Improved heart health, lower blood pressure, increased metabolism, stress relief, extra energy – the benefits of running and boosting your cardiovascular fitness are plentiful and, happily, running delivers them all. It also ups your VO2 max – the maximum amount of oxygen you can utilise during exercise – which is generally considered the best indicator of cardiovascular fitness.
‘To raise your VO2 max, I strongly believe you have to hang out at your VO2 max,’ says Meliniotis. ‘That means more tempo runs.’ For the uninitiated, a tempo run is a ‘comfortably hard’ pace you can just about maintain for 20 to 30 minutes. ‘Tempo runs raise your anaerobic threshold and improve running economy at speeds slower than tempo, such as marathon pace.’ If you’re a fitness beginner, improvements to your VO2 max will come relatively easily with sustained aerobic. exercise, such as running.
The higher your VO2 number, the more oxygen you get to the muscles, and the faster or longer you can run.
2. TO TONE UP
Running has long had a rep as an almost magical form of exercise that will melt away any fat you’re looking to lose, and it’s largely true – at first. When you’re new to an exercise, your body responds to a lower level of stress, meaning you may not have to run very far or very fast to see results. Then your muscles start to adapt and, as with any workout, you have to progress your running routine to keep seeing the benefits of running on your waistline.
The American College of Sports Medicine reports that you can elevate your metabolismfor up to 24 hours post-exercise with just one little twist: intervals. ‘If you’re a newbie, ease into it,’ says running coach Michael Meliniotis. ‘Walk or jog at a moderate pace for 20 to 30 minutes, three times a week. Then add one interval workout per week [more on those later] – no more than that, to reduce injury risk.’
Not only will you blast more calories in less time, but a recent study in Medicine & Science In Sports & Exercise found that interval workouts may even encourage more mindful eating. Want to make gains as well? You’ll need to complement your runs with strength and conditioning sessions, too.
3. TO BOOST BRAIN FUNCTION
Get this: a 2018 study by West Michigan University showed that half an hour of running at a fairly high intensity improves your ‘cortical flicker frequency’ threshold, which is associated with your brain’s ability to absorb and process information—so the benefits of running extend to brain boosting powers, too.
‘This could be helpful if you feel bombarded by information,’ says neuroscientist Ben Martynoga, who has worked with Saucony UK to explore the connection between running and the brain. ‘In a set of experiments by Nottingham Trent University in 2016, “executive functions” – those that control your attention, tune out distractions, switch between tasks and solve problems – were improved following bursts of high-intensity interval sprints in young people.’
Been waiting for a life-changing eureka moment? Lace up. ‘Once you achieve a steady rhythm of breath and heart rate, the level of mental clarity is sky high,’ adds O’Neill. ‘Some of my best ideas come when running outdoors.’
4. FOR THAT HIGH
The runner’s high – that euphoric feeling that makes you want to run forever – may seem far off when a passing car has just drenched your favourite Lululemon leggings in dirty puddle water. But it’s real – and it isn’t only caused by endorphins.
A study in the Proceedings Of The National Academy of Sciences points to endocannabinoids, chemicals in your body that promote relaxation, as the source. ‘Runners at all levels can experience this super-neurological phenomenon,’ says Dr Je Brown, chief psychologist for the Boston Marathon.
There’s no secret formula, but you’ll need to run for at least 30 minutes (previous research showed that’s when endocannabinoids start kicking in). Dr Brown also suggests pushing your pace and mixing up your route. ‘Novelty prevents boredom and feeds your brain stimuli, which stops distractions and promotes positive thoughts.’
5. TO DE-STRESS
As well as providing the highs, the benefits of running can combat the lows. Princeton University research found that running produces new neurons in the hippocampus – a region of the brain shown to regulate anxiety.
‘Stress activates your fight-or-flight response, which primes your body for action, causing your breathing and heart rate to rise,’ explains Martynoga. ‘When you go for a run, it puts that energy to good use, often helping stress to melt away.’
The science? ‘Aerobic exercise activates an enzyme in your muscles that clears a substance called knyurenine from your bloodstream,’ says Martynoga. ‘This is great, because a build-up of knyurenine in the brain has been linked to stress-induced depression.’ Noted.
6. TO BE PART OF THE CLUB
Pick any weekend in the calendar and you’ll find a race to run somewhere in the UK. Parkrun now boasts over three million runners in 20 countries clocking 5K every Saturday.
‘I always tell my runners to have an event to work towards,’ says running coach and Riot Squad (Running Is Our Therapy) founder Vicky Tzanetis. ‘Try your local Run Together group – breaking out of your comfort zone is much easier with others.’
Races have become more inclusive, too, says sports psychologist Dr Ariane Machin. ‘When I was younger, only “good” runners raced. Now it’s not just about performance, but the experience and having fun.’ Cue relays, zombie runs and obstacle races – there’s something for everyone.
7. TO SEE THE WORLD
Fancy a run-cation? More women than ever are building their travels around races in beautiful locations. The Dubai Marathon takes place on 25 January 2019, while Lausanne on the shores of Lake Geneva will host the 31st edition of the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in 2019.
Having just been named the Swiss wine capital, it’s the perfect place to reward yourself with a postrun Merlot. Speaking of wine, Lanzarote’s Club La Santa sports and fitness resort hosts wine runs through the Le Geria wine district – with tastings en route – along with an annual run challenge every November comprising four races in four consecutive days.
Haven’t booked your trip around race dates? No problem. You can scout out sweet trails others have already run on apps like Runkeeper and Strava.