7 Remarkably Simple Ways to Become a Stronger Runner (and Maybe Even Enjoy It)

Welcome, Zen Habits readers! NMA readers, I hope you’ll check out my recent guest post on Zen Habits, called 5 Excuses that Keep You Unhealthy.

Running made easy

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?

Well, these.

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).

As ultrarunning great Scott Jurek says of running form in Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour Body, “If you focus on higher stride rate, much of the rest corrects itself.”

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, 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 half 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. πŸ™‚



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  1. Matt,

    Interesting post. I would also add “Aside from shoes, don’t worry about gear”. There have been people running sub 3 marathons before all the special poly-pro shirts were even a concept. In fact, if you look at picture of the original olympic marathon, it appears as they are dressed in wool.

    Use gym shorts, regular tshirts and get yourself a pair of cross trainers when you start. No matter what any brainwashed running shoes place says, you really don’t need fancy running shoes for 15 miles/week. It’s more important that you develop proper running habits like the 90/strides per minute. Even with the fancy shoes, expect 1 injury during 3-6 months and another one during the 12-18 months… Trust me, it will happen no matter what.

    Don’t worry about hydration packs, sports utility belts etc. So many people run the trap of researching gear so much that they forget the hard work and running part of the equation. After a year of running, you’ll have more fancy moisture wicking shirts than you can handle thanks to doing a modest 1-2 races a month (think your neighborhood 5ks). During that time, you’ll start noticing what other people wear, ask for advise and one day you’ll wake up and realize you have more crap than you want and you might start tossing shirts you don’t like away.

    • I agree that it’s not necessary to load up on fancy running gear when you first start out. Heck, I waited until a year in before I bought my first pair of running shorts, and most of my technical running shirts are from races I’ve ran. That being said, a good pair of running shoes is essential. The only reason I got injured a few months after I started running is because I wore cross-trainers. Considering the fact that most running shoes will cost you under $100, it doesn’t hurt to walk into a specialty running store and find the perfect pair. It’s a solid investment that will significantly reduce your risk of injury and last you a few hundreds mile out on the road or the trail.

      • I agree good shoes are the #1 most important thing you need to run well. I hurt my back from running in the wrong shoes. I went to “Shoes n Feet” and had the associate match shoes with my gait and size me correctly. I’ve put about 500 miles on these shoes in the last 8 months and haven’t felt any pains/injuries. And I agree a goal is very motivating. My motivation is to be more fit for freediving. I imagine diving when I run much of the time. I’m at 7 mi/~59min treadmill runs and waiting to spring to begin trails! -30yo vegan (w/once a week cheat days) female, Seattle area.

        • Not essential, but nearly so – a GPS watch (and the automatic running logs they generate). Going back and seeing your times and miles fluctuate but steadily improve over the years helps generate a motivating sense of accomplishment.

        • Most important thing about trainers is comfort. Forget gait analysis or any of that, if you put a pair of running shoes on and they feel right, they probably are right. Also would recommend for trails getting trail shoes just for the extra grip without having to go as far as spikes. I live in a particularly muddy area and they are a God-send on hills!

  2. Debbie Perkins says:

    Matt,I love your NMA blog and this article is one more example why. As I go down the list:
    1) Check. Doing my first 1/2 marathon at the end of April.
    2) Check. In the last few weeks I have totally embraced slowing down on my long runs. I recently read an article explaining why you should do this. I feel so much better on those days.
    3) Working on it.
    4) My knees would love to run on trails. I don’t know if my ankles would.
    5) Working on it; don’t think I’m eating enough.
    6) Check.
    7) It’s not usually fun. But there are those days when I have such a great run, I can see the possibility that one day, it might be.

  3. Charlie says:

    Really enjoy reading your posts man! I gotta tell ya, I’ve been keeping up with (not so much participating in, maybe an occassional shot at free stuff, but for the most part just reading) your website for a while now, and it has really has made an impact on my life in many different ways, and certainly for the better. Thanks for sharing!

  4. howdy! i’m one of the “holy crappers” you mentioned above!

    last week i ordered 1/2 marathon road map and learned about the 180 steps per minute, bought the guitar song, ran with it, my teens laughed at me, but oh well…i am amazed at how much better i feel while running! thank you!!!

    so why? well, i turn 45 this month, became vegan at the new year, have run a few 5ks in the last couple of years, and am ready to be in fantastic shape. your book is FANTASTIC! thank you!!!

    my first half is august 4th in richfield, minnesota!

  5. I live by your advice, I just registered for my first marathon!

    Thank you!

  6. I HATED running in gym specifically because I felt so ashamed about running slowly. I just thought I wasn’t meant to run until last year when I gave gave it a real try.

    I focused on covering distance rather than speed and it has worked wonders. I’m up to 9 mile runs and my pace has dropped by 4 minutes just over time.

    Speed will come, just keep running!

  7. Setting goals is so important. It’s tough to stay motivated if you have nothing to train for. I don’t necessarily have the body for running. I’ve always been built more like a sprinter than a “long” distance runner. I’ve been running for a little over 6 months and I really enjoy it. It all changed once a friend and I decided to sign up for a triathlon.
    Another good tip is to sign up for a running club. They have become very popular where I live at and there are runners of every skill level.

    I also second what Rebecca said. I also HATED running at the gym but soon got over it. Now I can stay on the treadmill for miles. Although I would rather run outside πŸ™‚

  8. After being out for almost a year with a bum Achilles, I’ve really been focusing on the whole 180-steps-a-minute thing. It takes some getting used to at first, but I can already feel less stress on various joints and hotspots.

    The biggest challenge is to not necessarily maintaining this during up-tempo and speed workouts, but during slow runs. It’s during these slower runs when I have more of a tendency to plod along with slower, higher impact heel strikes.

    That’s the other aspect… Upping to 180-steps-per-minute almost automatically moves the point of impact from the heel to the mid/forefoot.

  9. Karen Grider says:

    After an injury and some illness I have gone from running 25 miles per week, which was a lot for me, to starting over. I have started with running for 3 minutes and walking for 2. I am going to try the 180 steps per minute and see what that does for me. I hate and love running. Starting over sucks but after I read this article I remember why I loved it so much and did it for years. Running for weight loss does not motivate me. Running to do races does. Great article

    • Karen—if you run with an iPod, look at Podrunner–free downloads. Funky music and you can start at something slower and work your way up to 180. I think he even goes to 190. I only use an ipod on the treadmill, but love listening to these once in a while as a check.

  10. Thanks for ALL of these reminders. I am training for a 12-hour race, just 64 days away. I’ve never done anything CLOSE to this and need to keep all of these in mind. Well, true, rugged trails may have to wait until I recover. I am doing at least part of my longest runs at the treadmill, so I can stop every hour (like it does) and eat and walk around.

  11. Awesome post. I have just entered that part of my running journey where I can just pick up and run a half marathon if I feel like it and I love it. In fact I just impulsivly registered for one next Sunday! Cant wait. Its so worth it to get to this point.

  12. I love runing as well, used to hate it, but now it is an escape from reality. I can only run twice a week do to plantars fasciitis. Any suggestions on how to make the pain stop. New shoes, icing, stretching, time off, and it always comes back to haunt me. I would love to train for a half marathon , but as soon as I hit 7-mile runs (it takes me months to get up to that mileage) my foot freaks out and then I’m not running or even walking. Any thoughts, anyone?

    • Have you been to a podiatrist, maybe an acupuncturist? I’ve not had need for the former, but the latter cured my horrible IT Band issues from hiking, so all I need now is good daily stretching.

  13. Matt-I recently stumbled upon NMA and have thoroughly enjoyed reading your posts. I’very always had a lot of energy but hated running for several of the reasons you listed. I tried running in college but could never really get over the side stitches so I gave up.

    But, I decided to give it another go a few months ago and have been loving ever since. The change? I learned to slow down and pace myself. And, the best thing to help with side stitches was running at 180 steps per minute. I found the higher turnover helped lessen my bouncing. I found the song Cliffs of Dover is very helpful to maintain the higher step rate.

    Thanks for the great post!

  14. Matt, I really enjoyed this post and how you put everything in a nutshell. It has taken me many years to get to the point of liking running and I think it is mainly because of the wisdom I have gathered from other runners. Training for my first half marathon has surprised me because I never saw myself being able to do this, kind of strange coming from a Triathlete ? The only real challenge has been remaining healthy over the training. I am on my second cold in 2 months! Fortunately I have run at least 11 miles straight and feel 13 should be no problem if I am better.

  15. I love trail running. I would never be able to run as much as I do if I was only hitting the pavement or a treadmill, I need the surprises trail running gives me to beat boredom. πŸ™‚

  16. I have a hard time believing in that “180 steps per minute” thing. When I started running about a year ago, my average pace was around 12 min/mile, and I automatically came close to 180 steps per minute. I’ve been dealing with some minor injuries, so I haven’t made much progress in the past few months.
    To be honest, when I’m running at a comfortable pace (see above), while maintaining 180 steps per minute, it doesn’t feel like running at all, more like a slow shuffle.
    What’s your opinion on this? Is a slow shuffle better than trying to take longer strides?

    • Sue, it is slow at first, and feels very strange. But once you get used to it, it stops seeming like a shuffle and you regain your speed as the different muscles develop and your body learns to run this way. To answer your question, “Is a slow shuffle better than trying to take longer strides?”, I’d say that the slow shuffle is less likely to leave you injured, and in time will no longer be slow (or feel like a shuffle).

      While I’m sure there are some people whose optimal cadence is something far lower than 180, it’s not a number that I just randomly came up with. I think I first heard of it from Jack Daniels, and he teaches it because it’s the cadence that most elite marathoners have.

      Last thing — there’s nothing magical about 180. Many top runners have even higher cadence than this, and I’m sure some have slightly lower. 180 is just a convenient figure to use; the point is to be in that general range.

  17. Thanks for #5! I guess it should be common sense…but I missed it. I’m pretty new to running and since it’s cold outside, I’m running on a treadmill. After about an hour, which equates only to about 5 miles, I just get really hungry. Even though the machine says I’ve “burned” 700+ calories, I never made the connection that maybe I might need some more fuel.

  18. I never really enjoyed running until I took it outside. I hate the treadmill so much, but let me wander the streets or a nice trail, it was definitely a game changer.

    I totally agree with finding an inspiring goal, signing up for my first half has forced me to commit to running and now I find myself looking forward to my runs which was never the case!

    I’m also agreeing with some of the comments above… I was only running 3 times a week, 2/3/4 miles at a time in some shoes that did not match my pronation and I had a lot of hip pain! After taking 2 weeks off and purchasing some more supportive shoes, thank goodness I haven’t had any pain since.

    The 180 steps is something new, but I’m always into improving my form so I will definitely be checking this out!

    Thanks for the awesome post!

  19. Recently as I’ve increased my mileage, I’ve (reluctantly) slowed down my pace by about a minute to a minute and a half per mile. This has certainly given me the opportunity to focus on form, and aiming for 180 steps per minute helps as well–I’ve been seeing this touted over and over again recently as one of “the best pieces of running advice,” and now that I’m putting it into practice, I can appreciate it as another tool to use in my training.

  20. Trail runs did it for me. I was a sprinter and would do longer races durning Xcountry season. I was ok at the road races but would only do them for special races.

    When we hit the trais it was another story. There is something about being in nature that makes the run so much easier and enjoyable.

    Many cities are ripping up old railway tracks and making them into great trails. Get out there and have fun.

  21. I’ve been traveling through Laos and Cambodia the last month. Not known for their paved roads, every one of my runs has been a long trail run through the jungles and mountainous landscapes of southeast Asia. Now, back on pavement here in Siem Reap (I ran the Angkor Wat Temple small loop today!), I could feel my joints and ligaments asking me ‘really, is that it?’ I could just feel my feet more effortlessly transferring power laterally to the pavement (which makes me feel like a hydrofoil skimming over pavement) and I could focus on the ancient beauty around me. Needless to say, my scenic exploring made this ‘wonder of the world’ run today that much more enjoyable. I’m going to have to map some trail routes back home in Bankok!

    Also, two other big things that have helped me in the ‘stronger runner’ department the last few months are cross training (biking, hills, plyometrics for strength) and devoting an hour each week to yoga/stretching to stay loose and prevent those minor pains that keep me hiding from my running shoes.

    -wing sanook!

  22. Thanks for the post and all the different responses from everyone. This as giving me a lot of helpful information. I’ve only started running 3 weeks ago and right now I’m working on just keeping upright and increasing my distance,I will worry about steps and such later. When I started running I just got some old tennis shoes on a took off down the street. I must say that was painful but felt good. Since than I have bought a good pair of running shoes and after reading this post I have not worried so much about the speed of my run but how far I run. In the last week or so I have went from being able to just run about a mile with some stops to over 2 miles with no stops. My goal in the near future is to run 3.5 miles so I can do a 5K at the end of April. Thanks again everyone..

  23. …… I’m really excited about these workout and can’t wait to begin my next game in 2 weeks time….thanks to nomeatathlete in getting fit and stronger!

  24. Its true, there’s nothing more important than understanding the basic and just enjoying the things that you do. This simple steps are the most important and most effective steps to become a strong and fast runner. Thanks to this.

  25. Ankur kiroriwal says:

    well i m participating in event i have to complete 1600 metre in 5:30 seconds i have 50 dsys remaining ..i never run so please suggest me some useful ways so that i can achieve my goal …how i increase my stamina while running ?

  26. Hi my a 12 year old girl my name is storm i have been running for about 8 or 9 years, I go to bays athletics for 7 years . I am a mid distance runner, just a tip for some of you, if you can’t breath while running use a 2:2 breathing rhythm {take 2 steps on your left breathing in and steps on your right breathing out }. As this allows you to take enough time to inhale and exhale oxygen.
    I hope this helps for some of you.

  27. With #5, taking in nutrition for runs over 45 minutes.

    First, you have enough fuel in your body to run far far farther than an hour to 1.5 hours.

    Now that we have that out of the way. I think it’s important to also note that for longer runs you don’t need to take in fluids or fuel *during* the workout. If you do a long run after breakfast or lunch, you have had plenty of time to take in calories and fluids prior to the run. That counts for those 10+ miles. What you take in during the hours prior to a workout can be available during the workout.

  28. Such an inspiring post!
    Running on trails is the favorite part of my training. During my practice on trails, I notice an escalating pulse rate which boosts my energy and makes me feel stronger. How many of you would agree on this?
    Also, I assure to accompany my running training with some strength workouts. However, is there any workout you would suggest that I can include with my trail running practice?

  29. Amazing post Matt! I liked the idea of including alternating the hard workouts with the easy ones. More often people understand that muscles need time to recover after heavy lifting but then they tend to forget that the same rule applies for running. These tips will surely help any person to make their running stronger.

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