It's been a long winter and I'm sure there are many Canadians who have felt a bit trapped these last few months between the deep freezes, heavy snowfalls (and rainfall) and the short dark days. But spring is finally here, marathon season is upon us, and it's time to get outside and hit the road to fitness.
To help you carve out a healthy and, hopefully, injury-free path to maximizing your workouts, improving your performance and recovering after exercise, I've put pen to paper (or, to be honest, keyboard in front of monitor) and compiled a short list of tips that I've learned along the way during my athletic career.
I always say that consistency trumps all. Your body responds better when you are putting it through an established regular routine. Part of that means don't start off at a level you cannot sustain -- start slow, commit to a gradual increase, set reasonable targets, and keep at it. Be consistent with your exercise week-after-week and you will see more improvement and less damage to your body.
Use good form
When you are running, your posture is extremely important. If you don't hold your body correctly, you can risk injury. Good form can also lead to more effective workouts, which is a great bonus.
Keep your head straight. Don't look down, look to the horizon. Your shoulders and jaw should be relaxed, your hands should be loose and your arms should swing out in front and should not cross over. If you feel your shoulders or arms tensing, shake them out. Keep your torso and back comfortably straight, don't slouch. Your feet should fall directly beneath your hips. A good way to think of this is that you should be running on your legs, not with your legs.
Stretch for success
Dynamic and static stretching are critical to support mobility during workouts. Begin every workout with a general warm-up to increase core temperature and blood flow to the working muscles, followed by series of dynamic movements intended to prime the nervous system for the coming training session. These movements can include squats, hip rotations and shoulder flexion/extensions. For post-workout, it is best to use easy, static stretches to help 'reset' muscle tissue length and allow for optimal recovery. Go easy with these; think three out of ten in terms of effort. Over-extending when stretching is a sure way to get injured.
Dress for the weather
I know how excited some people can get when they see a little sun after such a cold winter, but before you rush outside in your shorts and a t-shirt, consider what cold air can do to your body. Your muscles do not respond well to cold. You need to keep them warm. If the weather is cool, wear layers so that if you need to cool down, you can take off an outer layer and tie it around your waist. Better to do that than risk being cold. Use common sense when you're preparing to go for a run.
Remember the three Rs of recovery
People who have performed vigorous exercise need to remember the three R's: Rehydrate to replace lost fluids, Refuel burned muscle fuel with carbohydrates, and Recharge damaged muscles with protein.
In the beginning of my career, I tried various over-hyped protein supplements, and eventually I settled on an old tried and true favourite -- chocolate milk. I find that chocolate milk is an ideal post-workout recovery drink, even more so than water and sports drinks, because it contains the fluids, carbs and protein I need to recover after exercise.
Now, get outside and have fun. Your first 5K or marathon is just a few steps away.
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