Small Wins = Huge Improvements: How to Run Faster Over the Long-Term

Small Wins Keep You Moving Forward (and this photo is awesome)

After training for 12 years, I’ve realized the importance of “small wins” in a training program.  They’re so important but often overlooked.  Small, frequent wins help you maintain confidence, motivation, and keep you focused on your running goals.

Not only are these little victories good for your motivation and mental health, but they help you continue improving physically.  If you have several every week, you know you’re moving forward.  You’re progressing.  You’re on the right path to achieving success.

So what is a small win?  They are simply small successes in your training.  Little confidence boosters that are easy to achieve and help keep your mental outlook positive and motivation high.

Having little victories is absolutely essential if you’re a beginner runner. You need to lace up the running shoes and head out the door every day (or a few times a week)!  If you constantly feel out of shape, demoralized from tough workouts, or unable to meet your goals then you won’t stick with this sport.  We don’t want that.

I’m not suggesting running personal records every day, or running longer than you ever have, or averaging the fastest mile pace for your next tempo.  That would just be crazy.  Small wins can be had a few times every week and don’t take much effort.  And it will help you keep improving for years.

Small Successes for Continued Improvement

So what exactly is a small win?  Simple: it’s an achievable victory in your training.  Literally, it’s something that goes right and makes you feel proud.  If you can create a sense of pride about your workout on most days, then you’re going to have a lot of success in this sport.

If you don’t, or think I’m wrong, email me and I’ll convince you otherwise.

One of my favorite small wins is finishing my runs faster than I started them.  Also called “negative splitting” a run, it’s easiest when you’re doing an out-and-back run so you can time each half exactly.  Since it’s best to start your runs at a slower pace to help you warm up, doing this type of run isn’t that difficult.

Once you’re warm and ready to roll, closing the last half of your run faster makes you feel strong.  It helps you build endurance for negative-splitting races and learning how to run at a solid pace even when you’re tired.  In fact, I negative split every single one of my runs.  It makes me feel incredible.

Have you ever run a mini-workout?  If not, you’re missing out on a great tool to build strength and speed while saving your body from the abuse of longer workouts.  Mini-workouts are exactly what they sound like: shorter versions of more traditional workouts.

If you’re feeling tired but still want to attempt a workout, running a mini-tempo or mini-interval session will let you gain fitness without stressing your body to a great degree.  Instead of a 20 minute tempo, try 10 minutes.  Instead of 6x800m at 5k pace, run 4x800m at 10k pace.

These workouts are not only shorter, but often they’re less intense.  They will allow you to train for your goal race, recover when you need it, and keep your mental outlook positive even when you’re tired.  It’s win-win.

One of the best small wins that you can implement in your training is setting realistic goals.  You might think this isn’t so small or inconsequential (and you’re right), but it’s often one of the easiest things to do.  Be realistic!  If you’re a 21 minute 5k runner, don’t try to run 17 minutes the next time you toe the line.  It ain’t going to happen.

Last week I raced an 8k road race and set a goal of breaking 26 minutes.  I’m at fault for not being very realistic and it set me back because I was pissed off for about 5 days afterward.  I raced 27:24, about a minute and a half slower than my goal.

But it wasn’t realistic.  The race started at almost 9pm (I’m a morning person).  It was 85 degrees at the start and very humid.  I had not trained specifically for this race.  It was clearly my fault to set such a lofty goal when many things were working against me.

Other small wins can include being more consistent with your strength workouts, doing dynamic warm-ups before every run, or eating a better diet on a daily basis.  Simple improvements don’t have to take a lot of effort but they will help you make huge strides in your training.

Small Wins = Long-Term Planning

Achieving little victories in your weekly running will make you a better runner.  You’ll be better prepared mentally to accomplish every workout with vigor and motivation.  If you get excited about accomplishing a great block of training, it’s vital to plan for small wins.

This type of mindset is really all about incremental improvement.  Don’t focus on enormous improvements week to week (or even month to month).  Small changes, performed consistently over months, will literally transform you into a faster and stronger runner.  You will also prevent injuries and recover faster if you’re not pushing yourself too hard every day.

Thinking long-term is the surest path to running success.  Stop obsessing over weekly mileage and think about where you were a month ago or last year.  Don’t try to run two races in one week (I can’t tell you how many new runners try this…and then get hurt).

Running successfully, healthfully, and joyously is a long-term endeavor.  To run well and really enjoy it, you have to think about where you want to be a year from now.  Or five years from now.  Enjoy the slow process of building your running fitness and patiently getting faster, one small workout at a time.

If you enjoyed this article, it would be awesome if you shared it! 🙂

Photo Credit: iChaz

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  1. I think it’s important to consider these small wins when planning your training program in advance. For example you might want to plan some key workouts that you do 4 or 5 times in a training program and have the speed or pace gradually improving. Start off at a pace that you can easily achieve and gradually increase your goal pace each successive time you do the workout until the last workout when you really have to push. Each time you run this workout slightly faster and this boosts confidence and is a small victory.

    • Ah yes, “benchmark workouts.” I frequently do these types of workouts, especially when I’m gearing up for an important race. Great addition Dan!

  2. So true. No convincing needed here! As a novice runner, a couple bad runs in a week really suck, motivation-wise. If I have a few bad ones, I create a goal for my next run that I’m 90% sure I can complete, just so I don’t feel like a failure. It can be something as simple as “run the first 3 miles with no walk breaks” — if you slow down enough, you can definitely make that happen. It puts a smile on my face and leaves me looking forward to (instead of dreading) the next workout.

    • Elaine,

      Even when you’ve been running for as long as I have, a couple bad runs in a week still really suck 😉

      Great strategy to keep your motivation high! It’s often the little things that make big differences.

  3. Nice post. I agree with several of the points you made, specifically shooting for negative splits or some other manner of finishing strong (I wrote a post on this last week – and limiting your races. One commenter on this post also suggested another confidence booster – hold back a bit on your pace for speedwork early in the training season, so that you can better notice the progress as your program advances.

    Frankly, I think a great majority of racers do too many races, losing sight of their “A” events and over-doing their training. I try to stick to two marathons per year, with maybe one race at each other distance (5K, 10K, 10 mile, half-marathons) just to test my progress on building speed.

    Thanks for summarizing so many points in one post; I’ll put it up to my Facebook Fan Page.

    • Thanks Greg! There are a lot of strategies you can implement to achieve all of these “small wins” to boost your motivation and confidence.

      Racing too frequently can hurt if you’re not fit enough; it also depends on where you are in your training cycle. I’ll also check out your post/site. Thanks again!

  4. Thank you for the great article and a reminder I definitely needed this week. I am a new runner (I’ve been running about six weeks), and I am injured to the point that I absolutely can’t run. The doc hopes I’ll be back up in a week to ten days. I’ve been terrified that I won’t be able to perform once I get back on the road. This article reminded me of the little victories I achieved in the first few weeks after I realized I could run. I need to look forward to those instead of expecting to be back where I was right away, but the small wins WILL come again. Thanks for the inspiration I needed this morning!

    • Wow, thanks for the kind words Karen. I’m so glad you liked the article. Keep your head up and treat the injury recovery process just as diligently as you would a normal period of training. You’ll be back in no time.

      • Karen Greenberg says:

        “treat the injury recovery process just as diligently as you would a normal period of training”

        Another great perspective for me. Thank you!

  5. Absolutely right, Fitz. We have to identify, push for, and celebrate the small wins. That’s the only way to get to the big wins, really. For beginner runners, which I perpetually seem to be!, just getting out the door is a small win that deserves notice. Another point on small wins is that we should only be attempting small improvements. Anything too drastically different isn’t healthy. If we’re running 5 miles, we shouldn’t suddenly try and run 15. So, if we don’t celebrate the small wins – an increment we’ve told ourselves we should advance at – we might forget how far we’ve come by the time we reach a larger milestone.

    • Thanks Clynton, very insightful. Big wins in running are often numerous small wins accomplished over a longer period of time. The small wins add up and sometimes new runners want to make drastic improvements too fast.

      Like my old coach used to say, “Avoid the 3 too’s – too far, too soon, too fast.”

  6. Brad Brown says:

    What a great post, thank you. I am so guilty of beating myself up for missing unrealistic goals. It is amazing to look back a year or two and see how far I’ve come. Am definitely going to share this.


  1. […] a comment July 27, 2010 Firstly, a link to an article I think is really interesting/important: Small Wins and Long Term Running Success. I think it’s important for me to stop and appreciate any small gain with a goal I’m […]