How to Finally Enjoy Running: The Non-Runner’s Ultimate Guide

Enjoy Running v4

Runner or non-runner, whichever you call yourself, I’ve been there. And I think I’ve finally figured out that whole label thing.

When running is fun — when, even when it’s hard, it comes easy — that’s when you feel like a runner.

But most of the time, for most of us, it doesn’t flow like that. It’s a chore, a discipline. A struggle that’s worth it, but a struggle nonetheless. Those times, we don’t feel like runners.

If you’re the former — a runner, all the time — you don’t need this post. Go run because running is fun for you, for its own sake, no other reason necessary. And know that the rest of us envy you, and wish it could be that way for us.

But if you’re not always that runner, today you’re in the right place. I’ve been on both the winning and the losing side of the daily battle to get the miles in. And when it’s working — when it’s actually and truly fun to run (words I never thought I’d say) — here’s what makes it so.

The Two Schools of Running Fun

When the miles come easy, it’s for one of two reasons:

  1. A powerful, obsession-worthy goal, or
  2. An interest in the mind-body bliss that running (when done right) offers.

I’ll go into detail about each, but first, the common element they share.

Frazier’s First Rule for Enjoying Running: Slow the f*&# down. Way down.

If all you know of running is running fast, then you don’t know running. You know gym class mile-run torture, and almost nobody (not even runners) thrive on that kind of pain.

If you’re having trouble running consistently, just slow down. Think of your task as movement, rather than running. If you’re used to running 9-minute miles, run 11-minute miles one day. Walk when you want to. Like a kid, run for short bursts now and then, just because it’s feels good.

Even in the course of more serious training, you can’t run hard most the time. Fully 80 percent of my miles are at conversational pace, meaning I can carry on a conversation without difficulty while I run. Another sign to look for: if you’re terrified of seeing someone you know because you’re going so slowly, you’re doing it right.

Running slowly makes it more comfortable, more enjoyable in the moment. And tomorrow, when it’s time to do it again, all of a sudden it doesn’t seem so bad.

For a slightly more scientific treatise on the benefits of running slowly, check out the Maffetone Method, by Phil Maffetone, MD.

With that understood, let’s look at the two different ways to enjoy running.

Fun Running Approach #1: A Powerful, ‘Unreasonable’ Goal

You know that distance in your head that you’d like to run, and probably could if you could just stick to the training? Good.

Try doubling it, and see what happens.

When I talk about compelling goals, this is what I mean. The goal that’s so out there, so incredible, that to imagine the type of person you’d need to be to achieve it makes your palms sweat.

This isn’t the place for a goal-setting workshop (though we’re doing that in the NMA Academy this month). But check out other posts I’ve written about goals if you’ve never dared to let yourself think that big.

That shift alone can be life-changing. And all of a sudden, because the end result is fascinating and attractive, the (literal) steps to get there become a lot more enjoyable. (Not very Zen to focus on the end result, perhaps, but that’s why there’s also an approach #2.)

As for the nuts and bolts of the goal-oriented approach to running …

Get Inspired: Read a running book that gets your mind spinning with fantasies. Born to Run is the modern classic for running inspiration, but Scott Jurek’s Eat & Run rekindled the flame for me and, in hindsight, marked the beginning of my finally making a 100-miler happen.

Movies can be even more powerful. I’ve always liked The Spirit of the Marathon, and used to watch it the night before every race. I haven’t seen the sequel, but it’s on my list. There’s also Running the Sahara and Unbreakable, and lots of new ones, including the shorter Finding Strong.

Train: By finding a proper plan to help you achieve what you’re seeking. Chances are, someone has done it before.

At No Meat Athlete we have programs for running your first marathon, half marathon, or triathlon. Run Your BQ will help you get to Boston. For ultras, Doug has Discover Your Ultramarathon and Bryon Powell has Relentless Forward Progress. There’s no shortage of books and programs out there to help you do whatever it is you’re going after, so save yourself the frustrations of trial and error and let someone who has done it guide you.

Tools: It’s running, so you don’t need much. But with the powerful-goal approach, where you’re not necessarily out there to soak your surroundings, certain toys will help keep it interesting.

  • iPod — I’m big on audiobooks and podcasts, but most people like music. Be smart about headphones and traffic.
  • GPS — if data is your thing. Accountability has been shown to help with habits, so logging your miles and making friends on a social media community where you upload your workouts can help keep you motivated.
  • Foam roller — if your plan has you doing anything other than easy runs, get a foam roller to massage your muscles and help prevent injury. These things are amazing, and simple too.
  • Shoes — obviously. You can get lost in the discussions about which shoe is best, but if you’ve never run seriously for any amount of time, go to a real running store and let them suggest something. But don’t leave the store in a pair of shoes that doesn’t feel fantastic on your feet with lots of room for your toes. If you’re between two sizes, get the bigger one.

Focus on:

  • Whatever you’re listening to, to the pass the time
  • Visualizing yourself achieving your goal (I did this over and over when I was working to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and sometimes I did it with such intensity that my eyes would tear up. Weird, but I got there, and I think this helped)
  • Taking 180 steps per minute. Good Form Running has a few other simple keys, but if you can only focus on one, make it 180.

Go deeper:

You’ll find running how-to everywhere; my favorite sites are Runner’s World and Strength Running.

My No Meat Athlete posts tend to focus on how to get (and stay) motivated:

Fun Running Approach #2: The Mind-Body Experience

Given the choice, I prefer the psychotic, obsessive chasing of a crazy goal for motivation. But when you’re feeling burnt out (not merely bored), there’s a second approach that can work to get you back on the roads. For me, several months of what I call “mind-body” running have several times preceded a period of intense focus and heavy training towards a goal — I think of this approach as a sort of goal incubator.

With this approach, you don’t care how many miles you log in a week. You ignore paces and splits, and run always at conversational pace, perhaps letting your breathing pattern dictate your pace.

You meditate, if you wish. You let your mind wander (for which the slow pace is definitely conducive). You try not to listen to music, but rather to your breathing, the birds, and any other sounds that exist in this present moment, right here and right now.

And when you return from a run, you feel more energetic than when you left.

Get Inspired: Bar none, my favorite book for this type of running is Body, Mind, and Sport, by John Douillard. Running & Being might be a good companion, too, even if a little headier. Other runners have enjoyed Running with the Mind of Meditation, but I got more out of applying the techniques of Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness to my running. Stu Mittleman’s Slow Burn, while more fitness-motivated and slightly off the wall in places, would also serve to inspire a period of easy, wholesome, mind-body running. And no list like this would be complete without Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman.

Train: The simplest shift, for me, is that from focusing on miles to focusing on time. Or even doing away with your watch entirely and just running for however long it feels right.

If you need more structure than that, which I usually do, try a small-steps approach borrowed from habit formation techniques: start with 5 minutes (if that’s too much, do 2 — just get out there) each day for the first week. Take a day off if you need it, but with so little and such relaxed running, it might not be necessary. The next week, do 10 minutes a day, or a smaller amount if 10 is too much. Then 15, 20, 25, and so on, until you reach the point where it’s boring or overly fatiguing.

(This, by the way, is how I started the only significant runstreak I’ve ever done — I started with 20 minutes and increased each week 5 minutes. I went about 75 consecutive days, stopping the increases when my runs reached an hour or so.)

Tools: Really, the less the better here. I’ve found a heart monitor to be useful for learning my body’s training zones, but when you’re only running easy, you can make sure you’re running easy enough by manually taking your pulse. (65-70 percent of max heart rate is where most slow-running advocates suggest you stay, though the formulas can get much more complicated.)

And if you’re curious about minimalist running, this is probably the best time to try it. Not only does less shoe help you stay in touch with the surface you’re running on; the low intensity of these runs makes discomfort less an issue and injury less likely.

Focus on:

  • Your breath (nasal breathing is way more fascinating than it sounds; also useful is to measure your breathing by steps and gradually lengthen each breath)
  • The present moment
  • A mantra
  • Nothing, or the space between your thoughts
  • An image like “lifting your feet only enough for the earth to pass under them,” or “holding butterflies in your hands” (Stu Mittleman has lots of ideas like these)

Go Deeper:

Pick One and Make It Happen

It would be great if running came easy all the time. To love running so much that you need it, that your day isn’t complete without it.

But so many of us don’t feel that way about running, at least not most of the time. I sense that’s where all the “I’m not a real runner” feelings come from.

And so I propose an alternative: Just like you can be a baseball fan when it’s summer, but forget by Christmas who won the World Series, you can be a runner when you’re having fun running. In between those periods, be something else, and be okay with that.

But if you’ll be intentional about how and why you’re running — with an approach like one of these to help you get over the hurdle of starting — don’t be surprised if you find yourself being a runner just a little bit more often.

Note: Lots of the links to books and movies here are affiliate links. It says that in the sidebar, but with so many in this post, I thought I’d point it out.

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Comments

  1. After having one of the worst runs of my life today I *really* needed to read this. I typically run for both reasons but I’ve been so focused on speed it’s not fun anymore. Living in Florida means I need to really scale back this summer as I prepare for marathon #3 this fall. Thank you for this reminder!

  2. Great post! As a new runner, I love all these tips!

  3. Such a great post.I’ve bookmarked it for ever. I am a vegetarian and just started running about a month back. I was looking for resources on non meat eating runner and came across your website and i am so thankful to it. You have lots of great posts and i’ll enjoy exploring it. Thanks

  4. Michelle Dukes says:

    I may not ALWAYS want to go running, so I focus on how I will feel once I am done to get me going. I have found that doing so motivates me to go, once I am going I actually DO enjoy it, this is strange for me as I am quite possibly the laziest person alive. I say whatever makes you want to do it, then focus on that, people can be judgmental and you can only live for yourself.

  5. I couldn’t agree more with the “slow down” advice. Since I started putting in the majority (80%) of my miles at a low intensity, I’ve noticed that I enjoy running a LOT more. Oddly enough, my run times have improved since I started running more miles at low intensity. I enjoyed your post again, Matt.

  6. Great post Matt! Even as an experienced ultra-runner, it reminded me of why I love running.

  7. Suzie Myers says:

    Well, what a timely post. When a local running guru asked me 10 days ago if I liked running, I went, “Ehh.” But I’m one of those who likes the results. BUT today! Wow, I held a steady, slow pace, ran the whole distance, and loved loved loved it. Recovered in a couple of minutes and have felt great all day. Amazing. From day 1, I’ve felt like a runner but today I fell like someone who loves running.

  8. Victoria says:

    Thanks for your honesty Matt, I really appreciate it and I think a lot of other people do too – it’s easy to feel guilty if you don’t
    ‘love’ running and people are always surprised when I say that lots of times I hate it. One thing you can’t do anything about is
    ageing (sorry aging, US) – your body just goes slower and that is a hard one to beat. Becomes more like maintenance than
    improving – or fending off old age and mortality! In any case, thanks again for your honesty – it’s really needed and appreciated.

  9. Matt, thanks for this post. I love the results of running but have always had a hard time pacing myself. Then at some point I started to align my steps with my breaths. It allowed me to “zone out” while running. I am beginning to love running. It is needed “me” time.

  10. Margaret Becker says:

    Elton John – I’m Still Standing. 177

  11. Excellent post.

    I used to be such an avid runner, but stopped when i began getting more into strength training.

    Now that its been so long it feels like im learning all over again.

    These are great things to keep in mind when trying to gain the willpower to get going.

  12. Richard Benson says:

    Love your post !! whats the difference in between running outside and running on tread mill like someone said to me running outside will give you better results etc…i was so confused ..

  13. Thanks for this lovely post, Matt! I also sometimes forget to slow down. I just keep pushing myself until I ran out of breath. Reminds me of the saying, take time to smell the flowers. When I think of it, it’s really about how you go through the journey and not always about the finish line.

Trackbacks

  1. […] finished writing this, a new post from a blog I follow called No Meat Athlete landed in my inbox: How to enjoy running (and how to get over feeling like you’re not a Real Runner). It’s worth a […]

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