Fitness advice can be overwhelming. Try to absorb all of the tips given by instructors and personal trainers about warm-ups and cool-downs, technique and timing, and it’s easy to lose track of your workouts. If there’s one thing you need to remember to become a faster rower, a better cyclist or an expert at Pilates, what would it be? We asked leading experts for the single best piece of advice.
1. Walking: focus on technique, not step count
Joanna Hall, a qualified sport scientist and the founder of the WalkActive program prescribed by GPs around the country, says trying to increase daily steps can backfire if you have a poor walking technique.
“A lot of people have muscle imbalances they don’t know about, particularly if they spend a lot of time sitting,” Hall says. “This means that when they go to move, their movement pattern and muscle recruitment is suboptimal and that can affect breathing, posture and joint discomfort, and predispose people to injury.”
Rather than attempting to increase the number of steps or your pace, you should try to upgrade your walking technique first. Hall says it’s the arms, not legs, that create good walking rhythm so focus on swinging them faster in a smooth, natural motion rather than trying to step faster with your feet.
“Try not to overstride or take huge strides as it places a lot of pressure on the knees and hips. And leaning too far forward can lead to lower back pain.” Think about peeling and lifting your back foot off the ground with each stride as this will achieve good alignment from ankle to knee to hips. “What happens to that rear foot is more important than what happens to the foot in front of the body,” Hall says.
2. Running: think about your rhythm
Your foot cadence is not the same as your running speed. “When we talk about cadence, we are referring to the rhythm of your feet or your steps per minute,” says Sam Murphy, a running coach and the author of Run Your Best Marathon(Bloomsbury). “Efficient runners tend to have a relatively high cadence, meaning they pick up their feet quickly, which prevents overstriding and enables them to harness more ‘free’ energy — think bounce — from the elastic recoil of the tendons.”
There is no one-size-fits-all figure but most recreational runners will benefit from increasing their cadence. Some fitness trackers will measure it for you, but a DIY method to find your existing step count is to time yourself running for one minute (on a flat, even surface ideally) while counting the number of times one-foot lands. Multiply the figure by two to get your steps per minute. “If your cadence is in the low 160s or slower when you’re cruising at a reasonable pace for you, you may want to consider stepping it up,” Murphy says. “This is not just for efficiency reasons, but because research has found that increasing cadence significantly reduces impact — or force of landing — and vertical loading rates, measures that are associated with running injuries.” An increase in steps per minute of 5 per cent is a sensible aim and downloading a metronome app can help to instil the right rhythm.
3. Cycling: push for the perfect pedal stroke
Humans didn’t evolve to ride bikes but to walk, run and jump on two legs. “On a bike, the perfect pedal stroke emphasises our innate bipedal — or two-legged walking — function,” says Phil Cavell, the co-founder of Cyclefit and author of The Midlife Cyclist. “It involves a powerful downstroke or leg extension, and a relaxed upstroke or leg flexion — in other words, the perfect pedal stroke is to push down and don’t pull up at all.”
This is often surprising to cyclists who use cleats and clipless pedal systems that fix specialist cycling shoes onto the pedal.
“Their usefulness is not that they enable you to pull up with each stroke, but because they help to control foot placement,” Cavell says. “Cleats also require you to wear proper cycling shoes which are designed to transfer more power and lessen foot fatigue.” A clipless pedal also allows standing up while climbing hills, sprinting and better bike control.
4. Swimming: concentrate on your body position
Body position is the foundation for an efficient front crawl swimming technique and should be perfected before you focus on breathing technique, says Richard Blackshaw, Swim England’s talent officer. “You are after neutral body alignment — so everything nicely in line from the head, through the spine and down to the toes,” he says. “Think about having your eyes facing the bottom of the pool when breathing out and a neutral head position, rather than swimming with a head held too high, which will keep the hips high in the water.”
You need some rotation of the hips and shoulders to engage muscle groups needed for propulsion through the water. “But the rotation of your body should not exceed 45 degrees, so don’t twist and turn too much. And your toes should just break the water surface at the highest part of the kick, rather than make a big splash.”
5. Weight training: think about your tempo
Tempo refers to the rate at which you perform an exercise and describes how much time you spend in each part of the movement.
“Instead of moving through exercises as fast as you can, I encourage clients looking to improve their strength training to incorporate tempo training into their moves,” says Victoria Anderson, a clinical exercise specialist and founder of Longevity Health and Fitness. “By doing this you add more neuromuscular control and that can lead to an increase in muscle mass, muscular strength and greater joint stability.”
Think about each phase of the move and aim for a 3:1:1 tempo — that is three seconds in the eccentric or lowering phase of the movement, one second at the bottom of the movement as a pause and one second to come up out of the movement in the concentric phase. “In a weighted squat this would involve lowering for three seconds, pausing for one second at the bottom and pushing up for one second,” Anderson says. “By spending more time in the eccentric or lengthening phase of a movement you create a greater stimulus for muscle growth.”
6. Yoga: begin with easier versions of the downward dog
The downward-facing dog is an inversion posture that builds strength in the upper body and lengthens the hamstrings and calves. It is one of the most recognised and widely practised postures in yoga, yet many people find it difficult because they aim for the full version of the position before they are ready, says Lexie Williamson, a yoga instructor and author of Move(Bloomsbury). If you have tight hamstrings from lots of sitting or tight calf muscles from wearing heels or walking long distances, you might struggle.
“A stiff back and hips or tight leg muscles can cause the back to round, forcing your body weight forward and placing excess strain on the hands and shoulders,” Williamson says. “To remedy that, bend your knees slightly in the downward dog position and lean back until your spine is straight, gradually aiming to straighten your legs over several weeks or months of practice, but keeping the back straight.” Another option is the “walking dog”, performed by bending one leg and drawing the heel of the opposite foot to the floor. “Move from side to side doing this alternately,” Williamson says. “It eases the pressure on the upper body and is also a great dynamic warm-up exercise before a workout.”
7. Pilates: try the “dimmer switch” approach
Precision control of your inner core muscles underpins the Pilates technique, and Lynne Robinson, the founder and director of Body Control Pilates, says finding them and knowing how and when you need to engage them is essential.
“When an instructor tells you to engage your inner core, they are talking about lifting the pelvic floor muscles at the base of your inner core which can be tricky to locate,” Robinson says. “To find them, breathe in and then, as you breathe out, gently squeeze your back passage as if trying to prevent yourself from passing wind, then move this control towards your pelvic bone, gently drawing the muscles up inside.”
As you are doing this you should feel your abdomen hollow. “Maintain this core connection and breathe normally for five breaths, making sure your ribs are still free to move, keeping your buttock muscles relaxed and your chest, neck and jaw free from tension,” she says. “Once you’ve located these inner core muscles, you can use them to control your movements.”
Less is more — don’t squeeze or clench too hard. “We refer to it as a ‘dimmer switch approach’,” Robinson says. “Switch your inner core up too high too soon, or engage it all the time, and it will end up overactive. Inner core engagement should be proportionate to the demands being made on it.”
8. Rowing: rely on your legs more
Arm and shoulder strength are not as important in rowing as you might think. “In fact, 60 per cent of the power in the rowing stroke should come from your legs, with 30 per cent from your hips and back, and just 10 per cent from the arms,” says Paul Stannard, the GB Olympic men’s rowing team head coach. “For anyone who struggles with this, I suggest trying a legs-only rowing exercise to get used to the feeling of pushing with the lower body and not pulling with the arms, as poor technique is a risk factor for injury in rowing.”
Sit on the rowing machine with your body leaning forward and arms out straight in front of you. “Glide up the slide and push the legs down really hard while simultaneously bracing the back and core so that the arms feel loose like pieces of rope dangling from the shoulders,” Stannard says. “Imagine a horizontal seated leg press with each drive phase, always thinking ‘legs first, body next, arms last’ as you push.” As you glide back in the recovery phase, the sequence is reversed so arms, body then legs are released in that order.
9. Posture: stand and walk with thumbs forward
Next time you are standing still or walking, check which way your palms are facing. “If your palms are facing back when you walk, you will be tighter through the back and internally rotated in the humeral head — the top of the arm in the socket — which makes for rounder shoulders,” says Jo Tuffrey, a Pilates instructor and posture specialist. A simple posture-enhancing tweak is to rotate the hands so that the thumbs are facing forward. Doing this opens up the chest so that we look and feel taller and more upright. “By changing the position of your hands very slightly, you externally rotate the arm socket and improve your posture,” Tuffrey says. “Think about doing this every day.”
10. Breath work: don’t be shallow
Breathing efficiency is important for any form of exercise but is an oft-neglected aspect of fitness preparation, says James Davies, an osteopath and author of Body (HarperCollins). “There is a breathing exercise that I recommend to all of the athletes I work with because it helps to deepen and control their breathing, strengthening the diaphragm, reducing stress and maximising the oxygen coming into the body, which helps with any form of activity,” Davies says. “Start by placing your hands on your tummy and then taking a deep but relaxed breath in through your nose, allowing your tummy to expand as your lungs fill with air.” Breathe out slowly, but with controlled exhalation. “Try to let out a ‘ha’ sound with each exhalation until you have fully expelled the air in your lungs, tensing your abdominal muscles at the end to make sure every last bit of air is out,” Davies says. “Repeat this several times, controlling your breath carefully.”
11. Injury prevention: the daily squat
If you are prone to any sort of leg or glute injury — or if you want to safeguard against getting them in the future — then you need to include daily single-leg squats.
“It is an exceptional exercise that improves foot and ankle balance, and strength around the knee, and you are hitting muscles including the gluteus medius, minimus and maximus, hip flexors, hamstrings, quadriceps, calves and the tiny little muscles in your feet,” says Paul Hobrough, a chartered sports physiotherapist and the author of Running Free of Injuries (Bloomsbury). “Everything is working hard to hold the position and it even requires some stabilisation of the core muscles.”
Stand on the left leg with hands on hips or arms outstretched in front of you for balance. Bend your left knee, lowering as far as you can without losing balance and without the knee rotating inwards. Also make sure the left knee does not extend in front of the left foot. Increase the depth of the squat each week until you bend the knee to a 90-degree angle. Hobrough suggests starting with ten repetitions on each leg which will take about two minutes, building up the number as you get stronger.