5 Myths About Distance Running

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Hey Skinny, looks like it's time for some push-ups! So, you live on pasta and bagels right? Running isn't a real sport!

After more than 14 years of running experience — in high school, college, and ever since — I've heard every insult and misconception that exists about the sport of distance running. Some are true (yes, our shorts are short), but most are false.

Running has a bad reputation that seems to be exaggerated by some fitness circles that don't understand the right way to train for road races like the 5k, 10k, or even the marathon. Indeed, running is a one-dimensional form of exercise that has the potential to create specific weaknesses or imbalances.

Flash back about 40 years and you'll see that runners ran a lot of miles at a slower pace — and did little else in the general fitness and strength departments. The conventional wisdom insists that marathoners are doing the same today.

If we look even further back in history — back to the 1950s when Roger Bannister became the first man in history to run a sub-4:00 mile — training looked wildly different. Instead of high mileage and sparse speed workouts, runners favored low mileage and high intensity. Track intervals were so common that they comprised almost every training session! This training style resembled the popular HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) or Tabata workouts of today.

As our understanding of training theory, physiology, and exercise science has matured over the decades, the training of today now takes a more balanced approach than both the 1950s and 1970s. And in turn, modern runners are more well-rounded and athletic than their predecessors. The dramatic improvement in world records as varied as the mile and the marathon is a testament to today's state-of-the-art training.

Runners don't just jog slow miles and eat platefuls of spaghetti. Nor do we shy away from lifting weights, sprinting, and working on coordination. In fact, these are skills necessary to successful distance running. These skills allowed me to (somewhat surprisingly) win the 2012 Maryland Warrior Dash, beating nearly 17,000 other CrossFitters, Parkour athletes, and runners.

Today I'll dispel the popular misconceptions about runners, running, and the sport's effect on your health. By the end of this article I hope you'll be lacing up your running shoes and pulling on your short shorts (well, one step at a time).

MYTH #1: Running Decreases Muscle Mass

This myth is actually partly true — but for the majority of men there's no need to worry. If you're particularly bulky and don't practice any aerobic exercises like swimming, cycling, or even hiking, then starting to run can slim you down.

However, running doesn't u201Ceat muscleu201D or break it down as fuel. To get to that level of catabolic activity, you'll need to combine a diet almost entirely void of protein with a high mileage, high intensity running schedule. Like any extreme form of exercise, that combination will certainly reduce your overall muscle mass.

A more realistic running program — say an introductory marathon training plan — will instead just prevent additional muscle gain. Your weight will stay about the same and muscle mass can easily be maintained by most men who are doing complementary strength workouts.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the image of an elite distance runner who weighs 120 pounds when he's soaking wet. With thin legs and even thinner arms, how can I say that their running doesn't make them so scrawny? Simple: running doesn't make them look that way, their genetics do. Elite runners are often natural ectomorphs with a slight build, an incredibly low body fat percentage, and a tendency of staying skinny. This body type is one of the pieces that make them so damn fast.

Ultimately, running will only reduce your muscle size if you stop lifting and start running significant mileage. Most men will find it rather easy to train for a road race without sacrificing their biceps. Plus, running is only going to help define those washboard abs.

Myth #2: Running Requires No Skill

Just put one foot in front of the other, right? Wrong.

Running is a skill-sport. There's no question about it. Training consistently over weeks and months without injury takes coordination, strength, and athleticism. Indeed, this study shows that running economy (i.e., efficiency — or skill) improves as beginner runners naturally refine their gait.

When you consider that running is actually a highly coordinated series of one-legged hops, the importance of learning the proper way to run is underscored. Without a basic understanding of good running form, you'll not only be slower but your risk of an injury caused by overuse will skyrocket.

So what are the fundamental aspects of running form that will help you be a more skilled runner? Stick to the basics:

  • Increase your cadence to roughly 170-180 steps per minute.
  • Land with your foot underneath your body, as opposed to u201Creachingu201D out with your foot and over-striding (this strategy will also reduce heel-striking).
  • Keep your back tall with a slight forward lean from the ankles. No slouching or leaning from the waist!
  • Try to land on your midfoot, though a slight heel strike isn't necessarily bad.
  • Keep your arms at roughly a 90-degree angle (though this will vary) and don't swing them across your chest.

Those are the basics. Of course, there are some additional improvements that you can make, but most runners don't need to get lost in the weeds of excessively tweaking their running form.

In fact, research has shown that consciously trying to change your running form can decrease your running economy — or in other words, when you try to alter your form, you become less efficient.

A better way to improve your form is to follow the first two bullets above and just run consistently. Your body will naturally develop the skills necessary to become a more efficient runner.

Myth #3: Runners Are Weak

Well, runners who only run are certainly weak! Just like weight lifters who only spend time at the gym aren't very fast.

But a well-rounded training plan will include a lot more than just running. Most plans will involve warm-up drills, strength exercises, dynamic stretches, mobility exercises, and preventive exercises if you're predisposed to injures.

Runners who avoid the weight room and skip their core work are bound to get injured. You can't let your engine outpace your chassis. This analogy refers to your metabolic or aerobic fitness (endurance) vs. your structural fitness (bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles). You don't want a Lamborghini engine in the frame of a Geo Prizm. That engine is going to tear the car apart.

Learning how to build a strong body is something that's critical for runners. A great example is that of elite runners: some spend more time doing strength exercises and preventative work than they actually do running! Most of us aren't elite athletes and can't spend 2-3 hours working out every day, so instead there's a solution for the rest of us.

Before you run, do a thorough dynamic warm-up. Most only take 5-10 minutes and are critical to increasing blood flow and range of motion, developing your coordination, and helping you gain flexibility.

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