Run Better Now with these 4 Low-Effort Lifestyle Changes
I’ve recently come back to running, after going through a long period with almost no interest in it.
But this time, it’s different from before.
Before, when I was “a runner,” I was doing it for races and for fun. For its own sake.
This time, it’s entirely about fitness and longevity.
And as such, I want to do it right. Kettlebell training has taught me to pay careful attention to the way I move — out of necessity while performing swings and get-ups and moving around heavy kettlebells in general — which has carried over into greater focus on how I move throughout life.
And in my return to running, I’ve found myself obsessed with the nuances of my stride — something to which I scarcely gave a second thought in the old days, choosing instead to be satisfied with half-truths like “Run at 180 steps per minute and everything else will take care of itself.”
I’ve invested many miles and dozens of hours of drills into learning to land on my forefoot through the POSE method.
But even before thinking about running form, we should be thinking about movement in general: how we squat, bend over, jump, and use our hips, knees, and ankles.
Becoming ‘Ready to Run’ (without a lot of effort)
It was with this mindset that I plowed, in the course of a weekend, through Ready to Run, by mobility guru Kelly Starrett, Ph.D.: a twelve-point checklist of flexibility, movement, and lifestyle conditions that a runner should meet in order to get the most mileage from their training — and to be confident that, for years to come, your training will make you stronger, not wear your down.
The majority of the checkpoints are tests like “Perform 10 perfect air squats in 20 seconds, followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated 8 times,” or the ability to get into and hold certain positions requiring more flexibility than most runners have.
But a few were easier than that, and with a single commitment to change (and in a few cases, a purchase), I was able to check off several items in a single day.
As someone who has paid a lot of attention to how we change habits, and where we should invest our emotional energy and willpower, I always get excited about changes like these — the kind that don’t require constant effort, where you take a single action and you’re forever better off.
For example, when it comes to sleeping better, you can spend a little time and money to buy blackout curtains or a pillow that you love — do it one time and then you sleep better without any additional effort.
The four actions below, from Ready to Run, aren’t all quite so easy as buying blackout curtains — some require a little commitment and repeated effort. But none is that hard, either (not nearly as hard as increasing your range of motion in a tight ankle, for example).
So here they are: four lifestyle changes you can make that offer a massive return on a relatively small investment to improve your running and fitness in general.
1. Wear flat shoes.
I know, the minimalist running movement came and went. A lot of people got injured when they didn’t transition slowly enough. And when giant-soled shoes like Hokas became all the rage, the running shoe industry was all too happy to embrace the maximal shoe trend.
I’m not sure which is better; for as much as I loved feeling the ground when I ran in minimalist shoes, I also know I loved all the extra cushioning when I ran my 100-miler in Hokas.
But for training that’s not so much aimed at race times as it is at fitness, mobility, and longevity, it’s hard for me to buy any theory other than one that says we should run in conditions that closely match the way we evolved to run — and that’s barefoot, where we’re forced to land on our midfoot or forefoot and avoid a painful heel strike.
But “wear flat shoes” isn’t the same as “go barefoot.” It’s a compromise. You can wear shoes with little or no drop from heel to toe, and still have some cushioning — even a lot of cushioning, if you want, but I think that starts to miss the point.
And to go further than Starrett goes with his recommendation, I have to imagine that giving your toes room to splay out (the way they would if we ran barefoot all our lives) is better than wedging them into a small toebox where they smash against each other and the foot takes on an unnatural shape.
No breakthrough here — again, the minimalist movement is old news. But I still think it’s the way to go.
How I Implemented It: I bought a pair of Altra shoes, which are zero-drop and foot-shaped, with a large toebox. For the first month or so, I continued to wear the shoes I had been running in for any runs over 5 miles, and only wore my Altras for shorter workouts.
(Note: I ran in lots of minimalist shoes in my previous life as a runner, so if you haven’t, you should transition even more slowly than I did to avoid injury.)
2. Recover with compression socks.
Again, no great breakthrough here: lots of us have tried compression socks, either while we’re running or afterwards.
But controversy over whether it actually delivers on the promise of improving blood flow (and therefore, reducing inflammation and helping us to recover faster) kept me from ever going all-in and wearing it religiously after workouts.
Plus, I never liked how it felt to run a long way in compression socks or shorts, especially when it was hot outside.
Dr. Starrett’s take: while the benefits of compression gear while we run are debatable, the benefits of wearing it afterward are not. (And if you’re running almost everyday, then “afterward” can really be anytime, since you’re in a near-perpetual state of recovery.)
To me, this is the best of both worlds. We don’t have to wear them when while we run, but we should wear them afterward. Starrett suggests finding a way to wear compression socks for at least a little while every day.
Side note: What really sold me on the benefits of compression for recovery was my experience with Voodoo floss compression (a thick rubber band that is wrapped around injured tissue to restrict circulation for a few minutes, causing lots of blood flow and flushing when it’s removed) in healing a nagging shoulder injury I had gotten from ramping up my kettlebell press volume too quickly. After months of frustration, icing, and compensating for the injury, a few weeks of Voodoo treatment were all it took to be completely pain-free again.
How I Implemented It: I bought a pair of compression socks and wear them for an hour or so after every hard run, and on flights and long car rides.
3. Warm up and cool down
When I first learned that static stretching wasn’t advisable in many cases, I took it as a license to skip warmups entirely. Even before races.
Another half-truth I loved: “The first mile of my run is my warmup!”
But I’ve come a long way since then. Kettlebell training has taught me that in pure strength activities, warmups aren’t helpful, but for power or endurance exercises, they’re crucial.
From the Strongfirst newsletter (one of my favorites):
“Unlike strength, both power and endurance greatly benefit from an extensive warm-up. Your circulatory system and your aerobic metabolism are slow to rev up. Skipping the warm-up or cutting it short will make you rely heavily on anaerobic glycolysis and fatigue much faster.”
As for cooldowns, one of Starrett’s biggest complaints is about the way athletes so quickly flip the switch from “workout” to “work” — so many of us run before work or at lunch, only to immediately follow said workout by plopping down into a chair and barely moving for the rest of the day.
A proper cooldown — something I was even more fond of skipping than the warmup — will help to clear residual lactate in the system, which otherwise can negatively impact performance in your next workout. (Muscle contractions that continue during a cooldown are what helps to clear that lactate, and when we sit immediately following a workout, we grind that process to a halt.)
For a warmup, Starrett suggests walking for a few minutes, followed by dynamic movements like burpees, followed by a short bout of jumping rope.
To cool down, aim for 10 or 15 minutes, but even five minutes is better than nothing. He suggests easy rowing, biking, or a barefoot walk.
How I Implemented It: The POSE method I’ve been learning depends on 10-15 minutes of drills before every run, so that has given me double motivation to warm up. For cooldown, the best I manage most days is an easy half mile of joggling or walking after a tough run. (I’m still working on this one.)
4. Hydrate (with electrolytes)
For me, this one was the most eye-opening.
I’ve always fancied myself a great drinker of water, and to be honest, never really understood what the big deal was with electrolytes, aside from during rare long runs in extreme heat.
Plus, I eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, so I get plenty of hydration from my food.
But Starrett quotes the work of Dr. Stacy Sims, who points out that if you find yourself drinking lots of water (a decent sign that you’re thirsty), it’s quite possible that you’re dehydrated — even when your urine is clear. Because, she says, if you’re not getting electrolytes along with all that water, then your body won’t absorb it optimally.
So what is a dehydrated athlete to do?
At mealtime, you’re good — put a little salt on your food, and that (along with electrolytes in your food) will help you absorb any water you drink during that time.
Outside of mealtimes, add a pinch of salt or other electrolyte formula to your water (or drink some coconut water, my recent obsession).
How I’ve Implemented It: I pay much more attention to hydration now than I used to, starting from the minute I wake up. I add a pinch of salt or electrolyte powder to my water, or drink 8 to 16 ounces of no-sugar-added coconut water immediately upon waking and after workouts.
If you’re using an electrolyte powder, look for one with a variety of electrolytes (like sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium). A little sugar is good, as it can speed up absorption, but stay away from many of the popular sports drinks that are loaded with 10+ grams of sugar.
By the way, stay tuned for more information on our new, science-backed electrolyte drink coming soon!
Low-effort, high reward
I often say that of the big differences between my approach to fitness now, compared to what it used to be, is that I spend much less time on the details.
No longer do I spend half an hour preparing the perfect foods for before, during, and after big workouts, because I know I can get 90 percent of the results from a simpler strategy that takes almost no time.
That’s where the four tips in this blog post fit in. They’re all ways to get big result results from relatively small efforts; an extremely high return on your time, energy, and money. And while none of them may be a game-changer on their own, together they add up to a substantial improvement in your readiness to run, work out, or just take on the day — and that’s something all of us can benefit from.
Interesting article. I am a runner but not by competition only for the pure joy of it. I have been running for six years on a 5 day a week workout of an hour. I like to have cushion when I run, but I have been hearing more things about minimalist footwear. What is the benefit of having less cushion? My rational was always the more the better. More cushion equates to less pain from my perspective. What is your suggestion to someone new to this way of running?
FYI – Altra makes some zero-drop shoes that are cushioned (Torin, Olympus, Vanish). I started with the Torin (road) and Olympus (trail), and as I got used to them and they got old, I replaced them with less cushioned models (River and Escalante on the roads; Superior on the trails).
Altras, Pose, and a TON of electrolytes, and I’m running some of my best paces and recovering incredibly.
Thanks for recommending Ready to Run in an earlier post. I knew the value of electrolytes, but after seeing that Starrett/Sims recommend much more on a regular basis than I had been taking in, I started playing around with increasing them. And WOW. I got through my 50 miler due to LMNT and pickle juice.
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