These days, it seems like everyone is looking for a quick fix, or the next get rich quick scheme. This is true not only with finances, but with fitness as well. Step into a running store, or read the articles about the latest and greatest must-have gadgets, and you will see all manners of products, foods, and services guaranteed to make you fitter, faster, and better. The real question is though: how much do they work, if at all?
Old school runners love to raise the argument that back in the 1970s, when road racing was becoming popular, nobody had GPS watches, compression sleeves, foam rollers, and most runners drank flat Coca Cola instead of Gatorade. While it is true that many professionals were able to post extremely impressive times without the technology available to us now, it would be remiss to think that none of the advances made in the last 40 years are beneficial. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some popular ways runners try to obtain an edge. I will rank them from least gimmicky to most gimmicky.
1) Yoga. What originally was seen as a low-intensity excuse for exercise by people who don’t eat meat and hug trees has become a very popular choice for athletes from all sports looking to increase their flexibility and strength. Yoga will not cure all of your ailments, but I firmly believe that it will benefit almost anyone who wants to try it. The mix of stretching, strengthening, and body awareness can help prevent injury, increase range of motion, and even increase power as well.
2) GPS Watches. As mentioned above, nobody in the 70s, or even the 90s, had these, and they still managed to run well. A GPS watch is most assuredly not a prerequisite to being a runner. That being said, they are wonderfully helpful devices that can let you take your workouts off the track and provide fantastic feedback on your pace. I do think most runners these days over-rely on them, however. I agree with Jay Johnson’s belief that learning to run by feel is one of the most important things a runner can learn, and constantly using a GPS to monitor your pace can disrupt that ability. GPS watches have their place, but I think many people can benefit from keeping them at home at least some of the time.
3) Ice baths. The science is divided on this one, with most people agreeing that at worst, they don’t hurt. The benefits may or may be all in your heard, but I for one swear by ice baths after a tough workout or race. Whether or not there is an objective, observable difference, they feel good and I always am less sore the day after taking one.
4) Heart Rate Monitors. Like GPS, HR monitors also provide great feedback and enable your training to automatically follow your fitness. They are great for beginners or runners coming back from a hiatus who may not know what their paces should be. Like GPS, though, I believe runners place too much emphasis on heart rate and not just running. Also, for experienced runners, heart rate training is redundant, as one can just as easily run by effort, not pace, and get the same results.
5) Compression apparel. Elite athletes like Paula Radliffe and Meb Keflezighi swear by compression socks during marathons. The studies on what I like to call calf panties generally indicate that while they can improve recovery, there is no noticeable affect on performance. That being said, I don’t think there is any downside to wearing them if you like them. They may look silly, but if they help you run well, go for it.
6) Minimalist footwear. Luckily, this fad seems to have died down. I am all for running a few miles or some strides barefoot on soft grass a few times a week, and do agree that humans were meant to run barefoot, but we were not meant to run on pavement, asphalt, or for 26.2 miles at a time. Running shoes are a great invention. I do urge all runners to experiment with different types of shoes to see if a more minimal shoe works, because I think that many heavy, clunky shoes can actually get in the way of your natural gait and cause you to run in a manner that promotes injury. But I cannot encourage anybody to run in Vibram Five Fingers or to run a road race barefoot. Some people can be successful doing that, but they are few and far between. It’s better to do some form drills and strides to adopt a softer footstrike and maybe transition to a shoe with a lower heel-to-toe drop that still offers cushioning.
7) Any diet whose name follows the “The ‘X’ Diet” convention. This includes Atkins, Paleo, Gluten-Free, and see-food. If you have a true food allergy, then of course you should follow a diet that excludes that allergen (dairy, gluten, nuts). But to exclude an entire category of food based on some fashionable, pseudo-scientific advice from a blog you read online (this one included) is silly. All the hemp seed, beet juice, kale chip, acai berry smoothies in the world won’t make you a better runner. Your best bet is to try to avoid most processed foods and eat lots of plants. Anything else you do is irrelevant.
8) Social Media. Don’t get me wrong. The internet is a wonderful tool and social media is great for sharing information. But too many people get hung up on what other people are doing, or alternatively, get too hung up on posting selfies with their run stats. Look people, we’re all athletes trying to be our best. There will always be someone better, and always be lots of people slower. Do what works best for you, and don’t try to impress anyone else with your workout stats. It doesn’t matter how many course records you have on Strava if you are injured on race day. Likewise, the victory goes to the fastest runner, not the one with the most likes on Instagram. Running is a simple endeavor; don’t over-complicate it or turn it into a popularity contest. Just run, baby!
Now excuse me while I make myself some chia seed oatmeal and charge my GPS so I can post my workout on Strava tomorrow.