As a study questions the health benefits of running, Peta Bee speaks to trainer Matt Roberts about the rules for safe jogging
Most of us are guilty of not exercising enough. But a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology last week suggested that more is not always better, particularly when it comes to the preferred form of exercise for many mid-lifers — running. Researchers from Denmark reported that people who push their bodies too hard on a run may undo many of the benefits of running.
In the study, those who ran at a “fast” pace for more than four hours a week had about the same risk of dying during the study’s 12-year follow-up as those who hardly exercised at all. In fact, the Danish researchers concluded, the perfect pace for better health was a much more sedate jog and for no more than three times a week or for 2.5 hours in total.
If you have taken up running with extra vigour since January, either to complete a marathon or just to get rid of middle-aged spread, does this mean that you should hang up your trainers and try something a little gentler on the joints and heart?
No, says the personal trainer and running guru, Matt Roberts (who has trained everyone from David Cameron to Naomi Campbell). “There’s no denying that running is enormously beneficial for health, and this has been scientifically proven on endless occasions,” Roberts says.
“Overdoing any form of activity, not just running, has its potential for downside, and usually happens as a result of someone jumping into an intensive training programme too quickly. The golden rule with running is to progress your development over time.”
John Brewer, professor of sport at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and an avid marathon runner, says there are several weaknesses in this latest study. For starters, researchers didn’t specify speeds, relying instead on the volunteers to self-report how fast they thought they had moved using the broad categories of slow, average and fast running.
“What is a ‘fast’ pace for one runner is a jog for another, which calls into question some of the comparisons made in the Danish study,” Brewer says. The researchers also did not look at how or why the runners and non-runners died, meaning no direct link with the activity could be made.
Factor in the evidence that an inactive lifestyle increases the risk of obesity, hypertension and heart disease and the ill-effects of running are suddenly much less convincing. “Regular running reverses many of these risks,” Roberts says.
Indeed, other researchers have shown that running extends our lives rather than cuts them short. A landmark study by the University of California published in 2008 compared the long-term health of a group of running club members aged 50 plus with another group of healthy non-runners. After 20 years, 34 per cent of the non-runners had died compared with 15 per cent of the runners and the surviving joggers were in better health overall.
So what is the route to healthy running in middle age? Follow our expert guide to find out.
Stretching before and after running is not optional
“A lot of runners put on their kit, tie up their shoes and head out of the door,” says the personal trainer Matt Roberts. “There is nothing wrong with this if you start slowly so that your body can warm up, but if you really want to reduce the risk of injury, then it’s best to prepare more thoroughly. Warming up increases body temperature, circulation, joint mobility and mental focus. For runners, the best approach is some gentle stretching followed by a few mobility drills and exercises. Stretching should take no more than 10 minutes and focus on the hamstrings, gluteal, calf and quadriceps muscles that are predominantly engaged during a run. Mobility drills are one of the most overlooked parts of a runner’s preparation and focus on moving the major joints through a long range of motion. Hip flexor swings, glute swings, lunges with arms swinging to the ceiling are all great as part of a warm-up. When it comes to cool-down routines, never stop running suddenly. Gradually ease down your pace to a jog for 5-10 minutes and finish with 5-10 minutes of the stretches you performed as part of your warm-up.”
Running too fast may be counterproductive
As you get older, the general rule is that you should choose between running short and fast or long and slow, with a mixture of the two being the optimal approach. Slogging away for miles on end at break-neck speed in your forties and over has been shown in several studies to be counterproductive.
“Longer distances performed at a lower intensity place a gentle, positive pressure on your cardiovascular system to make it stronger,” Matt Roberts says. “But short, sharp high-intensity running sessions have other benefits such as a profound effect on metabolism and the number of calories burned. There’s no reason why you can’t include a combination of the two, whatever your age.” Findings presented at the American College of Sports Medicine conference a couple of years ago suggested that regular running lowered the risk of mortality — provided no more than 20 miles in up to five sessions a week were covered in trainers and at a speed no faster than five to seven miles per hour. Of about 53,000 adults, those who ran farther and faster or more often were no worse off than non-runners when it came to longevity, but “seemed to lose the survival advantage gained at lower doses of running”, said Dr Chip Lavie, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention at John Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute in New Orleans, who led the study. That’s not to say you can’t test your speed.
Is it better to run in the morning or at night?
Should you fit in a run pre-work or save it for when you get home? Ultimately, says Matt Roberts, it comes down to personal preference. “Some people find that running later in the day means their legs are more mobile as they’ve been warmed up with some activity,” he says. “But there’s no right or wrong time to run.”
Last week a study by University of Birmingham researcher Roland Brandstaetter confirmed that listening to your own body clock is vital. He grouped participants in his study as either larks, who thrive on early starts, night owls, who love sitting up to the small hours or as in-between. When put through exercise tests, larks performed best around noon, the night owls just before 8pm, while the in-betweeners excelled around 4pm. If you are aiming for weight loss, there is some evidence that a pre-breakfast run can be beneficial. A groundbreaking study at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium a few years ago found “that early-morning exercise in a fasted state is more potent than an identical amount of exercise in the fed state” for maintaining healthy waistlines. With the body’s carbohydrate stores at rock bottom, the theory is that the body uses fat reserves for energy. It’s not for everyone though.
“It can have an adverse effect on energy levels,” says Roberts. “You will find you have to slow down, which could mean fewer calories burned than at your normal pace, so the advantage can be offset.”
Can long-distance running be bad for my heart?
One of the most entrenched beliefs about running is that it is hard on the heart. We’ve all read the scare stories of middle-aged joggers suffering heart attacks while running and heard how Jim Fixx, the man credited with starting the 1980s jogging boom, died of heart disease. But how strong is the evidence that it will harm the ticker? “There is convincing evidence that the vast majority of the population should be running more, not less, and that doing so will improve their health,” Matt Roberts says. “Running has a profoundly positive effect on the enlargement and strengthening of the heart muscle. But make sure you don’t dive in too fast. There’s no harm in running and walking to start with. Progress week by week, increasing intensity or duration by no more than 10 per cent.” Several scientists have found that dedicated endurance runners have elevated levels of brain natriuretic peptide, a red flag for cardiac dysfunction, and more significantly of cardiac troponin — a chemical that shows up in blood tests only when heart muscle is damaged. Canadian physiologists did find that that long distance running damages heart muscle, particularly in less fit runners, but that the effects were both temporary and reversible. In most studies, however, these adverse effects present in hardcore endurance runners who cover many miles in careers lasting decades.
Check your running style
We would all like to have the smooth and seemingly effortless running style of someone like Seb Coe in his prime. Unfortunately, most of us are not made to run that way. Does it matter? Not as much as you’ve probably been led to believe.
“Look at a number of the great runners in action and you won’t find that they all have the same running style,” says Matt Roberts. “A lesson we need to learn as runners is that we don’t all have to conform to one particular technique for fear of injury or incorrectness.”
In other words, find a style that suits your body. Correcting obvious mistakes such as a nodding head (puts strain on the back), hunched shoulders (inhibits stride length) and swinging arms or flicking-out feet (puts strain on the hips and knees) is helpful, but the stronger and fitter you get, the more you will find your running style corrects itself.
Researchers at the University of Exeter’s human performance group showed that we actually self-adjust our style just by running more. They studied a group of women who had recently taken up running and, after several weeks, found they were naturally bending their knees and flexing their ankles slightly more — good news for injury avoidance.
Runners should lift weights
Beyond the age of 35, adults lose up to one pound of muscle mass a year. Since strength produces the power that is essential for speed, you need to do weights. “You don’t need to go to a gym,” says Matt Roberts. “A simple circuit at home with body-weight exercises such as squats, lunges and push-ups will be beneficial, adding in dumbbell work if you can.” Encouragingly, a study published last week in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise showed that weight training is hugely effective at fighting flab. Three groups of women followed an 800-calorie a day diet in addition to either doing no exercise, walking or jogging for 40 minutes on a treadmill three times a week, or following an upper and lower bodyweight training session three times a week. All women dieted until they lost 25lb and both of the exercise groups generally moved more throughout the day, although the weight-trainers more so, thereby burning extra calories. An interesting bonus was that weights also led to better walking economy; movement felt easier than before the weight loss and that could transfer to running, too.
Trainers are the most important piece of kit
Trainers are the single most important item you will buy as a runner. Many people have fallen foul of the trend for wearing “footgloves”, says Matt Roberts, the idea being that a lack of bulk makes the feet and lower legs work harder. “My feeling is that they do not offer enough support and can aggravate problems for middle-aged people with tight calf muscles, weak hamstrings or gluteal muscles or back tightness,” he says. “If you fall into these categories you need a shoe with good structure and support.” If you have no structural issues, choosing from the new breed of minimalist shoes is an option. “These function like a barefoot shoe, while still offering some structure and shock absorption,” Roberts says. “Because the angle of drop from heel to toe is closer to barefoot, they encourage a more natural running style.” Remember, too, that trainers have a shelf life. “You will need to get a new pair after around 300-400 miles of running,” Roberts says. “So around every 5-6 months for most people.”
Why women need a good sports bra
“A good sports bra is a must for women who run,” Matt Roberts says. With no muscle and only the fragile outer skin and connective tissues — called Cooper’s ligaments — providing support, breasts are a law unto themselves when it comes to movement, swaying and bobbing independently of the torso.
A series of experiments by the University of Portsmouth’s Breast Health research group, headed by Dr Joanna Scurr, chartered the trajectory of women’s breasts using infrared cameras and found that they don’t merely bounce up and down, but move through a complicated figure of eight pattern when a woman runs or walks. Since the average breast weighs 200-300g, the level of potential discomfort and embarrassment is huge. Dr Scurr says that even A-cups need support and that starting to wear a sports bra in your teens and twenties will help sagging and related back pain later on. Don’t confuse crop tops with supportive, well-designed sports bras, which mostly fall into two categories: compression (the kind that flatten boobs against the chest) and encapsulation (that cradle each breast individually). Try Shock Absorber Ultimate Run Bra, or Anita DynamiX Star (£38 and £47 at lessbounce.com).
Jogger’s nipple is a common problem, particularly among men. “It’s caused by chafing, as a sweaty vest rubs directly against the body and is often worse when it’s cold,” Roberts says. It can feel like sandpaper rubbing against your skin. Lubricating nipples prior to a run, either with Vaseline or a barrier cream containing zinc (such as those used for a baby’s nappy area) can help, or try Ron Hill Nip Guard (www.ronhill.com).
What runners need to eat
Eating two to three hours before a run is as important as putting fuel in a car before driving it, Matt Roberts says.
“Ideally, you need more low-moderate GI foods as part of your pre-run meal as they provide you with the sustained, slow-release sugars you need to fuel your training. Wholemeal bread and pasta or rice, pulses and nuts, oats, milk and rice milk are great. Vegetables such as asparagus, cauliflower, leeks, sweet potato and peppers are good choices, too. You can’t go wrong with a bowl of porridge (Paula Radcliffe’s favourite pre-run meal). If you aim to be out for more than 30 minutes, fluid intake becomes important. Make sure you take on at least 300ml of water in the hour before a longer run. Avoid energy drinks unless you are training for a marathon — plain water and a varied diet are best. Refuelling afterwards is important and you should try to eat a post-run snack within 30 minutes. A banana sandwich, fresh fruit or my favourite — a soy smoothie made with reduced-fat milk, low-fat yoghurt and banana, mango or berries — is perfect.”
How to prevent injury
Since it exerts the force of eight times your body weight with every stride, running is, without question, a high-impact activity. And recovery takes longer with age. It’s wise, says Matt Roberts, to prevent overuse injuries. Number one friend to the runners is the foam roller, a cylindrical piece of hard foam that’s used for self- massage to release muscle knots. “It helps to provide myofascial release, a technique massage therapists use to increase blood flow and relax muscles,” Roberts says. Yoga is increasingly popular among runners but physiotherapists tend to recommend Pilates as it strengthens the core muscles that support a runner’s body.
Sammy Margo, a spokesperson for the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists, says: “Strengthening the hip and buttock muscles can also help to lessen back and knee pain common among runners. If you do get injured, putting ice on it will work wonders by easing internal swelling and numbing pain.”
If you start in your forties, don’t be too enthusiastic at first
Whatever your previous running experience, maximal aerobic capacity, the efficiency with which your body can use oxygen, begins to drop steadily, declining by as much as 10 per cent per decade from the age of 40 onwards, so don’t set yourself the expectations of a 20-year-old. “Setting age and fitness-level appropriate goals is really important,” Matt Roberts says. “If you haven’t run for a while, then a goal might be to complete a 5km race before you start thinking about times and speed.” Your kidneys begin to conserve water less effectively, meaning you are more prone to dehydrating over longer distances, so make sure you stay hydrated, consuming up to 500ml of fluid an hour. If you do come into running in your forties or older, your body is relatively young in terms of its “running age” (that’s the cumulative years of stress that lots of pounding has inflicted on it). “You will probably find you can tolerate a carefully planned, progressive running load with less risk of breaking down as long as you stay within your limits and don’t push on too quickly,” Professor John Brewer says.
Avoid achilles injuries
If you feel pain at the back of the heel and lower leg, it is likely to be a result of achilles tendinitis or achilles tendinopathy, Matt Roberts says. “Although it’s the strongest and thickest tendon in the body, the achilles is particularly vulnerable to sudden increases in training load and to the effects of years of running. Pain can often be worse in the morning or immediately after running. Incorrect footwear, lack of warm-ups and poor running technique can aggravate problems. Treatment should involve rest and application of ice to the affected area followed by applying compression via a bandage and elevating the leg(s) for several minutes a day. More than 100 research papers have proved that a routine of heel drops can also help. To do them, stand on your right leg on either a step or raised platform with your right knee fully extended and your heel raised and off the edge of the platform. Bend your other knee and raise it in the air. Lower the right heel until the foot is parallel to the floor. Repeat 3×15 times on each leg twice a day for 12 weeks.”