7 Habits that will make you a stronger runner

Want to get faster, go farther or just feel more energized on your runs? Time to adopt these lifestyle behaviors off the road (or track or trail)

News flash: You’re not a runner just when you run. Those other 23 or so hours of the day? You’re a runner then too. Which is why the greatest runners are the ones who adopt healthy habits that fuel their sport during all the hours that they’re not getting after it. 

The following tips from experts aren’t lifestyle overhauls, but they are life-enhancing upgrades. To tell us you’re a runner without telling us you’re a runner, incorporate as many as you can into your day-to-day. You should notice your runs — and your body — feeling better around the clock.

1. Strength train, but smarter

Running looks like a lower-body sport, but it actually requires you to engage nearly every major muscle group. As such, when you do total-body strength training, you’ll not only be a stronger runner, you’ll also have better symmetry and be less likely to get injured, says Los Angeles–based Nike Run Club coach Bec Wilcock.

Aside from being strong, you also need stellar stability to run well. “Every time you land on a single foot, your whole body has to be balanced in such a way that your posture remains upright and you’re not twisting or bending to either side,” says strength and conditioning coach Janet Hamilton, the owner of coaching company Running Strong in Atlanta.

There’s a specific way to train for that — and get a strength- and balance-building twofer. “You want to stress-load the muscle in a similar pattern to what you would experience when you're running,” says Ian Klein, an exercise physiologist specializing in cross-training and injury prevention at Ohio University. Klein says this means focusing on single-leg exercises that mimic the unilateral motion of running and/or require you to stabilize with your core the entire time. Think lunges, step-ups and single-leg deadlifts. 

Add sets of core work (like planks) and single-leg moves to your regular strength training, ideally three times a week, and shoot for a number of reps that fatigues your muscles but still allows you to execute solid form, whether that’s 5 reps or 20, says Hamilton. If you’re a strength-training newbie, you can do the exercises without weights. If you lift on the regular, grab dumbbells, a barbell or a medicine ball. Single-leg movements are challenging, so err on the lighter side and work up gradually.

2. Drink up

Have a long run or race coming up? Focus on staying well-hydrated for, well, always. That can be harder than it sounds, so at least prioritize drinking plenty of water the week leading up to it. Waiting until the night before — or, worse, the day of — to drink more water isn’t going to cancel out the performance-zapping effects dehydration may have had on your training up until that point, says Ryan Maciel, RD, the head performance-nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition. Those effects may be bigger than you think. 

As you sweat, you lose electrolytes and fluids that your body needs to function properly. Your muscles also get less blood than usual, says Maciel, because a good portion of your blood gets redirected from your working muscles to your skin to assist the sweating process. Less blood flow equals less ability for your muscles to go hard or long. It also means your heart has to work harder to pump the blood that’s left, stressing you on a cardiovascular level too. All of that can make your usual breezy run feel like utter crap. 

Besides boosting your performance, staying hydrating can also help you keep a clearer head. Losing more than 2 percent of your body mass from dehydration can have a negative effect on your cognitive function, according to a meta-analysis published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. That makes it harder to push yourself when you’re out running (and to keep your wits about you in general). 

To maintain strength and energy (including the mental kind), Maciel recommends that athletes consume 12 to 16 cups of water a day — about one glass for every hour that you’re awake. If you sweat a lot when you exercise, up that amount, he says.

3. Savor the post-run stretch 

“Just like you warm up into a workout, you should cool down out of a workout — and that means some nice, easy stretching,” says Nike senior director of global running Chris Bennett, aka Coach Bennett. This cool-down period can help bring your body out of a stress state and kick-start the recovery process before you start fielding day-to-day stressors again. “It doesn’t mean you have to take a lot of time, but your stretching should be relaxed, and you should do it patiently,” says Coach Bennett.
Be sure to hit your calves, hamstrings, glutes, piriformis (a small muscle behind your gluteus maximus), and anything else that tends to tighten up on you, recommends Nike Run Club Chicago coach Robyn LaLonde. Not sure where to start? Try these three moves: 

Standing wall calf stretch

Muscles stretched: calves
Stand facing a wall, about a foot in front of it. Place both hands and the ball of your left foot on the wall, heel on the floor, to start. With both legs straight, push your hips forward to increase the stretch. Hold for 3 or 4 seconds, then return to start. That’s 1 rep. Switch sides and repeat.

Hamstring sweeps

Muscles stretched: hamstrings
From standing, with arms by your sides, extend your left leg in front of you, heel on the floor, toes pointed up, right leg bent, to start. Push your hips back and, with a flat back, reach for your left toes. Hold for 3 seconds, then stand, sweeping your arms overhead, and return to start. Do 3 reps, then switch sides and repeat.

Standing figure four

Muscles stretched: glutes, piriformis
From standing, with arms by your sides, cross your left ankle over your right leg just above your right knee so that your left knee is bent out to the side, to start. Push your hips back to lower into a squat as deeply as you can while maintaining your balance. Hold for 3 to 5 seconds, then return to start. Do 3 reps, then switch sides and repeat.

4. Have a plan

Sure, you could head out for a run at any point, on any day, for any length of time. However, if you craft a week-long training plan that outlines when, where and how far you’ll run, you might be a lot more likely to get out the door. That’s because having an idea of what you’re going to do is motivating, and it helps create the consistency that will make running a more regular part of your life, says Coach Bennett.

When creating your plan, mix in three important types of workouts: long runs that build endurance, sprints and intervals to develop speed, and easy runs to help you recover from the harder efforts. Together, these make you a more well-rounded runner, says Coach Bennett. Want more guidance? Check out the training plans on the Nike Run Club app for everything from 5K’s to marathons. (They work just as well if you’re not training for a race.)

Your consistency can serve another purpose. “It acts as insurance, because something — getting sick, a vacation, a meeting that runs late — is likely to come up,” adds Coach Bennett. If you’re a runner who’s consistent the majority of the time, missing, shortening or skipping a few workouts shouldn’t really affect your fitness. 

5. Strategize your meals

Just as a solid training map sets you up for performance gains, a good nutrition plan will fuel you to run your best. “Make a very simple calendar for the week with meal ideas, then write out a grocery list so you get everything you need at once,” suggests Maciel. (If you want to be all kinds of efficient, use the same calendar where you’ve outlined your running workouts, so you can be reminded of how your diet helps your runs.) Meal-plan this way and life’s inevitable hiccups —oversleeping and having little time to think about breakfast, or getting home late and not wanting to worry about dinner — won’t get in the way of proper fueling. 

When it comes to what to eat at mealtime, just try to cover this formula, from Maciel: one or two palm-size portions of protein (poultry, fish, beans, tofu), one or two fist-size portions of veggies (ideally in a wide variety of colors), one or two handfuls of carbs (fruits, whole grains), and one or two thumb-size portions of healthy fats (avocado, nuts, olive oil).

6. Lather up, then lie down

Sleep is a totally free (and effort-free) performance-enhancing tool. Here’s one way to help you get more of it: Take a hot bath or shower about 90 minutes before you get in bed, which scientists call “passive heating.” 

Warm baths and showers stimulate your thermoregulatory system, amping up the circulation of blood to your hands and feet. It sounds counterintuitive, but this helps drop your body temperature and cool you down, says Cheri Mah, MD, a physician scientist at the UCSF Human Performance Center and a Nike Performance Council member who specializes in sleep and performance in elite athletes. That’s on top of the natural drop in core body temp that starts about an hour before you generally go to sleep. “Studies have demonstrated this type of passive heating shortens the time it takes to fall asleep and increases the duration of deep sleep, which is important for recovery,” says Dr. Mah. If nothing else, it’s relaxing — and gets you into bed squeaky clean.

7. Take Time to chill, increase in increments

Running can be the good kind of addictive. But get too excited and run too much, too fast, and your training may actually backfire. “The most common issue among runners are overuse injuries caused by too much loading on a tissue and too little recovery,” says David McHenry, a Nike elite-athlete physical therapist and strength coach. These injuries include plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinitis, IT band syndrome, tibialis posterior tendinitis, and more.

To stop yourself from sabotaging your running efforts, dedicate time to mobility work (such as yoga) and active recovery (an easy hike or a slow, short recovery run). All of this can help power your runs physically and mentally.

And when you are getting out there, make only teeny-tiny increases in your training volume — we’re talking a-couple-of-extra-laps-around-the-block tiny. Ramp up your mileage slowly, trying not to increase it by more than 10 percent each week, and you’ll be less likely to get injured.  

After all, if you take care of your body, you’ll always have more miles to run.

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