By Dimity McDowell
According to Running USA, an organization that tracks national trends, the number of women who finished a running race soared from 791,000 in 1987 to 4.4 million in 2007. Why the attraction?
In a poll of 8,000 runners by the same organization, women said they run to sculpt a toned physique, stave off stress, and achieve personal goals. And those are just a few of running's many benefits.
But perhaps what draws people to the sport more than anything is that everyone can do it. You don't need special skills, pricey gear, athletic ability, or even good genes. All running requires is a pair of shoes and a little determination. Still, it can be intimidating, so we came up with this failproof plan to get you started and keep you on track.
The Perks of Pavement Pounding
Anyone who has hung out in the treadmill area of the gym or watched a road race knows that runners have hot bodies. It takes a ton of effort to move your body weight without assistance, "which is why running burns more calories per minute than pretty much any other exercise," says Lesley Mettler, a running coach in Seattle. Case in point: The average 140-pound woman who runs at a 10-minute mile pace for an hour burns 512 calories. Compare that to an hour spent doing Pilates (384 calories), walking (225 calories), or swimming (448 calories). Torching all those calories sheds body fat to reveal the lean muscle below. So not only do runners have enviable legs, but their entire bodies look trim and toned.
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Take up running and you'll get benefits beyond just looking amazing — you'll also live longer and stay healthier. Researchers at Stanford University discovered that regular runners have a 39 percent lower risk of dying an early death compared with healthy adults of the same age. "Virtually every system in your body benefits from running," says Christine Hinton, a running coach in Crofton, Maryland. Study after study shows that running can help prevent cardiovascular disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, osteoporosis, and even cancer. Most recently, a 2009 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that running is as good a bone-builder as strength training.
In addition to giving you a physical edge, running improves your mental health too. A 2008 study found that areas in the brain associated with mood are flooded with endorphins — the feel-good hormones — after exercise. This is especially true with running. "When you run, it's just you, your body, and the environment," says Kristen Dieffenbach, Ph. D., a sports psychology consultant and assistant professor of athletic coaching at West Virginia University. Your arms, legs, and breathing fall into a rhythm that eventually lulls your brain into a meditative "no-stress zone" in which bills, boyfriends, and bosses fade away.
At Last: The Truth Behind Running's Bad Press
Despite its many advantages, running has its share of critics who say the relentless pounding ruins your knees, leads to chronic back pain, and causes wrinkles. But experts say the rewards of running far outweigh the risks. A recent review in the Journal of Anatomy found that running does not increase your risk of osteoarthritis, the cartilage decay that causes pain and inflammation in hip and knee joints. Nor does it wreck your back, according to a research review in the Southern Medical Journal. Researchers suggest that because running builds stronger muscles and ligaments, it actually has a protective effect on these areas.
As for whether all that pavement pounding causes gravity to take its toll, resulting in sagging, wrinkled skin, "it's a myth," says Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist in Darien, Connecticut. "The reason runners can sometimes appear weathered is that they're thinner — low body fat makes fine lines more visible — and they're out in the sun more." Slather on a sunscreen with at least SPF 30 half an hour before your run to avoid the leathery look.
Stuff You Need
Shoes: Expect to shell out at least $75 for a good running shoe. Sneakers that don't meet the needs of your foot type and running style can lead to Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis (heel pain), knee pain, and shin splints, says Stephen M. Pribut, D. P. M., clinical assistant professor of surgery at the George Washington University Medical Center.
Smart running shoes? We tested these sneakers to see if the advanced technology is worth all the hype. See our results here!
Sports Bra: According to one study, running can cause your boobs to fly up and down as much as eight inches. (Ouch!) A bra that holds each breast in a separate cup will reduce bounce and support better than a shelf bra. When trying one on, run in place, do jumping jacks, and swing your arms in circles to test how supportive it will be.
Find the best sports bra for your body type.
Attention, beginner runner: It's safe--and smart--to start out slow. Really slow. "Easing into it helps your muscles get used to the impact of running and helps your mind get used to the effort," Hinton says. She recommends following a run/walk program like the one here three times a week (not on consecutive days). Begin and end each session with a five-minute warmup walk. Repeat a week if you don't feel ready to move up. When you're able to run consistently for at least 30 minutes, you can start adding more distance.
Week 1: Run 2 min, walk 3 min; repeat 6 times
Week 2: Run 3 min, walk 3 min; repeat 5 times
Week 3: Run 5 min, walk 2 min; repeat 4 times
Week 4: Run 7 min, walk 3 min; repeat 3 times
Week 5: Run 8 min, walk 2 min; repeat 3 times
Week 6: Run 9 min, walk 1 min; repeat 3 times
Week 7: Run 30 minutes
After you've been running for at least six weeks, add intervals to continue building fitness and shedding pounds. Intervals are short bursts of speed that engage the muscle fibers that make you go fast. (Bonus: Research has shown that sprints trigger a fat-frying response in your muscles.) To do them, warm up for six minutes with an easy jog. Then run faster for 15 to 20 seconds. Slow down to an easy pace for three minutes. Repeat the cycle three to five times, then cool down with a six-minute jog. Do intervals once a week and increase your sprint length by 10 seconds each week until you can go all-out for 80 seconds.
Keep It Up!
Nothing bursts your bubble faster than an injury. Take a few simple precautions and you'll rarely — if ever — be sidelined.
Increase your runs gradually. Up your running time by no more than 10 percent a week, Holland says. That means if you run a total of 10 miles one week, aim for 11 the next.
Shore up the rest of your body. Weak muscles are prime targets for injury. Strengthen them with a biweekly 20-minute strength-training session that targets all your major muscle groups, Holland says. Try the total-body plan at womenshealthmag.com/fitness/total-body-workout-8.
Stay flexible. "Running makes muscles short and tight, which can compromise your form and cause injury," Holland says. Stretch after a warmup, then repeat after your run (stretching when your muscles are cold can lead to injury). Find great stretches at womenshealthmag.com/fitness/stretches.
Stuck Inside On A Treadmill?
Set it to a 1 percent incline to get the same caliber workout as running outside.
Source: Journal of Sports Science
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