Back in May, after two months of almost no exercise, I decided it was time to start running again.
I didn’t have a goal, but I knew I had to get back out there. Running was one in a string of changes I decided to make in my life, having been armed (finally) with the skills of habit change and elated to see one change after another actually sticking.
Starting a running streak wasn’t my intention. But from what I had learned about how the brain forms the grooves that become our habits, it seemed that running every day was a surer way to success than taking even one day off each week.
Besides, I wasn’t training for anything, so what did I have to lose?
Fifty days later, that streak is still going strong. I started small, with just 20 easy minutes each day. Each week, I added 10 minutes to the daily run until it got to 70 minutes, at which point I’ve started to transition to more traditional training (but still running every day).
As running streaks go, 50 days isn’t anything to write home about — I have a friend who ran for 12 years straight, and I’ve read of people doing twice that or more.
But for me, it’s new, and having a streak to nurture has breathed fresh air into running. And the effectiveness of the method itself — at getting me moving again, but also at helping me understand what it really means to be a runner — has been incredible.
I’m writing this post to share my rediscovered enthusiasm, and (I hope) to inspire a few people who have never considered what a streak might do for their dedication to running. And, no exaggeration here, for their lives.
Quick Note: After writing this post in 2012, it has gone on to become one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written. This, is, I believe, because so many runners find themselves in the same situation as I was — unmotivated and desperate to rediscover a (seemingly) lost passion for running. Before I share the 50 lessons I learned throughout the streak, I’ve asked Doug, NMA Radio co-host and resident running coach, to add the who and how of run streaks, to help you decide if “going streaking” is right for you.
So Doug, take it away:
Should You Start a Run Streak?
Like Matt, I see a ton of value in starting a run streak. A few years ago I had one going myself, which lasted 442 days leading up to a massive group run on my wedding day.
But I’ve also seen them get in the way, or have an adverse effect on some runners. If you’re interested in starting a run streak, start by asking yourself this:
“How does a streak fit with my current running goals?”
It’s an important question because the streak could be a constant source of motivation, or it could turn into a distraction. It might build endurance and base strength, or instead take away precious rest days from an intense training program.
See what I mean? As a general rule, if you’re just starting or in the middle of a training cycle that leads up to a big running goal, I recommend you put the streak off for now.
So who is the run streak for?
Everyone else, really. But there are a few situations where I believe the value shines most:
- If you feel unmotivated or uninspired with your running, a run streak can be just the boost of excitement you need (just ask Matt).
- If you struggle with consistency in your training, a streak will get you out the door … every single day.
- If you need an extra push to build a solid endurance base, a run streak can provide the platform.
Fall into one of those categories? Great. Let’s talk about how to go about starting one.
5 Rules of a Smart Run Streak
The run streak concept is simple — run every single day — and really, that’s all you need to know.
But after going through one myself, and watching several coaching clients streak (run streak, that is), I’ve developed a few rules for whenever someone asks about how to start one:
- Keep the minimum run small. For me it was 10 minutes or a mile. Matt set his at 20 minutes. Over time you can increase the minimum, but make sure it remains approachable on a daily basis.
- Don’t run the minimum distance very often. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of running just what you have to and call it a day, but your short distance should be used sparingly on days when you wouldn’t run otherwise.
- Set an end date. You can always extend it after you race that day, but having a date — maybe 30, 50, 100, or 365 days down the road — will keep you motivated on the days you’re struggling to get out the door.
- Push through the tough days. Do you think I wanted to run the morning after my bachelor party? No, I definitely did not. Nor did I want to run the day after a 50-mile ultramarathon. But that’s part of the streak, and to get the most out of it, you can’t give up on the first day you don’t feel like running.
- Stop when you need to. Not because you’re tired or cold, but because either 1) you’ve come to hate the streak, and staying with it would make you hate running, or 2) you fear that moving forward will risk injury.
That’s it. That’s all you need to know. The run streak is a simple yet powerful tool to jumpstart your running and training.
And with that, let’s go back to Matt and his rediscovered passion for running (plus 9 bonus lessons I learned from my own streak):
50 Things I Learned During a 50-day Running Streak
1. I finally understand those “Running is Cheaper than Therapy” t-shirts. The difference in my mood before and after my run is so noticeable that my wife has several times suggested (on certain, grumpy mornings) that I make today an early run day. And rightly so.
2. You can dramatically lower your breath rate (and as a result, your heart rate) if you learn to breathe through your nose and focus on taking more steps per breath.
3. If you don’t have the same trigger for your run every day (waking up, lunchtime, etc.), it’s easy to forget, and find yourself running at dusk to keep the streak going.
4. On that note, running hills right after dinner is a terrible idea.
5. You can go from zero motivation to full-on, can’t-think-about-anything-else mode in only two weeks or so. The key, for me, was inspiring reading and using the tools of habit change to get started.
6. The 10% rule really doesn’t matter much.
7. Hiking up hills can be a much better exercise than struggling to run up them, especially if you’re training for a trail race where you’ll have to hike.
8. You’re more likely to feel the steep downhills than the steep uphills the next day, so be mindful and step lightly.
10. You don’t need music to run. I used to think I did, but paying attention to your breathing is far more interesting.
11. All these years when I’ve told myself I “need” a day or two off each week for recovery, it’s been nothing more than an excuse. I’m not saying a day off is bad, by any means. But if you really wanted to run every day (and don’t have some special circumstance that prevents it) you could.
12. Start small (really small) and have patience, and you’ll be far more likely to stick with it than if you go balls to wall out of the gate. I started with just 20 minutes a day for the first week. For some people, 5 minutes might be even better.
13. Running is a perfectly good time to meditate.
14. About 15 minutes after you finish running, I’ve found, is even better.
15. When you have an everyday habit, you can use it as your reminder, or trigger, for other habits. For example, I started spending the last 5 minutes of each run, while I’m breathing slow and cooling down, to remind myself of all the things I’m grateful for.
16. You can get by with three pairs of running shorts if you do laundry once a week, by washing them in shower with you after your run. After one shower wash, though, the funk becomes impervious to anything but the heavy artillery.
17. I’ve always been insecure about wearing tanktops, but I got over it. They’re so much cooler in the heat.
18. For runs of under about 45 minutes, it doesn’t really matter whether you wear fancy moisture-wick running clothes. An old t-shirt, gym shorts, and even cotton socks work just fine.
19. Running for time requires less planning and is less stressful than running for distance. Not as fun to log your minutes as it is your miles, though.
20. Blister Shield is your undercarriage’s friend for the first few weeks back to running, especially if you’re not taking days off. (Anybody know if it’s vegan-friendly?)
21. The less you run with food and water, the less you start to need it. (I suggest doing this gradually though, instead of attempting carb-depleted runs. For me, it has just happened naturally because I never like carrying stuff with me.)
22. There’s a ton of stuff about running form that you don’t know if you’ve never paid very close attention to your body. But I’m not sure that it all matters, if you just pay attention to a few things.
23. Fifty days is plenty of time to make big changes to your physique and body composition. I’m shocked that easy running (with some hills mixed in) and three sets of bodyweight exercises each day has done what it has for me.
24. Running every day for a year would be an accomplishment to be proud of.
25. Doing it in a manner that gets you across the country (and it needn’t take a whole year) would be far more awesome. I read Marshall Ulrich’s Running on Empty a few weeks ago and I got to thinking.
26. You don’t smell nearly as bad when an easy run in the heat makes you sweat, compared to a hard workout in any weather.
27. Don’t think of hills as an enemy that you need to overcome. Appreciate them as a part of the experience and enjoy them. (I got this tip from Running with the Mind of Meditation.)
28. Likewise with the jogging stroller. I used to hate it and refused to run with it — I’ve realized now that as long as I keep decent form, it makes for great hill-hike workouts. And it’s a nice way to spend uninterrupted time with my son and give my wife a break.
29. The jogging stroller is also a wonderful place to dispense cheesy life lessons that even Danny Tanner would be proud of. Endorphins are flowing, your audience is captive, and it’s fun to talk to somebody who will repeat every word you say in his own little voice.
30. Cold apple juice after a hard run in the heat tastes better than any beer ever has.
31. Seeing a bear with her cubs one time has rendered me permanently unable to relax when I run in the woods.
32. I’m lucky to live in Asheville, NC, an amazing place for running (even if there are bears, snakes, and roosters in my neighborhood).
33. Action, plain and simple, is often the antidote to a lack of motivation. I wasn’t very motivated to run when I decided to start this, but once I got a little streak going (thanks to starting small), I came to love running again.
35. Having a streak can itself be your source of motivation. A dozen or so of my 50 runs have happened after dinner as the sun is going down — I’m positive that without this little streak, on those days I would have lazily settled on, “Oh well, I probably needed a day off, and besides, there’s always tomorrow.”
36. For as beneficial as that is, there’s also the downside: if keeping the streak alive is important to you, you have to run even when doing so is just silly. I’ve had to go out in downpours once or twice to get my run in. Good that I ran, I guess, but under normal circumstances I’d have stayed inside and been perfectly happy with the decision.
37. When you’re relaxed, there is a space between an exhalation of breath and the inhalation that follows it. If you pay attention to this pause and note when it disappears, it’s easy to see exactly when your “easy” pace has become no longer easy. (Thanks to Body, Mind, and Sport for this idea.)
38. I wear the same five running shirts all the time. Why have I been holding onto 15 of them, including duplicates of the exact same shirt that I don’t even wear one of?
39. Instead of a heart rate monitor, you can use your breathing to govern your training paces.
40. The best place to run on Hilton Head Island is not the beach or the bike paths, but the Nature Preserve. Just in case you’re headed there on vacation this summer.
41. Every once in a while (or maybe a lot more than that) you need to screw whatever plans you had for the day’s run and just go hard, or long, or do whatever feels right.
42. There’s no feeling like letting go when the rain starts pouring on you in the middle of your run.
43. Your body acclimates quickly to the heat and if you just tough out those first few runs in it, running when it’s hot will become more comfortable.
44. Badwater sounded like a great long-term goal until I went for a run on the beach while I was on vacation in Hilton Head. No shade and 100+ degree temperatures made for a brutal 10 miles, much less 135 of them … and I hear they don’t even give you an ocean in Death Valley!
45. I need to start routinely running in the mornings, so that the run is finished and isn’t on my mind as another to-do item all day long.
46. Although I’m far from a barefooter and never really got into running in Five Fingers, these 50 days have taught me how much I prefer shoes like the Green Silence and Minimus to traditional shoes. Every once in a while I’ll put on my New Balance 890’s, to mix it up a little or because my feet could use a break, but the experience just isn’t the same when you can step on a rock without feeling a thing.
47. This is the longest I’ve gone without even a nagging injury, in spite of taking no off days for the first time in my life. I suspect this is because I haven’t done any speed workouts or long runs — I’ve run mostly easy pace, for a steadily increasing amount of time each week, mixing in some hills and tempo runs now and then. If you’re always getting injured, maybe it’s not less running you need, but easier running.
48. This streak has caused me to drink less alcohol. A lot of times I like to have a beer (or two) with dinner, or perhaps while I’m cooking. But if I haven’t done my run by then, well, I skip the beer.
49. A daily run is the perfect trigger for a quick set of pushups, situps, pullups, or whatever you choose. These things are so easy to do, and so easy not to do. Running every day has helped me to remember to do them.
50. This has been way too good, for both my body and mind, to stop at 50 days. I guess it’s 100 or bust!
9 Bonus Lessons From Doug’s Run Streak
51. I often find myself obsessing over the tracking of each run on my GPS … “if it’s not recorded it didn’t happen.” My run streak broke that habit, and freed me up from constantly checking splits and distance.
52. When you run every single day, early morning runs become a must. And you know what? It’s not that bad after you start waking up early for a week or two. (Plus I rather like seeing the sun rise over the mountains!)
53. When each run is structured by a plan, it’s difficult to embrace spontaneity. Running every day becomes more about going for a run than what that run looks like, and gave me an opportunity to ditch the plan and go where and how fast I want.
54. Great fitness comes when I’m enjoying myself, and the lack of a watch, spontaneous routes, and new freedom within the confines of the streak brought back much of that enjoyment.
55. You can run the day after an ultramarathon, even when you don’t want to.
56. During the winter, start your run with the clothes you’ll need at mile three, not mile one. It’s better to start cold than to overheat after warming up.
57. A run will never be as cold, wet, or terrible as you think before you start.
58. Commuting by run, either home from work, to a friend’s house, or while running errands, saves time and makes something as mundane as your commute into an adventure.
59. You never regret going for a run.
The irony of commitment …
If you made it this far — and I don’t expect many will — then there must be something about all of this that intrigues and inspires you. In that case, I say go for it!
If you run for a week and decide you hate it, you can always stop. But if you’re like me, I bet you’ll find something like what that Anne Morris quote you might have seen on a Starbucks cup says:
The irony of commitment is that it’s deeply liberating — in work, in play, in love. The act frees you from the tyranny of your internal critic, from the fear that likes to dress itself up and parade around like rational hesitation. To commit is to remove your head as the barrier to your life.
Why not start your own commitment today?