flexible. You and your coach should have open, honest communication which allows for program adaptability. I’ve been lucky to have this for the duration of my running career. If you don’t feel like you can communicate with your coach, then you might need to re-evaluate your training set-up to better suit your needs.
“It’s better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation” – Herman Melville
No one ever truly succeeds if they spend the majority of their time copying or imitating others. Don’t get me wrong, there is a great deal to be learned from coaches, mentors, training partners, elite-athletes etc, but these lessons should just be parts to building your ‘whole’. We learn a lot just from our own experiences in the sport. Whether this is in sessions, races, mentally tough situations, long-run banter and discussions with our training partners, running training through a global pandemic…..
I like to information gather when making decisions about the training approach. I’ll consult my coach, tap into how I feel, map out a rough training timeline calendar to key races. This ensures my preparation is optimal and doesn’t induce injury in the build-up. Further, it must be manageable with the rest of life’s commitments and hobbies. If you’re anything like me, you might enjoy a few things outside of running. In fact, I’ve found keeping up my hobbies like music and singing, surfing, skiing, doing outdoor activities with friends, website management and blog post writing, etc make me a better runner – as I’m my happiest self. So I stress to my teammates and friends who ask if you enjoy lots of things, find a way to achieve balance. Running more is not always better. It can help – but there is a time and place to increase and reduce load.
How does stress impact running training and performance?
My coach at Boise State has a good analogy for how stress can impact running training and performance. It also most often ends up trickling through other aspects of our life. We want a sustainable approach that is optimal for long-term success and caters to changing needs, goals, and shifting life situations. Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, when more things are out of our control. We need to focus on what we can control.
My coach calls it the ‘cups’ approach. Bear with me. Imagine your life is balanced between different cups, that are each half-filled with water. Considering this analogy, most of us have cups for:
All these cups need to be balanced with certain amounts of water, not overflowing. This is optimal to reduce stress and anxiety in our life. Before you think, “that’s impossible” – hear me out.
If 1 cup is overflowing with water, for example – a heavy load at work, something else has to give. Some of that water needs to go somewhere else to balance the extra work stress out.
If multiple cups begin to overflow, we start to spread ourselves thin. Don’t panic if this is you, especially at this time in the world at present. We just have to reevaluate priorities and potentially make a few shifts or changes to better suit our needs.
So, next time you want to push your limits or step outside your comfort zone in training, for example, make sure your cups allow for this. Same for any other endeavor. You’ll recover better, perform better, and develop smart habits for the future. It’s establishing foundations for long-term success in running or whatever it is you want to do.
Running is a very physically tough, and psychologically demanding sport. Mental skills training for mental toughness is an essential ingredient in any pursuit that you desire to reach your full potential in and explore your boundaries. This goes for sport and life in general. We have to find that balance of physical and mental training and recovery. Interestingly, mental skills training fatigues the brain, as does a hard session fatigue the body – so we must train, recover, and adapt.
Your mind can be your best friend or your own worst enemy. It’s important to establish some tools to utilize when out training, racing or facing your next physical challenge. To run at our very best, it’s important to recognize what your own strengths and weaknesses are. In doing so, you can take advantage of your strengths, and become more aware of areas you struggle a little more with. Think of it as optimizing your own mental toolkit.
If you want to find out what your top character strengths are, take this quiz run through The University of Pennsylvania (yes, it has quite a few questions, but it should take way too long and it is reliable!). You’ll have to enter a username and email, don’t worry, you won’t get spammed. Take the Top 7 as your top character strengths. I did this, and my results showed my top strength was curiosity and interest in the world, the second was fairness, equity and justice, and third, creativity, ingenuity, and originality. I keep these in mind when I approach running training, teamwork, and racing. This way I can truly frame my running mindset to assist me in performing at my best.
What is mental toughness?
Mental toughness is the ability to perform at a high range of your potential consistently, under the ever-changing and often unpredictable conditions of competition and high-demand situations. A mentally tough individual will be able to execute their task with a desirable level of focus, determination, resilience, and calmness under stress and pressure.
Mental toughness is often a key determiner whether you finish at the front or at the back of a pack. One study conducted on Australian footballers determined that the group that exerted the highest levels of mental toughness favored “both mastery- and performance-approach goals and self-determined as well as extrinsic motivational tendencies”. In the paragraphs below, I’ll go into more detail about these specific mental skills which can be adopted to develop mental toughness.
The great thing about mental toughness is that it can be developed and trained, and studies have shown that it is innate to humans as it was a crucial characteristic that impacted survival ability in prehistoric times. We train mental toughness by building an ‘artillery’ of mental skills. These are characteristics such as focus, determination, dedication, resilience, performing in high-pressure settings, selective emotional ability under high-stress situations, confidence, perseverance, self-belief, the ability to work with a team, positivity in difficult situations and motivation (I’m sure there are many more you can think of!). Some of these character strengths you will find come more naturally to you, whilst others will require practice and work. Ultimately, it is about honing in and capitalizing on your strengths and improving weaknesses that could be beneficial to your sport or endeavor.
We can build mental skills in a sports psychology setting or make time to deliberately practice them. We are kidding ourselves as dedicated sports people if we think that mental toughness is something that will come magically to us – it takes dedication and deliberate commitment to improve at anything and perform at a high level. I personally utilize sports psychology through the collegiate system. A general session involves assessing strengths and weaknesses, reflecting on the experience, and how I could go about the scenario next time. A sports psychologist or mental skills trainer will assist in building key areas to perform well at the particular discipline and to meet the personal needs of the athlete.
You’ve already taken the first steps to build your mental toughness by simply educating yourself on what it is. I found it super helpful for my own pursuits to learn that our body can actually go beyond our physical perception of pain and tiredness when we hit this stage in a race or hard training session. The voice in your head telling you to “slow down”, “stop”, “give up”, “this is too hard” is better known as the pre-historic brain/ monkey brain or mind/survival instinct mind. It is simply your brain trying to stop you from hurting yourself. It doesn’t know the difference between a race and a real situation of life-or-death. Just like your legs don’t know you are running a 10km race, rather than a hard 10km training session with your teammates. It’s all in your mind. Mental wandering and negative self-talk are the key inhibitors to us performing at our absolute physical best. This is why it is essential to train will-power, self-control and decision making under pressure. We need to find a way to automate decisions and execute a plan of some sort, to prevent the mind wandering.
How does the mind work in a hard training or race scenario?
When we race or train hard, the pain and discomfort we experience are from the emotional part of our brain, as I mentioned before. It is intended to protect us. We simply need to make a decision – the brain will process this decision based on a number of factors, including personal expectations coming into the event, past experiences in similar situations, level of desire to achieve (resilience, motivation, goals, perseverance), and stimulus feedback to the brain, including fatigue, fuel, environmental setting etc.
There are a couple of things we can do to calm the monkey mind, take the extra stress and anxiety out of the race day or hard session equation. Firstly, we can train our willpower. Will power is the ability to control your attitude, thoughts, feelings, impulse, and execute a task with clear, beneficial, goal-oriented decision making. You probably already exercise it in some sense – like setting an early morning alarm for training and not questioning whether you go or not. You just do, it’s not really a decision up for debate. Same with attending a hard training session you might be dreading. Unless injured or sick, show up and see how it goes – you may just surprise yourself. However, as humans, we only have so much will-power each day. Take into account that our will-power is highest earlier in the day, along with our ability to exert self-control. This is where the common notion of doing your hardest tasks earlier in the day, or first thing comes into play.
The harder and more stressful the decisions, the number of decisions, and the complexity of decisions all dip into our will-power stores. The goal is to make a lot of these decisions more automated (subconscious) and focus on the ‘when’ of the decision (timing is everything), rather than the how, which can cause extra stress if over-thinking occurs.
We want to capitalize on the time of day when we will make the best choices, and practice our strategy of will-power and decision making at this time of day to suit our needs.
Just like physical activity requires recovery, so do mental reserves including will-power (recovery is just as important, it is where we get stronger, after being ‘broken down’ in some sense in training). If our willpower is low, our ability to make clear and beneficial decisions and exercise self-control is hindered. Physical fatigue will also contribute to lower will-power which in turn, impacts decision making + self-control. Sleep, adequate recovery, and nutrition can aid us in these areas. Athletes or high-achievers in any discipline should aim for at least 8hrs of sleep a night on most nights to perform at their best. It has even been stressed to me many times that 9-10hours is ideal – however many of us would struggle to do this in today’s busy world. Healthy, energy-dense meals are also key. Carbohydrates (in particular – glucose), fuel our brainpower. If you experience ‘mental fog’ or ‘blur’, this could be a reason why.
What are some mental running strategies?
Set yourself some goals and intentions! You’re going to hate me when I say, ‘write them down’. Really – do it. Get it on paper, or record it via voice memo if you must. Whatever. It is just crucial that these goals become a physical manifestation in some sense. I like to stick mine on the wall. Goals work best if they are categorized:
Process goals: this is the ‘journey’ as I like to put it. Where you’ll direct your focus and deliberate intention
Performance goals (short term and long term): aka. Some short term goals may be new PB in this 5km race or run comfortably for 10km. These goals help focus our execution and are the technical and strategic notch in our belt. A long term goal could be to qualify for a team, eventually run a marathon (make sure you do some very solid, consistent, long-term training to build up to this!)
The more detail, the better. List your hows, whys and ways of getting there. There are many paths to achieving a particular goal.
Be flexible. Things change, life chucks curve balls. The more practice you have at adapting and adopting, the better off you’ll be long term.
Self- talk. You have to practice this. A great website I came across explains self-talk as:
“Self-efficacy is the unshakeable belief of an athlete that they can meet the challenge they are facing. It is arguably the cornerstone for any great performance.”
We must question our own inner dialogue. Are our thoughts mostly negative? positive? What emotion is behind most of our thoughts? Recognize your own patterns! Often our mental talk/self-talk is habitual. So if any bad habits have formed which are not of benefit to your performance, or hold you back in any way, it’s time to put in some work to change them.
My in-race or session self-talk is very simple, involving just a few ‘cue-words’ that are easy to digest for the brain in a high-pressure, fatiguing situation, and don’t have any emotional association words involved in the phrase (things like good, bad, can’t, can etc.). My coach in Australia taught me to adopt ‘breathe, relax, momentum’. I have thought these 3 keywords for an entire 5km race. It worked a charm. If I felt my mind start to wander, I drew it back to these simple thoughts. I had already thought through my race execution plan, so this is all I had left to think about. Remember, on the track, course, court, field, meeting room- wherever you are trying to execute at your full potential and at a high-level – you are your own best friend or worst enemy.
Exercise your ability to be in control yet flexible to challenge and change. Often a scenario will change in a race very quickly. This is what makes them so exciting. You should be ready to adapt your plan and decisions based on perceptions and feedback. This is best practiced through hard training sessions and racing. Throw yourself in the deep end, and learn from mistakes, then try again.
Make decision making more automatic. The more decisions we can make subconscious, often the better. This is because less energy is used to make this particular type of decision. Again, racing and training is the place to practice and learn how to execute this mental skill. Personally, by the end of track season, I have cultivated a very personal plan as to how I best execute my distance (1500-10km). I take into account a sit-and-kick race situation, or a slow burn scenario, and go from there. I practice both conditions in training, so I can put my best foot forward if I need to sprint from home or maintain a high-pace for a longer period of time. I also learn to prioritize my decisions – don’t sweat the small stuff, particularly things you can’t control, such as the weather.
Glucose levels! Not really a mental skill, but worth a mention. New research shows that a hit of glucose (in the form of glucose-rich food) can temporarily restore our mental strength including will-power and ability to make good in-race decisions. This is because to perform at our best psychologically/mentally requires adequate blood glucose levels in the brain. You hear about nutrition strategies in the marathon which is for physical and psychological benefit. However, the question being posed now is? Even in shorter races less than an hour in which our glucose levels will not be depleted too significantly, could a shot of it benefit our mental capacity? Food for thought. Literally.
Sleep. It is commonly known that 6hrs or less of sleep, particularly bad sleeping patterns over a long period of time will impact our mood, emotional capacity, ability to make good decisions, mental clarity, self-control, and will-power.
Learning to relax in a high-pressure scenario, such as a race. If we stress too early, we are draining energy, which is detrimental to our race. A way to practice this is to work on persevering when pain, fatigue, and tiredness hit us in training and less-important races, so we are ready for the big day/important side of the season.
Framing and perspective. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t meet your expectations. Even expectations of others. You are only human, and I know most athletes don’t go through rigorous training to not put their best effort in on race day. We are not here to waste time and opportunity. If you don’t achieve what you desired, give yourself a certain time to be upset, and then move on and reflect, focusing on the next thing. The great thing about sport is there is always another race/event/challenge. Give yourself a pat on the back every now and then too. Running isn’t life or death, it is something we do, love, enjoy and at the end of the day, it should be fun!
Returning briefly to the mental framework – make sure you don’t do any mentally challenging activities too close to a race or difficult training session. This is because our ability to perform is hindered when we are mentally fatigued. Again, this involves will-power, which impacts decision making, emotional state, and self-control. The more we race and put ourselves under these high-pressure conditions, the more we train our will-power to work in a positive symbiosis with pain and onset fatigue.
Does Visualization or Imagery help with training mental toughness for running?
Visualization is the process of establishing mental imagery of how you might like to execute the race. This technique is a mental skill that should be a part of our mental skills ‘toolbox’, as I like to put it. It is how in ‘theory’ you can experience race day and run the race before you have actually run it. You can visualize pre and post-race processes, and the race itself. For example, this could involve the morning of the race, how you’ll feel warming up, and/or the race itself. In terms of race visualization, I personally like to mentally run through sections of the course and have a best-case scenario and plan B strategy ready to go. If you can see the racecourse beforehand, or have a map as a second-case scenario, base your visualizations off this. As this was my first cross-country season in the NCAA competition, I had to plan my visualization off maps, and then the day before the race after running on the course, I could base my imagery off the course itself. I actually enjoyed this process, as moving from map to the physical reality of the course allowed me to make mental connections which were much more memorable. Think of it as an ‘ah huh!’ moment, like when I realized that the hill we were jogging up on course inspection was the big long one I planned to overtake others on based off the course map we were given a few days before. For some athletes, it is possible to visualize their plan/s of execution from the start to finish. If this resonates with you and your scenario, go with this.
You do have to find the time to practice visualization. I like to practice before I go to sleep at night. This way, it is the last thing I contemplate for the day. I channel how I want to feel emotionally, how I envision my body moving across the course, how I will take certain corners, undulations, hills, and the finishing sections. Yes, it is detailed, but it is worth the effort. You’ll feel less nervous on race day, coming into it with a flexible plan of execution that is thought through. Consider making it a habit, and a part of your race day routine and strategy.
How do you stay motivated to keep running and training?
You are in control of how you feel and choose to feel, and as soon as you can recognize this, you can start practicing your ability to exercise this and enhance it as mental strength. A good word for it is attitude. I’m not saying emotionally regulate, we all feel tired and lack motivation sometimes, and in turn, heading out for a run or doing that tedious task you had on your list for the day is the last thing on your agenda. Acknowledge it, and then take action as to how you will approach the task ahead. Often, you’ll feel better having done it. Luckily in running, you get that lovely endorphin high, which is a natural mood booster.
When I say ‘take action’, what I mean is to make the decision on your attitude. This can involve the decision to pump yourself up and carry out some mood-boosting actions or ease into the run with a sense of calm and mindfulness. As an athlete, you’ll need to figure out what these techniques are for you. I will go into some personal examples below.
Motivation also correlates with expectations – you can set them for yourself or choose to let the run unfold more naturally. When I’m tired, I take it one step at a time like putting on my shoes, stepping out the door, and zoning out to a podcast. The best athletes in the world know what amplifies and intensifies their feelings (boosts their desire to train, in a sense). For me, it’s playing some high energy music, doing my hair in braids or in a potential race hairstyle I want to try, and putting on what I consider my ‘fast’ activewear. If I want to calm myself down after a stressful day, I will focus on my breath, or rope a friend or teammate into training with me if it is a solo session (it helps distract from the ‘tiredness’ or stress, which often we carry in our body).
It is impossible to be in a high-energy, motivated state all the time, but we can develop the mental skills to get us out the door regardless of our emotional state. Who knows how you will feel on race day? Think of it as practice for that. Often goal-setting helps us stay on track and find that bit of motivation we need to push forward. I like to make it an unquestionable decision. Unless I’m sick or injured (and all the other situations I don’t need to list), I go. It is a part of my routine and I’m a better Lara to everyone if I do, no point in denying that!