Q&A with olympic athlete Liz Yelling

Liz Yelling

Olympic athlete Liz Yelling and the GirlzRun team of experts joined us to answer your questions on all aspects of running, including how to start jogging from scratch, what to wear and the best way to shave five minutes off your race time.

Starting running | Running gear | Races and speed training | Running and women's health


Starting running and beginners

Q. JackBauer: I only started running last year after doing the couch potato to 5k and am now running 2.5 miles a few times a week. I am finding it harder to run further though and keep hitting a wall, could it be that I don't run with a drink? I find it awkward to carry but if it would help me carry on then I would need tips as well!

A. Lix: Firstly, well done on making great progress on your running! It is unlikely you are hitting 'the' wall, although it might feel like you are hitting 'a' wall. You must make sure that you are well hydrated before you run; your urine should be pale to clear. Also make sure you are eating sufficient carbohydrates to give you the energy to run. Eating a carbohydrate snack or meal two-to-three hours before should provide you with sufficient energy.

GirlzrunTry a five-minute walk, after two miles of running before you attempt to run another mile. Introducing walking into running means you will be able to overcome distance barriers. If you get to running over an hour then think about taking a drink with you. You can get some super drinks-bottle holders that go around your waist that make them easier and comfortable to carry.

Q. MollieO: I am a jogger who's trying to get fit and lose weight. Is it better to run slower and further distance or faster and shorter?

A. Liz: Whilst running long and slow will use up calories and burn fat, running shorter and faster can boost your metabolism and burn up as much calories. The faster running can add spice in your running and the boost in metabolism can often help people to shift those extra pounds. Although weight loss is mostly about calories in verses calories out.

Q. drivingmisscrazy: I am in my early 40s and a decent-ish runner (not in your league, but hey, there's only so much room at the top). However, I really struggle to put together much better than about a 5min/k pace, even when I'm clocking lots of mileage. Do I need to do speed work? How would I begin, with my elderly joints and muscles?

A. Liz: Doing some shorter, faster-paced running is necessary to bring about improvement in speed. Running faster will help your legs get used to moving faster. Start by building some unstructured fartlek into one of your runs, making sure you do some steady-paced efforts before you run faster, this should allow your body to warm up and help prevent any injuries. After a few weeks of this you can progress to some interval training.

This means running faster than your race pace for a set amount of time or distance and then having a jog recovery for 60 seconds to two minutes, and repeating a number of times. Doing a faster session just once a week should see you crack your pace. 

"Having a goal, or a reason to run is often enough to get most people out of the door. If you don't have one maybe set yourself the goal to raise some money for a charity that means something to you, and set yourself a challenge."

Q. deepdarkwood: What advice would you have to motivate an occasional, but rather fair-weather runner? I suspect I need a race to train to (probably a 10k) but am too chicken to register for one.

A. Liz: Having some goal or reason to run is often enough to get most people out of the door. If you don't have one maybe set yourself the goal to raise some money for a charity that means something to you, and set yourself a challenge. If you are not into racing then maybe enter a women-only event where many walk-run and the day is more about getting round and having fun than achieving a specific time. If you still struggle to get out the door with a goal, maybe aim to meet someone for a run, even if they have to ride the bike to keep up! Come on you can do it.

Q. WilfShelf: I'd love to be able to run. Last time I tried I was 4st overweight, and I walked and jogged on the treadmill for 30-second intervals. Unfortunately I got injured. I am now only 2st overweight and would love to run for fitness, but be honest, there's probably no hope or point for someone as rickety as me, is there? Should I give it a go with better shoes, strapping etc? Or just stick to walking?

A. Liz: It takes about four months for your ligaments and muscles to adapt to new training loads, so you may have progressed your running too fast for your body. I would suggest that you try walking regularly for four months before you then introduce some run-walking into your plan. When you do start running again, run for shorter sections and have much longer recovery than 30-seconds running, 30-seconds rest, and then gradually build this over another four months. Patience will be key. You can do it! But go gently and take your time – there is no rush.

Q. annieapple7: When and how do you stretch to prevent injury?

A. Liz: I make sure I stretch when my muscles are warm. This is usually after a run or when I have just got out of the bath. I usually do the main leg muscles and the bottom. You should look to hold each stretch for 30-45 seconds. Don't bounce stretches and if it hurts – back it off.

Q. ilovemydogandMrObama: I'm running the half-marathon for the Wallace and Gromit Appeal in September in aid of Bristol Children's Hospital. The only run I do at the moment is the school run, although I do the cross trainer and swim. I have three months to get ready. Any advice?

A. Liz: It would help if you got a half-marathon running plan off the web or from a book to help you structure your week and give you some guidance on the type of training and volume that you would need to cover.

The key with generic plans is to tweak them to fit into your lifestyle, not to bend over backwards to make your life fit the plan. Build up the frequency and the volume or your runs first. Start gently and progressively - add five or ten minutes to one or two runs each week. The best thing you could do is build up your running slowly and be consistent with it running three times every week (more if you get into it).

To run a half-marathon you'll need to build up the miles you cover in training too. Don't be afraid to take walk breaks when you start. As you get fitter and run more, your body will adjust and you'll run more and walk less.

Q. fluffles: I am interested to know whether you think that mass participation 'recreational' road-running events are good for athletics in this country? Or are they bad for 'proper' athletics and running, or have no effect at all?

A. Liz: I think mass participation events are great for running in this country. I think by having a more active population a parent or a friend is more likely to inspire someone who may just find they have the talent to be the next Paula Radcliffe. Just like Paula's dad inspired her to run, my mum also inspired me to run and they both took part in mass participation events. 

Not everyone can be super fast or super fit but everyone can achieve something in a running event. Look at www.parkrun.com for a great example of participation events that really put something back into local communities. 


Running gear

Q. cocolepew: Do you think you need to spend a lot of money on trainers? What sort of thing should you be looking for in a trainer? 

A. Liz: If you are going to buy trainers for running I would suggest that you go to a specialist running store where they will fit you with the correct running shoes for your running style. This will help prevent injuries and keep consistency in your training. I would expect to pay £65-£80 for a good running shoe, but once you know the size and shoe that works for you can buy them again and again. It's worth going for a mid-range price bracket shoe.

Q. DwanyeDibbley: I'm about to start running again after having my second child. I didn't run last time until after I stopped breastfeeding, but this time I can't wait that long. I've found getting correctly measured for a normal bra enough of a challenge, so what do I do about protecting my assets with a bra suitable for running? Any brands I should look for? 

A. Liz: Bras are really a personal choice - I know a brand called Shock Absorber are supposed to be really good. Sometimes wearing two bras can help, but the best advice is to get the best bra with the right fit. 

Q. TheChewyToffeeMum: I have just had an interesting chat with a man in my local running shop about barefoot running and the Vibram five-finger type shoes he was wearing. Have you ever considered this approach or would you consider it too risky?

A. Liz: I personally feel that this would be too risky for me. I prefer a trainer that is going to protect me from the pavements and the hard surfaces that we run on. I wouldn't change my own running style right now or change the footwear that I know works for me. 


Races and speed training

Q. Themasterandmargaritas: Have you or would you consider training at one of Kenya's High Altitude Training Camps? If so then what are the benefits of training and running at a higher altitude? Will it mean I can knock five mins off my half-marathon time if I then subsequently run at sea level? 

A. Liz: I have not considered training in Kenya, although done some high-altitude training in Colorado, the Pyrenees and Albuquerque and I did notice a significant benefit to my racing two weeks after my return. 

Altitude has less oxygen in the air so when you train in these conditions it feels much harder than at sea level. To accommodate the lack of oxygen your body will produce more red blood cells. So when you return to sea level the running will feel much easier because your body has more red blood cells and therefore is more efficient at carrying more oxygen to the working muscles. The minimum time spent training at altitude for this adaptation to take place is four weeks and typically people have their best day 14-21 days after coming back down to sea level, so timings are crucial.

"The key to staying positive when it hurts and you are not on track is to remind yourself of why you run. Have something personal and meaningful you can tap into!"

Q. gladders: I've just had a bad 10k race - was aiming for 53 minutes but blew up at 5k and trailed home feeling very dejected. I am pretty sure my problem is my mental approach to it - any tips on how to stay strong and focused and overcome the desire to throw the towel in when things go wrong? 

A. Liz: The key to staying positive when it hurts and you are not on track is to remind yourself of why you run. Have something personal and meaningful you can tap into. Focus on what you like about your running and get yourself three positive chants that you can say to yourself when you are running and the negative thoughts creep in. Think about some of your great training sessions and draw strength from these. Pacing is also really important in getting your race right. Make sure you practice this in your training. 

Q. hatwoman: I regularly enter fell runs, which tend to be about five miles with something in the region of 1000ft climb,- all on rough ground of varying sorts (peaty grass, stony paths and rivers). The winners of these races are just awesome - doing six-minute miles including suicidal descents. Should I stick to practising on five-mile routes that replicate the races or should I do hill repetitions?

A. Liz: When training for a fell race you have many elements that you have to train. Training on the same terrain will get you used to the balance and coordination required for the even, but running on this surface for five miles will limit what you can achieve. Doing some faster hill intervals with a recovery will help you build speed and strength. Running faster on flat ground such as interval running will help you develop leg speed that you can then translate to the fell surface. I'd definitely suggest some hill training in your prep as well as running on similar courses. Running the hills hard on one of your routes will help! 

Q. juicychops: I have been running now for nearly six weeks nearly and can do three miles. I am adding half a mile each week. What are your preferred pre-run and post-run meals and snacks? 

A. Liz: Congratulations on your success so far! Before I run in the morning I have porridge and honey with a coffee and some water (a big glass). If I am running again in the afternoon I often have another bowl of cereal or some fruit bread with some jam about 2-3 hours before I set off for my run. When I get in from a run, I love to grab a banana just before I head into the shower or if I have done a big run then I love scrambled egg on toast. It's so important to eat and drink to give you energy for running and to help you feel better afterwards.

Q. racmac: I'm doing a half-marathon in two weeks time and I'm getting there - my long-term goal is to speed up, as I'm slow. Any tips on how to improve my speed and keep it up over the distance?

A. Liz: It is probably too late to introduce speed work for your half-marathon now, but for future races you could try some interval running. This is where you run faster than you would normally run for 1-5 minutes, and then you have a walk or jog recovery for 2-3 minutes. By training faster than your regular pace you can train your body to race faster.

To help you maintain this pace for the duration of the races you have to increase the time that you do interval work for, teaching your body to run faster for longer. With only two weeks to go until your half marathon the best thing you could do is to relax your running a bit and arrive at the start line fresh and ready to go!

Q. JJ: What do you do for cross training? My core is weak (putting it mildly) and I think it would help if I had some sort of core strength. Is Pilates good? Yoga? How often would I have to do it? I'm doing a sprint tri on Saturday and have been training for months, and so do biking and swimming as well as run but still have a core about as strong as wet cardboard.

A. Liz: I have little time to cross train so I make sure what I do really counts. I have a few select core exercises that I know work well for me and I do them every other day. It only takes me 15 minutes after a run but I have found little and often is the key to good core strength. I have a series of about eight exercises that I can fit in during my day at home that work very well. They are planking, holds, swiss ball work and some mobility exercises. A Pilates class would be perfect for your core strength if you need something specific to attend.

Q. cal79: I'm slowly getting into running, like half-marathons and 10k, but I'm a bit confused on the advice about stretching before a run. I've heard you shouldn't stretch before your muscles and joints have warmed up, as you're likely to do more damage. Is this true and so should you warm up, stretch then run or only concentrate on stretching after your run?

A. Liz: The new advice about stretching is that static stretching can inhibit your muscular strength during a run and can also damage your muscles if they are not warm. The best time to do static stretching is after a run or when you have just got out of the bath. It is advisable to do dynamic stretching before exercise to maximise running performance.  

Dynamic stretching is really all about gentle mobilising muscles, tendons and joints and putting them through a range of motion to get you ready for exercise. Circling, lunging and swinging are good movements to do pre-run.


Running and women's health

Q. liath: I've found that with my running if I go out just before my period is due then I feel terrible. My legs feel like lead and it's like I'm wading through treacle. I'm not really as fit as I'd like but is this something that plagues professional athletes too? I can't imagine anything worse than training hard for an event and then it all going to pot because of hormones.

A. Liz: Yes, many elite runners find that as they get older they notice that their monthly cycle has more of an impact on their performance. It is very common to feel very heavy and have an increased in perceived exertion about a week before your period is due. This may vary for each individual and is down to the hormonal changes in your body. Eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and eating regularly can reduce the symptoms. I'm afraid that, as women, we all get it to varying degrees regardless of how fast we run.

"When you start to run after having a baby, it is really about listening to your body."

Q. nowherewoman: When I was pregnant, I had to stop running before I wanted, because I couldn't stand the feeling of the baby bouncing on my bladder while I was running. Is there any way to avoid this, like a bump support or something? How long did you manage to run for when you were pregnant?

A. Liz: I could only run up to 20 weeks when the scan revealed that I had placenta previa. I was only able to walk after this point in my pregnancy, so I did not get to experience the discomfort of the baby bouncing on my bladder. I do believe you can get hold of bump supports, but I have no idea if this would resolve the problem. If you find it uncomfortable then maybe walk or find a more comfortable way to stay fit. Best thing to do is to avoid things that your find painful or uncomfortable and stick to lower weight bearing activity that's safe for you and baby.

Q. DwayneDibbley: Do you have any general tips on starting running again after having a baby? I used to run three times a week, generally two six to eight milers and a four miler a week. When I start again it'll be nearly a year since my last run. I had an emergency c-section, so any tips on how to approach running after this type of surgery? 

A. Liz: When you start to run after having a baby, it is really about listening to your body and of course taking the advice from your doctor about returning after your c-section. Once you have the all clear, start with a walking routine, aiming just to establish a time in your week to get out the door. I would do this for two to four weeks, and then start to introduce some running sections into your walks. Over time replace the walking with the running and in about four to six weeks you will find you have built your running to a point where you are hardly walking at all. Have fun.