Why running is on the rise

RUN, FORREST: "From that day on, if I was going somewhere, I was running!"
RUN, FORREST: "From that day on, if I was going somewhere, I was running!"

If you think runners are everywhere, it's because they are.

The sport is experiencing a boom, with participation in everything from community fun runs to international ultramarathons growing exponentially. Running is popular for several reasons - it's easy and accessible and doesn't involve an array of expensive equipment.

Anyone, anywhere, who's willing to have a go can try running at any time of day that suits them. Plus, people are busier than ever juggling family and work commitments and they recognise that the key to managing stress is regular exercise.

Trailblazing runner Kathrine Switzer uses running as a stress-buster and as her thinking and problem-solving time.

"I've used it for everything else, too, like working out my anger and emotions after divorce, grieving the death of my parents...'' she says. ''So I cannot say enough about how powerful it is.

"Also, there is a bonus and I told this to my niece who was trying to get over a heartbreak. I told her just to go out and run and run and run and she'd get over it in the end, and get fit at the same time. She did, and she did.

"Most people who don't run just don't understand this, and either take antidepressants or drink, so the problem is they only reinforce their sense of despair, because in the morning you've accomplished nothing with your head, you haven't worked it out, and you are wrecking your body at the same time. Running is a real win-win."

Studies have found running regulates hormones, thereby acting as an appetite suppressant, so it's effective for weight management. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that being a weight-bearing activity, running is as good as strength training at building up bone density. And researchers suggest that because running builds stronger muscles and ligaments, it has a protective effect on these areas, too.

Finally, a Stanford University School of Medicine study that tracked 500 older runners for more than 20 years found elderly runners had fewer disabilities, a longer span of active life and were half as likely as ageing non-runners to die early.

Positive Fitness coach Kathryn Holloway offers learn-to-run programs and says many clients are now regular runners.

"Running develops self-confidence and self-esteem," she says. "The people who come to learn to run leave the program with amazing self-confidence. In most cases it's life-changing.

"Some of them are happy to run as part of their weekly exercise or to manage stress levels. Others have set themselves some pretty amazing goals, like 10k races, half marathons, even full marathons. It doesn't really matter why you choose to run, you will benefit socially, physically and mentally.''

So it's good for you. What next?

If you're not a regular exerciser, Holloway recommends seeing a doctor first to assess your fitness level and get the all-clear.

"Once you've done that, it's worth learning the correct technique, which in the long term will reduce your risk of injury and prolong your ability to enjoy running. Good technique improves your efficiency, it's easier on your body and you use less energy."

Technique is measured from head to toe.

"The head is tilted down slightly so you're looking approximately two to four metres at the ground ahead," Holloway says. "The neck and face muscle are relaxed, the shoulders are not hunched, because that restricts breathing. Arm movement should be relaxed and controlled to minimise rotation of the torso. Fingertips should brush the hips, arms should not cross the midline of the body. Hands should be cuffed as if holding a small egg you don't want to break. Hips are tucked under, making sure that when you strike the ground the foot strikes under the hip, which is the centre of gravity. Tilt forward slightly from the waist to form a forward lean so you have gravity on your side. For distance runners, your feet should strike the ground at the outside of your mid-foot, which will allow you to roll across the ball then push off from the big toe.

"It takes a while to break old habits," Holloway says. "You have to keep practising and being aware of tweaks you need to make.

"Breathing is a big part of running. The key is to get as much oxygen into the body, because what you take in feeds your working muscles. Think about breathing so the air goes into your abdomen rather than your chest."

Holloway says that when starting out, you need to give yourself permission to walk. "The first week you might run a minute, walk a minute for 10-12 minutes three times a week. Take it slowly, build up your strength and your stamina gradually rather than shocking it with a full-blown running regime. By the end of six weeks, you should be able to run for 20 minutes non-stop without taking breaks."

I can't because ...

Physio Ken Raupach has an answer for all the usual excuses.

I wasn't a runner at school, so why should I be able to do it now?

Running is an instinctive motor program in your brain and it really isn't that difficult to pick up as you get older. Results in endurance running events suggest school is just a warm-up for our best years - athletes are often in their 30s when they achieve their best results. Remember at school you may have done a variety of sports that you had time to compete in, such as team events that required a lot more organisation to train for, and contact sports that you definitely do get too old for. There have been many female runners who have achieved international results after pregnancy when it is really important to get your body back in shape.
Running is bad for your knees

The human body has evolved over thousands of years to be upright and to work with a nomadic lifestyle. Sure we may be more suited to walking all our lives but running is natural for many cultures around the world and weight-bearing exercise, such as running, is widely reported in scientific literature to be beneficial to strong bones and healthy joints. Granted there are certain situations, for example where joints have been damaged by arthritis or knees have been replaced, where running is not recommended. But generally your knees should be up for a nice long slow jog or trot on flat surfaces in high-quality supportive and cushioned trainers.
I'm too old

Ha! Just ask Cliff Young if he was too old at 61 to win the 800-kilometre Sydney to Melbourne running race. Have a look at the age group results of incredibly demanding events such as marathons or ironman triathlons and see what your bodies are capable of into your 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. Perhaps it is even more important to keep fit by running as you get older as you cannot rely on the fountain of youth to keep you fit, energised, motivated and the weight down. It is ''better to wear out than rust away''.
I'd never be fit enough

Never say that! All you need to do is get out and put one foot in front of the other. See if you can make it one block further each week; three days on, then one day off. Hard day, easy day. Find a partner to share time with. Do the odd swim, yoga, Pilates or gym session to add variety to the mix. And remember, from acorns do oak trees grow.

Ken Raupach is principal physiotherapist of ActivFit in Sydney. He's completed more than 30 marathons, placed in the top 15 in the City2Surf and has qualified for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii in October. He coaches Little Athletics up to elite level athletes and lectures at the University of Technology Sydney.

Sydney Morning Herald