May is the month when people are more likely to take up running than at any other time of year.
Some are inspired by the achievements of the thousands of finishers in the London Marathon last month, others simply by the fact that it is warm enough outside to leave the hat, gloves and waterproof jacket at home. Whatever the reason for pulling on a pair of trainers, it is part of an unparalleled running boom that has seen the popularity of the sport hit an all-time high.
Statistics from Sport England show that over 2.2 million of us now run at least once a week, a rise from 1.4 million five years ago. A record number of more than 38,000 took to the start line of the London Marathon this year. More than 70,000 runners have now completed the free Parkrun 5km, held at 330 locations, with many UK runs attracting more than 400 joggers a week.
However, for every person lured by the mind-boosting, fat-busting benefits, others will be put off by the running’s reputation as a hardcore sport that demands great effort. What’s more, running entails a set of unwritten dress codes and rules that might understandably scare off beginners: bizarre-looking footwear should be worn, you must drink all the time and you must never, ever stop to walk. But is there substance to these running claims or are they based on urban myth?
Slight dehydration will help you run faster
Much emphasis is put on the importance of drinking enough during long distance events and it’s been long held that a 2 per cent drop in body weight through fluid losses is detrimental to performance. However, some experts think the message is overplayed. A study by New Zealand sport scientists suggested that weight loss of 3 per cent didn’t slow down athletes while a 2012 paper in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found that elite runners in the Dubai Marathon recorded fluid losses of almost 10 per cent, yet still ran exceptionally fast times.
John Brewer, professor of applied sport science at St Mary’s University in Twickenham, says that a modest amount of dehydration could even be beneficial. “A 2 per cent loss of body weight for a 75kg runner is 1.5 litres of fluid, or 1.5 kg less weight that they will have to lug around a run,” Professor Brewer says. “So it is not surprising that under certain conditions, performance can be improved with a modest level of dehydration.”
Over-drinking can be dangerous
Drinking too much fluid is a risk because it can lead to the potentially fatal condition hyponatraemia, or water toxicity. A 2012 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that 12 per cent of runners in the London Marathon consumed dangerously high amounts of fluid.
On average, 500ml of fluid an hour is recommended during long distance races. Some runners consume considerably more — drinking up to a litre per hour on long runs. If you also drink a litre of water before you start, your intake will be too high. “It’s quite easy to drink more than you need and, in doing so, put yourself at risk of hyponatraemia,” Professor Brewer says.
Walking breaks can help your performance
Regular runners might scoff at anyone who takes a walking break, but you could end up having the last laugh. A recent study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that runners who took planned walking breaks throughout their races not only finished as quickly as those who ran the entire distance but had less fatigue and muscle pain at the end.
German researchers looked at 42 runners who’d been training for 12 weeks prior to their first marathon. A week before the event, the runners were split evenly into two groups: those who would run the entire way and those who would take 60-second walking breaks every 2.5km. When it came to the 26.2 mile race, both groups finished with similar times.
But 40 percent of those who ran the entire distance reported “extreme exhaustion” at the finish line, compared with less than 5 per cent of the run/walk group. “The key thing is to run to your training level and current ability,” says the UK Athletics running coach, Paddy McGrath. “For some people, scheduled bouts of walking are a useful means of covering the distance and can also make it psychologically easier.”
Running will not wreck your knees
Running a marathon? You might as well take a hammer to your knee joints. At least that’s the entrenched belief of non-runners who like to claim that it causes arthritis and ruins knees. Experts beg to differ. In 2013, a large study of almost 75,000 runners published in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise showed that, provided they had healthy knees to start with, runners were at no greater risk of developing arthritis in the joint, even if they jogged into their forties, fifties and beyond.
In fact, they had less overall risk of developing arthritis than their non-running counterparts. Professor Mark Batt, director of the Arthritis Research UK Centre for Sport, Exercise and Osteoarthritis in Nottingham, says the fact that running is in one direction, with no twisting and turning, could make it more joint-friendly than sports like football.
Even first-time marathon runners, widely believed to be more prone to injuries, are no more likely to suffer knee damage than long-term runners, reported researchers from Germany’s Freiburg University Hospital last year. Looking at a group of beginners, average age 40, preparing for their first marathon, the team found that their knees remained essentially unchanged by the training involved with minimal cartilage damage. “High-impact forces during long-distance running are well tolerated even in marathon beginners,” they concluded.
The ‘barefoot’ running fad can cause injuries
In recent years, runners have embraced the trend for minimalist footwear, or shunning shoes altogether, believing it made running easier, speedier and less injurious. But physiotherapists saw a rise in injuries among the barefoot brigade and scientists have since cast doubt on the approach, with studies at Brigham Young University showing it doesn’t toughen foot muscles, one of the key arguments in favour of skimpy running shoes. And the “footglove” manufacturer Vibram agreed to settle a US lawsuit that alleged false claims were made about the health benefits of the footwear.
The heavier your trainers, the better
This year’s trendsetter in the trainer market is the “maximalist” shoe, with thick, heavily cushioned soles. Sales of chunky-soled brands like Hoka One One (£100, hokaoneone.com) are rocketing while Brooks (brooksrunning.co.uk) saw a 29 per cent increase in sales of its most cushioned shoes last year. “My feeling is that many minimalist shoes don’t offer enough protection and support for long distance running,” says runner Matt Roberts. “You need a trainer with good structure that doesn’t allow too much foot movement as you stride.”
A high-protein diet will slow you down
Kevin Deighton, an exercise scientist at Leeds Beckett University, says that carbs do matter if you run long distances. “Low carbohydrate diets became popular among some runners in recent years because it was found that increasing the fat content of the diet spared carbohydrate stores and led to fat stores being used for fuel instead,” Dr Deighton says. “However, if you are running distances, carbohydrate provides the fastest supply of energy and you need them to maintain your pace.”
Trying to train for a 10k, half or full marathon on a low carb diet could be disastrous. “It’s been shown to impair recovery and raise the risk of injury,” Dr Deighton says. “Make no mistake, you need protein and fat in adequate amounts to aid the repair of muscle tissue and provide essential nutrients, but the diet of a regular long distance runner should be particularly high in carbohydrates.”
Professor Brewer says the amount of carbs needed increases with the distances run, but it should remain proportional to the distance you are running. “Most runners will use about 2,500-3,000 calories running a marathon, equivalent to about a day’s food intake,” he says.
He adds that the faster you run, the more carbs you use up. “If you set off too quickly, you will burn carb stores too quickly and risk depleting them or hitting the wall,” Professor Brewer says. “Maintain a manageable pace and you will burn fat as well as carbs, and hopefully have enough glycogen to get to finish the run.”
Treadmills are not a ‘soft’ alternative to outdoors
David Siik, a Ford model and running coach who developed the precision running treadmill class at Equinox, says there’s an “inverse snobbery” towards the treadmill with many runners deriding it as a soft alternative to running outdoors. Its reputation wasn’t helped by a British study conducted a few years ago suggesting that a running belt should be cranked up to an incline of 1 per cent to get the same benefits you would reap from running outside.
Biomechanics experts have now debunked this as an urban myth, as the study’s findings applied only to speedsters who run faster than 7 minutes per mile. Others have also discounted the popular belief that the treadmill belt propels you forward so that you do less work. The key, says Siik, is to mix it up. “Just plodding on a treadmill won’t get you fit,” he says. “You need to factor in elements of speed, up to 5 per cent incline, duration, and recovery, and you can get the biggest burn possible in the time you are on it.”
You can’t use running as an excuse to snack
As many runners have discovered, going on regular runs does not always help you lose weight. That’s because running is not a green light to suddenly start devouring calories by the bucket-load. Many find they gain weight rather than lose it, especially if they gobble up high-calorie sports drinks and energy bars on top of their usual diet.
“In reality, it’s not that easy to lose lots of weight through distance running,” says Professor Brewer. “To lose 1kg in body fat, you need to burn about 8,000 calories more than you consume. Most people burn about 100 calories per mile, so that’s around 80 miles of running just to lose one kilo in weight, even if you don’t eat any extra food.”
Even during a marathon, you can expect to expend only 2,800 calories around the 26.2 mile route. To put that into context, an average man needs around 2,500 calories a day to maintain his weight; a woman around 2,000 calories.
A perfect running gait is not essential
Runners have been led to believe that a flawless running style is essential for both speed and injury reduction. Shops and clinics offer gait analysis to provide information about your foot-strike, stride pattern and pronation (or lack of it) in the hope that you will adopt a Mo Farah-type technique.
Is it necessary? Experts think not. Martin Yelling, a running coach with Yelling Performance, says that many elite runners don’t have perfect technique. “Getting stressed about changing your running style is unnecessary and can cause tension,” he says. “A slightly ragged but relaxed style is better than trying to force your body to adopt something that feels unnatural.”
Researchers at the University of Exeter’s human performance group showed that most runners self-adjust, eventually settling into an efficient technique just by running more.