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Madison, Wis. — Running is the most popular form of exercise in the United States, and its benefits are many: cardiovascular fitness, reduced body fat, a decreased likelihood of hypertension and heart disease. And, as with many types of exercise, running works to stabilize blood sugar levels.
The benefits aren’t limited to the physical realm, says UW Health Sports Medicine Runners Clinic program director Dr. Bryan Heiderscheit. The “runner’s high” – that state of in-activity euphoria to which many runners aspire – apparently has a biological basis.
“When you run, there is a nice release of hormones in the brain that give you a more positive outlook and perhaps more clarity of thought,” he says.
Getting in the Running Groove
But if you’ve never run before, Heiderscheit recommends caution at the onset, particularly if you’re no longer a teen. Start with a visit to your primary care doctor, who can identify any issues and risks on which you should keep an eye. Then make a realistic assessment of your recent activity level.
More Training Tips for Runners
Find tips and resources to help you improve your running from the professionals with UW Health Sports Medicine.
“The less active you've been in the last six months to three years, the more gradual the process should be,” Heiderscheit says.
Older runners are at increased risk for calf and Achilles tendon injuries, so strength training that focuses on those areas can mitigate that risk. Heiderscheit likes to incorporate calf raises – both seated and standing – into the potential runner’s existing workouts to build lower-leg strength.
When you’re ready to run, rather than lacing up those shoes and setting out for a brisk five miles, try a walk/run blend that, in the first few weeks, emphasizes the former.
“Alternate between walking and running for short durations and do several cycles,” Heiderscheit recommends. “Take a five-minute period and do four minutes of walking and one of running, and repeat that six times. When you’re done, you have 25 minutes of walking and five of running.”
Keep an attentive eye on your form, making sure you don’t overstride.
“Running is different than walking,” Heiderscheit says. “Walking involves more reaching, whereas running is more like mini-hopping. We advise people to stride short, with their feet underneath them.”
Soreness Versus Pain
As your body allows, increase the running while reducing the walking. Heiderscheit stresses that a little soreness is to be expected if you’re new to running.
“It's just your body getting used to what you're doing,” he says, but differentiates between the minor aches that accompany a new activity and the sharp pain that signifies injury. The former, he says, “shouldn’t stop you from exercising and won’t last more than a day or two.”
But pain that persists for longer and limits your activity could signal a bigger problem. If you’re concerned, Heiderscheit endorses taking a couple of days off.
“If the pain goes away, ramp it back up,” Heiderscheit says. “But if the symptoms come back, that’s when you might want to see a physician or physical therapist.”
Running and Arthritis
Some of the accusations lobbed at running in recent years may be untrue.
“Running has gotten a bad rap in some ways,” Heiderscheit says. “Some people have been saying it puts you at elevated risk of osteoarthritis.”
For moderate runners, that appears to not be the case. In fact, some of the aches and pains that some runners experience may have been incorrectly attributed to osteoarthritis when, in truth, they were temporary and reversible tendon and ligament problems.
Recent data suggests that running hinders rather than encourages osteoarthritis.
“Runners who run at a moderate level may have a lower risk of hip arthritis compared to those who walk,” Heiderscheit says.