Relaxation is the key to entering the effortless zone, and stress is the deadbolt that locks you out. When you’re stressed, your muscles tighten and your mind muddles. That’s why work, relationship woes, and other problems should be left at your doorstep. If these thoughts come meandering back into your head later in the run, fine. Initially, though, try to flush them out.
“Stress can increase fatigue and muscle tension,” says Sports psychology professor and marathon runner Jeffrey Martin. “You don’t breathe as deeply when you’re stressed, which increases the effort of running.” He adds that athletes under stress, according to studies, get sick and injured at a higher rate than lower-stressed athletes.
It may not be possible to run away from a “major stressor” such as a job change or divorce, but you can make your runs a mental escape from lesser irritants such as arguments, traffic jams, and computer malfunctions. Inadequate sleep can also elevate stress levels, so try to get your nightly seven to eight hours.
Burdening your runs with outside stresses is bad enough, but it’s even worse to stress about your running. Goals are great, but too rigid expectations can sour your enthusiasm and prevent you from entering the effortless zone.
Don’t expect to break 50 minutes, for example, on a particular training run or in a 10-K race. Your on-the-run anxiety about doing it will actually reduce the odds that it’ll happen. Instead, settle on a broader goal, such as finishing somewhere between 48 and 52 minutes. You’ll be more likely to succeed. And even if you fall outside the range, adopt the attitude that you gave it your best effort. That’s all you can do.
Says Martin: “Setting a narrow goal is like painting yourself into a corner, because so many factors affect performance: pacing, weather, course difficulty, stress and so on. Sometimes you just have a bad day. You need to acknowledge that you won’t always run fast, race well or improve your time.”
A strong core which includes your lower back, abdominal and hip muscles makes it easier to maintain good, upright, effortless running form. “When runners with weak cores get tired, they start leaning too far forward,” says exercise physiologist Janet Hamilton, author of Running Strong & Injury-Free. “That’s biomechanically inefficient, and will even limit your lung capacity.”
Like many coaches, Hamilton considers core strength to be essential. “It ensures an efficient transfer of power from the core to the legs and upper body,” she explains. She recommends taking a yoga or Pilates class, or doing the following gym exercises at least twice a week but not on long or hard running days. (If possible, have a personal trainer demonstrate correct form.)
Squats: Start to sit down, knees in line with ankles; stop at “mid-sit” (before feeling pain); come back up. Do two sets of 10 reps.
Side bridges: Lie on your side with knees slightly bent. With one forearm on the floor, lift your entire body, keeping straight head-to-foot. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, and do three reps per side.
Modified crunches: Lie on your back, with one leg straight and one bent. Place a hand under the small of your back for support. Lift your head and shoulders a few centimetres off the floor, and hold for 3 seconds. Do two sets of 10 to 15, alternating left and right leg out.
Ball toss: Hurl a weighted medicine ball against a concrete wall. Do two sets of five to 10 throws, alternating between overhead, underhand, and chest throws.
This one goes against the grain for lots of runners who believe that when their running isn’t going right, it’s because they’re not running enough. Could be just the opposite. Remember, effortless running can only happen when your legs are fresh, and that requires regular rest. If your legs feel tired or sore fairly often, running fewer days per week could be just the ticket.
For example, Runner’s World columnist Jeff Galloway suggests that runners over 40 run only 4 days a week, runners over 50 run every other day, and runners over 60 run 3 days a week.
“Without sufficient recovery,” adds Hamilton, “you’ll be fatigued and generally more prone to injury. Your glycogen stores need to be resupplied, and your muscles and tendons repaired. If you’re still fatigued after a day or two off, take a clean break from running for a week or even more. Keep active with walking, biking, swimming or other low-impact activities.”
Besides taking occasional days and weeks off, here are other ways to put the spring back in your step:
1 Alternate between short and long; fast and slow; and flat and hilly runs.
2 Space your races several weeks apart, especially those longer than 10-K.
3 Don’t run the day before or after a short race, or for at least two or three days before and after a long race.
Any mechanic will tell you to warm up your engine with an easy idle before driving anywhere. The body’s engine works the same way. Yet we’re often too rushed to warm up. We lace up our shoes and go. That’s a mistake, because a rushed start makes it unlikely you’ll reach the effortless zone on that run.
It is essential to warm up your muscles,” says Norm Witek, an exercise science professor and coach. “Otherwise, you’re going to go into mild oxygen debt, strain your muscle fibres, and end up with sore legs.”
Start each run by walking for a minute or two, then jogging. Barely clear the ground at first, then start lifting your knees higher and lengthening your stride as you cover the first kilometre. On morning runs, when your body takes longer to wake up, this gradual acceleration may continue for more than two kilometres. But within 10 to 15 minutes, your body should be ready for effortless running.
Add speed to run effortlessly? That’s right. Regular doses of fast running will make the rest of your running seem comfortable in comparison, both mentally and physically.
“When you add occasional fast running to your programme, this increases muscle enzyme activity, which allows you to access energy more efficiently any time you run,” says exercise physiologist Robyn Stuhr. “It also enhances neuromuscular function, raises your lactate threshold, and on slower runs, delays the onset of fatigue.” Regular speed training will also make your races seem easier because you’ll be accustomed to the faster pace.
There are several ways to inject speed into your schedule besides killer track workouts (though those are effective as well). Here are a few examples:
Speed sandwich Run 2 kays slow, 2 kays fast, 2 kays slow.
In-and-outs Do several repetitions of 1 to 4 minutes hard, and 1 to 4 minutes easy, at mid-run.
Pickups Periodically pick up the pace for short distances between streetlights or trees.
Tempo For the middle part of your run say 15 to 20 minutes maintain a pace that’s about halfway between your training and racing speed. It should feel comfortably hard.
Just as fast running makes your standard pace easier, long runs make your regular distance seem shorter and thus easier. By pushing the pace on some days, and lengthening the distance on others, you’ll be able to cruise in the effortless zone on the rest of your runs.
“Long runs train the body to use fat, so you don’t have to rely as much on carbohydrates for energy,” says Stuhr. “Long runs also increase the number of capillaries, the vessels that deliver oxygen to muscle cells and mitochondria, the structures inside the cells that convert that oxygen into energy. The result is a richer supply of blood providing energy to your muscles.”
Psychological barriers also tumble when you go long. A big reason for the 98-percent finish rate among Jeff Galloway Marathon Training Programme participants is that they go the full 42km distance in training. This works for shorter races as well. Prepare for a half-marathon or even a 10-K by running (or exceeding) the race distance at least a couple of times in training to boost your endurance and confidence. Nice side effect: More of your regular training runs will be in the effortless zone.
It’s hardly effortless to sweat through a run in 30-degree heat on smog-choked streets, or to negotiate a slippery sidewalk in a rain shower. Sure, you can run in any weather, but unlike the postman, you don’t have to. The best way to enter the zone during adverse outdoor conditions is to head indoors, where the weather and surface are controlled.
Once you set a treadmill on your desired speed, the machine does the work of setting the pace. You can shut your mind off and just run. It’s also less impact on your legs compared with running on tar, and safer than outdoor running at night.
Here’s how to make treadmill running more effortless:
1 Wear headphones and pop in your favourite CD to block out gym noise.
2 Get on the gym treadmill with the smoothest, most cushioned surface.
3 Run alongside a friend, and get into a conversation.
4 If possible, visit the gym during quiet, off-peak hours, like mid-morning or mid-afternoon.
Feeling full, empty, or nauseous will keep you out of the effortless zone, so you can’t afford to eat the wrong foods at the wrong time. Be sure to follow these guidelines:
Before a morning run, don’t eat much. A light carbohydrate snack such as a banana or half an energy bar, washed down with a glass of water, will provide ample fuel for running without taxing your digestive system.
Before a mid-day run, eat a good-sized breakfast, plus a carbohydrate snack one to two hours before your run.
Before a late-afternoon or evening run, be sure you eat lunch and a mid-afternoon high-carbohydrate snack.
Having a carbohydrate snack in the last two hours before a run is critical. “Besides being easily digestible, complex carbohydrates maintain your blood sugar to keep your energy level up,” says dietician Lisa Dorfman, a marathoner and author of The Vegetarian Sports Nutrition Guide. “The best choices are low-fibre and lactose-free, to prevent intestinal problems, such as bananas, energy bars, bagels, pretzels, rice cakes and sports drinks.
“Water aids in the functioning of every muscle and cell, so inadequate fluids can make you sore, weak, and tired,” says Dorfman. “Even a two-percent reduction in your total body fluid will increase your effort level during running.” Therefore, no possibility of effortless running.
When you run on a hot, humid day, you sweat up to two litres or more per hour. To keep yourself fully hydrated, try to consume at least five servings of fruits and vegetables (for their water content); one litre of fluid; and one additional cup of fluid for each kilogram you lose on the run. (Determine this by weighing yourself immediately before and after a run.)
On runs lasting more than an hour, either take fluids with you, or stash sports drinks along the way.
To enter the effortless zone of running, relaxation is essential. Here are five tips to help you relax, courtesy of sports psychologist Jeffrey Martin:
1 Look for social distraction Run with a friend or two, and your stress level will plunge in the first kay of conversation.
2 Look for environmental distraction Run a woodsy trail, a quiet urban street, an interesting neighbourhood, or any place where there’s a lot to see.
3 Ditch the gadgets Try running unfettered and unplugged. Leave behind everything that beeps, buzzes, or blares the watch, the heart-rate monitor, the headphones.
4 Don’t rush If you cram a run into your schedule, you’ll probably skip the warm-up and worry about finishing the run before the next obligation. Schedule runs when you have a comfortable cushion of time.
5 Calm race jitters To harness the nervous energy you feel before a race: (a) take long, slow, deep breaths, (b) whisper to yourself a positive phrase like “smooth and strong,” and (c) picture yourself running effortlessly. Repeat (b) and (c) throughout the race.