Taking up running during COVID-19? U of T track coach shares his tips for beginners

Photo of a jogger on a trail
(photo by Jenny Hill via Unsplash)

As gyms, parks and sporting facilities closed during COVID-19, Torontonians were forced to adjust their fitness routines in order to stay in shape – not to mention working off all the extra calories that come with scarfing snacks and watching Netflix while being stuck at home.

Terry RadchenkoNo surprise, then, many have decided to take up running. 

But if you're new to jogging, there are a few things you should know before you hit the pavement.

Jelena Damjanovic, a writer at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, recently sat down with U of T track and field coach Terry Radchenko to get his running tips for beginners. 

What do you think about people taking up running during a pandemic?

I think it’s a fantastic idea. We’re all doing so much less than what we normally did on a daily basis without even thinking about it. A lot of people with Fitbits or apps on their phones would see at the end of each day that they’ve walked three or four kilometers without even realizing it. Students walking around campus do as much as 10 kilometres a day, but now we’re living a very sedentary lifestyle, spending far more time at home. So, it’s a great idea to start running, which is beneficial for both your mental and physical health. These days, of course, you just want to make sure that you’re being safe and practising social distancing.

What would that plan look like for someone who hasn’t done much running before?

The two key things here are that you want to start slow, and you need to listen to your body. Make a plan that you can stick to. But, at the same time, allow it to be fluid. Never be afraid to tweak things so that they make sense for you based on how you feel and how you’re progressing. How you start out running will depend on your history and where you’re coming from. For example, if you’re an active individual who used to play a lot of tennis or basketball, or even ran a bit, then maybe you can start at a higher level. For someone who hasn’t run at all, the most I would recommend would be a 20 to 30 minute run 3 times a week. Recovery is very important and you definitely want to take a day in between your runs. 

Twenty to 30 minutes of uninterrupted running?

If you can do it, sure. But, a smart plan for true beginners may be to start with a walk/run program. The first day out you can try alternating one minute of running and one minute of walking five times in a row. You can repeat that routine the next few times you’re out and then increase it to seven times in a row, or try running two minutes and walking one minute five times. The key for beginners to understand is that they should never feel bad about walking. If your goal on the first day happens to be a 20-minute run and you get to five minutes and you’re struggling, that doesn’t mean that you have to give up on your goal. It just means that maybe there are a few minutes of walking interspersed in your run. That small tweak can still allow you to achieve your 20-minute goal.  

You can also go by distance, say, three kilometres because that may be what you used to do, or what you feel would be a good starting point. Just make sure that, by the time you come home, you’ve done some mix of running and walking that allows you to successfully achieve your goal. And if you don’t, it’s not the end of world. Runners are resilient. Set a new goal and try again. Once you feel comfortable with your training, you can begin to build volume gradually. A good rule of thumb is to increase your volume by a maximum of ten per cent a week. You can do this whenever you feel confident that your body and mind are ready for the next step.

How can you stay motivated?

Setting attainable goals and keeping a log are extremely beneficial because you can track your progress and have something to work towards. For example, you can keep track of the distance or number of minutes you ran, the pace of your run and also how you felt. Some people use a perceived level of exertion between one (very low level) and 10 (high) to assess the difficulty of the run. Was the run a two or a three? Or was it an eight or a nine? As you become more fit you can see how a run that used to be an eight is now a five. You can see that you’re making progress and that’s an excellent motivator. Above all, make sure you’re having fun and enjoying the process. 

Is it a good idea to do some training at home in combination with the running?

Definitely. But if you’re starting from the ground floor, I wouldn’t recommend doing hard physical activity six days a week. On the days in between your runs, you could go for a walk, cycle or swim.  A weekly plan for a beginner may be run/walk three days a week, one bike, one swim and two days completely off. You really have to take the recovery seriously. Taking a day off in between runs is important at the beginning to let your body recover and adapt to the new activity. 

How do you prepare for a run?

Something that our university athletes do before training is to go through an activation circuit. The difference between an activation circuit and static stretching is that you keep things dynamic. It only needs to take five minutes to complete but the benefit is immense. You can start with some neck, shoulder and hip rotations, then add some marching, hamstring and glute exercises – like a bird dog or a clam shell to prepare your body for exercise. Basically, you just want to ensure that all of the muscles in your body are primed to run.

By the same token, you should be doing some form of dynamic stretching post run. Foam rolling exercises are a good way to recover and help out some of the areas that may be sore the next day. It’s an easy search to look up online. Doing some mobility before and after a run, staying hydrated and eating and sleeping well will all help your body to recover so that you can keep running, stay healthy and improve over time. As with anything new, the first few runs may be tough, but you’ve got to keep reminding yourself why you’re doing it and that it’s something you can really improve on if you stick with it.  

What would constitute a good diet for a runner?

Ideally, your diet should include a mix from all the food groups. You want to make sure you’re getting enough protein, good fats and carbohydrates. If you’re taking in too many calories that aren’t helpful, like sugars or highly processed foods, you could consider removing some of them from your diet. But, at the same time, you need to ensure that you’re not under-eating and that you’re taking in enough calories to meet your body’s energy demands. When you hear about someone over-training or overdoing it, in most cases they’re just not letting their body recover properly. That’s why you need to have a good and consistent sleep schedule along with a well-rounded, nutritious diet. Take care of yourself and fuel for success. 

Are there advantages to running on certain terrains versus others?

A softer terrain is easier on your body. The harder the surface, the less shock it absorbs. Every step you take on concrete is going to be a lot harder on your feet, knees, hips and lower back as opposed to running on a soft surface. However, there are indications that running on a variety of surfaces may actually be best for injury prevention. So, you may want to run on grass on some days, then run on a bike path, road or a sidewalk, and then switch to running on gravel. Once the body adapts to these different surfaces, it tends to be more resistant to injuries. 

Are there any apps or online programs you’d recommend to novice runners?

Many of our athletes work closely with the doctors and physiotherapists at U of T’s David L. Macintosh Sport Medicine Clinic and students can take advantage of a number of excellent online workouts through our Sport & Rec program. The Runner’s Academy, based in Toronto, has quite a few good activation and recovery circuits on their Instagram account. Thinking about the future, if some of these new runners catch the running bug and want to do something more with it when the guidelines around social distancing change, they can join a running club. U of T’s track club has an excellent masters track program: UTTC Masters. This is a program for athletes between 20 and 70 years old, who train together and compete in events from the 60-metre sprint to the marathon. Joining a club and training with like-minded individuals can be extremely rewarding and lead to very special, long-term relationships.
Are you ever too young or too old to start running?

No, we were born to run. Everyone can be a runner. Obviously, the way you begin running will be different depending on what you’ve done and how old you are. While some people might be able to easily start with a 20- to 30-minute run on their first day out, others may have to go the run/walk route. Running can make you happier, helps you maintain a healthy weight, strengthens your bones and joints, can add years to your life and I don’t think it’s ever too late to start.

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