I Think I Can: The Runner's Dilemma

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I admit it. I am as guilty as the next person when it comes slacking off on my regular running routine.

"There are other things that need to get done first," I tell myself. And somehow scrubbing the grout in between the bathroom tiles or organizing my sock drawer takes precedence over exercise more often than not.

And don't get me started on winter running. It's like stepping into an icebox, sometimes, not to mention the 10 pounds of winter garb you have to layer on while traipsing through the snow and ice.

So this is why I find myself getting out of shape. I'm a regular runner in the summer, but I always seem to get off track in the winter, leading me into a long, three-week span of strained breathing and sore leg muscles before I'm back in the swing of things.

But running coach Jenny Hadfield has come to the rescue (thank goodness!). Hadfield, of Prospect Heights, is an avid runner who writes for Runner's World. Her husband John Bingham, better known as The Penguin, is the marathon runner who took his nickname from his image of himself before he got in shape. Together they run the destination marathon tour company, Marathon Expeditions.

Hadfield reminds us that anyone who has taken time off from running should ease back into it.

"Running is a high impact sport," she says. "If you do too much too soon, you can risk injury and burn out by the fifth or sixth day."

However, getting back into running shape depends on the person. If someone stays fit over the winter (even if its not by running), they will still have the cardio endurance, Hadfield says. But someone who has spent the past few months lounging as a couch potato will need to start with a run/walk training schedule.

Hadfield recommends a 30-minute startup for run/walk training. The first and last five minutes of the workout should be devoted to walking, while the 20 minutes in between should be spent running until you hear your breath and then walking until you catch your breath.

"The great thing about the run/walk workout is that you can go longer to get in that 30-minute workout," she says.

Runners who have just hit the pavement again need to beware of injury, too. Women often suffer from iliotibial band syndrome, in which the leg muscles from the hip to the knee become tight and pull the knee out of alignment, Hadfield says. To avoid this, she recommends easing back into your training, while weaving in flexibility exercises, foam rolling (a type of stretching that utilizes a foam cylinder to inhibit overactive muscles) and strength training.

But wait a second—men don't get a freebie on this one. Hadfield says men often deal with calf strains and knee problems when running after time off.

So what exactly happens to my body when I skip the running routine for a while?

Muscles start to atrophy or weaken, while cardio fitness declines. And—even though you don't want to hear it—people gain weight because they are normally sitting more.

"The lack of movement at a desk job accumulates just like activity does," Hadfield explains.

However, other factors contribute to the success of your training. Quality of sleep, nutrition and stress all play a role in the recovery time between exercising.

Hadfield explains that the goal is to create a momentum of fun so that you get into the rhythm of running regularly. After three to four weeks of dedicated training, you'll be as good as new.

"You should finish every workout feeling like you could go a bit farther," she says. "You should finish in a happy place."

- by Caitlin Hill, graduate student reporter, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University

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