You’ve decided to get more serious about your running and push your performance to the next level. You’re happy to train hard, but you’re not sure how strict you need to be with lifestyle factors like diet, sleep and alcohol. Do you have to constantly live like an athlete, get to bed early every night and ditch the occasional takeaway and glass of wine if you want to start nailing those personal bests?
“There will definitely have to be some sacrifices and lifestyle adjustments along the way,” says Jennifer Irvine, founder of healthy food company Pure Package (purepackage.com). “It’s all part of the process of making your body healthier and stronger. It really depends on each individual and how seriously you are taking your training regime and how much you want to achieve your goal.”
“Addressing all of these things would yield the best results,” says ultrarunner and Herbalife ambassador Martin Kelly (herbalifeactive.co.uk/martinkelly).
Most of us know we could improve our lifestyle. We aren’t athletes and we can’t devote all our time to running. So, let’s look at the significance of changing or improving various elements of our lives and see which ones will make the most difference to our ability to run well.
Can you get away with less than you need?
Unlikely. Nutritionist and former competitive cross-country runner Clare Goodwin (thepcosnutritionist.com) believes you can’t cut corners when it comes to sleep, especially when you’re training hard. “If I had to look at all three [lifestyle elements] out of nutrition, sleep and alcohol then sleep would be the one to improve,” she says. “Thinking you’re OK when you’re eating well and doing your training but not getting enough sleep is not good. I don’t think people take recovery seriously enough.”
Experts all agree that lack of sleep can be very damaging. “Sleep is the time when the body repairs and reacts to the stimulus from training,” says Professor John Brewer, Head of School of Sport, Health & Applied Science at St. Mary’s University (stmarys.ac.uk/home.aspx ). “Regular late nights will build up fatigue and a lack of sleep could eventually impact on the body’s immune system and increase the chance of injury or illness, so making sure that sleep is of good quality, rather than for lengthy periods, is the most important thing.”
Look at your evening routine carefully and see where you can make improvements. “If you’re spending your evenings sitting up watching TV and you’re not gaining anything from that, that’s probably the easiest habit to change,” says running coach George Anderson (runningbygeorge.com). “When we recover, we get benefits from the sessions we have done. Rest is as important as the training. When you train hard and push your body, it creates adaptation. It makes the body go: ‘Wow, she’s never had me run this fast before. I’m going to have to grow new muscle fibres’. It’s only when you have the rest period that your body gets the chance to do that.”
Can you still have the occasional takeaway or treat food?
“Nutrition is a little bit more challenging to change as it’s not just a logical issue – it’s an emotional one too,” says Anderson. “It’s not just about being more disciplined and knowing what you should do. It’s about understanding how your emotions will control your decisions. However, there are plenty of small, marginal gains you can
make with your diet that will help boost performance. I’d encourage runners to eat oily fish, chia seeds, flaxseeds – anything high in omega 3. If you are going to have a takeaway, go out for a meal or have cake or alcohol then don’t feel guilty about it. Take away that judgement of whether you should or shouldn’t have done it. Enjoy it and move on if it’s occasional, but if it’s something you’re doing on a regular basis then you have an opportunity to change.”
Brewer points out that poor food choices can lead to weight gain, which in itself is unhelpful for fast running. “If you are getting the results you desire and having alcohol in moderation and the odd poor meal, then there’s your answer,” says Kelly. “If you aren’t hitting your goals and still indulging, then perhaps it’s time to let go of those things that may be blocking you.”
Can you have the occasional glass of wine or should you abstain completely?
“The nutritional value of booze is negligible,” says Kelly. “It clearly isn’t going to help you run faster, but eradicating the odd glass of wine probably won’t increase speed significantly. The sacrifice may drive a resentment if results don’t come, leading to less motivation.”
If you have an important race coming up, you may want to abstain in the months leading up to the race. “I would abstain completely three months before the world championship,” says Goodwin. “Alcohol can interfere with your sleep and, during really heavy training phases, anything that’s going to slightly decrease ability to sleep is a big no-no. Even moderate amounts of alcohol have been known to disrupt sleep.”
Should you drink more caffeine?
“Scientific studies show that caffeine levels peak in the blood about an hour after consumption and this is associated with improved mental alertness and concentration,” says Brewer. “Timing is important and the mental focus associated with caffeine could help to improve running performance. However, if alertness is too high, a runner may start off too quickly, consequently fatiguing during the latter stages of a run. Caffeine can also act as a diuretic, increasing the urge to pee, which can be a problem in longer races.”
Should your training plan be completely strict or can you ‘freefall’ with your running now and then?
“It’s very hard to stick with a training plan for 12 months of the year, unless you are a really top athlete,” says Brewer. “Peaking, periodisation, tapering, training volume and training intensity are all part of the domain of a good coach. The simplest way to get a more structured training plan is to join a club. Great coaches will get their athletes to a state where they can almost look after themselves, with a ‘menu’ of training sessions that can be called upon at different times, blending both high intensity and recovery sessions into their running week. We know from scientific studies that simply doing more of the same does not lead to continuous improvement, so including high-intensity sessions such as fartlek running, interval sessions and hill running is important.”
Does that mean you should ditch that weekly parkrun that you enjoy with your friends? “It depends on your training plan,” says Kelly. “If you want to keep doing it because you enjoy the social element, then try to incorporate it into your training plan. Some weeks, just use it as part of the long slow run and, on other weeks, use it as a tempo run or timed effort.”
Should you focus on spending time with like-minded runners in order to improve and avoid friends who want to party?
“Behaviour breeds behaviour,” says Martin. “It’s harder to stay true to a path when influences around you are heading in different directions. Conversely, if you are around people on the same journey, the ‘pack’ mentality comes in and everyone pushes each other to do more. It’s not impossible to go it alone and swim against the tide, but it is harder. But that doesn’t mean cut your social groups out. Just limit the time you spend with them. You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Choose those people wisely.”