The Habits of Highly-Fit Run­ners

Run­ning can be a mys­tery. When is the best time to run? How much sleep do you re­ally need be­fore a race? We look at the cur­rent re­search and tac­tics of the best hack your l

Canadian Running - - CONTENTS - By Jes­sica Al­dred

Run­ning can be a mys­tery. When is the best time to run? How much sleep do you re­ally need? And what about fu­elling? Nail­ing all the de­tails is tricky, so that’s why writer Jes­sica Al­dred dug into the cur­rent re­search and tac­tics of the best ath­letes in the world to fig­ure out the per­fect set of hacks to make you a highly fit run­ner.

You know them. You envy them. You see them look­ing calm and fo­cused in the last, lung-bust­ing stretch of a lo­cal 5k. You see them trot­ting home with their fin­isher’s medals and space blan­kets while you’re still at the hel­la­cious 16k mark of the half­marathon. You have be­come dev­as­tat­ingly fa­mil­iar with them as they sprint past you on the soul-crush­ing hill climb. But how do you be­come one of them? As rac­ing sea­son ap­proaches, Cana­dian Run­ning shares the (of­ten sur­pris­ing) habits of hfrs (Highly Fit Run­ners) in the hopes that we mere mor­tals might be able to fig­ure out how to achieve sim­i­lar re­sults.


While con­ven­tional wis­dom has al­ways held that the early bird run­ner gets the race re­sults worm, a study out of the Univer­sity of Chicago sug­gests that our me­tab­o­lisms adapt bet­ter to evening and night­time ex­er­cise. By mon­i­tor­ing the blood glucose and hor­mone lev­els of five dif­fer­ent groups of vol­un­teers (four of whom ex­er­cised at dif­fer­ent times of the day, and a con­trol group that didn’t ex­er­cise at all), re­searchers con­cluded t hat late-day work­outs can be more i ntense than morn­ing work­outs be­cause pro­tein syn­the­sis peaks in the evening, as does the ef­fi­ciency of your car­dio­vas­cu­lar sys­tem. (The late-day ex­er­cis­ers demon­strated sub­stan­tially larger drops in glucose lev­els in re­sponse to ex­er­cise when com­pared to other times of the day, as well as much larger in­creases in cor­ti­sol and thy­rotropin, two hor­mones cru­cial to en­ergy me­tab­o­lism.)

So, for those of you scratch­ing your heads and ask­ing “thyro-what-what?” or be­moan­ing the fact that 6 p.m. is potato chip and/or happy hour, just know that hfrs in your life have read the Univer­sity of Chicago study (yes, the whole thing, not just the ab­stract) and are turn­ing their noses up at af­ter-work drinks, lac­ing up their shoes in favour of a re­search-tested, per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing me­tab­o­lism boost, and en­joy­ing the train­ing re­sults that go with it. And let’s face it: even if they aren’t 100 per cent sure about the sci­ence, they know how much they ben­e­fit from swap­ping the 500-plus ex­cess calo­ries and sleep-dam­ag­ing adult bev­er­ages syn­ony­mous with happy hour in favour of a head-clear­ing, late-day work­out. You’re wel­come, mor­tals.


In a cruel twist of fate that seems de­signed to make the par­ents of young chil­dren give up on run­ning en­tirely, re­cent stud­ies have shown that elite ath­letes need at least 7.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep to achieve op­ti­mal per­for­mance. And as Dr. Charles Sa­muels and Dr. Amy Ben­der of Cal­gary’s Cen­tre of Sleep & Hu­man Per­for­mance re­mind us, this trans­lates into spend­ing at least eight to 10 hours in bed, al­low­ing for time to fall asleep and wake up pe­ri­od­i­cally through­out the night.

While th­ese marathon bed-in stretches may seem unattain­able for most, you can bet the hfrs you know are mak­ing sleep as big a pri­or­ity as nutri­tion and train­ing plans. With this in mind, Sa­muels and Ben­der recommend sev­eral “gold medal sleep strate­gies” that are as use­ful for mo­ti­vated age-groupers as they are for as­pir­ing Olympians.

Think in terms of weekly sleep rather than nightly sleep, aim­ing for roughly 60– 65 hours of sleep per week in­clud­ing naps. This al­lows run­ners to “bank” sleep in ad­vance of events where they an­tic­i­pate sleep­ing poorly the night be­fore, or to “earn back ” sleep the night af­ter tan­go­ing with a teething tod­dler from dusk un­til dawn. (A re­cent study pub­lished in Re­search in Sports Medicine showed that ul­tra­run­ners who devel­oped such sleep-man­age­ment strate­gies in ad­vance of the gru­elling 2013 The North Face Ul­tra-Trail du Mont-Blanc posted su­pe­rior re­sults to those who didn’t, al­low­ing them to bet­ter with­stand sleep de­pri­va­tion dur­ing the race it­self.) So the next time you see an hfr power nap­ping their way through a low-stakes con­fer­ence call, you know what’s up.

For night owls whose longer cir­ca­dian rhythms tend to keep them up later, try to seek out 20–30 min­utes of ex­po­sure to early morn­ing light, which should re­set your bi­o­log­i­cal rhythm such that you be­come sleepier ear­lier. And at the end of the day – es­pe­cially in that cru­cial hour be­fore bed­time – cre­ate what Ben­der and Sa­muels call a “tech­nol­ogy and bright light cur­few.” Avoid the type of bright light that sig­nals the brain to wake up rather than wind down, brush your teeth in a dimmed set­ting, move your de­vices away from your night­time reach, and cre­ate a cool, dark and cave-like space in which to sleep. And if the re­al­ity of night light-need­ing kiddo bed crash­ers and non-run­ning part­ners surf­ing Twit­ter un­til 1am make sleep cave con­struc­tion nigh on im­pos­si­ble, opt for a sleep mask and earplugs. You know that hfr down the street has a hy­per­baric pitch-black sleep cham­ber in their base­ment for this very pur­pose, but there’s no need to go to ex­tremes. You can rest easy know­ing that, so long as you’re get­ting an av­er­age of 8+ hours of sleep per night each week, you could be re­duc­ing your odds of in­jury by as much as 60 per cent, at least ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study of ado­les­cent elite ath­letes pub­lished in the Scan­dana­vian Jour­nal of Medicine & Sci­ence in Sports.

Set cur­fews on two of the big­gest sleep-steal­ing cul­prits: caf­feine and al­co­hol. Keep the for­mer con­fined to the a.m. hours, avoid­ing hid­den sources like dark choco­late that could sneak into your evening, and limit al­co­hol to no more than one drink with din­ner.


It’s old news that hfrs know how to eat – sorry, fuel, in hfr- speak – for max­i­mum per­for­mance. But did you know that by pri­or­i­tiz­ing a diet that meets or ex­ceeds the rec­om­mended in­take of fish, fruits and veg­eta­bles, they could also be re­duc­ing their in­jury risk by more than 60 per cent? The same study of elite ado­les­cent ath­letes that il­lu­mi­nated the in­jury pre­ven­tion ben­e­fits of enough sleep pointed to­ward sim­i­lar ben­e­fits com­ing from a healthy, balanced diet. While a com­pa­ra­ble study of age-group adult ath­letes has yet to be per­formed, you can bet your friendly neigh­bour­hood hfr will be the first in line to vol­un­teer for it.


While it’s no se­cret that most hfrs will strive to “train up” (which is to say, train with run­ners slightly faster than they are) in or­der to reap the per­for­mance ben­e­fits, the most F among them will typ­i­cally os­cil­late be­tween train­ing “up,” train­ing “even,” and train­ing “down.” Mar­shall and Pa­ter­son re­fer to this as “pe­ri­odiz­ing” one’s train­ing part­ners, and it doesn’t just have the ben­e­fit of put­ting the hfr through a range of paces and dis­tances; it also nur­tures a pos­i­tive self-im­age that bal­ances the hfrs need for chal­lenge and growth with his or her need for ego re­in­force­ment. Just try not to take it per­son­ally if you find an hfr lop­ing ef­fort­lessly next to you the next time you hit the track – in­stead, see it as an op­por­tu­nity to try your hand at “train­ing up.”


As Dr. Simon Mar­shall and pro triath­lete Lesley Pa­ter­son point out in The Brave Ath­lete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Oc­ca­sion, the big­gest chal­lenges ath­letes face typ­i­cally come from the “three pound lump of crazy” known as the hu­man brain. One can only suc­ceed, they ar­gue, by mas­ter­ing the brain’s role in train­ing and rac­ing – a com­plex and ever-chang­ing dance be­tween our lim­bic sys­tem (our an­cient or “Chimp” brains, re­spon­si­ble for in­stan­ta­neous emo­tional and phys­i­o­log­i­cal re­sponses to our drives, in­stincts, and ex­ter­nal stim­uli) and our frontal cor­tex (our mod­ern or “Pro­fes­sor” brain in Mar­shall and Pa­ter­son’s terms, re­spon­si­ble for our ra­tio­nal, eth­i­cal and prob­lem-solv­ing be­hav­iour.) Since our “Chimp” brains evolved sev­eral mil­len­nia ago in or­der to (nec­es­sar­ily) keep us safe from harm, they are prone to over-re­act­ing in a con­tem­po­rary con­text that presents us with lit­tle by way of “real” dan­ger, caus­ing prob­lems that range from pan­ick­ing in the face of mid-race dis­com­fort to plant­ing the seeds of neu­roses that un­der­mine and dam­age our self-im­age as ath­letes. In a per­fect world, our Chimp brain and our Pro­fes­sor brain would work to­gether tidily, with the for­mer pre­sent­ing each urge or im­pulse to the lat­ter for care­ful, ra­tio­nal con­sid­er­a­tion, in re­al­ity, “(y)our Chimp is a bully. And this bully has light­ning fast ref lexes and su­per­hu­man pow­ers of per­sua­sion.”

Mar­shall and Pa­ter­son pro­pose a range of use­ful strate­gies to help put our “Pro­fes­sor” brain – if not to­tally back in the driver’s seat – at least within easy reach of the con­trols. Th­ese strate­gies in­clude adopt­ing a growth mind­set that al­lows us to see per­ceived fail­ures or short­com­ings as things we sim­ply haven’t achieved yet; prac­tic­ing vi­su­al­iza­tion ex­er­cises (some­thing they call “Watch­ing The Suck”) that help us pic­ture, rise above, and re-frame our worst ath­letic mo­ments; and cul­ti­vat­ing a scrappy al­ter-ego who is im­per­vi­ous to the usual down­falls and anx­i­eties of our ev­ery­day selves. hfrs don’t be­come hfrs with­out hav­ing some htrs (Highly Ter­ri­ble Races). The dif­fer­ence is that hfrs have fig­ured out how to ref lect on their neg­a­tive ex­pe­ri­ences, dis­tance them­selves from the emo­tional dev­as­ta­tion that came with them, and ref lect upon and ul­ti­mately re-frame th­ese ex­pe­ri­ences as op­por­tu­ni­ties for growth and learn­ing. And who knows? That ex­cep­tional hfr game face you see on race day might just be a suc­cess­ful al­ter ego in ac­tion. This is why, for my next race, I’ll be toe­ing the line as Liza Ladys­plain, who carves a notch on her Garmin wrist­band ev­ery time she passes a guy who tried to speed up when he heard her foot­steps, and who de­lights in in­ter­rupt­ing long-winded run­ning sto­ries with the word “ac­tu­ally.”


There’s no ques­tion that group train­ing can help boost mo­ti­va­tion and morale, but chances are the hfrs you know have fig­ured out the next-level rea­son why they see im­proved re­sults when they train with oth­ers: the fact that their pain tol­er­ance ac­tu­ally in­creases thanks to a height­ened, col­lec­tive en­dor­phin surge. This was the con­clu­sion of a 2009 study of col­lege row­ers that com­pared the re­sults of syn­chro­nized train­ing with solo train­ing, and re­searchers have likened the shared, en­dor­phin-en­hanced eu­pho­ria of group work­outs to other syn­chro­nized so­cial ac­tiv­i­ties (such as laugh­ter, mak­ing mu­sic and danc­ing) we hu­mans seem to grav­i­tate to­ward. So whether it’s a run club, spin class, or dance-fight­ing col­lec­tive, you as­pir­ing hfrs might want to in­ves­ti­gate team­ing up for your next big work­out.


That win­ning grin you see on hfr’s faces as they power to­ward the fin­ish line? It might not just be self-sat­is­fied smug­ness af­ter all. Cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science re­search sug­gests that we can al­ter the lev­els of those neu­ro­trans­mit­ters i n our brains as­so­ci­ated with con­fi­dence sim­ply by al­ter­ing our pos­ture and fa­cial ex­pres­sions – a phe­nom­e­non called “em­bod­ied cog­ni­tion,” wherein the body’s per­for­mance of a cer­tain emo­tion prompts the brain to ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­ence/ pro­duce that emo­tion. As a re­sult, smil­ing dur­ing the most painful part of a race – even if you re­ally don’t feel like it – can ac­tu­ally make you feel bet­ter be­cause it prompts the re­lease of dopamine and its plea­sur­able ef­fects. So take com­fort in know­ing that those smil­ing hfrs you see sprint­ing to a new PB are sim­ply fak­ing it un­til they make it… and take a page from their play­book and try it for your­self.


For all that shar­ing our lat­est Strav-ac­com­plish­ments can pro­vide a short term mo­ti­va­tion boost via the sweet, sweet op­er­ant re­ward of brag­ging rights and pos­i­tive feed­back from other run­ners, there’s a rea­son why rel­a­tively few elite run­ners share their en­tire train­ing log via so­cial me­dia. hfrs know that the on­line pre­sen­ta­tion of your run­ning self in ev­ery­day life cap­tures only the small­est snap­shot of your progress, and at its worst, can dis­tract from the long-term fo­cus, hind­sight, and ret­ro­spec­tive learn­ing a thor­ough train­ing jour­nal can pro­vide. “I write my train­ing down ev­ery night, and I like hav­ing it like a jour­nal as op­posed to some spread­sheet,” U.S. Olympian Dathan Ritzen­hein told Run­ner’s World in 2016. “It feels more per­sonal to me that way, and I can log ex­actly what I feel.” hfrs like Ritzen­hein keep track of each de­tail in their train­ing jour­nal for their own growth and ben­e­fit, not the ex­ter­nal praise of other run­ners… which they are cer­tain to re­ceive in per­son at the fin­ish of their next race.

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