Chartered physiotherapist Shane O’Brien outlines his top tips for novice runners
Data collected from some of the most popular Couch to 5k mobile phone apps shows us that millions of people worldwide have successfully completed the journey from couch to 5k, showing that running is a form of exercise suitable for most. Here are some things to keep in mind
You can do it: If you can comfortably walk for 30 minutes, then you are capable of running 5k in eight weeks’ time. However, if you have not been taking regular exercise, then walking 5k non-stop at the end of the eight weeks would be a rewarding goal. Don’t let age, bodyweight, or current fitness levels put you off, as you can slowly build up your fitness following a structured programme, such as the eight-week Couch to 5k programme from Athletics Ireland.
Treat your feet: A good pair of running shoes is important. ‘Good’ does not have to mean expensive, and despite clever marketing suggesting otherwise, only a very small percentage of people actually require specialised shoes or customised orthotics. The research suggests a person should select their footwear based on comfort and then gradually build up their walking/running mileage in the same trainers. Clothing, such as base layers, a high-visibility jacket and a reflective armband, are recommended.
Remember to warm-up and cool-down: Warming up prior to exercise reduces the risk of injury by as much as 70pc. The aim of a warm-up is to raise your heart rate and prepare the neuromuscular system for activity. It might consist of a brisk walk and some dynamic exercises. A cool-down achieves the opposite of the warm-up by gradually lowering your heart rate and blood pressure and stretching out the main working muscles, such as the hamstring, quadriceps and calf muscles.
Stick to the plan: Any new exercise should be introduced gradually. While you might feel like the early sessions of a couch to 5k programme are easy, you should resist the temptation to run faster, further or more often, and instead, stick to the plan. Many muscle and tendon injuries occur as a result of a sharp increase in activity and, therefore, gradual progression is paramount. Stick to the three walks/runs per week and avoid running on consecutive days to allow the body time to recover and adapt.
Run for time not distance: When running to achieve a set distance, beginner runners often feel pressure to cover a certain distance in a certain time. This can lead to poor technique, resulting in injury and reduced enjoyment. Many Couch to 5k programmes give the option to run for distance or time, and beginner runners should run at a steady pace for a set time and not worry about the distance.
Add strengthening exercises: Just two sessions per week of strengthening exercises has been shown to reduce the risk of acute injury by 30pc and overuse injury by 50pc.You don’t need any fancy equipment or a gym membership to add strengthening exercises to your weekly exercise regime. Instead, you can do a bodyweight circuit at home, including exercises such as squats and press-ups.
Ensure adequate nutrition: Carbohydrate-rich foods help to fuel exercise performance and protein-rich foods will help with muscle repair post-exercise. You should wait for two to four hours before running after a large meal and at least 30 minutes after a light snack. You should aim to drink two to three litres of water per day to ensure optimum hydration. Further information on a balanced diet can be found on gov.ie/en/campaigns/healthy-ireland
Recover with a good night’s sleep: Several processes, such as the release of human growth hormone and muscle protein synthesis, occur while we slee,p and these are vital to promote adequate recovery from exercise. Studies investigating the sleeping habits of athletes have shown that those sleeping less than seven hours per night for a two-week duration have a 50pc greater risk of sustaining a new injury. It is recommended that adults get seven to nine hours sleep per night, so reduce caffeine and minimise alcohol.
It’s OK to repeat a session or a week: You don’t have to succeed the first time every time. If you struggle with a particular session or have a difficult week, then its OK to repeat until you successfully complete it. Everyone’s journey is different and taking an extra week or two to complete the programme won’t be any harm.
Don’t worry if it’s hard at first: Running has a steep learning curve and once you get through the first few sessions, you will find it becomes gradually easier and more enjoyable. The first, second, and third running sessions will be the hardest and you are likely to suffer from DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness). This is normal post-exercise muscle soreness and is nothing to worry about. It is important to note that if you do have persistent soreness or discomfort over a couple of runs, then you should get it seen to by a chartered physiotherapist.
Shane O’Brien MISCP is Senior Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist at the Beacon Hospital’s Outpatient Physiotherapy and Sports Medicine department. See beaconhospital.ie/our-services/sports-medicine/