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Our experts blast through common running misconceptions that might be slowing you down.
Myth: Running on a treadmill is less beneficial than running outdoors
Truth: If you feel a little guilty about your treadmill time, don't. The difference is marginal. While a workout on a completely level treadmill burns fewer calories than an outdoor run, that's easily fixed: Just tap the settings and add a one percent grade to your workout, says Jonathan P. Little, assistant professor and specialist in exercise physiology at the University of British Columbia (UBC) at Okanagan. "The oxygen cost or the calorie burning would be approximately equal," he says.
One benefit of the treadmill? It might be less jarring on the joints than running outdoors, depending on the surface of the outdoor run, he adds. "So you can have less risk of injury by running on a treadmill."
Myth: Some people just aren't built to run
Truth: UBC's Little says any body type can run. That said, he urges sedentary people who are taking up running to begin slowly. "Start walking and then include a bit of running," he says. He suggests the "10-and-one program," in which you walk for 10 minutes, then run for one, and repeat until you reach 30 minutes, if you can manage that.
He does advise people who have chronic knee problems or osteoarthritis in the knee (resulting in pain while running) to consider biking, swimming or using an elliptical trainer instead. "The increased load in your joints during an impact activity such as running might cause pain," he says.
Myth: It's better to run on asphalt than on grass or dirt
Truth: Actually, street runs may be harder on your joints. "Soft surfaces, like grass or gravel or wood chips, are going to have less impact on the joints than running on asphalt," says Little.
So why do we so often see runners taking to the roads? Asphalt offers more sure footing and less risk of twisting an ankle, notes Little, and it's still better than running on sidewalk concrete. "The sidewalk is the hardest and probably the worst
in that respect."
Myth: Running is bad for your knees
Truth: People with chronic knee problems should choose walking, but at least one study confirms that runners were less likely than sedentary nonrunners to have knee problems, so healthy runners are not putting their knees at risk, says Margaret Webb, a Toronto journalist and author of Older, Stronger, Faster: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, Longer (Rodale Books, 2014). The Stanford University study followed a group of runners and sedentary people over about 20 years. "The runners had significantly lower incidences of osteoarthritis than the sedentary nonrunners," says Webb. The reason? "Running triggers your body's release of human growth hormone, which stokes your body's ability to repair and regenerate bone, muscle, ligament and tendon," she says.
Why do some people develop runner's knee? Blame weak hip muscles, says Reed Ferber, a top biomechanics researcher and director of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Calgary. Your gluteus medius is the muscle on the side of your hip, and it's the main balancing muscle, he says. When you run, you're effectively balancing on one leg at a time; if the gluteus medius is weak, there's too much up and down motion in the pelvis. So the knee collapses inward and rotates too much, causing pain.
It's important to note that if you have musculoskeletal problems or joint issues in your knees, always talk to your doctor or physio-therapist before starting a running program.
Myth: You should always be increasing your distance
Truth: So you've been running two kilometres for a while now…and aren't inclined to go any farther. Don't worry too much about it. "You're still going to be getting some benefits," says Little. To challenge yourself, he recommends incorporating short bursts of speed into your regular run. Borrowed from high-intensity interval training, this means speeding up for a short burst, then backing off and taking a little walk or jog to recover.
"This style of exercise is beneficial for people who are overweight or obese, middle-aged or have Type 2 diabetes," says Little. That's because interval training boosts cardiorespiratory fitness, improves blood vessel function and lowers both abdominal and overall body fat.
Myth: You need to give up on running as you get older
Truth: "It's possible to start running at any age," says Webb, and many people take it up in their 40s or 50s. "Running strengthens every part of your body," she says. If you're just starting out, though, don't tackle 5K right away. "If you ease into it, it will make you even stronger and fitter." (If you have a heart condition, diabetes or high blood pressure, always consult a doctor before taking up running.) Webb recommends that beginners join a learn-to-run clinic or work with a coach to develop a proper running program.
More importantly, there are huge benefits of continuing to run as you age. For one, you'll improve your VO2 level, which reflects your ability to take in oxygen, get it to your working muscles and exchange it out, says Webb. You'll also improve your cardiovascular system. Other benefits include increased bone density and more restful sleep. "Running will stimulate the renewal of every tissue in the body, as running provokes the release of growth hormone," she adds. "It's as if your body is saying, ‘I need to be fit, I need to be young, I need to respond.' Running is a great way to stall aging and even turn back the clock."