Generally speaking, running is pretty simple.
Throw on shorts and a t-shirt, lace up your sneakers, maybe press “Go” on a watch, and hit the road. Right?
But as “simple” as it is, if you’re aspiring toward reaching a certain distance or hitting a race PR, there really can be so much more to it. So much so that it can feel overwhelming.
I know because I was once a beginner who could barely run 1 mile and had no idea what I was doing. I ran myself right into excruciating shin splints and a pretty gnarly hamstring injury when I first started out. But then as I began to learn more about the sport, more and more it got easier and my training started to serve me rather than destroy me.
A few years back I read a book called “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” by Ben Kaplan. He was a writer at the National Post and had his own column about running there. Now he’s a manager at a Canadian running magazine. At the time I read the book, I had already run a couple of half marathons and was gearing up to run my first marathon, so I felt pretty confident in my running abilities. But even still, I learned so much from reading this book.
Nearly every single page is filled with an incredible amount of knowledge about running, and it’s not just Ben’s own advice — he made a point to include insights from true running experts. He consulted everyone from some of the most elite runners in the world to the best scientists with their fingers on the pulse of the latest exercise and running research.
At the time I read it, I complied a list of what I thought were the best running lessons a runner — whether new to the sport or a veteran — could take away from the book. Finally, I have the opportunity to share them here.
I truly believe that no matter where you are on your running journey these lessons are essential. I even like to look back at them because often we forget some of the basic, important principles of our training. And especially if you’re new to the sport, you can pick up a few tips that many of us had wished we learned before getting started. In other words, we had to learn the hard way.
Here are what I found to be the 8 most important running lessons from the book.
8 Running Lessons All Runners Need To Know
Don’t Neglect Rest
If you love to run a lot, that’s great. But never overlook or ignore the importance of rest days for allowing your body to recover. This applies whether you’re just getting started or you’re training for your 5th marathon.
Training is essential, yes. But that’s just one piece of the puzzle. When our muscles are resting, that’s the time when they actually rebuild and grow stronger, which mean its pretty hard to improve if you don’t allow your body that time to recoup between workouts, or when you’re feeling overly exhausted or like something is off.
“Rest will cure almost everything: rest and stretches and the occasional restorative Scotch,” says Ben Kaplan.
Respect the rest day.
Shoes Are Shoes
Yes, sneakers are kind of fun to shop for and every brand claims they have the latest and greatest shoe “technology,” but there’s no need to stress too much about what kind of running shoe to buy. When it comes to finding the perfect pair of sneakers, Ben had 2 really excellent pieces of advice to share.
Number one, If you have an old pair of sneakers you’ve worn to run or even just walked a lot in, bring them to a specialty running shoe store so an employee can look at the wear and tear to gain more insight into your gait and what sort of support will be best for you.
Number two, do this in the afternoon.
“Feet swell during the bump and grind of a typical day,” Kaplan writes. Also, they tend to swell after running. If you can try sneakers on after your feet have essentially expanded a little bit, you’ll be able to get the most accurate fit and avoid purchasing a pair that’s too tight.
Fads Come and Go
New gear, tools and accessories are being introduced almost on a daily basis. But there’s a good chance that the next “game-changing” electrolyte supplement or GPS watch is not much different than the last.
“Stop buying into the hype and marketing about fads, footwear, nutritional supplements, or running styles. Follow the research, but trust your own common sense” Reed Ferber, director of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Calgary told Kaplan in the book.
Well said. Stick to the research and you’ll be golden.
Form Matters, But Don’t Worry About it Too Much
Yes, runners should pay attention to their running form — i.e., the way you’re holding your body and moving your legs while running. Their are certain things you can do to run more efficiently, but implementing changes probably shouldn’t come at the expense of feeling unnatural while running.
In his book, Kaplan says that proper form includes “landing on the balls of your feet, leaning your torso slightly forward, aiming for your feet to land under your hips, and keeping your elbows locked at right angles.”
That said, when it comes down to it we’re all different and we all have different bodies. Feeling natural and comfortable while running is probably more important than doing too much to try to drastically change your form.
“Form becomes innate; it’s relaxing, it’s rhythmic. It soothes. You just have to run a lot first,” says Kaplan.
Cross Training is Key
Runners can be very susceptible to overuse injuries simply because the act of running is such a repetitive motion. In his book, Kaplan consulted Dr. Jonathan Chang, orthopedic surgeon and professor of medicine at the University of Southern California. Dr. Chang suggested that best kind of cross training for runners is rowing, because it targets your shoulders, arms and back — allowing your upper and lower body to work in unison but without the high-stress impact that comes with running.
Cycling, swimming and weight training are also beneficial forms of cross training for runners.
“…Cross training will help you run more. It’s about not killing yourself in the beginning and strengthening everything, including your mind,” John Honerkamp, writer of the official online training plan for the New York City Marathon told Kaplan.
“Train Hard, Race Easy”
This is the Kenyan motto. And in case you’re unaware, Kenyans are some of the fastest runners in the whole world.
Basically, if you put in the hard work during training, when it’s time to race you should relax and place trust in the fact that your training will pay off.
“If you want to go faster, you need to spend some time doing drills. Pay attention to lifting your knees when you feel yourself getting tired, and remember to look in the direction where you want to be,” says Kaplan.
Reid Coolaset, an elite runner and the first Canadian male to qualify for the London Olympics had this piece of advice to share: “If you follow a program and punch a clock, mindlessly doing the same thing every day, you won’t reach your potential.” In other words, if you want to improve as a runner, you have to challenge yourself and get outside your comfort zone.
This may sound like common sense, but if you’re at the stage in your running journey where you’re ready to participate in races, make sure you don’t let your hard work in training go to waste by showing up to a race exhausted or unprepared.
This includes getting quality sleep every night the entire week leading up to your race and prepping everything you need for the race the night before so that you can get out the door on time and stress-free on race morning.
One thing, though! Don’t worry if you have a rough sleep the night directly before a race. If you’re nervous and/or excited and it keeps you up, don’t let it stress you! If you slept well the rest of the week leading up to the race, your body will be well-rested and prepared. The general rule of thumb is that two nights before the race is actually the most important time to get the best quality sleep.
Leading up to a race, it’s also a good idea to keep your stress levels as low as possible. “Deena Kastor doesn’t even look at her office computer the day before a big race,” Kaplan said of the Olympic runner and world-renowned track coach.
Abide By the Runner’s Code
This one is plain and simple. Be kind to other runners. We are all in this together.
Whatever the situation, give a fellow runner a hand if they’re in need. Give them a wave when you run past them on the trail. This is important because it keeps this wonderful running community positive and welcoming.
“Whatever you do, that’s what runners do” Ben says. In other words, don’t give runners a bad name. Not just within the running community, but also for those who aren’t a part of it either.
One more smart tip on this note: headphones are fine to use while running, but they should never be an excuse to totally tune out everything else going on around you.
“Becoming oblivious is not only selfish, it’s dangerous too,” says Kaplan.
So those were my top takeaways from “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now.” By no means is this everything there is to know about running — I don’t think anyone could or should ever admit to “knowing it all.” But it’s most certainly a comprehensive overview of some of the most important running lessons we should regularly keep in mind in order to do our best and feel our best while training.
Which of these lessons do you think is most important? Or, if you think there’s an important running lesson/tip missing, what would you add? Let me know in the comments below!