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
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.
1 THEY RUN LATER THAN YOU DO
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.
2 THEY SLEEP MORE THAN YOU DO
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.
3 THEY EAT FOR SPEED… AND INJURY PREVENTION
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.
4 THEY “PERIODIZE” THEIR TRAINING PARTNERS
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.”
5 THEY TRAIN THEIR BRAINS, NOT JUST THEIR BODIES
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.”
7 THEY TEAM UP
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.
6 THEY SMILE, ESPECIALLY WHEN IT HURTS
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.
8 THEY WRITE IT ALL DOWN — FOR THEMSELVES, NOT FOR OTHERS
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.