When it comes to America's favorite cardio pastime, new research shows that some of our long-ingrained, previously encouraged habits do more harm than good. Prepare to rethink how your hit the pavement.
1. Skip the long, slow runs to shed pounds
Experts once argued that during low-intensity cardio, the body uses fat instead of carbs for fuel. No more. Interval training burns serious calories and targets fat better than steady-state exercise. A study published in the International Journal of Obesity showed that subjects who did just three 20-minute high-intensity-interval sessions a week lost more weight and fat—specifically abdominal fat—than those who completed three 40-minute moderate-intensity runs weekly.
To get more out of your interval sessions, put some effort into those "rest" breaks, says running coach David Siik, who teaches Tread & Shred treadmill classes at Equinox Fitness in Los Angeles (and is also our model runner pictured). "Slowing down your sprint and speeding up your recovery will keep your burn elevated without as much impact as running all-out then walking. If you usually sprint at 9 miles per hour and rest at 4, try topping out at 8 or 8.5 and recovering at 5 or 6 miles per hour."
2. Stop buying into sneaker trends
The minimalist movement has been a boon for sneaker-makers and orthopedists alike—prompting some runners to overcompensate with heavily cushioned kicks.
"Sneakers that provide added cushioning can lead to what we call overshoeing," says Vijay Vad, M.D., a sports-medicine specialist and the author of this month's The New Rules of Running. "They can be too supportive, which causes small but important intrinsic muscles to atrophy."
To strengthen the tiny workhorse muscles in your feet, run or walk barefoot on the beach once a week. (Landlocked urbanites: Balance on one bare foot for up to a minute daily.) When buying running shoes, go middle-of-the-road: Hybrid versions that have some padding are best.
3. Pump more iron
"Muscles don't repair and get stronger after running in the same way they do post-weight-training," says USA Track & Field–certified trainer Jeff Rochford, head coach for the charitable race-training group Fred's Team. "That's why I advise lifting like a bodybuilder. You're running, too, so you're not going to get big—unless you're on steroids—and it can help prevent back pain and injuries like patellofemoral pain syndrome."
Target each muscle group once a week and focus on counterintuitive areas like core, shoulders, and arms (see No. 5).
4. Take the emphasis off your legs
"Your quadriceps are important, but power comes from your glutes and hips, especially when you're sprinting," says Mindy Solkin, founder of the Running Center in New York City. The gluteus medius, on either side of your pelvis, is a relatively small but key muscle that helps stabilize your body every time you land.
"It's prone to fatigue, and if it's weak—which it frequently is—it can contribute to iliotibial (IT) band syndrome," Vad says. Engage the gluteus medius by adding single-leg squats to your strength regimen once or twice a week (aim for three sets of 10 reps).
5. Your arms are just as important
Swinging your arms can increase speed, but don't overdo it. They should never cross your body, and if your shoulders tense and creep toward your ears, it's a sign that you're tired. (Your pace will ultimately suffer.) That said, don't drop your arms altogether—there is a sweet spot.
"Because of how the deep core muscles work, raising one arm automatically helps lift the opposite knee," Siik says. That saves the tiniest bit of energy, which—when multiplied over thousands of steps—equals a big advantage.
6. Forgo the recovery run
Alternating hard and easy days is standard training procedure. But even slower-paced outings can re-tear muscle fibers, Rochford says. A better alternative: Hit the pool for 30 to 60 minutes. "It's the single best thing you can do after a hard run. It uses your hip flexors in the same way as running, but there's zero impact."