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Reaching Your Running Potential: Variety is the Spice of Life (and Running)

During the last two blogs, I discussed two ways to help you reach your running potential in the new year. Let’s review.

  • Be proactive to avoid injury. Recover from your runs, do some strength training, and stretch to reduce your susceptibility to injury.
  • Rest up. Sleep is the central way that our bodies recover from training and adapt to new training stimuli. Get more sleep and get better sleep.

My third and final piece of advice is simple: mix it up. “Variety is the spice of life” might be a cliché, but avoiding behavioral ruts will help you stay engaged and improving, not merely by avoiding boredom but by varying your training stimulus.

A good reason to buy more shoes

Let’s start with some easy ways to vary your running and avoid routine.

If you commonly run in the same pair of shoes for all of your runs, mix it up. Try rotating your shoes. By alternating shoes, you allow the midsole of your “resting” shoe to recover and decompress between runs. By giving your favorite pair a day-long break, the midsole will be ready when you next run to provide optimal cushioning and shock absorption.

Rotating shoes also exposes your legs to different stresses, reducing your chance of injury. A recent study from 2013 (the first of its kind) found a 39 percent lower risk of running injury among study participants who ran in multiple shoes versus those runners who always did their mileage in the same shoe. ( Experienced runners have intuitively believed for a while that rotating shoes reduces the chance of injury. Now we have some evidence to support this contention.

Shoes, as we all know, are a highly individual part of the sport and we often develop deep loyalties to particular brands or “feels.” The subtle differences in running shoes including the specific durometer (the hardness of a material) of the midsole foam, as well as the heel-to-toe offset contribute to variances in gait specifics, stride length, and ground reaction time that expose the lower legs to different stresses. Therefore, although we runners can be creatures of habit, research is suggesting that it’s a good idea to alternate with a different shoe model and brand.

Match your shoes to the workout. Want to improve your speed? Try using a lighter, firmer shoe for speed work and tempo runs. To kick it up a notch, get a pair of racing flats. ( This will help your body become accustomed to faster paced running. Racing flats can also contribute to better form and a faster cadence. It is a fact that cutting weight contributes to speed. According to coach Jack Daniels, adding 100 grams to a shoe increases the aerobic demand of running by one percent. You might also find that racing flats can provide a psychological boost as you make your way to the starting line of a race. You’re wearing special shoes that are going to make you fly. This isn’t going to be a typical training run; this is something special that you don’t do every day.

Are you doing the bulk of your running in one of these?
Try these, instead.
And try a pair of these during your next race.

New roads, new you

In addition to mixing up your footwear, add variety to your routes. If you are running the same route every day, your body and mind tune out. If that’s what you need as a stress-buster, fine –– but consistency is not the best of ideas if you’re looking to improve your workouts.

Improved running depends on doing different workouts involving intervals, fartlek (speed play), tempo runs, hills, and the long run. Try different gradients and paces. If your typical route is flat, run some hills to improve strength and speed. Once you’ve warmed up, take a short blast down a flat road to figure out how fast you can go and to awaken your body to the possibilities of speed. Long slow runs through rolling terrain build endurance through the increase of mitochondria within muscle cells. Just be sure that you are mixing things up by doing a variety of distances, speed, and amplitudes.

Deep thoughts about surfaces

Finally, don’t forget to run on a variety of surfaces. Although many runners intuitively feel that soft running surfaces are the best for preventing injury, it turns out that all surfaces have their own advantages and disadvantages.

  • Grass. Grass is a soft surface that is great for people recovering from impact-related running injuries. However, it can be uneven, so caution is required.
  • Trails. If you are looking for softer surfaces to recover or avoid overuse injuries, look no further than a trail. If you have struggled with overuse injuries such as runner’s knee, illiotibial-band syndrome (ITBS) or shinsplints, the softer surface of a trail can provide relief.
  • Tracks. Synthetic tracks, while not always readily available, are great for reducing stress on your joints. Be aware, however, that always running around in circles can stress your IT bands.
  • Asphalt. A nice surface with some “give” to it –– readily available, although comes with some inherent traffic issues, so remember to stay alert. Some runners find asphalt running good for Achilles tendon issues. If you do any road races, it’s a good idea to do some running on asphalt so that your body can get used to the surface, since the majority of road races do take place on that surface.
  • Concrete sidewalks. Sidewalks are readily available in suburban and urban settings and offer traffic protection and flatter (hopefully well-maintained) clear surfacing. However, sidewalks are approximately ten times harder than asphalt roads, so sidewalks are generally harder on the knees.

In his discussion of running surfaces in the Runner’s World Complete Book of Running (Rodale Press, 2009) Amby Burfoot, winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon and editor-at-large at Runner’s World, emphatically concluded: “Run on all surfaces. All the time. Deliberately. As part of your injury-prevention program.” The idea, here, is that running on a variety of surfaces will expose your body to a variety of stresses, so that the same muscles, tendons, and bones don’t get stressed the same way over and over again.

“Changing surfaces in an intelligent manner is a little like cross-training. It helps you prevent injuries by giving certain muscles and joints a rest while strengthening other muscles and joints.” –– Amby Burfoot

Avoid nutritional ruts

We can also get into nutritional “ruts” that can undermine our ability to perform to our potential and recover from runs. Fleet Feet’s resident nutritionist, Katie, will further discuss the merits of nutritional variation for runners:

Perhaps you have perfected your meals and feel good about eating healthily; but are you eating the same things everyday? Foods not only vary in calories, proteins, carbs, and fats, but they also contain beneficial phytochemical compounds that play important roles in one’s health. In a healthy diet consisting of a variety of fruits and vegetables, the combination of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients are utilized by the body in such a way that supplements can not imitate. Phytochemicals’ antioxidant properties are associated with different pigments. Therefore, when looking at the color variations within fruit and vegetable options, make sure your plate is colorful to ensure a more complete nutrition profile. Every once in a while it is best to switch out your banana for a peach or a kiwi. Or, instead of the go-to steamed broccoli, try a medley of roasted tomatoes, garlic and spinach as a side dish. Health benefits also come from choosing between different protein and carbohydrate sources. Instead of trying to find the “perfect” single food, look for a variety of healthy foods. Eating a variety of foods can be more enjoyable, as well as more nutritionally optimal.

What if your meals consist of fatty, sugary, and highly processed choices? A new variety of flavored potato chips are not the answer. An easy guide to eating healthily is to examine the colorfulness of your plate. By increasing the fruits and vegetables that you eat, you may see more color alongside that beige entrée (Please do not remind me of the colorful array of ketchups, they do not count!). This is not to say that beige cannot be a nutritious color. In fact, cauliflower, mushrooms, and turnips provide more than just vitamins and minerals. Remember that variety keeps the palate interested and makes meals more pleasurable. The gastrointestinal tract, however, may not agree with every new food, so it is best not to try that exotic piece of fruit the night or morning before a race. Ultimately, an easy way to get better about addressing your nutritional needs is to make sure that your plate is always colorful.

The takeaway

Make sure that you don’t get trapped in routine. In a world where we often have complicated problems to solve and multiple demands on our time and energy, it’s certainly tempting to switch our running to autopilot –– run the same route at the same pace as an escape. There are times in life, to be sure, where this is not only all one can manage, but also a beneficial practice. However, if you find yourself in a place where you want to reach for a higher potential, you have to refocus and consciously shake it up –– your footwear, your workouts, your surfaces, and your diet. Keep it fresh and you’ll reap the rewards.

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