Just as with food, I like to keep things simple when it comes to running.
Sure, complicated and specific workouts have their place in serious training, but that’s probably 5 percent of the total effort.
The other 95 percent comes down to basics — simple practices that are easy to understand and apply, but that have a major impact. And not just on how you perform, but on how much you enjoy running.
And that last part is important.
I didn’t start running until I was in college, because up until that point I hated it. Hated the mile in gym class, hated running in practice for sports, hated the five-minute warmup on a treadmill before lifting weights. I know that a lot of others don’t enjoy running, or find it really hard, and I want to help you change that.
So if I had to list just 7 simple keys — what I consider the most essential steps to enjoying running, avoiding injury, and becoming stronger as a runner — what would they be?
1. Find a goal that really inspires you.
You can call this one fluffy if you want, but it’s crucial. Running, for its own sake, just isn’t that much fun at first. Once your body learns to do it well, it can be a relaxing, meditative, invigorating, and yes, fun. But not at first.
I didn’t stop hating running until I signed up for a marathon (and even then, I had never run more than three miles). It was still hard and not much fun, but now I had a reason to do it.
How do you know what goal to choose? Personally, I’m most inspired by goals that seem unrealistic at first. Not everyone’s that way, I know, but I’d urge you not to shy away from a goal just because it’s a reach. A lot of times, that’s the one that will motivate you the most.
2. Slow down.
Gym class taught us that running should be fast. You’ll be timed, and if you’re slow, the other kids will snicker at you.
That’s why so many people hate running. They think they have to run fast.
My advice is to slow down by a minute, or even two, per mile from what you normally run. This will free your mind to focus on things other than “damn, this hurts,” and you might experience a little of that runner’s high you hear about.
Finish your run feeling not tired, but energized. If you’re so inspired, run a little further than you could before.
And when it’s time to do it again, you’ll be excited instead of dreading it.
3. Take 180 steps every minute (90 per leg).
I give people this “180 steps” tip so often that I’m beginning to feel like a one-trick pony. But it’s that important.
It’s this piece of advice that generates more “holy crap, thank you!” emails than any other. And for me, it was the single most important thing I did to win my four-year battle with shin splints and stress fractures.
It sounds complicated, but it’s not. I’ve written in more detail about how to do it here, but in the simplest possible terms:
Run so that you hear three footstrikes each second.
If you’ve never thought about it before, 180 is probably way faster than you normally turn your legs over. It’ll be uncomfortable at first, since you’ll have to take shorter steps and use muscles that aren’t conditioned. But after a few weeks, it’ll become second nature, and the benefits of these smaller, lighter steps will show themselves in your durability.
And if you normally experience pain when you run, you might even notice an improvement from the very first run like this. Lots of people tell me that’s what happens when they try it.
4. Run trails.
Real ones. In the woods, unpaved, with rocks, roots, streams, and mud.
Every step is different. You have to move laterally, so you strengthen supporting muscles.
You can’t open up the long, careless stride that comes crashing down on your heel (causing injury over time) like you can on roads. Instead, you’ve got to keep your feet under your body, and take small, quick steps.
And there are more hills, which serve as built-in strength training, and sometimes, welcome walk breaks.
Oh yeah, and you get dirty.
For an introduction to trail running, check out my first guest post on Zen Habits.
5. For runs over 45 minutes or an hour, you need to take in some nutrition.
A few weeks ago, I would have thought this was too obvious to mention.
But in just that time, multiple people have approached me with the same issue: “I attempted my first 10-mile run, but after about 7 miles, I crashed.”
You crashed because your muscles ran out of fuel. The body can only store enough for an hour and a half or so of running, and when it runs low, your brain shuts your body down to save what’s left so that it can continue to function.
So get yourself a handheld bottle and carry along a sports drink when your runs start to get long. Solid food or gel works too — and we created our own whole food approach to workout fuel — but don’t forget you still need water.
For more, check out a post I wrote about what to eat while you run.
6. Alternate hard workouts with easy ones.
People seem to grasp the idea that your muscles need time to recover after you lift weights. For some reason, they think that rule doesn’t apply to running.
It takes time to recover from a hard workout. When you do a speed workout, a hill workout, a tempo run, or a long run, your legs and your heart (a muscle) need time to rebuild. That’s how you get stronger.
So the day after a workout like this, you can still run if you want, but make it very easy. I mean extremely easy: if you’re worried people will make fun of you because you’re barely moving, that’s probably about the right pace.
Otherwise, all those hard workouts go to waste.
7. Keep at it.
If there’s a secret ninja tactic to getting drastically more efficient as a runner — and as a result, faster — then it’s a pretty lame one.
Run. Run some more. Run some more.
Do you ever notice how experienced runners, even those who aren’t in great shape, can just pick up and run 10 miles or a marathon when they want to?
With every step you take, your body is learning to run. This is why, when in other sports athletes usually peak in their mid-20’s, it’s not uncommon to see 30-something, 40-something, and 50-something runners winning long-distance races.
Each time you run, your brain becomes better at recruiting just the right muscle fibers, to keep you moving forward with as little effort as possible.
Your body becomes more efficient at burning its stored fat for fuel, instead of relying on dirty-burning sugar which needs to be constantly replenished. (As Brendan Brazier points out, the most elite of marathoners don’t take in anything but water and electrolytes during their races.)
And as these adaptations happen, running gets easier. You can run longer and faster with the same amount of effort as before.
And then one day, you realize that this thing you used to hate has somehow become fun. 🙂