Oh, if only running and racing to one’s potential was just about running, wouldn’t that be wonderful? It would make life so much simpler and I truly believe that many more “weekendwarriors” would be up on the podium at competitive ultras. But the more I run, the more I realize that it’s the “extra stuff” that all goes towards truly fulfilling one’s potential as a runner, which is hard, as all I really want to do is run, and all I often feel I have time for is to run.
What do I mean by “extra stuff?” Well, the list really is endless: nutrition, the amount of sleep one gets, strength and conditioning work, stretching and flexibility exercises, cross-training, regular massage and the list goes on. Of course, being the best runner you can be does rely a lot on just getting out there and running, but that will only get you so far. You could compare it to a good Thanksgiving feast – a great turkey is one thing, and probably the most important thing, but to have a really top notch meal you need the potatoes, the veggies, the gravy and the dessert.
We all have busy working and family lives and that’s what makes it challenging to do all the extra things that will really help us fulfill our potential as runners. Whilst I would love to get a massage once a week, and I’m pretty sure that my legs would, too, it simply isn’t feasible to fit this in around my regular desk job hours. So I get a massage when I can, and if I feel I’m getting really stiff and in need of one, then it may mean shortening my workout that day in order to free up some time for a massage appointment.
Since I have been injured for the past year or so, visits to my physical therapist and ensuring that I do the follow up exercises has been very important, even if it eats into time that I would have preferred to use for cardio cross training. It was a balance of feeling that I needed, and wanted, to maintain my cardio fitness through cross-training, whilst realizing that having good cardio was pretty irrelevant if my underlying weaknesses and imbalances were not addressed. My conclusion? I simply had to do my physical therapy homework. I learned that I’d actually get back to running sooner, and get back to running more healthily, if I focused more on what I class as the “extra stuff” rather than just spending hours in the pool or on the bike. I even began to come around to the idea that all this “extra stuff” is maybe not “extra” at all; it is in fact essential.
But I do believe that there is a balance to be had, too, especially given our busy everyday lives. In theory, it might be super to get to the gym four times a week to work on flexibility and core strength, but if this eats into your run training time too much, then quite clearly your running is going to suffer. Whilst I was injured I used the time that I would have previously used for running to do more stretching and core exercises, but as I got back to running I began to cut back on the gym time. It was simply a matter of only having so many hours in the day and finding a balance of doing enough gym work to stave away the injuries whilst freeing up more time to run, as after all my races are all about running, rather than being some amazingly flexible athlete.
As we all juggle trying to fit running and this extra stuff into our already busy lives, is there any way that we can rank what are the most important extra things to do to benefit our running? Is stretching more important than nutrition? Is sleep more important than doing flexibility exercises? Whilst I don’t think we can simply rate the various aspects in order of most important to least important, there are some guidelines.
- Good nutrition doesn’t take extra time so it’s a no brainer. Okay, maybe a few more minutes here and there to pack a healthy lunch rather than grabbing something on the go when at the office, but good nutrition is really quite simple and takes up little time, so it’s something obvious that we shouldn’t skip out on if we want to train and race well.
- Sleep time can be the one aspect of our lives that can easily get eaten into by other activities, and before we know it we’re just longing for time to catch up on sleep. But if we cut back on sleep then our running workouts will not be performed to potential and we’ll be more prone to injury as we are simply not giving our bodies the sleep time they need to repair and recover. For that reason, I rank getting enough quality sleep quite high on the list of importance. Cutting back on sleep could actually be a false economy of time as we are then more prone to injury and thus end up spending more time working on overcoming those injuries. In addition, those training runs completed in a sleep-deprived state might result in you getting the miles in, but if the quality of your run is low then maybe you’d have been better off getting some rest in after all.
- Flexibility, strength and conditioning work, and stretching, I’ll group all into one as they are somewhat overlapping. As I’ve battled injury I’ve become a firm believer that a few minutes on the foam roller or stretching after running will keep injuries at bay and thus cut back on time needed to go visit specialists such as physical therapists and massage therapists. It’s much easier to spend 15 minutes at home every day doing some basic maintenance work than to think you’ll save time by cutting this out and then end up really needing help to overcome niggles and injuries, which can be very time consuming. The importance of strength training can vary between individuals; I spend most of my day in front of a computer so definitely feel I need to do some strength work to help my running, but if I had a more active job/everyday lifestyle then maybe the need to dedicate specific time to strength and conditioning would be less.
I’m sure many of you reading this also face this delicate balancing act of running as much as you have time for, taking into account work and family commitments, whilst also ensuring that you remain a healthy, strong and injuryfree runner by squeezing in some time for good meals, strength work and getting enough sleep every night. As you juggle your busy schedule, just try to remember – a good turkey dinner is not made up of turkey alone!