Myth: There’s an Ideal Running Form THAT Will Solve All Your Problems
Fact: Your form improves with experience. ‣ “There is no ‘ideal’ way to run and no evidence that suggests telling age-group runners to run one way or another,” says Isabel S. Moore, PhD, a sport and exercise medicine researcher. That’s because bodies are different in how they’re built, how they stride, and how they break down.
“Our running mechanics are probably a result of a combination of our anatomy, injury history, and running history,” says Rich Willy, PhD, a professor of physical therapy at the University of Montana in Missoula. And logging kilometres day after day will gradually optimise your gait, says Moore. She conducted a study with novice female runners engaging in a 10-week running program. After the 10 weeks were up, the runners had significantly improved their running economy without instruction on how to do so. Be wary of any expert who swears they can upgrade your form. Most coaches can’t spot efficient form—even veterans—according to a 2020 study in the European Journal of Sports Science. Researchers at Middle Tennessee State University determined the efficiency of five runners and sent videos of them to 121 coaches, from the high school level up to international program managers. Overwhelmingly, the coaches could not tell which runner was the most efficient.
Myth: Gotta Stretch!
Fact: Static stretching doesn’t reduce injury risk. ‣ It also doesn’t lengthen our muscles in meaningful or protective ways, says Willy. Back in 2001, Willy studied how six weeks of hamstring stretching changed athletes’ range of motion. They could lift their legs higher than before, he says. Yet after four weeks without the stretches, the participants lost almost all improvement. That was markedly different than if participants had trained and tested muscle strength—those gains don’t disappear so quickly—and a clue that stretching wasn’t changing muscles significantly.
Now Willy sees stretching as a largely neurological event. When we stretch, it helps us develop a tolerance: Our brains learn that it’s safe to increase our range of motion, and so our muscles comply. Static stretching (holding a position) may actually decrease running performance, says Todd Buckingham, PhD. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that distance runners with tighter hamstrings had better running economies than their bendier peers. “Imagine your muscles and tendons are like a rubber band,” says Buckingham. “You want the rubber band to snap back quickly.”
If you like stretching, keep doing it, says Willy. “It helps me relax.” But prioritise cooldowns, strength work, and naps. Research shows that these are the best aides for recovery and injury prevention.
Myth: Always Be Refeuling
Fact: Save the run snacks for long efforts. ‣ You probably don’t need to top off your glycogen stores on runs shorter than 60 minutes, and there can even be an advantage in training your body to burn fat stores by running for 90 minutes or more without refuelling, says Michael Newell, PhD, senior lecturer for health nutrition and exercise at the University of Bedfordshire in England. The caveat, says Newell, is if you were hitting longer, high-intensity efforts, such as multiple 15- to 20-minute intervals.
On race day, there’s a limit to how much you should consume mid-run. In a 2018 paper in Nutrients, Newell examined the optimal carb intake for a two-hour effort. He found that taking in more than 40 grams of carbs per hour hurt performance because digestion draws blood from the muscles to the stomach.
Myth: Having Your Period on Race Day Is a Disaster
Fact: The hormone changes can be an advantage. ‣ There’s no bad day during your monthly cycle for racing, says Stacy Sims, PhD, a physiologist whose research focuses on female athlete performance. In fact, research shows that menstruation can offer unique physiological advantages.
The days right before your bleeding begins can be some of the very best from a performance standpoint, says Sims. During this phase, eostrogen and progesterone levels dip, lowering your core body temperature and resting heart rate. Heart-rate variability—which is the amount of fluctuation between your heart beats—improves, which means you are more resilient to stress, says Sims. Having lower eostrogen and progesterone also improves the body’s ability to utilise carbohydrates stored in the muscle and liver, says Sims. However, if you suffer from heavy menstrual bleeding, cramps, and GI issues, that can hamper performance. “Over 35 percent of recreational female athletes experience heavy menstrual bleeding, but we don’t talk about what’s normal, so it’s often missed,” says Sims. See your doctor if you think you might experience heavy bleeding. There are options that may help, like taking tranexamic acid or implanting an IUD. If you’re suffering from cramps, Sims recommends 100mg of ibuprofen to help lower inflammation. She also suggests taking 3 to 5 grams of a creatine supplement daily the week before your period. It can maintain the mucosal lining of your GI tract, reducing the symptoms of digestive distress during your period.
Myth: Running Is My Therapy
Fact: Running is great for your brain, but it’s no replacement for a mental-health professional. ‣ Mental health practitioners often prescribe exercise because it can trigger positive changes in brain chemistry, says Dimitrios Tsatiris, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at Northeast Ohio Medical University. Exercise can increase the production of serotonin, which can boost mood. It also can result in the release of brain-derived neurotrophic factors, which can encourage the growth of new neurons and synapses. (Antidepressants have also been shown to potentially increase them.)
Regular aerobic exercise has been linked to an improvement in size of the brain’s hippocampus, an area of the cortex which research has found can be smaller in people suffering from depression. And in people suffering from anxiety or ADHD, running can activate the frontal parts of the brain responsible for executive function, says Dr. Tsatiris. The simple act of going for a run—especially outside—can force us to be in the here and now. That’s a helpful thing for people prone to forecasting anxious futures, says Dr. Tsatiris. Finally, running can raise our self-efficacy as we go farther or faster than we thought possible. “That builds one’s self-esteem, like, okay, I can run an extra kilometre, run that kilometre faster. And as a result, that’s a blueprint that you can take to other parts of your life,” says Dr. Tsatiris.
However, he is clear about one thing: Running is not therapy. “The goal of therapy is to improve self-awareness,” says Dr. Tsatiris. Therapy should create a safe space where you learn to be curious and insightful about what, exactly, is going on in your head. A good therapist will help you understand why you are having intrusive thoughts or sharp mood swings. When done right, sessions should give you the tools you need to think about why, for instance, you put on your running shoes and blasted out of the house instead of engaging the last time your spouse was mad.
Myth: Don’t Up Your Weekly Mileage By More Than 10 Percent
Fact: There’s no universal rule, but 10 percent is low. ‣ This myth is too simple to be accurate. “Running surfaces, running volume, terrain, speed, and one’s physiology all factor into training loads,” says Willy. Instead, increase your mileage based on your experience level, injury history, and overall well-being. If you’re new to running, add up to 20 percent to your weekly total. A 2007 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine looked at two groups of novice runners training for a 5K race either following the 10 percent rule or increasing their mileage by 24 percent each week. The injury rates were practically identical—though a 2014 study in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy found an increased rate of injuries in new runners adding more than 30 percent.
Experienced runners building back volume after a break can add up to 30 percent more kilometres each week, says Buckingham. However, if you’re already running fairly high volume, be more conservative, he says. Track your miles in a training log and keep notes on how you feel. Next time you’re building up kilometres, refer to your log and see what went well and where things started to go from “felt great” to “oops, too much.” Critical to increasing your mileage is scheduling down weeks into your training. Buckingham recommends adding kilomtres for three to four weeks, and then backing off for one week. Improvement comes from applying stress and then letting your body rest, he says.
Myth: Carbs are Good! Carbs are Bad! Fat is Good! Fat is Bad!
Fact: Runners benefit from both. ‣ The myths cut every which way on fat and carbs, but both fuels can be used to your advantage. To run your best, your body needs every available resource, says Louise Burke, PhD, chair of sports nutrition at the Australian Catholic University in Canberra.
Our bodies run off stored energy, either in the form of glycogen (carbohydrates) or fat. It takes less effort to turn glycogen into available energy than fat, says Burke. The difference in the amount of oxygen consumed in that process is between 5 and 8 percent. That’s a negligible amount while running at low intensity, but in a harder effort, needing 5 to 8 percent more oxygen slows you down. While that keto-evangelist at your gym may swear your body can only run off one fuel or the other, that’s also a myth, says Newell. You can—and probably already do—run off both. And the keto-curious should know that studies have shown that athletes training only on a low-carb diet lose some of their ability to convert glycogen to energy—making that mid-race Powerade cup less effective.
Myth: Running Ruins Your Knees
Fact: Your knees get stronger. ‣ Running actually protects your knees against the development of osteoarthritis, with non-elite runners having about a third of the rate of knee osteoarthritis of sedentary individuals, says Willy. A 2017 review and meta-analysis published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy found non-elite runners had just a 3.5 percent prevalence of hip or knee osteoarthritis compared to 10.2 percent of those in the sedentary, non-running control group.
Willy says the more researchers learn about cartilage, the elastic tissue that protects our joints, the more those results make sense. “Cartilage is like any other living structure in that it gets stronger with continued loading,” says Willy. When you run, you stress the cartilage in your joints. Just like your muscles, that cartilage recovers and strengthens after a workout. Emerging research on metabolic health also reveals that the positive blood sugar and hormone changes that come with regular exercise may affect cartilage health for the better, too, says Willy.
Why has this myth persisted for so long? Because of one big caveat: The relationship between running and knee osteoarthritis is U-shaped. Not running increases your risk. Yet so, too, does running large amounts of volume, says Willy—particularly if you start young. The 2017 meta-analysis found that 13.3 percent of elite runners developed hip or knee osteoarthritis.
Myth: Walking is Weak
Fact: Walking can make you faster. ‣ All runners walk: aid stations, workouts, whenever we feel like it. Go watch an ultra—many racers walk every uphill. Assigning virtue to one locomotion is needlessly unfair and unkind. And if you’re afraid to be seen walking, your ego may actually be hurting your training. Downshifting during a high-intensity session lets you do more work at a faster speeds, says Buckingham. Walking can also present an approachable way to reach a new distance goal.
Perhaps the best testament to the power of walking is the Galloway Method. For nearly 50 years, coach Jeff Galloway’s Run-Walk-Run system, where runners break their long runs and races down into a few minutes of running followed a minute or two of walking, has carried at least a half million runners (by Galloway’s surprisingly thorough count) to a finish line. Run-walking won’t cost you much, if any, time compared with run-running. A 2014 study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport tracked runners versus run-walkers in a marathon. The two groups had similar median finish times: 4:14:25 for the run-walkers and 4:07:40 for the runners. That’s less than a 3 percent difference, and after the race, the run-walk group reported less fatigue and muscle pain.
Myth: Your Watch Knows Best
Fact: We’re complicated. Listen to your body before your watch. ‣ Six months ago, Sasha Gollish, PhD, an elite runner and coach, put herself in a data tracking timeout. “My relationship with the data was toxic,” she says. Tracking everything—sleep, heart-rate variability, weekly kilometres—made her question whether she really felt bad on a run, or whether her watch had told her to expect a slog and she complied.
Your watch may also not be getting the most accurate data, especially if it doesn’t use a chest strap for collecting heart-rate data (research shows they’re significantly more accurate than optical, wrist-based monitors). And your watch can’t access the untracked factors with big impacts to make informed choices, says James Heathers, PhD, the chief science officer for CipherSkin, a medical wearable device company. Yes, maybe you got good rest last night and had an easy week mileage-wise. But perhaps your low miles are due to pulling 12-hour days at work and skipping lunch. A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that poor mental health correlated with a higher incidence of overuse injuries in runners. “Anyone just following what their watch tells them to do is getting suboptimal training,” says Heathers.
Myth: “I’m Not Ready to Race”
Fact: Racing is for everyone (and you don’t have to PB to have a good time). ‣ Doubt and unrealistic expectations—like that every race must be a personal best—can sideline you when you should be out high-fiving spectators. First, most of us view ourselves through an overly critical lens, says Chelsi Day, PsyD, a sports psychologist. We tend to focus on what’s not going well in our training while forgetting about everything that has gone right. That can keep us from accurately judging how prepared we are.
And races are about more than PB’s, says Jonathan Cane, a running coach. Expecting each event to be better than the last will suck the fun out of running faster than you can hoover the goo from a gel packet. Racing should bring joy. It should also allow you to learn from your mistakes and find small victories—from calming pre-race jitters to nailing your fuelling strategy. When Cane gets an athlete so stuck on hitting a PB that they won’t race unless it’s all but sure, he talks them into a ferociously hilly event, or an oddball distance like a 7K. “Suddenly they’re free of worrying about times because everyone’s are so slow or unusual,” he says. Released from their hang-ups about performing at their peak, the athletes will often remember how fun it is to fly down the road with hundreds of sweaty fellow runners.
Pros— They Believe Myths Just Like Us!
Dominique Scott | 2016 and 2020 Olympian in the 5K and 10K for South Africa
The myth: Carb-load for everything.
I believed all runners ate huge bowls of pasta the night before races or big workouts and that gave them the energy to run fast. It wasn’t until late in high school when I realised I actually don’t feel very good after eating a lot of pasta and I don’t race ultramarathons—and therefore do not need to consume my weight in carbs the night before races.
Coree Woltering | Ultramarathoner for The North Face
The myth: Running will wreck your knees.
When I was in high school, I ran the 200, 400, and 800, and said I would never run a marathon—that’s way too far, it would hurt my knees. A 5K was the longest distance I would run because I would be like, Oh, my knees! My knees! I gotta protect my knees! It’s so funny now because I race 100 miles.
Chari Hawkins | Pentathlon gold medalist at the 2022 USATF Indoor Championships
The myth: Big strides are better.
People always told me that I would be good at running because I have long legs and could really “stride out.” So I always tried to take really long strides. But my legs were always sore, my knees were always sore. Then I broke my ankle right before the Indoor World Championships in 2019. I started working with a physical therapist and he said, “Chari, you are overstriding so much.” He totally changed my running to help me eliminate injury as well as improve my speed.
Deena Kastor | 2004 Olympic Marathon bronze medalist
The myth: Always go hard.
Many take “no pain, no gain” to heart and run hard every day, every kilometre. I know now that the gain comes from the rest period. As athletes, we deplete ourselves in the work phase, but grow stronger during recovery.
Two Lies and a Truth About Shoes
Lie: Replace Your Shoes Every 500 kilometres
There are too many variables to make a blanket recommendation, says Matt Trudeau, a senior manager for Brooks. Your weight, the foam used in the shoe, your running surfaces, and your gait pattern will all impact shoe wear. Since there’s no hard mileage rule, look for external clues: When the outsole’s lugs begin to disappear, the shoe may not be offering as much cushion and traction as it used to, says Trudeau. Also, pay attention to any new post-run soreness in your ankles, hips, or knees, which can be a sign that the shoe’s midsole is not offering the support it once did.
Lie: Your Shoes Will Last Longer If You Rotate Them
Not really, says Trudeau. They’ll just hang out on the shoe rack longer. This myth comes from the idea that midsole foam needs time to recover after runs. But the foam should bounce back in minutes, not days.
You may, however, want to consider rotating your shoes for injury prevention. Willy recommends alternating between two similar pairs of shoes. You’ll move slightly differently in the two pairs and possibly help keep repetitive use injuries at bay. A 2013 study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports saw a 60 percent reduction in injury rate for runners who used multiple shoes versus those who stuck to a single pair.
Truth: Removing Your Shoes Without Unlacing Them Breaks Them Down
The foam in the heel helps keep your foot in place. Crunching that foam down every time you step on the back of one shoe to slip out of the other, then jamming your heels in when you put them back on, will break the foam down faster, says Trudeau. Plus: Torquing your shoelaces beyond what they’re built for may harm the eyelets that hold them in place. And you’re sacrificing the improved fit and efficiency that laces provide in order to get outside a few seconds faster.
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