Long May You Run
Natural remedies and training advice to keep you out on the road
By Dagny Scott Barrios
Looking for a challenge that will make you feel good about yourself and your body? Help you manage your weight and your time? Release stress and boost energy? It might sound like you want magic, but in fact, plain old running works these minor miracles and more.
Races of all distances—even the epic and grueling marathon—are swelling with newcomers. Why running? To begin with, it's simple, inexpensive, and for the time involved, extremely efficient. While many come to the sport for its reliable weight-loss and cardiovascular benefits, a large portion stay for the powerful emotional release running gives them, and for its meditative qualities.
Still, it's easy for new runners, or even seasoned veterans, to overdo it from time to time, leading to aches and pains. In particular, because running is a repetitive motion, it stresses the same joints, bones and muscles step after step. And although as a weight-bearing activity it strengthens bones, it can be tough on the connective tissue supporting those bones. Natural remedies, a healthy diet, proper body care and a sound training program can ensure all the benefits of running while minimizing and often even eliminating these costs.
A sensible approach to training goes a long way toward enabling runners to avoid pain and injury: If you're a beginner, buy the correct running shoes for your body type and replace them before they wear out. Start slowly and build your fitness gradually. Don't rush the body's progress by going too fast or too far. Build in rest days so your body can recuperate.
Beyond that general advice, here are some specific tips to ease the stresses of the sport.
Taking up running doesn't mean you suddenly need a high-octane diet, super-sizing your protein intake or, conversely, denying yourself certain food groups. A commonsense, balanced diet is still your best bet.
By replenishing your body at the proper time —immediately after a workout—you minimize muscle soreness and fatigue and speed recovery. "I'm a firm believer in 60 percent of calories from carbohydrates, 25 percent fat and 15 percent protein," says Ed Burke, PhD, director of the exercise physiology department at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. "You definitely want to keep the carbohydrate intake up because that's what's providing the energy for running." But be sure to include healthy protein and fat sources such as lean meats, eggs, fish and nuts. "As long as you don't overeat, quality fat and protein are important to overall fat stores and energy," Burke says.
A healthy, varied diet is also important in providing the vitamins and minerals that are crucial to running performance. According to Lisa Dorfman, RD, author of The Vegetarian Sports Nutrition Guide (John Wiley & Sons, 1999), the key nutrients for runners include: B vitamins, which play a role in energy utilization; iron, folic acid and copper, all blood-building essentials; electrolytes and minerals, such as potassium, magnesium, sodium and chloride, for proper muscle contraction; calcium for bone strength and muscle contraction; antioxidant vitamins A, C, E and more to protect cells from free radicals; and zinc, which aids in tissue repair.
Because even the healthiest diet can fall short on some days, a good multivitamin is recommended as an insurance policy. But you don't need special megadose supplements for athletes; high doses have no proven additional health or performance benefits. "Don't go overboard; just take a good multivitamin that includes antioxidants," Burke says. On tough training days that leave you particularly depleted, Dorfman recommends "a backup product" such as a drink supplement packed with vitamin C and minerals.
Older runners may also wish to take a glucosamine sulfate supplement. Anecdotal evidence from runners suggests it can relieve joint pain; however, these anecdotes are as yet unsupported by research. Nonetheless, in a recent newsletter, the American Running Association advises that runners who feel improvement in joint pain can safely take the supplement because no negative side effects have been reported.
What you eat and drink is important. But for runners, when you eat and drink is critical too. That's because when you run, especially for periods of more than an hour, you deplete your body of vital fluids and electrolytes. By replenishing your body at the proper time—immediately after a workout—you minimize muscle soreness and fatigue and speed recovery.
"Getting replenishment in quickly will jump-start the recovery process," Burke says. "The sooner the better."
In fact, 60 to 90 minutes after your workout is the crucial window for recovery. The proper snack within that time frame can rehydrate tissues, rebuild muscle protein, boost glycogen stores, and fend off immune-system suppression.
To cover all those bases, you need to take in fluids, carbohydrates, electrolytes and protein. While it might seem that only a banquet could accomplish all that, a well-planned snack can do the trick. Several natural sports drinks on the market contain all or most of the ingredients. Or you can make your own. Try a smoothie with yogurt, orange juice and banana, or a bagel with peanut butter washed down with juice. Even a sports bar with a bottle of water as a chaser will meet your needs.
Professional runners know that one of the secrets to pain-free training is regular massage. Hands-on kneading is believed to prevent injury and speed muscle recovery by flushing away toxic by-products of exercise, such as lactic acid, and by increasing blood flow to the muscles.
"During massage we tear down the misaligned fibers in the muscle," says Binesh Prasad, NMT, a Boulder, Colorado-based certified massage and acupuncture practitioner who specializes in working on professional runners. By working the fibers, he explains, muscles stay elastic, primed to function optimally and rebound from stresses.
The best time to get massage treatment is before you really need it. Consider booking a standing appointment based on what you can afford, ideally at least twice a month. Look for a therapist who concentrates on runners or who specializes in sports massage; that person will be more familiar with the trouble spots that can develop for runners.
If you already have developed an injury, chances are massage can help. Muscle spasms and tightness can be eased. Increased blood flow can speed healing of connective tissue. Finally, massage can enable runners to stretch with greater flexibility, aiding in recovery from all sorts of ailments.
Acupuncture is another method of prevention and healing well-suited to runners. "If you are running on a daily basis," Prasad says, "the physical stress creates disharmonies, especially when coupled with other life stresses. When our energies become blocked, acupuncture opens up those blockages so that energy starts flowing again in the right way." The result, he says, is a stronger immune system; you get sick or injured less often and less seriously, and you rebound faster if you do catch a cold or tear a muscle.
If you have the time and the money, Prasad says, get acupuncture treatments once a month, especially when you are training hard. Once again, look for a practitioner used to treating athletes.
Running needn't be a stress on your body. By taking care of yourself now, you can ensure a long and healthy running career. Age might slow your running, but it needn't stop it—that's why it's called a "life" sport. So use common sense and gentle healing to care for your body and those legs and lungs will carry you along for decades to come.