Run. Run a lot.
That’s the answer I give to new runners when they ask me how to get better at running. When they ask how they’ll ever be able to run a marathon or an ultra when it kills them to run six miles now, the answer is that simple.
It’s like the 10,000 hour rule. The more you run, the better your body and brain learn to do it. It doesn’t have to be every day, and it doesn’t have to involve awful workouts that leave you sprawled out on the track by the time they’re done.
But it does have to be consistent. Every time you get burnt out and take three or six months off from running, you miss hours upon hours of opportunity to build those neural pathways that help you run efficiently, even effortlessly.
The trick then, is to keep your training interesting. Here are 63 ways to do just that.
- Bored with the roads? Try trail running. For help getting started, check out the Beginner’s Guide to Trail Running I wrote for Zen Habits, or the slightly lighter-in-tone Indoorsman’s Guide to Trail Running on this site.
- Pick a huge goal. Maybe it’s a half marathon, a marathon, an ultra, or winning a race. Who knows. Make it one that will make your friends laugh when you tell them about it. That’s how you pick an inspiring goal. Then focus every day until you make it happen. One warning: Shoot for the stars, but give yourself a reasonable time frame, be flexible, and listen to your body.
- Try an “alternative” running form. The Pose method and Chi Running both offer what they claim to be more efficient ways of running than the traditional form.
- Kill your legs in the gym. Front squats, cleans, and deadlifts were the lifts we all hated when we were trying to beef up in college, but they’re the ones that will do the most to help you get more power from your legs. There’s an obscure routine called Curtis P’s that I really like because it blends several of these lifts and can help boost endurance.
- Go to a local high school track once a week. If you’ve never done any speedwork before, you’ll likely see big returns on your track workouts almost right from the start.
- You’d have to live in a cave to have missed the swelling barefoot running movement. But it’s not just barefoot—there are all kinds of minimalist shoes to simulate barefoot running. From Vibram Fivefingers to Newtons, it seems every shoe manufacturer is paying more attention to the minimalist running movement. Here’s my experience with minimalist running shoes. (But before you buy in, check out this interesting anti-barefoot site.)
- Are you carrying around some extra weight? As long as you’re not dipping below what’s healthy, you can expect to shave two seconds off every mile for each pound lost. If you were to lose those extra 10 pounds, imagine what mile splits that are 20 seconds faster would do for your motivation to run.
- Our bodies naturally produce some creatine, a compound which helps supply energy to muscle. We can get a lot more of it from meat, but since we’re not about that, supplementing is one option. Supplementing with creatine has been shown to increase strength in athletes, and most people now believe it’s perfectly safe (you should do your own research, of course).
- Heart rate training is a fun way to incorporate biofeedback into your runs. Rather than simply guessing at your threshold training intensity or the proper pace for a long run, for example, you can determine the heart rate zones that correspond to these intensities and shoot to stay in those zones for prescribed amounts of time.
- You don’t see much written about breathing exercises for runners, but I’ve found them to be a great way to pass the time when the miles aren’t ticking off quite as fast as you’d like them to. My favorite is one borrowed from Chi Running—breathe out for three steps, in for two steps. Out for three steps, in for two steps… Another one is described in a post about a 30-mile training run I did.
- Throwing money at the problem isn’t a good habit to be in, but forking over some cash for a good pre- and post-workout drink may help you get out of a rut. Performance benefits aside, I find myself obligated to work out harder because I want to get the most out of what I spent my hard-earned money on. Check out Vega Sport, my favorite pre-workout drink.
- An alternative to #10: You don’t have to buy any expensive products to get what your body needs before, during, and after workouts. With just a little planning and effort, you can make all your running fuel, from drinks to gels to bars.
- Experiment with restricting sugar intake before and during your long runs. New (and old) runners often think sugar = energy, and that’s certainly true. But you can train your body to burn fat for fuel, which lasts much longer since it preserves your glycogen levels. Check out Greg McMillan’s advice on carbohydrate restriction.
- Get tribal. By now, everyone knows about the Tarahumara, Mexico’s tribe of incredible ultrarunners and the subject of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. Try fueling with pinole and chia, making your own huaraches sandals, or running for the pure joy of it like the Tarahumara do.
- Read a great running book. Not another training guide, but a book that will inspire you, a book that will remind you why you dedicate so many hours to this sport. For me, that book was the aforementioned Born to Run. For others, it’s John Parker’s Once a Runner. What’s yours?
- Try speeding up your long runs if you’re targeting a certain time in your race. The idea that your long run pace should be 1-2 minutes slower per mile than your race pace is almost gospel, but many find that running faster better prepares them for race day. Just make sure you’re recovering.
- When people ask me how to avoid shin injuries, something I struggled with for years, the answer I give them is “increase your foot turnover to 180 steps per minute.” It seems fast, but the result is many short, light steps as opposed to fewer heavy ones. And shins that don’t hurt. This is also the turnover rate favored by many of the world’s best runners, so injuries or not, you might find it helps you run faster.
- Update your running playlist. Of all the ideas here, this may the simplest, fastest way to breathe new life into your training schedule.
- Lose your easy run days and cross train instead. If you’re feeling burnt out, physically or mentally, give yourself a break by cycling, swimming, or doing any other low-impact, non-weight-bearing activity. This controversial approach is advocated by the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training in the book Run Less, Run Faster.
- Sign up for a race. We’ve all talked about races we’d like to do this year, only to slack off and forget about them altogether. If you want to drastically increase the chances of your following through to train for a race, sign up. Putting up your money and marking it on your calendar makes it real.
- Find a partner and commit to something. Together. In addition to the companionship and in-this-together-mentality, training with a friend adds one important ingredient—accountability. It’s a lot harder to hit the snooze button when you know you’ll be letting a friend down.
- Running clubs are all over the place. It’s amazing how many people so close to you are even bigger running addicts than you are (and how many great runners there are everywhere). Mine costs 20 bucks a year for the family and puts on a free race almost every week. Can you beat that? Find a runner’s club near you today.
- Find a guru. There are so many coaches who know so much more about running than any of us can ever hope to. For me, Jack Daniels, Pete Pfitzinger, and Greg McMillan come to mind, all of whom have published mounds of tips and training programs.
- If all you ever run is marathons, spend a spring and summer trying to PR in a 5K. Or better yet, a mile. And if you’ve done six half marathons, maybe it’s time to go all the way. Hey, they say if you can run 13 miles, you can run 26, right?
- Eat better. In addition to potentially losing weight, you just might find that eating better makes you want to train harder. Eating like a poor person is my current craze. If you’re really crazy, try this new vegetarian diet thing all these freaks are doing. ;) Thrive is a great place to start.
- If you always run the same route, change it. Completely. Even if you don’t have a GPS, you can plot your route and get the exact mileage at Map My Run or Gmaps Pedometer.
- Run to get someone else in shape. Human beings will do far more for other people than they ever would for themselves, so if you’re having trouble getting out there, make it about someone else. A family member, a friend, a dog. Somebody out there would love to be coached by an experienced runner like yourself.
- Lead a pacegroup. When I made my first serious run at qualifying for Boston, I ran with the 3:10 pace group for as long as I could. I didn’t make it that day, but as I was running, I realized what a tremendous sense of gratitude I felt for the guys leading the group. I can only imagine how great it would feel to help so many people reach their goal. Warning: In order to be a pacer, most races will require that you’ve run several races a good bit faster than the time you’d like to pace.
- Be a volunteer. If injury or some other reason prevents you from running that race you had hoped to, help hand out water or work the finish line at a race. The runners appreciate it, you get inspired, everyone wins.
- Running is such an individual sport, but doing a relay is way to make it about the team. Try the popular multi-day Ragnar Relays—I mean, what’s not to love about 200 miles and 6 to 12 people crammed into a couple of vans for a few days?
- Sooner or later it seems everyone gets the itch to do a triathlon. If you’re feeling like you need something to mix up your routine a little bit, maybe now’s the time to make it happen. Check out Susan’s tips on making the transition from runner to triathlete.
- Want to enjoy running, run longer before you get tired, and get injured less? Then slow down for a few weeks. Like, by a minute or two per mile. Nobody ever said running had to be about racing.
- Run for a cause. Team in Training is the big one, but there are plenty of others, like Team Vegan. And there’s a side called Crowdrise that allows you to raise money for any cause, like this runner is doing for Farm Sanctuary.
- Join DailyMile. It’s Facebook meets Twitter meets your running journal. And the people there are awesome.
- Study the mental game of running. Matt Fitzgerald’s Brain Training for Running is one that’s on my list of to-reads.
- Ultramarathons seem to scare a lot of people. If you’re thinking about running one but aren’t sure about it, crew for somebody running one. Chances are you’ll be able to run with them for some leg of the race, but check the rules of the specific race. You’ll get a feel for just how long an ultra is and what running trails is like if you’ve never done that. And there’s nothing like helping someone do something incredible to make you want to do it yourself.
- If it’s nagging injuries that are keeping you down, try foam rolling. It’ll soften muscle tissue and help reduce the likelihood of injury. It hurts like hell at first, but eventually it feels like a hard massage. If you want to try it without plunking down 20 bucks for a foam roller at Target, you can use a tennis ball to hit several trigger points and see how “great” it feels.
- Kill the hill! Find a long hill that’ll take you three or four minutes to run hard up. When you get there, turn around and run back down slowly, for five minutes. Repeat four to eight times.
- Get into Parkour. I’m hesitant to call this running, and it’s sort of weird, but I must say I’m fascinated by Parkour, the art of traversing terrain (buildings and all) as efficiently as possible. I’ve never tried it, but it’d be a pretty badass form of cross-training. Check out this comprehensive Parkour beginner’s guide from Nerd Fitness, if for no other reason than to be entertained for a few minutes by the video.
- Run at night. Okay, be careful with this one, as it requires reflective gear, running with a partner, and a headlamp. But there’s no reason to restrict your running to the daytime, especially if you have a safe place to run that’s mostly free of traffic. Any night running I’ve done has been on trails, and always in a group, so that’s all I can recommend.
- Core training has become a bit of a cliche. But there’s no doubt it works and can make you a stronger runner, especially if you run trails, which requires a wider variety of movements than does road running. I personally like the Core Performance books, including their Endurance and Essentials programs, for their focus on form, efficiency, and the ability to do the exercises without joining a gym.
- Be a numbers nerd—there’s tons of data you can use to measure your progress and help you train better. Time, speed, distance, elevation change, heart rate, calories burned, all of which can be measured or estimated with a single device on your wrist nowadays. What’s more motivating than seeing your progress in cold, hard numbers?
- Some people have this idea that you can only race a few times per year or season. While it’s true that if you’re looking for PR’s in longer distances, you should probably only race every few months, there’s no reason a fit runner can’t do a lot of long races each year. So if you’re looking for a change, plan a race every month or even a race every week, depending on your fitness level.
- Try bigger shoes. Stu Mittleman, an American ultrarunner who once ran 1000 miles in less than 12 days, claims that the vast majority of people run in shoes that are way too small, often by one or two sizes! Mittleman says your toes should be a full thumb-width from the front of your shoes. Some of Stu’s ideas are a little out there, but if you’re not getting the results you want or you’re having foot problems, it’s worth a try.
- If you always run for miles, run for time. If you always run for time, run for miles.
- Meditate while you run. Several books on meditation (not running) mention that exercise is an ideal time for meditating because of the repetitive movement, lack of distraction, and ability to focus on simple things while you run. Leo at Zen Habits has a great post on Zen running; try it during your next long run and you find yourself with two hours to spare.
- Yet another way to add variety to your long run: Make it a progressive run, one in which your speed gradually increases as you get further into the run. Running Planet has a good post about different types of progressive runs.
- Try being a minimalist runner. In addition to getting a pair of minimalist shoes, ditch the watch, Garmin, heart rate monitor, iPod, everything. Enjoy.
- Find a way to race a person, not just a clock. You can just pick some rando in front of you on your next run, but I promise you it’s much more fun if they know about it.
- Watch a great running movie. Two that make me want to lace up my shoes: Spirit of the Marathon and Running the Sahara.
- Run every day for a month. Jack Daniels says that when you’re so tired you want to stop running, try running faster. When I was in a funk last year and didn’t feel like running, I tried running every day to break out of it. Another interesting idea: Blaine from Run to Win suggested running one mile the first day, two the second day, three the third day, and so on for as long as possible. Hey, at least the first week is easy!
- Become a superhero. I love this idea from Nerd Fitness: Create a persona, complete with name, attitude, goal, theme song, and (optionally) costume. When it’s time to train, be that character. Go crazy with it! You don’t have to tell anyone.
- Don’t ignore your upper body. While a lot of muscle mass with eventually slow you down, strength can only help. Rather than heavy bench presses or bicep curls, try bodyweight exercises like those in the (free) 100 Pushups and 50 Pullups programs.
- Try compression gear. Compression socks work amazingly well at keeping your legs and feet from getting sore on long runs. I’ve noticed little benefit from compression shorts, however.
- Create while you run. Whether you’re an artist, a student, or a businessperson, it’s worth it to try brainstorming about a project during your next mid-length run. Many find that their focus and creativity are heightened after 20 to 30 minutes of relaxed running. For me, a little bit of caffeine from green tea or yerba mate helps the process along.
- It’s not really my thing, but a lot of runners like to listen to a running podcast during their long runs. RunningPodcasts.org has a directory of what must be 100 different ones to choose from and subscribe to.
- Work short speed intervals into your normal runs. While the term “speedwork” might be intimidating to some, it doesn’t have to be. You don’t even need to go to the track. Simply run at near-sprint pace for 30-second or 1-minute intervals, depending on what you can handle, with 2- to 3-minute rests in between. As you get stronger, increase the interval length and decrease the rest.
- Any decent running store will offer group runs on certain nights of the week. Usually they attract runners of a variety of fitness levels, so you’ll almost certainly find someone to run with.
- If you’re one of the select few in this world whose idea of a perfect vacation involves lots of running, why not plan a trip around it? Your running vacation could be as simple as a destination race, or as involved as a two-week running tour of an island or country.
- Confession: I once bought an outfit specifically to wear for a marathon. I was going to qualify for Boston that day (I didn’t), and I wanted to look good doing it (I did, I think). But you know what? Having that outfit added to my excitement about the big day. If you have a big race coming up, get yourself something nice to run it in. Just make sure you wear it at least once beforehand, to make sure it’s comfortable.
- Runners, especially ultrarunners, like to celebrate the end of hard run (or the start, I’ve seen it) with a cold beer. The two go together great, and there are lots of “drinking clubs with a running problem” out there. Check out Beer Runner, a blogger for Draft Magazine who posts about this match made in heaven.
- Try walking. Former Olympian Jeff Galloway popularized the walk/run method, in which runners take short walk breaks (usually a minute or less) every few minutes or miles, depending on speed and fitness. While it might seem wimpy and is arguably better for first-time marathoners, Galloway claims that many marathoners have broken three hours for the first time by implementing a walk/run plan.
- Find a great running blog. I’ve made it easy for you: Follow the links in this post and you’ll find lots of them. Or, better yet, start your own.
63 is a lot, but that can’t be them all. What’s your favorite way to mix things up?
This post is part of a series of posts designed to teach you how to run long and strong. Go check out the rest!
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