Maybe you’re a longtime marathoner. Maybe you’ve just begun your journey from couch potato to regular running. Whatever the case, it’s never a bad idea to pay attention to how your body is responding — this is a great way to help prevent injuries, alleviate aches and pains, and of course, become a better, more efficient runner.
To get a sense of what questions you should be asking about your own performance, and the best way to get the answers, we spoke with Sandra Gallagher-Mohler, a CEO and run coach at iRunTons, to get her advice on what to ask yourself and how to track the answers.
Simply put, your heart rate is an easy way to determine how intensely you’re running and if you have the capacity to do more — or if you’re overdoing it. “If you’re really in training-training, it’s an integral part,” Gallagher-Mohler says. “If your body is telling you that it’s supposed to be running at 150–160 beats/minute, and you’re at 180, something’s going on. You’re sick, you’re going too fast, you’re dehydrated — or your watch could be wonky!”
A common, back-of-the-envelope method for determining your maximum heart rate is subtracting your age from 220. And to find your max running rate, some scientists recommend subtracting your age from 180, then adding or subtracting 5 or 10 based on such factors as whether you’re dealing with an injury, returning to running after a long time off, and so forth.
“Just be aware of the science of heartbeat training. Personally, I think in the next 10–15 years, we’ll have more understanding. A lot of guys who were really studly in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you’re starting to see them have cardiac issues from overtraining.” In other words, push yourself to the upper ends of your comfort level but be wary of overdoing it.
How to track it: Just about every wearable fitness tracker provides this info. And if you don’t have one (or forgot it at home), there’s always the old-fashioned way: Press your fingers to your pulse for 10 seconds, then multiply by 6.
If you’re breathing one for one, you’re in full anaerobic mode,” says Gallagher-Mohler, referring to a state where you’re inhaling and exhaling for the same amounts of time. “If you’re doing that, you’re way overtraining.” Instead, you should be exhaling more than you inhale, even at the top of your run.
How to track it: Gallagher-Mohler recommends the talk method — essentially, if you can carry on a conversation (even if you’re by yourself!), you’re good.
It might seem like a silly question — of course I’m moving my feet! I’m running, aren’t I? — But essentially you’re looking to be more conscious of how you’re using your feet, particularly as this can help you avoid developing bad habits that could lead to injury.
How to track it: Pay attention to your feet while you’re running. “Notice when they hit the ground,” Gallagher-Mohler says. “Are you feeling the pushoff? Make sure you’re pushing off with the ball of your big toe — it’s kind of crazy, the big toe is involved with everything that we do; stabilizers, the kinetic chain.”
And then pay attention after you’re running — where are you sore, how are your shoes breaking in, etc. The way they wear in can tell you about your gait. “If you’re looking for wear, the biggest thing is: Are they symmetrical? Most of the time they’re not. One foot wears differently than the other. Or more on the back then the front or vice versa.” These clues can help you ascertain if you’re leaning one way or another, or, leaning too far forward or backward as you run — which can help you avoid injuries down the line. Gallagher-Mohler has a vivid example: “People have bunions — it’s not an aesthetic issue it’s a performance issue.”
If you’re not sweating, you’re probably dehydrated. How much should you drink based on your sweat rate? “I use half your bodyweight in ounces,” Gallagher-Mohler says. “So 200 pounds equals 100 ounces throughout the day. And then add some sea salt because it helps with absorption.”
How to track it: Gaze upon your own magnificent skin. Is it sweaty? Good.
A lot of runners use cadence as a key measurement. Gallagher-Mohler points out that while important, cadence isn’t the only factor to consider if you’re just starting out. She recommends focusing on your overall body mechanics as well. “Are your shoulders low? When they’re high, it starts to trigger stress response,” which makes your body less efficient. “When you’re moving your arms, your wrists should be coming in right by your hips,” she adds. “Keeping that 90-degree angle is key. It’s having what I call wrist to hips.” When it comes to your pelvis, make sure you’re not spilling out as you run. As for your overall gait, make sure you’re not “rotated forward and down or rotated back. Either too tall, leaning backwards when you run or forward with your glutes behind you, which a lot of times you see with soccer players.” These things matter, she says, “You’re creating breaks in the kinetic chain, which we don’t want. You’re creating risks for injuries.”
What’s the ideal cadence? “There is a sweet spot — between 170 and 180 for most people,” says. “But for new runners, they’re running 13-minute miles, their cadence is usually 140. If your baseline is 140, you can work on getting to 150, and then slowly start working your way up. And then react based on how your body feels.”
How to track it: Ideally, you would have a run-gait coach who could analyze your method of running. For example, MapMyRun pairs with Under Armour HOVR running shoes via a smart chip in the shoe that tracks distance, duration, pace, stride length, calories and cadence in real-time. You can check your stride length (measured by your shoes) to help reduce your risk of injury and get access to in-app coaching (including gait coaching) that adapts to you.
Remember: Some things can’t be measured.
To put it another way: You can measure heart rate, but you can’t measure heart.
“Yes, there are all these metrics,” says Gallagher-Mohler. “But never lose sight of the freedom that running gives and the community of running gives. Metrics are important for training for a race, but they shouldn’t be the end-all be-all. It’s good to remember it’s more than just the numbers.”