Simple question: Do you run? You do? Great! Not only does running strengthen your heart and condition your body, but it keeps your mind in shape too.
When you run, your brain produces endorphins, neurochemicals that ease your pain and elevate your mood. You know it as runner’s high. But it doesn’t just make you feel good. Research shows that running for 30 minutes three times a week leads to an improvement in decision-making proficiency, better memory, a longer attention span, and greater mental longevity. In fact, one study found that you’re 15 percent more efficient at work on days you do cardio exercise.
More complex question: Do you run correctly? Chances are, you don't. Running doesn't have to be a boring, long-distance slog. Nor does it have to hurt for days afterward. Here are six ways to improve your run—and break away from the pack.
You should: Run three or four times a week—around 30 minutes each time—with one or two of those being some form of speed work. This can be timed intervals on a running track, or just “fartlek” training, in which you break up a normal jog by running hard for a randomly selected distance.
The benefit: You’ll get all the heart and lung benefits of long, slow runs—and much more. In a 2011 Canadian study, people running intervals lost more than 12 percent of their body fat after 6 weeks. The reason: The intensity helps you burn extra calories even after the run is over. Other research shows that interval training can boost levels of HDL (good) cholesterol by 25 percent.
You should: Run quietly. Shorten your stride, keeping your feet almost underneath your hips. This takes some getting used to but will train you to land on your forefoot or midfoot.
The benefit: You’ll maintain your momentum and maximize your speed. Landing on your forefoot or midfoot puts force on your arches, so they act like springs and propel you forward. By contrast, heel striking stretches your arches, so they produce less energy to move you forward. You'll also reduce your risk of a stress fracture, according to Harvard researchers. Of course, aches and pains are inevitable, so keep these 1,001 quick fixes and injury-prevention secrets handy: The Athlete's Book of Home Remedies.
You should: Seek them out. Running hills is a form of high-intensity training, and can be considered a type of intervals. Run up a gentle incline of a couple hundred yards, and then walk back down.
The benefit: Along with the weight-loss benefits that come with high-intensity training, you’ll also strengthen your legs and—because of the angle of the terrain—train yourself to land on your forefoot or midfoot.
You should: Incorporate weights in your training program. With each stride, up to five times your body weight slams through your feet, ankles, knees, hips, and spine. If your muscles are weak, you risk injury, says Bill Hartman, P.T., Men’s Health advisor and owner of Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training.
The benefit: You’ll build a stronger core and lower body, which will help you maintain form in the later stages of a race or run. Squats, lunges, and deadlifts are all great. Here are 4 Exercises Every Runner Should Do.
You should: Focus on form. Lean forward slightly—by just 2 or 3 degrees, says three-time New York Marathon winner Alberto Salazar. Too far forward and you’ll shove your full body weight into the ground with each stride; too far back and you’ll land on your heels. Also keep your elbows bent 90 degrees or less. And make sure your arms and hands swing to your sides, not across your body.
The benefit: The forward lean will literally keep you on your toes, so you don’t lose any momentum. Your arm motion will make you more efficient, resulting in more stamina and speed.
DON'T RUN LIKE A BEGINNER: Before you lace up, memorize the 13 Unwritten Rules of Running.
You should: Drink water, unless you’re running for more than 30 minutes.
The benefit: Your body has plenty of carbs stored to fuel a half-hour run, says sports nutrition scientist Asker Jeukendrup, Ph.D., FASCM. In that case, sports drinks just add unnecessary calories. In fact, even on runs between 30 and 75 minutes, rinsing your mouth with a sports drink yields a similar performance boost to ingesting it.