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How To Be a Better, Faster, Stronger Runner – Advice for Beginners and Experts

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Becoming a better runner takes more than just desire. Learning how to make your body more efficient is essential. Strengthening core muscles, hydration and sleep patterns all play a role. So does mastering the mental game. How can you push past your obstacles? Laura Goldberg, MD, a sports medicine expert with more than 20 completed marathons, explains how to be a better, faster, stronger runner.


Pete Kenworthy
At some point along the way, most of us ran for one reason or another, right? We were young and on the playground. We got older. We wanted to stay in shape for high school or college sports. Then in our 30s and 40s we ran or we jogged to try to stay healthy. Running is part of many people’s lives. Now, a couple of years ago I ran to help me lose weight, right? I started eating better and running a couple miles a few times a week, but I never really loved running, and I eventually switched to walking. But I wonder now, could I keep running at 51? Like, am I too old to keep running?

Macie Jepson
I ran because I had to: basketball high in high school, softball in high school. I hated it. I wish I didn’t because I know today that would be the easiest way for me to reach my health goals. But is it too late for me, too? Hi everybody, I’m Macie Jepson.

Pete Kenworthy
And I’m Pete Kenworthy. And this is The Science of Health. So, we have lots of questions about running and a few myths to bust along the way, but most importantly, we want to discuss things that runners want to know about how to get better, faster, stronger, how to improve at running. Joining us today is Dr. Laura Goldberg from University Hospitals in Cleveland. And along with being a sports medicine specialist, Dr. Goldberg has also run more than 20 marathons in her life. Thank you for being with us.

Laura Goldberg, MD
Thanks for having me.

Pete Kenworthy
So, let’s start with this one, some science. Running is the most efficient way to burn calories versus other forms of exercise like biking, walking, swimming. True or false and why?

Laura Goldberg, MD
Well, it is an efficient form of exercise, but it also depends how much you put into it. So, somebody that’s running at, you know, a slower pace versus someone that’s running at a faster pace, you could potentially walk at a higher intensity and burn more calories than someone who’s jogging really slowly. So, it really is intensity based. And that’s actually true for all the sports we do. Same with swimming, biking, walking. So, it really, it’s not a straightforward yes.

Macie Jepson
Sounds like the key is doing.

Laura Goldberg, MD
Doing. Any doing. Any moving. Any moving is better than not moving.

Macie Jepson
Yeah, no doubt. Is there a point though when people who want to run but they really don’t like it can actually learn to it, get past whatever it is that is the problem?

Laura Goldberg, MD
So, running is hard on our bodies in the sense that everything we do is not impact based. You know, when we walk, we’re not bouncing or we’re not jumping around all the time. And so it does require different strengths, and it does challenge your body differently both through your muscle strength as well as cardiovascular can be a really, make you breathe kind of harder than you’re used to. So yeah, once you start to get in shape, you are going to start feeling that sort of runner’s high, and it comes at different times at different people. So, you might be able to run three miles and feel that way or you might have to get up to much further.

Pete Kenworthy
I was going to ask you about that runner’s high and I’m glad you brought it up because we didn’t have it in our questions. That’s real? Cause I’ve heard “runner’s high”.

Macie Jepson
I’ve never gotten to that point. I never get past “the runner wants to puke”.

Laura Goldberg, MD
So, I haven’t been running a lot lately because I’ve had this knee injury, so I just can’t run a lot because, well arthritis, which we’ll talk about joints in a little bit, I think. But one of the things that I find really interesting about that runner’s high is it can come at times when you don’t expect it. So, I’ve trained for marathons and been in, you know, mile 18 and gotten it or at an easy run about at mile like four or five. It’s really just that when the endorphins kick in and you’re just feeling like in invincible. And it’s kind of like everything comes together at once.

Pete Kenworthy
Isn’t it funny that she said the easy run at mile four or five?

Macie Jepson
Yeah. Hilarious.

Pete Kenworthy
So, we did talk about getting over that hump, whether it’s learning to running or just getting over a hump. There is a way to do that?

Laura Goldberg, MD
So, part of what’s so hard about exercise is really getting your body to be more efficient. And so that efficiency comes from just repetition and doing it and challenging your body in different ways. So, sometimes if you go out for a run by yourself and you’re kind of feeling blah and you’re just going to run blah, so it’s much better to have a friend or someone that might push you a little bit. Or on a day that you’re feeling like you really need to take it easy, you might want to run with a friend that doesn’t go quite as fast. But really the way to get over that hump of do I like to run or do I not, is to get your body accustomed to that cardiovascular effort that’s going on. So, maybe, you know, don’t want to run twice a week and never do anything else. You want to make sure you do something consistently enough. And consistency really comes from enjoying it. So, you have to somehow get yourself to enjoy it enough to get out there all the time.

Pete Kenworthy
Is going with friends or a small group, like is that a way to, you know, maybe you hate running alone and even music doesn’t help you. Maybe someone holding you accountable, does that…?

Laura Goldberg, MD
Well, yeah. The holding you accountable is good, but also that when you are running with somebody else, a lot of times you’re talking, and so that talking, if you can run and you can hold a conversation, maybe not be the only person talking, but the back and forth, that is a really good base building running. You know, definitely want to go on runs sometimes where you can’t talk that you’re pushing yourself harder and runs where you could talk the entire time because again, changing that intensity is really important.

Macie Jepson
We do want to talk about getting better and faster, but first let’s talk about those knee and joint pains. True or false: is running bad for your knees or your joints?

Laura Goldberg, MD
Well, running puts about four times your body weight on it. When you run, your body needs to absorb that body weight. And so, yes, theoretically think, oh that must be harder in your joints, but your joints and bones respond to loading. It actually helps, you know, maintain muscle or bone strength. You definitely need to have increased muscle strength to run. That’s why that starting, when you start to run, you get that soreness, you know, that you don’t get in other sports unless there’s running involved with them. So, it’s not bad on your joints, but it does take some adjusting and, I mean, if it was bad on your joints, every runner out there would have arthritis. And that’s not the case.

Macie Jepson
Okay. So, you are a runner and you want to get better. What are the ways to do that?

Laura Goldberg, MD
So, we touched on it a little bit in the sense that you have to challenge your body in different ways. So, first and foremost, you have to run regularly. You need recovery from your running. And so when you are trying to build your efficiency, you’re really trying to change your cardiovascular system. And so we think of that as VO2 max. So, by pushing yourself so that you’re elevating that threshold where you go from aerobic to anaerobic, you know, so using oxygen to not using oxygen, that threshold is really important. So, we think of different types of running. So, you have your tempo runs, your threshold runs. So, threshold is sort of that, you know, you’re running really hard at that level that you can’t hold for a long time. Tempo run is kind of more of a faster pace that you can hold for a longer period of time.

And then you’ve got your base runs that you’re, you know, you could go out and run forever on. And that forever of course is different for everybody. By adding in the sprinting or the fartleks that people talk about, that’s really just another way to challenge you, and you have to look at what your goal is. If your goal is a 5k, you’re going to have a much different training program than if you’re a marathon runner. Or if you want to be a trail runner and you have to be able to run for, you know, an Ironman or some long, long distance, that’s a very different training program. And one thing we haven’t talked about is you can’t just run; you have to challenge your body in other ways because again, your muscles need to be able to tolerate running. And as we get older, unfortunately our muscles don’t respond as quickly. Everything’s a little bit less elastic, has less water, really more prone to injury. And so making sure you’re doing the strength training to go along with it is really important.

Macie Jepson
What about the mental side of it? You know you can physically do it but your brain is just telling you I can’t or I don’t want to.

Laura Goldberg, MD
So, the mental aspect of running is so hard. I can’t say I’ve ever ran a marathon, even as trained as I was, that there wasn’t a point in there that I said, I’m never, I’m not going to make it. And whether that’s because you’re dehydrated, you don’t have enough, you know, nutrients in your body, you aren’t quite trained for what you’re doing, you’re pushing yourself to the limit. Everyone has little tricks. And if you don’t have little tricks, you’re going to figure them out pretty quickly. So, for me, sometimes in a race or a long run, I will pick somebody to run that mile for and I’ll start thinking, okay, during this run and maybe it’s my niece or my nephew or my kid and I’m thinking about them, you know, or something or else you’ll meet somebody and start talking to them. The mental game really is what separates the elite from the non-elite. It’s really being able to push yourself.

Pete Kenworthy
We’re going to get to that elite/non-elite thing here in just a second. But I want to touch on marathons because you brought it up. The Cleveland Marathon happened recently, right, and they told me they typically have a 10 to 12% no-show rate every year. Now, obviously that’s for various reasons, right? But one reason I would have to think comes into play as an injury during training for the marathon. We hear about those hamstring, knee, shin injuries. Are there best ways to avoid those things? Cause you know you’re paid to go to the marathon, you want to run the marathon, you certainly don’t want to have something stop that.

Laura Goldberg, MD
Yep. And it’s, as a sports medicine physician, I definitely see an uptick of visits right before the marathon because people are kind of concerned with can I do it? Can I not? What pain can I run through? What pain can I not? And depending on how far away your race is, the answer to that question varies. So, for somebody who comes in with, let’s say, shin pain and they’re afraid of a stress fracture, so meaning that they get up in the morning and it hurts; they walk on it, it hurts: they run, it gets worse. They’re concerned, is this shin splints or is this a stress fracture? What I just described sounds more like a stress fracture. So, in that case, if it’s a week before, I will actually help by doing imaging to say if it’s a stress fracture, you cannot run. If you’re limping at the starting line, you shouldn’t be running. If you’re limping at every run the week before, that’s when you got to pull the plug and say it’s not worth it. But there are a lot of injuries that we can assist you with running through and getting to the other side of the marathon or whatever that race is, depending on what the injury is. And the sooner we know the better.

Pete Kenworthy
So, before we get to that injury point though, training for a marathon takes months, right? So, are there things you can do to, maybe not ensure, right, but give your best shot of not getting any of those injuries?

Laura Goldberg, MD
Yes, and of course, following a training program so that you’re, you know, making sure that you’re training the right amount of miles, that you’re resting the right amount. Cross-training is really important. Doing the strength training, making sure that your hips and core are strong, making sure your gait is okay. And sometimes that’s having somebody watch you that knows what they’re talking about or actually going into a physical therapist and having them do a gait analysis. The other thing is sleep. We do not appreciate. You add in a training program and you have a full-time job and you have kids and you’re running around and you’re adding time to your day that you don’t have. And so you take it away from sleep. And sleep is where our body recovers. And so if you go out for a long run and you don’t get enough sleep that night and the next day you do your recovery run and you’re exhausted, you don’t get enough sleep again, it really compounds and that’s what leads to injury. I would say nutrition and sleep are the biggest causes of injury.

Pete Kenworthy
The other thing you slid in there, you talked about core strength, right? And if you’re, I guess not new to running, but maybe you don’t think about that, the hip strength, glute strength, core strength, why that’s important for running.

Laura Goldberg, MD
Right. So, we talk about that your body weight when you run, you have to absorb four times your body weight. And so you’ve got to imagine that takes a lot of strength. And when you land on one leg and you’re absorbing that and you’re kicking it back out to go to your next step forward, that is all on one leg. And so in order to balance your body, you really have to make sure that your core muscles, meaning, yes, the deep core around your spine, your pelvic floor, a little bit, your abs, but really your buttock muscles that stabilize the hips so your hip isn’t dropping, your knee isn’t dropping. So, when we say core, it’s not just having, you know, a six pack. It’s actually about the stuff that you can’t see. It’s the deeper things.

Macie Jepson
Before we talk about getting to the elite stage, you mentioned tricks. What should a runner, any runner, have in their toolbox as far as the equipment, the good shoes, the recovery chewies or gummies? I mean, is all of that stuff important?

Laura Goldberg, MD
I think that yes, it’s important knowing how to hydrate yourself, knowing how to, the nutrition that goes along with it. But the best thing about running is that it is, I mean, you just need a good pair of shoes. And then I do feel really strongly about clothes. People say how do you run all year round? It’s all about having the right clothes on that, you know, can absorb your sweat and like that don’t then make you sit there in wet clothes, having an appropriate jog bra. I mean people that have larger sized breasts have a hard time running and there’s, because they need more support, you’ve got to have the right support. Same thing with guys having comfortable shorts that and anything that doesn’t chafe over time, because for someone who is not used to running, a three mile run is a lot of chafe on that skin if they’re not used to it.

So, having appropriate clothing and the sort of accoutrements, of course, it makes me then jump to chafing, you need some Vaseline under any areas or having good socks and maybe putting powder in your toes so you don’t get blisters and, you know, making sure that your shoes fit and that you’re rotating appropriately, maybe every 400 miles or so. But it also depends on where you’re running, how hard you’re running, how heavy you are, what kind of shoes you have. Some people have to, you know, rotate them sooner. So, and I do agree with having like two pairs of shoes so that there’s a little bit more recovery time of that shoe. Especially if you’re training twice a day, you should really have two pairs of shoes.

So, one of the things that’s really interesting to me is most of the research that has been done in the past is done on either males or male and females together and then extrapolated to women. And women obviously are very different than men in the sense that we have cycling hormones, and that really affects our injury rate, the timing of that when we want to push our bodies versus kind of back off. And the more that we understand, the more that we’re learning about injury prevention and about how we are better runners at more distance because we utilize fat more versus men tend to be better sprinters. Of course, those are blanket statements, but there’s a reason why those statements are made. And I think going forward it’s really important for us to differentiate males versus females in terms of training and recovery.

Macie Jepson
All of this makes sense, but can all of this make someone a great runner if that’s the goal? In other words, what makes elite runners elite?

Laura Goldberg, MD
Right. Well, there is an underlying genetic component. So, you know, you are born with sort of a maximum VO2 max that you’re going to achieve. If two people, and this is a perfect example of males and females, you take a male and a female and you train them exactly the same and you push them the exact same, nine out of 10 times that male’s VO2 max is going to be higher than that female’s, once they’re post puberty. Pre-puberty, there’s no difference. That tends to be male/female reasoning. But then if you take two females or two males and you push them equally, one of them is going to achieve a higher VO2 max just because of their genetic makeup. But then you throw into there, you need the mental aspect that can push you. The difference between elite and non-elite runners is really how long can they run at that lactate threshold or that, you know, kind of pushing at that edge. So yes, everyone can train to be an elite. Whether or not you’ll be in the top of the elite is probably a little bit of genetic, a little bit of mental combined.

Pete Kenworthy
Anything else we didn’t talk about? And I want you to think about any kind of runner, right? And I’m talking about people who are runners, right? So, even if that person’s just a, you know, three mile a day kind of runner, or maybe they’re a 10 mile a day kind of runner, but both of those runners want to get better. They want to get whether better means faster, whether better means they’re stronger, whether better means they’ve lost a little more weight or they just want to learn how to run better. Anything we didn’t touch on?

Laura Goldberg, MD
So, we’ve touched on weight training a couple of times, but one thing I think is very much overlooked is people think of running as a way to lose weight and they’re like, oh, it’s so efficient, I’m going to burn calorie and whatnot. Really strength training or high intensity interval training is a very important adjunct to running because while you’re running, you think, oh, I’m strengthening my legs, but that’s not enough. You really do want to do strength training both for the reward of building your muscle mass and maintaining muscle mass as we get older. So, when you’re hitting that 60, 65, we really have to increase strength training to counteract the breakdown that happens. So, as I kind of joke that as I get older, I have to do more and more to be able to keep doing what I used to do when I was younger. So, you know, running isn’t just enough to do running. I have to do strength training so I don’t get hurt to complement it. So, I think that’s a really, really important thing to think about is adding in strength training as a part of your whole running training program.

Macie Jepson
So, Doctor, is there anything that you can leave us with that will make this not so daunting? I mean, I’m scared to death of it myself. My daughter’s looking for a different program right now. She’s a little bit overwhelmed, but I would think the benefit is so worth it if you just give it a try.

Laura Goldberg, MD
Yes. So, as a runner, I of course want my kids to run, and you can’t always make that happen. They make their own choices. But I did have a discussion with my daughter yesterday. She said, Mom, I’m never going to like running. I don’t like it when I run 50 yards. I don’t like it when I run a hundred yards. Why do you think I’m going to like it when I run more? And I think the scariest part is just starting. And so I was like, you like to walk, go out and walk. Go for a 1, 2, 3 mile, it doesn’t matter. And actually, I think a lot of times people get caught up on the distance. Just get out there and walk and then add in, you know, from this tree to the next tree, some jogging. And then, you know, do that repetitively. And over a week or two, you’re going to notice that those little add-ins get easier. And then you add in a little bit more and a little bit more. And then, so actually most training programs are doing that. They’re just telling you when to do it, how to do it. But if you’re overwhelmed by that, just use your own neighborhood and use driveways or streets or something to do intervals.

Pete Kenworthy
That’s great advice. Sports medicine specialist, Dr. Laura Goldberg from University Hospitals in Cleveland, thank you so much for being with us.

Laura Goldberg, MD
Thank you for having me.

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