Is everything you think you know about running wrong?

Tue, Jan 22, 2013, 00:00

When it comes to running, everything you ever knew is wrong. Or so it seems these days, when almost every day bring a new piece of research that undercuts previous thinking. So out with those high-performance runners and in with skimpy “barefoot” shoes. Forget performance drinks and take chocolate milk instead. Massage, we are told, isn’t all it was cracked up to be – and neither are stretching and ice baths.

All this orthodoxy replacement can get a bit confusing. Static stretches, dynamic stretches or none at all? Lots of hydration when out running or drink water only when thirsty? Carbo-load before a race or eat normally? To taper or not in advance of a marathon?

What is your average runner to do? One option is to keep on keeping on, as before, ignoring the blizzard of advice. That may simplify matters, but what if you’re prone to injuries, failing to run faster or shed the pounds? In such circumstances, it seems perverse to keep your head in the sand.

The alternative is to survey the knowledge that’s now out there and learn from it. Or get someone else to do it, as New York Times columnist Gretchen Reynolds has managed in a new book, The First 20 Minutes.

Reynolds’s book is a science book rather than a runner’s manual, but amid all the talk of lab experiments and population studies, it contains more than a few counter-intuitive nuggets as well as some useful practical advice.

It is, as she notes, “a fascinating time to own a body, and a perplexing one”. Advances in science and medicine mean we can see into and measure the human body as never before. We know more than ever about physical performance – and yet it is clear that we still have much to learn.

Her first and overarching lesson from all the studies is that movement is good while inactivity, for the human body, is “unnatural and unwise”.

As far back as the early 1700s, an Italian physician noticed that cobblers and tailors who sat a lot at work were less healthy than the low-paid dogsbodies who ran errands for them. In the 1950s, researchers found that London bus drivers were twice as likely to suffer a heart attack as their conductor colleagues who were constantly climbing stairs. An Australian study has fond that if an average man watched no television in his adult life, his lifespan might be 1.8 years longer.

“Death rates rise when societies sit. Waistlines grow. Unhappiness spreads,” Reynolds notes. After that, however, the issue of how much exercise people need is, from a scientific standpoint, “a big fat mess”.

That said, the consensus is that 150 minutes a week of walking or a light workout will suffice to improve your health, or 75 minutes of more vigorous activity such as running. How you partition this activity doesn’t seem to matter.

Most of us will conscientiously go through a few favourite stretches before running but Reynolds says a growing number of studies show that static stretching not only does not prepare muscles for activity but almost certainly does the reverse. One study found that those with the tightest, least flexible hamstrings tended to be the fastest. Other studies have shown that an overly vigorous aerobic warm-up simply makes you tired.

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