Running is a basic activity. It doesn’t need expensive gear or a specific venue. Like water, it is an economical fix, a cure-all that seems almost too easy to be true.
As humans, we are hard-wired to run. For thousands of years, running was a matter of eating or being eaten. Nowadays, of course, the majority of us live sedentary lives and an activity such as running has to be shoehorned into our schedules. But while this may not make the crucial difference between having dinner and being dinner anymore, it can prove a decisive factor in our mental and physical wellbeing, which in turn affects our ability to make the most of our lives.
Aware of the potential power packed into a simple run, Sports teacher Lewis Ryland at King’s College Murcia has set up a running club at the school. “I started the club for a number of reasons,” he says. “Firstly, I wanted to encourage students to improve their fitness and show them that running can be both social and fun.”
Fitness can be achieved in a variety of ways, but for teenagers who may struggle with the competitiveness of team sports, running is an alternative that allows them to go at their own pace and avoid dirty looks for ducking the ball.
But it need not be a solitary activity, as Lewis is trying to establish. “All abilities and ages are welcome, the club is about inclusion, community and team spirit where we all encourage each other,” he says. “We have created a special kit for the club so that the students can feel part of a team. A lot of our students who run do not traditionally play team sports so it has given them a team identity, which is something they may not have experienced.”
Teenage years are perfect for taking up running as adolescents have a head start on the rest of us when it comes to their capacity for oxygen intake, muscle mass, strength and bone density. When it comes to creatine – a compound that supplies muscles with energy – teenagers regenerate it faster than older runners while levels of lactate, produced by intense physical effort and reduced levels of oxygen, are lower.
Good news for girls – they enjoy the same power boost at this age as their male counterparts with an even greater rate of sustainability, according to Japanese researchers who found that teenage girls lose 10 per cent less power than the boys in their age bracket over the course of 10 sprints. Of course, male capacity to build muscle mass means boys have the potential to reach faster speeds.
It is important, however, to learn to do it right. “In the club we learn how to prepare properly for running,” says Lewis. “We learn about running techniques, as well as how to train properly through continuous activities and intervals.”
This is important if runners want to keep the activity up long-term without injury. According to US coach Greg McMillan, owner of the company McMillan Running, runners need to work on building their form and endurance. “Practice sprint-specific drills like high knees and skips ideally under a coach’s supervision,” he says. “”If we can get an athlete to have good form during the early years, that helps so much with both performance and injury prevention in later years.”
But you don’t have to sign up for a Hussein-Bolt style training schedule to reap the benefits of a regular run, which should be kept short and sweet. According to Lyle Micheli, M.D., director of sports medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston, children under the age of 14 should aim for not more than three miles or 4.8 kilometres five days a week while those between the ages of 14 and 18 can bump that up to six miles or 9.6 kilometres daily.
As an intensely aerobic exercise, running helps to regulate appetite and tackle weight issues, but it also works wonders on the psyche. Mindfulness and meditation have been rolled into a million dollar business in recent years and there is nothing wrong with lying down to try to think of nothing. But lacing up your trainers and putting one foot in front of the other would appear to have the same effect.
Neuroscientist Ben Martynoga, cites a study coming out of the University of Arizona in which scans done on the brains of both runners and people meditating showed similar activity. “In the midst of a run, you are likely to be immersed in the present moment, tuned into your bodily state and conscious of your breath – all key aims of mindfulness-based practises,” says Martynoga.
Running has other positive impacts on the brain. Apart from the flood of endorphins guaranteed to boost your mood, research coming out of the University of Aberdeen found that running can help you think more creatively. According to the researchers, this is because your brain associates forward motion with the future, though to take advantage of the effect, an easy route and pace should be chosen to keep the mind focused.
Acting like a natural pharmacy, running can make all kinds of prescription drugs appear redundant. A run inducing 70 to 85% of a person’s maximum heart-rate will release enough endocannabinoids to keep you chilled in a tempest.
Meanwhile, research published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise noted that runners showed an increase in levels of tryptophan which usually goes hand in hand with increased levels of the mood-enhancing neurotransmitter, serotonin.
Finally, Oxford University researchers established that more endorphins were released if the activity was done in company. In this respect, Lewis is on the right track, hooking the club up with the local community and drawing in people of all ages.
“A big part of the club is trying to involve the school community as well,” he says. “I am encouraging teachers and parents to enter the races so they can run with their children because keeping fit and being active is something that can be done as a family.”
The club is already running away with “A large number” of prizes, though Lewis stresses that winning is not what it’s about.
“We don’t have a motto, but if we did it would be ‘You are only racing against yourself’,” he says. “It’s all to do with personal challenge and individual progress, not comparing yourself to others!”