There Are No Secrets to Becoming a Faster, Healthier, More Consistent Runner

by Jason Fitzgerald

One of the perks of running this site is that I get to talk to runners all day, every day. We chat about training, injuries, racing, how to be more consistent, and the mental side of getting faster. I’m a huge nerd and love all this stuff, so it makes me happy.

But recently I’ve noticed a trend in the types of questions being asked. There’s a subtle theme to all of them:

  • How can I PR in the marathon on 3 days of training per week?
  • How have you been injury-free for almost three years?
  • What can I do to take 11 minutes off my 10k time?

Sometimes I struggle with these questions because the answer is very complex. Of course I’m happy to answer. But it seems that some runners think there’s a “secret” to reaching your potential or a shortcut to run better on less training.

Let’s get real: there’s no silver bullet answer, training plan, or quick list of three “revolutionary” things that will magically make you faster and healthy. Although, there are some who may disagree:

Training SecretsReally?

I saw an article in Competitor about Tracy Lokken,  a 46 year old guy who ran 2:24 in the marathon. I was immediately impressed and rushed over to read the article to learn his training secret. I fell into the same trap and was let down a little when I read the answer:

So how does Lokken, who was once a roofer, run so fast at this age?

The answer isn’t complicated: put in your miles. Referring to the times spent as a roofer when he would be working all day, Lokken had this to say: “If I had to show up to work at 6 in the morning, I would get up at 4 to get my running in,” he says. “There’s no excuse if you aren’t putting in the time and effort.”

Almost better than the short article was this sarcastic comment:

Well gee, that was tremendously helpful. If I knew that all I had to do was put in my miles, I would would have won Kona a long time ago.

It seems like he was expecting a revolutionary training secret, too. Sometimes we constantly search for the next blog post titled “10 Easy Ways to Run Fast” or look for the newest gadget that will somehow make us more consistent in our running.

This was a forceful reminder that there are no secrets to improvement. There are “best practices” and training techniques that work very well (that’s what I try to write about here), but no sexy training tips that don’t require some work.

Greg Strosaker left a very insightful comment on my 2:39 marathon race report last week that sums this up well:

Congrats on the culmination (for now) of a phenomenal journey starting all the way back to NYC [marathon in 2008]. Everything you have done since then has prepared you for this day – it wasn’t one good training season, or a few key workouts, it was the full body of work and the physiological gains you developed in patiently executing it.

Greg is right; my successful marathon is the result of two years of hard work and being patient about my fitness.

But there’s nothing sexy about hard work and patience. I guarantee this blog post won’t be popular – there’s no catchy headline or list of tips that will get people excited. It may even cost me; a few runners who are thinking about working with me may think I don’t have any good (new! sexy! easy!) training ideas.

I’m more interested in getting you to take action and put in the work than giving you training porn.

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Tim

You are absolutely right Fitz. I was chatting with a friend about my first marathon in April of 2010 recently. I was looking back at my training and absolutely flabbergasted to realize I thought I could run a 2:50 on like 45 miles a week. I’m sure super heroes can do this, but not me. The hard truth is that it’s the every day grind that pays off. Sure the speed work is fine, hills are essential, strength work is vital for maintaining health, but nothing competes with the old “miles of trials, the trial of miles.” My next training cycle goal is 300 miles average per month. That’s not as much you did (do) but it’s another step in the right direction. Thanks for the great post as usual.

Jason

300 miles a week will get you in ridiculous shape. I wish I could average that all year!

Jeff Giedt

Touche! It’s easy; work hard. Great post. I love Greg’s comment on your marathon PR too.

Joe Richardson

Great post! Thanks for keeping me grounded and focused.

Zorbs

Seriously? if people can’t accept the cold hard truth that putting in the miles and time to improve is the only surefire way to do it, they have a problem, not you.

Brian

Very true. However, which may be besides the point, is the fact that talent plays a role aswell. For some it will be easier thanks to good genetics or body type, and some need more time to reach their goal. To be really good however does require a lot of consistent work, no doubt about it.

Jason

I think the point here is just that no amount of success or goal achievement is possible without hard work. That doesn’t necessarily mean “fast,” which I think is relative. A lot of people think a 3:30 marathoner is really fast. And a lot of people think my 2:39 marathon is pedestrian.

Heather

This article reminds me of one of my running mantras (you know, the things you say to yourself to keep on going) : If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

Vicky Elston

I love it Heather! Got my first marathon this weekend and have followed my training plan really well – it is like my bible! Your mantra will make me smile & keep me going on Sunday! Good luck to all marathon runners – I am joining the club and loving it!

James @reddirtrunner

Fitz, we have become a culture that believes in silver bullets. We spend billions every year on pills that cure this or that, on fad diets, exercise gizmos and gadgets. Every single blog post I have read by any elite runner on this topic is focused on the same point. Being a trail zombie I could refer folks to Geoff Roes, Scott Jurek, or Bryon Powell of iRunFar.

Consistency is the key. Period. End of story. After several years of being inconsistent I am finally in a position, over the last 18 months, to make running a regular part of my life. I added speed work and tempo runs, I have researched fueling and hydration, I eat up shoe and gear reviews and try new drills and techniques. The result? My times have improved. In three marathons during that time I have dropped 99 minutes off my time. I now have a legitimate chance of placing in my AG at any local race. Why? It’s not switching from Gatorade to Nuun or wearing Pure Project shoes in place of the Brooks Beast I started in. It’s not the foam roller I now use or the S! Caps or post run smoothies. It’s the consistent miles. Those things perhaps help me stay healthy by decreasing the wear and tear on my body physically. I am amazed at this time of year, when the weather begins to turn cold, how few runners I see out on the roads and trails compared to just a few weeks ago. And then they come out of the woodwork in early Spring frantically trying to prepare for the local half marathon at the end of March. Will their times improve? Maybe. Will mine? You betcha ass. Why? I am willing to work harder in the cold, dark hours of Winter.

My secret? Find an epic race to requires me to stay consistent over the Winter. This year it is the Rocky Raccoon 50 miler the first weekend in February. Sorry for the rant but I was sitting hear listening to a podcast with Anton Krupicka on UltraRunnerPodcast.com. I’ll close with this… I heard some advice from a grizzled ultra runner recently: “Don’t be greedy with it. It takes times to grow as a runner in this sport. You have to earn your way into it.”

Jason

Boom! James, I think you said it better than I did. Thanks so much for your thoughts – that’s some real truth.

Dr. Lou

I trained and ran with Lokken in highn school, now this is a great article, but Tracy is a totally different guy. He is a beast of a runner and trains in some very tough conditions. Putting all this together, makes him what he is, in addition to being a tough runner with the ability to use his gifts effeciently. What I’m saying is that he is a different breed, believe me, I’ve seen it, so he is in a diffferent class, that not many can handle, especially at his age.He ws a tremendous running machine, from day one in high school. The difference now is that he taking the time to train well, but don’t feel the need to compare to him, as he is beyond comprehending, as far as comeback and training.

Jason Fitzgerald

I disagree 100%. Every runner should aim to be “tough” and use their own gifts “efficiently.” Draw lessons from his example, but don’t emulate him exactly.

Jen

So true! I just spent the last ~9months fundraising (The Arthritis Society) and training for my very first marathon (Honolulu Dec 11 WOOOO) and everyone asks me how I do / did it.

I simply say, “I worked my a$$ off!”

;)

Jason

That’s awesome. Sometimes people ask me how the hell I ran 2:39 in the marathon. I just say, “About 13 and half years of training will put you in really good shape.”

Bill Koch

Jason, I agree with and support your view. Time is precious, and the key is making the most of what you have (and making the time to do it). Too many runners waste too much time doing the wrong things, and not enough time focusing on the hard things that matter. That’s where guys like you come in – the reassuring voice that says there are no shortcuts, that hard work (and the right hard work) is what gets the results. Any potential client you may have lost from this post was not going to PR from your advice anyway.

Well done!

Jason

Thanks Bill. There’s so much truth to the saying “the right hard work” – just because you’re working hard doesn’t mean you’re working smart.

Brandon

Awesome post Jason, you hit it right on the head there! Too many people are looking for the “easy” solution, not just in running, but in many areas of life. Last year, as I blogged about my 90 pound weight loss, I got lots of emails and questions about my “secret”. Sorry folks, there’s no magic bullet for losing weight either – eat less, move more, repeat.

Kris

Nope no secrets. But I can understand how some people get frustrated – there are SO many training programs out there and they are all so different and none fit my particular level and needs perfectly, so it takes a lot of experimenting to figure out what works.

So maybe the “secret” some people want is less a shortcut and more a formula that can work for them. Sure, these “one size fits all” training programs you find online are meant to be a guide, but not every “intermediate” wants (or can) run 6 days per week so some people may just be searching for that right fit that is hard to find.

So if you could ever develop some type of online running plan software that is customizable, you could probably sell a ton of them!

Jason

Experimentation is part of the fun! I completely agree Kris, I think there are certain formulas, best practices, philosophies that work well. That’s one of the things I try to do here on the blog is give a good summary of some great ways of designing a training program. I’ll look into the software idea :)

David Csonka

Fitz, you’ll never become a millionaire like that! You need to have that super secret training trick that only you can provide. ;D

Well, at least your readers will benefit from having such an awesome runner to inspire them!

Jason

My quest for fame and riches is foiled! Oh well, this is more fun.

Jessica

Thanks for posting this. A lot of people ask me how I’ve been able to take 10 minutes off of my half marathon time in 6 months. I just tell them that I work hard every single day. Usually that’s not a good enough answer for them, but that’s really all there is to it.

Jason

Everyone is expecting a magic formula. But it’s usually time + effort = results.

Billy Brown

That should be our montra! T + E = R ! Yep, that is the science of it!

Jason

I like it!

Charlene Ragsdale

I couldn’t agree more! When people ask me how I went from being a 2:11 to a 1:44 Half Marathoner in 11 months – it’s always about the work. I will have raced 30 races this year. All different distances. ALL had a purpose for speed, endurance, fueling practice, etc. While I had a blast at these events, my races are training for next focus race.

Running miles to just run miles isn’t the answer. You have to run smart AND recover smart. From the moment my legs cross that finish line, I am in recovery mode. Everything I do for the next day or two is centered around recovery and ensuring I stay healthy and injury free.

I grow tired of people who want the quick fixes and “how did you do it?” Work and more work.

Love your term Training Porn. Perfect!

Gordon

Great post, but I wish you had been harder on mags like RW and such trying to sell crap by promising the same type results in running that so much quackery does with weight loss. I went from a 6:10 marathon in Jan 2009 to a 3:28 in February of 2011, I ran a 3:33 in July and if all goes according to plan, I’ll improve on my PR at CIM this weekend.

How did I do this? I got my diet right, ate healthier than ever, lost 75 pounds, cross-trained, did my core, got rest, and RAN A LOT OF MILES! That’s it. No secret, no trick. This is how you do it. No talent needed. Running is the most rewarding of all sports because it is all on YOU. YOU reap what you sow.YOU earn what you deserve. YOU get out of training what you put IN to training.

Greg Strosaker

Well said Gordon – you are certainly a testament to what Jason espouses above. Plus you preach it consistently in your own podcast – which I have been remiss in following of late, sorry!

Melissa (@StatOfLims)

I started running in November 2009. Ran my first 5k in February 2010 (34:59). First 10k in March 2010 (1:24:14). First Half in October 2010 (3:01:03). First Marathon in February 2011 (5:07:27). I ran the same Half-Marathon again this year in October and did it in 2:17:14. Have gotten my 10k time down to 58:55. Ran 3 yesterday in 25:59. And plan to run a 4:30 marathon in February 2012.

The secret to my most recent PRs? I’ve been running for two years now instead of 6 months! My “short” runs now are 5-6 miles rather than 3. I run consistently 5 times a week instead of 3. And I’ve stayed mostly injury free because I listen to my body. If I’m altering my stride to compensate for pain, I stop. When I started running I was about 190 lbs. Now I’m sitting at 140 (with a few to go). And yes, losing excess weight will contribute to faster speeds. But I didn’t do it by eating “super foods,” chugging muscle drinks, and inhaling supplements.

The day-to-day changes I’ve made (like switching shoes or deciding that Vanilla GU is my fuel source of choice) are not responsible for my 30% drops in time. BUT those day-to-day changes have made training more manageable. And when training is manageable (and enjoyable) you do it more consistently! At this point I’m just echoing y’all, but it’s 100% about consistency.

Thanks for the post, Jason! I have some non-runners friends/family to send this to!

David H.

Excellent post! This is something every runner should read.

Jeff

Americans (humans? I don’t have enough exposure to foreign popular media to comment though) like lists. We like quick fixes, generally speaking.
I think the allure is that if you post a list of 5 things that one needs to do to lose weight, the reader can decide to do maybe 2 of them, and assume that he will get 40% of the way there. Of course, within the same issue of Men’s Health, there was a list of ways to “target the fat over your abs” (probably incorrect) while later in the issue there was an article that mentioned reducing your total body fat as really the only way to get yourself there (basically correct). So the magazines are not even internally consistent. But I still pay for the magazines so I guess I’m the problem.

Jason

You’re not part of the problem, I love those magazines too. We just need to take their advice with a grain of salt and realize that they’re published partly for entertainment.

Aaron C

Definitely the best article I’ve read in terms of frankness and straightforwardness. I’ve tried looking for that silver bullet myself to try and knock off a large number of minutes in my races, only to disappoint myself over time. I’ve come to learn that in this fast-moving-instant-everything-needs-to-happen-now world of ours, there is no such thing as overnight success. Success is the sum of small efforts repeated day in and day out, and that means “putting in the miles”. That’s why I’m just not convinced of those programmes that promote 3-days a week of running.

Jason

Truth. I hope I can help in some small way Aaron.

Greg Strosaker

Honored that I could provide any new insights to your already so helpful blog. I imagine those who seek the quick fix for running are the same who seek the quick fix in relationships, careers, diet, you name it. Everything is like a bank account – you don’t grow it by winning the lottery (and if you do, it tends to be easy come, easy go), you do it through constant investment over time, in small amounts, and keeping the withdrawals small.
By the way, I am being interviewed at work for my marathon win and one of the questions is “what is your favorite website?” Definitely mentioning yours, hope some of the runners among our 10,000+ employees pay attention and drop you a visit.

Jason

Good analogy Greg – and thanks again for the insight last week. I’m honored to have SR mentioned in your marathon interview – seems like some pretty good exposure!

Michael Selmer

I’ll echo all the rest and say this is the straight dope. There is no easy way to achieve what you and others have achieved through consistent hard work. But let us not be too hard on those starting out who struggle to accept and embrace that ethic. I’d be surprised if very many of us woke up one day and decided, “today is the day I begin to work consistently hard to achieve ______”, you name it. We start haltingly, find a way, get injured or discouraged, and then find a better way. RW, RT and all the rest are an imperfect tool for beginners to use, but (in most cases) they are better than no tool at all. I think the “secret” is that you have to find your own way to that hard truth… it takes work, and lots of it.

Jason

Amen Michael – very well said. New runners need some more guidance (and there’s nothing wrong with that) – hopefully that’s what I’m doing here!

Alex

While many may want a silver bullet, I actually think running is encouraging for the lack of one. I was always mediocre at basketball, football, baseball, and every other “ball” related sport growing up. I did all of the offseason camps, all the extra work, and it never added up. Running gives you what you give it. You show up, put in the work, and the results follow. Sure, there is a genetic component. But by in large, running is the most egalitarian of sports. To me, that’s a definite draw.

Joe

I’ve been running (truly running, not counting treadmill time) for a little over three years now. I am SLOW, but I have never been hurt. I’ve been making steady gains, from 13 minute miles when I started out to 10 minute miles now. It’s a good thing I have patience, because the gains have been incrementally small, but have added up in total. Thanks for a great post.

Jason

Thanks Joe. Keep at it, you’re making steady progress.

Wes

my favorite: I’m waiting on the pill. LOL!

Sara

Thanks for the reminder! I remember the first time I realized that mileage matter more than anything else. I was volunteering at a local high school to help with the track team. We had an awesome Senior boy who qualified for state 3 weeks into the season. I was talking to him about his running on a bus ride home and he told me that as junior he was the slowest on the team and in most of the JV races. When I asked him what changed, he told me that he ran all summer, built his mileage up and then kept that mileage up through the year. I always try to remind myself of that when I’m trying to get better.

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