Updated: Feb 25
Running is quite possibly the oldest form of exercise. This is perhaps because running requires zero technical mastery, meaning you can whip on your garb and get going; minimal fuss; minimal hassle. In addition, running requires no specialist equipment other than a proper pair of sneeks, some slacks and a top; and it can be enjoyed pretty much anywhere any time – much the same can’t be said of exercises that require specialist kit or facilities.
But it’s really only recently that it has been used specifically as a method of obtaining and improving physical fitness. For much of its employment running has merely been a means of more quickly covering the intervening space that separates A from B.
Other anachronistic, that is ‘outmoded’, uses of running include hunting, tracking and conveying information. Perhaps the most famous incident of the latter use occurred during the battle of Marathon in 490 BC. A Greek soldier named Philippides was tasked to run a message from the battleground to Athens. The moment he arrived the message was read and another placed in his hand to return. This he did.
Legend has that Philippides covered over 150 miles almost without rest in the searing Mediterranean heat; and he on his feet a pair of leather sandals! no swish trainers back then. On delivering the second message he died from exhaustion. In honour of this courageous soldier the Greeks established an annual running race which became known as the Marathon.
Today, thankfully, running is used primarily as a means of improving health and fitness.
The benefits of running
Besides being generally useful for helping us get places marginally quicker, running confers lots of health and fitness benefits. By way of example, one study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that ‘running participation is associated with 27%, 30% and 23% lower risk of all-cause ... cardiovascular ... and cancer mortality.’
But this study merely scratches the tip of the iceberg. On the web and on the shelves of good bookshops there is a ton of research demonstrating the link between running and improved health and general physicality. If you make running a regular part of your training regime, you could enjoy some of the following benefits:
Improved cardiovascular and respiratory performance
Denser and thus more robust cardiac and respiratory muscles
Metabolization of superfluous non-force producing tissue (aka fat!)
Increased muscular definition mainly in the legs but also over the entire body
Increased bone density
(As a consequence of the above) reduced risk of developing osteoarthritis
Improved cognition and memory recall – basically improved brain function
Improved mobility and agility
How to get started
Some if not most all of those benefits listed above could be yours if you are prepared to make running a regular habit. But the question is, how often and for how long should we run in order to catch up with those health and fitness benefits?
There’s no hard and fast rule regarding running volume or ‘dose’. The findings of the British Journal study cited above states that running ‘regardless of its dose, would probably lead to substantial improvements’ in health and longevity and that any ‘amount of running, even just once a week, is better than no running.’
Furthermore, the frequency and duration of your running sessions will be determined by your age, present state of physicality, health and fitness goals and current lifestyle. For example, a septuagenarian, who has never strapped on a pair of trainers in his or her life, might require only two short slow runs a week. By contrast, a young whip over brimming with vitality will likely have to increase the volume and intensity of their running sessions significantly.
However, with that said, it stands to reason that the less we run the less benefit we are likely to derive from the exercise. And though running frequency is ultimately determined by physicality and circumstances, the optimum number of run sessions resides somewhere between 2 to 4 per week. The duration of each run should exceed 20-minutes as this is the recognised length of time that qualifies as continuous training.
In an attempt to bring about a bit of clarity to what has largely been an ambiguous answer to the opening question – how often and for how long should we run? – I have created a running regime guide. The guide suggests session frequency and duration for the beginner, intermediate and advanced trainer.
Of course, running should not comprise your soul exercise modality. Habitually performing the same exercise week in week out will likely lead to overuse injury. Thus, running is best included as part of an inclusive exercise regime that encompasses multiple modalities: cardiovascular, strength, muscular endurance, flexibility (and other forms of self-rehabilitation exercise) and sport.
(Please note: the guide is supposed only to represent a generic outline of how a running regime could be structured.)
The benefits of running abound. This article should have provided you with a glimpse into the multifaceted way in which regular running can improve your health and fitness. To gain a deeper appreciation of this super simple form of exercise, and best approach methods, consider the reading list below.
From this article, if it’s done it's job, you should leave with the motivation to want to run and also the knowledge of how to include running into your exercise regime. Now it’s over to you.
Science of Running
Discover the hard science that will help you run faster, endure for longer, and avoid injury. Analyse your running style and learn how to enhance your gait for optimum efficiency and safety. Transform your performance with exercises targeting strength, flexibility, and recovery - each exercise annotated to reveal the muscle mechanics so you know you're getting it right. Understand the science behind your body's energy systems and how to train to maximise energy storage and conversion. Follow training and exercise programmes tailored to different abilities and distances, from 5K to marathon. Whether you are new to running or an experienced racer, this book will help you achieve your goals and stay injury-free.
80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster by Training Slower
Respected running and fitness expert Matt Fitzgerald explains how the 80/20 running program - in which you do 80 per cent of runs at a lower intensity and just 20 per cent at a higher intensity - is the best change runners of all abilities can make to improve their performance. With a thorough examination of the science and research behind this training method, 80/20 Running is a hands-on guide for runners of all levels with training programs for 5k, 10k, half-marathon and marathon distances.
(As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest is a former Royal Marines Commando, personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.