This post is written by Doug Hay, co-host of NMA Radio and author of Rock Creek Runner.
“Self-discipline doesn’t actually exist.”
That’s what one of my blogging mentors (yes, that’s a thing) Jon Morrow said to me at a recent conference.
It’s a jarring statement considering we live in a world that talks about having or losing self-discipline all the time.
But after he finished the conversation, it all made sense. Jon’s point was this:
No one is born with self-discipline. Successful business people, professional runners, the President, they don’t have some self-discipline gene that the rest of us lack. And as we know, will-power is a finite commodity.
On one hand this is bad news. It means we can no longer rely on the “no self-discipline” excuse when it comes to running. Or doing or not doing anything else in life, for that matter.
But on the other hand, it’s great news.
Because it makes it possible for us to change. It means our failures as runners, our inconsistencies and lack of routine are only temporary. That we too can become the highly energized running routine superstars we’ve always wanted to be.
Consistent runners have fewer injuries, a stronger base, and greater long-term running success.
So if self-discipline isn’t a trait we either have or don’t, and a consistent routine is something we all want, what sets a successful runner apart from her discouraged counterpart?
Answer: Her environment.
The Self-Disciplined Runner’s Environment
We’ve all been there. Looking at the watch, trying to decide whether or not to go for a run.
It starts with an excuse: I’m too busy. It’s too hot. I’d rather go to happy hour.
Then turns into a justification: I earned this break! I deserve a night off with friends!
In reality, that excuse and justification are you giving up on yourself. Too harsh? Sorry, but it’s the truth.
Discouraged, unmotivated runners face this problem every day. Their running or training environment is set up in a way that they have to actively convince themselves to go on a run.
Highly motivated self-disciplined runners, on the other hand, have it much easier. Their environment presents the run as the best or only option, and to skip they’d have to actively convince themselves not to run.
A place where going for a run is a given sounds like a dream come true, right? It can be.
And it’s actually easier than you think.
Disheartened runners, tired runners, and even super busy runners can set up an environment that breeds consistency and routine.
4 Steps to Build Running Consistency
In a recent post, Matt wrote about building walls around your path to habit change. That’s essentially what we’re doing here.
By creating a running environment that promotes self-discipline, you’d have to climb the wall and jump off the other side in order to skip a run.
So how do you build that environment? Start with these 4 steps:
1. Give Your Run a Purpose
As much as I love running, especially on trails and through the woods, I’m the first to admit running is hard. It’s uncomfortable, painful, and frankly, not as relaxing as drinking a beer or watching trashy TV.
Which is exactly the reason most people’s first response when you tell them you’re training for a half marathon, marathon, or ultra is … “Why?”
No seriously. I’m asking too. Why are you training for a race? Why do you want to start running?
Before you can build a consistent running routine, you need to first give your runs purpose. Set a goal.
Weight-loss, challenge, achievement, proving yourself or others wrong, these are all great goals. They all give your training a purpose.
Whatever goal you set for yourself, make it powerful. Make it personal. When things get tough and you’re doubting the run, it should be something motivating enough to keep you itching for progress.
2. Make a Plan
Let’s shift gears from running to card playing, one of my favorite past-times. When you sit down to play cards, it’s no fun unless there’s,
- Purpose: To win (check)
- Rules: A plan or structure that leads you to the purpose
Running is no different. Once you’ve given your runs a purpose, the next step is to create a plan. The plan provides structure, and a method to keep you on track.
The most obvious option is to start a training plan or work with a coach. This will give you a well-designed and proven training plan.
But of course you can also go at it on your own. When designing a plan for consistent running, keep these things in mind:
- Start small: Don’t try to overextend yourself too quickly and risk injury or burnout. For the first week or two don’t set distance minimums to your run. The only goal should be running a set number of times that week.
- Run at least 3 times per week: 3 runs per week should be the very minimum. Anything less than that and you’re not establishing a habit or gaining the benefits of regular running. Unless you’re going for a run streak, limit the runs to no more than 5 or 6 per week.
- Build up: Design a goal into your plan to build up to. It could be a race, a distance goal, or a PR. Continue working and pushing towards that goal.
Your plan should also include a preset time of the day for each run. A time where the only purpose of that half hour or hour is to run. When no obligations or conflicts can keep you from doing so. It’s your run time.
For many people, the only time that fits that description is first thing in the morning, before the day starts for everyone else. That might sound tough, but if you’re serious about making this work, you may need to make that sacrifice.
If morning isn’t your thing, build the run into your lunch break, after work, or pre-dinner routine. Whenever it is, set aside the time and block it off from everything else.
3. Build Accountability
Accountability comes in several different forms:
- Self-accountability, where you don’t want to let yourself down,
- Accountability from others, where you receive encouragement and motivation from friends and family, either in person or through online communities like Strava or Daily Mile, and
- Financial accountability, where you commit to a financial ass-kicking if you fail.
The best running environments rely on all three. Through your own goals, training partners, running clubs, and per-registration for races or other financial agreements, you’re attacking any temptations to skip a run from multiple fronts.
You’re that kid in the movies surrounded by a bunch of bullies, shaking in his running sneakers. Only in this case, the bullies want to see you succeed and not just take your lunch money.
4. Track Your Progress
Tracking each run provides accountability (you don’t want to miss a day), achievement (look at all the days I’ve checked off), and a way to better understand your training. It can be the single biggest daily tool to keeping you consistent.
Build Your Stable Environment
Do you know the old biblical parable about how only the foolish man builds his house on the sand?
The sand is soft, and can easily be washed away — taking your house down with it.
Running environments built to encourage consistency, not resist it, aren’t built on sand. They’re built on a stable foundation that can withstand the temptations of skipping a run, and overcome excuses like sleeping in.
By working through these steps, you’re building a strong foundation, and self-discipline in the process.
But it ain’t gonna be easy. It requires you to commit to working hard. A step I hope you’ll join me in taking.
Remember, consistent running isn’t just for super achievers or pro athletes. It comes from an environmental shift that fosters success.
And it’s yours for the taking.