Beyond Fitness: What it Really Means to be “Healthy”

Running captured my heart in 1998 – and it still holds it firmly in its grasp more than 16 years later.

Runner

As my running career matured, my thoughts on how to run faster, prevent overuse injuries, and truly enjoy running have changed as well.

When I first joined my high school’s cross country team, I only thought about running while I was at practice or a race. Running was simply something I did after school.

But soon, I realized that how I lived my life outside of practice contributed to how well I performed:

  • If I got more sleep, I felt better during my next workout and recovery improved.
  • If I was at my own healthy weight, I ran faster and strong.
  • If I ate a better diet, my runs felt more energized.

These lessons were learned the hard way, after countless fast food meals and short bouts of sleep after a night of partying. For a decade, I didn’t take care of myself the way I should have.

And it’s clear: a healthy lifestyle has a significant impact on your ability to perform as a runner.

After all, health comes before fitness.

Without general health, can you imagine finishing a 15-mile long run?  Or recovering from an intense interval workout?

Your body can’t feel fresh and your runs energized if your lifestyle doesn’t promote health and well-being.

Over the last few years, I’ve begun to prioritize my general health instead of just my running performances. I’m focusing on all-new things like sleep, diet, my overall activity level and stress.

And these changes have enabled me to perform at a whole new level:

  • I set annual mileage records in 2010, 2012, and 2013 – running more than 3,200 miles last year
  • I also set monthly (382) and weekly (92) mileage records in 2014
  • My marathon personal best improved by over 5 minutes to 2:39:32
  • My weight has decreased while my strength has actually increased (!)
  • I no longer have high cholesterol

Over the next few months, I’ll be writing more about these topics and bringing in other experts to help you succeed not just with your running, but with living a healthier life with more vitality.

But now, let’s focus on one of the least understood aspects of health: your overall activity level.

Running is the Tip of the Health Pyramid

Health Pyramid

Being a successful runner requires a lifestyle that promotes fast running. You can’t expect to run a personal best in your next marathon if you’re sleeping five hours a night and drinking heavily.

But if your running performance is at the very top of a “health pyramid,” the foundation of that pyramid supports your performances. That foundation – or the type of lifestyle you lead – directly supports your running.

When elements of this pyramid are missing, you’ll suffer from running injuries. Your performances will plateau and you’ll stop improving.

Perhaps more importantly, running will feel harder than it should feel. Every workout will be a struggle and you’ll have trouble with long runs and faster workouts.

With poor sleep, recovery will be dramatically reduced and bouncing back from a long run may take another day or two limiting how much you can train the following week.

I’ve always prioritized sleep, but until I made high-quality rest a regular habit, I experienced more injuries and fewer runs where I felt unstoppable.

Over the last several years, my diet has also undergone a significant change. The result? I feel like superman on most days!

Just the other day I was telling my wife that I feel like I’m firing on all cylinders. My energy is through the roof. My recovery is at an all-time high.

The nutrition changes have given me all-new perspectives on what’s possible if you can dial in the right fueling, nutrition, and diet.

Soon I’m going to be diving into more detail about these changes, specifically showing you:

  • The same nutrition mistake most runners make over and over again (and why it’s stopping them from reaching their goal weight)
  • A different approach to diet that doesn’t require a standard “diet” (no calorie counting or measuring your food!)
  • Specific recipes, pre-run meals and snacks, and how to re-fuel your runs with nutrient dense food for maximum recovery

There’s a lot more brewing at Strength Running HQ, but for now that’s a quick peak into what’s coming next month.

Until then, I want to share my newest focus: general activity levels.

“All I have to do is run… right?”

For years, I thought that “if I ran, I’m being healthy.” I was so naive – this thinking is seriously flawed.

The problem is that while running is indeed very healthy, it’s just a small part of the puzzle when it comes to exercise and overall health.

I’ve written before about the perils of prolonged sitting and how it can cause a host of health problems:

  • higher cholesterol and blood glucose levels
  • higher risk of type 2 diabetes
  • weight gain
  • women can start losing bone mass after years of a sedentary lifestyle

The startling caveat to all these health problems (and I’m only scratching the surface) is that they occur even if you run every day.

Simply stated: running does not justify a sedentary lifestyle.

If you get up every morning for a run, but then sit down for eight hours at work and then watch television for 2-3 hours at night, you are not “cancelling out” the effects of all that sitting.

Sitting is like smoking cigarettes. It’s unhealthy no matter what else you do in your life and no amount of running “undoes” the terrible habit of smoking.

Modern life – and the countless opportunities to park our rear in a seat – are not helping us live vibrant, healthy lives. This is why I devote an entire section of my injury prevention strategy to undoing the effects of our modern lifestyles.

This has been the final piece to my lifestyle overhaul: trying to sit down less.

And recently I got a FitBit Charge to help me with this new quest.

Move More, Live Longer

If you’re like me, you want to maximize the number of years you spend on this little planet. And a moderate amount of daily activity (in addition to regular exercise) is an integral part of living a long life.

My new FitBit is helping me increase my daily activity levels. By measuring a host of metrics, I can see how much I typically move so I can begin making changes. Remember:

“What gets measured gets managed.” – Peter Drucker

The FitBit measures:

  • Daily number of steps
  • Flights of stairs climbed
  • Distance covered
  • Calories burned (based on height, weight, and activity levels)

It also has a host of other features, including a vibrating alarm (no more jarring alarm clock, with the exception of my toddler…), sleep tracker, and a ridiculous 7-10 day battery life (you can see more features here).

More important than any of its features, it lets me easily and quickly see how much I’m moving. Typically I average about 4,500 steps per day in addition to running and about 10 flights of steps.

It helps that I walk my daughter to day care every morning before I run. This walk is nearly a mile and adds a good chunk of steps to my daily total.

What the FitBit doesn’t talk about in its marketing is the psychology of wearing a device like this. Yes, it tracks all kinds of stuff I’m really interested in seeing every day.

But just by making me more aware of these metrics, I’m taking all sorts of steps (pun intended) to change my daily behavior.

Take having a home office for example (which you can see in any Q&A with Coach episode). This is incredibly convenient since I have no commute, but it also means I don’t have to move very much throughout the day.

So I’m doing things differently now. About every hour I’m taking a short break for a few minutes of household chores. This actually results in higher productivity since I don’t fall into a rut behind my desk – and my wife certainly isn’t complaining when the toys are put away and the kitchen is clean.

With my home gym equipment, I’ll also do a few chin ups to get my heart going throughout the day.

And since I know how many steps I should be taking every day (about 10,000!), I’m more likely to suggest family activities that include more walking if my daily steps are low.

The FitBit is helping me understand my daily activity levels so I can improve my overall health – without having to make any significant changes to my lifestyle.

Build Your Own Health Pyramid

Of course, I’m under no illusion that walking a few thousand more steps every day will help my running. I doubt that will happen.

But running is just a piece of leading a healthy lifestyle, something I’m very passionate about for my own well-being and for my family.

And understanding my overall activity levels was the first step to improving them, thanks to this neat piece of wearable technology.

Today, I have a challenge for you: estimate the sturdiness of your own health pyramid.

Are you missing a key element of a healthy lifestyle? How can you improve one area of your life that could help you become a better runner?

Leave a comment below telling me what your #1 area for improvement is – and what you’ll do to improve.

I’m curious what my readers need help with, so leave your comment now and I’ll write more about these topics!

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Comments

  1. George Mocogni says:

    Jason,
    I’m looking forward to upcoming articles on the Health Pyramid. The area that I need help with is food. It seems like it takes a lot of time and/or it costs a lot of money to eat healthy.
    Thanks.

  2. I probably sit too much… I am thinking about a treadmill desk, or at least a stand up desk in 2015. The other thing I am thinking about is replacing my chair for one of those large exercise balls.

    My nutrition is getting better, but still lacks a bit. I just started tracking what I eat again on Myfitnesspal, which a bit like my fitbit helps keep me more accountable as to what I am doing.

    Good article. Look forward to reading more of what you have to say about this next year.

  3. Great article. That’s the main reason why I run, lifelong for health and fitness.

  4. Hey Jason,
    Great article. My biggest struggle is sitting too much. I have a desk job and I sit at a computer and also review files. This involves poor posture which leads to neck pain and also contributes to the sedentary lifestyle you wrote about. I try to move around more on the weekends and keep busy, but its the work week that kills me.
    Nutrition will always be a work in progress, but I have made that a focus the past few months- eating whole foods, nothing artificial, and eating enough, without overeating if that makes sense.

  5. Sleep. My God, do I need to prioritize sleep better. It’s just so hard – there’s so much to do (and no, I’m not one of those people watching television for hours at night). Even though I have a full-time job (that I love), I feel like my *real* job starts when I head home. There are dogs to be walked, dinner to be cooked, dishes to be done, laundry to be folded… you get my drift. So I often find myself folding that laundry at 11:30pm, and regretting it the next morning.

  6. Great article Jason! I think the Health Pyramid is spot on. As a longtime runner, I have no trouble with the discipline of exercise and an overall “active” lifestyle.

    My Achilles heel, and I don’t think I’m alone here, is the discipline of a healthy diet. I feel as though a strong 10 mile run is easily undone by what I eat following that run. I see the discipline bodybuilders and crossfit athletes display, but I do not notice this in many runners.

    What are your thoughts on a bodybuilder like eating plan that may lack in variety but makes up for in consistency and positive results. What do you base your caloric intake on?

  7. The area I most need to improve is nutrition. I know that I need to eat more vegetables and less sugar. It’s an area that I have improved on somewhat this past year, but still needs more work.

    Unless, of course, scientists discover that chocolate is actually a vegetable. Then I’m good 🙂

  8. Hello Jason: The attitudes reflected in this article are excellent in my view. The personal details clarify the road you’ve traveled. They say so much more than any other running blog I’ve read in the last 6 weeks. And it’s so helpful that you’ve kept records of the difference the healthy changes you’ve made have created. Congratulations, and best wishes on your continuing journey to include more and more that is inspiring and expansive for you.

  9. Great article Jason. It is so true – we are a complete picture of all we do. I am looking forward to your thoughts on nutrition. I have tried a few different diets of late including Paleo and am struggling to find the one that makes me feel like superman everyday. That sounds like a superb way to feel.

  10. Chaulk up another one for nutrition- I know I eat way too much sugar, especially in the evenings.

  11. i saw that part of your pyramid has stress management as a building block for performance. I recently had a lousy week, and my long run was cut short because I felt miserable. My heart rate was up despite that I significantly slowed my pace. I’m pretty sure stress from my week contributed to my bad run (my sleep and nutrition and training had not changed from previous week’s).

    Can you talk a little about the affects that stress has on performance and how we can at least manage expectations — and not try to force or overdo a run to compensate — and get back on track?

  12. lis miller says:

    I think education about diet is so important as it continues to amaze me how little people know and so they jump on this bandwagon or that.
    basic rules – 5-7 veges a day (if you find that tough a green smoothie or powder can help)
    2-3 fruit a day
    some form of high quality protein with every meal (and post run if you can – includes dairy, which is important)
    and stick to this 80% of the time – but track it for the first while until it becomes a habit
    PS junk is junk – would you put the equivalent it in your car and expect it to run well?
    PPS bad health is more expensive than good eating habits

  13. Jane Wellway says:

    Sleep and nutrition. They work in combination for me. If I’m lacking sleep I feel tired and eat more sugar/drink coffee. When I get enough sleep I can manage my food better. Sometimes I ride this merry-go-round for months at a time and it really stops me improving my running!

  14. Most definitely sleep

  15. Great article. That’s the primary reason why I run, lifelong for fitness and health. Thanks For Sharing..

  16. This is an excellent article! Really made me stop and think. Although I do run and ride a bike it’s hard to find the time during the week. I try to cram it all in on the weekend. Too much to get done during the work week so my activities are lacking. So I guess I need help with time management.

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