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The Pain-Free Runner — Part 2

hydration nutrition pain free runner recovery running sleep strength training Mar 15, 2023

Welcome to Part 2 of The Pain-Free Runner.

If you missed part one, you can find it here. Our mission is to give runners the tips you need to run without pain, and give you the tools to fix any injuries you may have now or in the futue. 

In our last post, we talked about some of the tactical issues that plague runners, along with tips to help you start restoring mobility and strength. This time around, we'll dive into conceptual ideas that are just as important (if not more important!) for becoming a Pain-Free Runner.  

Our PT practice allows us to work with a lot of runners of all skill levels. This helps us take a step back to look at the person as a whole rather than just a diagnosis.

The biggest thing we need to understand first is that humans are multi-faceted, messy creatures. Life is complicated. We have busy schedules and deadlines and stress... and all of this contributes in some way to the aches and pains we experience. There is a reason that your sciatica bothers you more when you are really stressed out. So for us to help make you a better-equipped runner, we need to make you a better-equipped human, first. 


Sleep Hygiene

The first thing you can work on to become a stronger runner is your sleep. If you take nothing else from the rest of this post, remember this— Get more sleep! (Especially if you are injured.) Make it your number one priority. 

Gone (or going) are the days where folks wear how little sleep they got last night as some sort of badge. Oh, you think it's cool you regularly operate on less than 6 hours a night? Cool— You are at a drastically higher risk of disease, illness, car accidents, and shortened lifespan.

On top of that, poor sleep can affect your running recovery.

During NREM sleep, the body repairs and restores tissues damaged from the day’s activities bolsters the immune system, and builds new bone and muscle. (That means running too much is actually making you a worse runner and increasing your risk for injury. 😳)

So, what's a sleep-deprived person to do?

Have a sleep routine. Practice good sleep hygiene. If you don’t know what that looks like, here’s where you can start.

  • Keep naps short - Cut down daytime naps to a maximum of 30 minutes. Anything longer than this can begin to affect your sleep cycle.
  • Minimize stimulants - Avoid caffeine later in the day, especially near bedtime. A cup of coffee may help you finish some work when your 2 p.m. slump hits, but it’s going to hurt in the long run! 

  •  Minimize blue light - The blue light from our phones is shown to decrease our body's release of melatonin before bed and cause sleep dysfunction. It’s best to turn off at least 2 hours before bed. All of those Facebook posts will still be there in the morning.

  • Get outside - Exposure to natural light can help promote our body's natural circadian rhythm. And, being outside probably means you're being active, so it’s a win-win!

  • No phones in bed - Having our phones in or near our bed triggers our brain to associate the two and decrease sleep function. It’s best to put the phone in a separate room overnight. If your phone is your alarm, try switching away... Analog and digital alarm clocks are still a thing. 

  • Keep a routine - Establishing a normal sleep schedule can help improve the quality of our sleep. There’s something to the old saying, “We’re creatures of habit.”

  • Create a restful environment - It’s best to sleep in a comfortable, cool environment (60º-70º F) with minimal light exposure. Ambient noise can help dull distracting stimuli as well.

  • Minimize alcoholHere's another tough pill to swallow. Yes— your post-run beer is probably doing more harm than good. This pains me to say as a former homebrewer, but science doesn’t lie. Because alcohol affects your...


...Nutrition and Hydration

Another factor contributing to our recovery is our diet, which includes water, mineral and macronutrient intake.


Staying amply hydrated is important for ensuring proper muscle cell health, and can be hugely impactful on our training. Just 2-3% dehydration can make noticeable decreases in our physical performance. Mayo Clinic recommends daily intakes of about 15.5 cups (3.7 liters) of fluids a day for men, and 11.5 cups (2.7 liters) a day for women

Increased water intake also helps balance your minerals and micronutrients. You want to make sure that you're maintaining proper electrolyte levels, especially in the hot summer weather. Calcium, magnesium, sodium, and potassium are all responsible for the actions and contractions that our muscles produce, so be sure to have these included somewhere in your diet. 

Beyond mineral and water intake, your macro nutrition is another major component of muscle recovery.

Protein is a runner's best friend here. It's best to try sourcing most of your daily protein intake from whole foods (fish, poultry, beef, legumes), but protein supplements (whey, whey isolate, pea, hemp, almond sources) can get the job done if you’re short on time.  

Depending on your daily activities and personal physiology, you may need to prioritize fats over carbohydrates, or vice versa.  Unfortunately, there’s not enough room in a single blog to describe every factor that affects YOUR optimal macro intake, but getting proper protein and carbohydrates, both pre and post workout, can have a significant effect on your performance and potential recovery.

Nutrition coach Rebekah can help you figure out the right foods to support your goals— send her a message if you're ready to build nutrition and lifestyle habits that stick so you can have all-day energy, crush your fitness goals, and show up in life as the best version of YOU.




Roll it out and stretch after

Adding dynamic stretching and foam rolling to your post-workout routine can prove useful in tissue recovery— decreasing the potential for that muscle soreness we typically experience the next day, and increasing blood flow to a particular area, which can aid overall muscle cell health.

These types of post-workout activities also come with the added bonus of increased flexibility and mobility, which can help prevent injury and truly utilize your newly recovered muscle.



Top 5 Recovery Tips for Runners

1) Progress slowly

This is tough for a lot of people. Americans, in particular, are not known for our patience, but it is vital for avoiding injury. Start running less than you think you should in each session.

Remember— running is not a punishment for overeating on the weekend! It also doesn’t have to feel hard. We want our perceived effort to be fairly low.

If you’re a novice runner, take a play out of the Ultramarathoner’s playbook: Run for time, versus mileage. Having a mileage goal tends to make us run faster than we should. This is a recipe for injury. It also keeps us from being a faster runner in the long term. (More on that in the next section.)

Running for time, rather than distance, allows us to relax and run at a more appropriate pace.

Allow ample time for your body to adapt to the impact of running. Each step you take imparts 2-3 times your body weight on your limbs, more if you are doing speedwork. 

It will take about 12 weeks of very slow, very easy runs, along with some strength training, to allow your body to avoid pain and injury. These tissue adaptations are normal—many track athletes start the season with shin splints and runner's knee, but most of them finish injury-free.


2) Run slower than you think you should... A lot slower

You can obtain most of the health benefits of running even at a very slow pace (Slow, meaning you should be able to say a complete sentence without breathing in between.) This is the secret to high-level endurance athletes everywhere. 

Without getting into too much heart rate talk, running at conversational pace allows us to build up the floor of our cardiovascular fitness, rather than just the ceiling. The top end of your fitness is relatively fixed and based upon your maximum heart rate. Training at a lower level teaches your body to perform exercise without causing as much stress, allowing you to perform at higher levels with less fatigue. 

Also, a slower pace will decrease the impact per step, which will allow for a smoother transition to adapting to impact. As you progress over 12 weeks, slowly pick up speed. But start off SLOW!


3) Don't forget strength training!

Strength training will improve muscle, tendon, ligament, and bone strength, which will improve your tolerance to the impact of running.

Focus on training each muscle group in the lower body (low back, glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, shin muscles, and feet) two to three times a week. This will also increase your overall capacity to do work. 

Shoot for at least one set per body part each week, close to fatigue (5-20 reps), with relatively heavy weight. (Sometimes, "relatively heavy" is bodyweight!) 

2 or more sets per body part per week will likely give you faster results.

A recent study said just 13 minutes of strength training 3x/ week for 8 weeks resulted in gains similar to those spending significantly more time in the gym.

One thing to note— single leg strength exercises may be better for runners than using both legs together, (lunges versus squats, for example) because running is a single leg activity. 

The take-home message here: Take a day off of your running schedule once a week, and get into the gym or get in a KB workout at home.

4) Dial in your run cadence

Take short, fast steps!

This will decrease the amount you bounce up and down, decrease overstriding (landing with the foot too far forward), and keep your pace appropriately slow, all of which will decrease the amount of force you experience per step.

Most experts recommend a cadence between 170-180 steps per minute, depending on your height. Not sure how fast you're stepping? Search for music playlists on Spotify designed to help you keep on cadence!


5) Limit pain

If you do have pain with running, it doesn't necessarily mean you should stop.

We encourage our athletes to use the Stoplight System. 

🔴 RED - If your pain is at an 8-10, shut it down. You will not benefit from that run. Go consider a lower impact apparatus, like bike or elliptical. Better yet, take a day off and work on some mobility or strength training.  

🟡 YELLOW -If your pain is a 4-7, consider modifying your activity, whether that means changing your pace, volume or adding in some walking. Limiting pain to a 4/10 (a dull ache) is unlikely to result in further tissue damage. Continual pain at those higher levels of a "yellow" is not going to be good long term, but if you are adapting to some tissue changes, it may be entirely necessary.

In addition to the 4/10 pain rule, you should not have an elevated level of pain for more than 24 hours after running. (Remember, pain is different from muscle soreness!) If you do experience lasting pain, the stress was too much for your body and you should run slower and for a shorter time on your next run.

🟢 GREEN - If your pain is at a 0-4, get after it! You likely won’t have anything but a bit of soreness after the exercises and it shouldn’t last too long. 



Good sleep and good nutrition are some of the biggest factors for ensuring proper recovery and making you a Pain-Free Runner.

Running may have a high injury rate for novices compared to other forms of exercise, but it also has one of the lowest barriers to entry.

Our existing running injury rates are likely so high because of our poor perception of the loads we are undertaking. The single most important factor for avoiding running related injury is proper progression, and ensuring you have the proper tools to minimize your risk for injury.

If you need more guidance in determining if you are meeting the standards, or if pain persists for more than a couple weeks, see a professional! 

Here at Team Natural Wellness, we are eager to help active people like you recover from injury, move better, and stay fit without needing medications, injections, or surgery. Request a free consult if you're ready to get back to doing the activities you love, WITHOUT pain!