If you had one suggestion for new runners, what would it be? Run more… stay healthy… enjoy every moment?
I get interviewed a lot for Runner’s World, Men’s Fitness, and other sites like Women’s Health. And this is a common question. It usually goes like this:
What is your #1 suggestion for new runners or those trying to get better at running?
My answer is a simple one – one that has profound implications for every runner’s success: Run consistently.
The simplest answers are often the most powerful.
But what exactly does it mean to “run consistently?”
- Days off are scheduled – not unplanned
- Injury prevention is a top goal (if you haven’t yet, make sure you get my best injury prevention advice)
- Longer periods of time off from running are kept to 1-2 weeks
- Weekly mileage and workouts are mostly uniform, rather than having large swings in volume and intensity
Consistent training separates the runners who want to achieve new personal bests and big goals with those who actually accomplish their goals.
It’s the truth: consistency is the “secret sauce” that helps average runners become extraordinary runners.
When I first started running in 1998, my cross country coach told me something I’ll never forget:
If you want to be a good runner, then don’t think of this as a sport. It’s a lifestyle.
And my college cross country coach said something similar:
If you want to be good at cross country, you have to run indoor and outdoor track. It’s a year-round sport.
These coaches – and the other 8+ coaches I had in my running career – taught me the value of consistency when I was just starting my running career.
And I consider it my responsibility to do the same for you. Even if you’re not a beginner, the value of consistency is enormous…
It will make your 5k pace this year your 10k pace next year.
It will make your “max mileage” this year a “recovery mileage” next year.
With this level of progression, your performance will undeniably improve.
But consistency is notoriously difficult. With the increasing demands on our time, who has the time to work out for 10 hours a week (or even 5 hours)??
I’m learning this first-hand with two young daughters. What in the world did I do with my time a few years ago?
There are four strategies that have helped make consistent running easier for me. And I think they’ll help you, too.
Let’s get started.
Develop Discipline, Not Willpower
For most of my running career, running every day was necessary. It was like brushing my teeth or eating – it was just something I did.
Being on a team certainly helped: I was held accountable to my teammates and coach who relied on me to place or win races.
This accountability is one reason why getting a coach is so powerful for your improvement.
It creates discipline instead of willpower, which is finite, fleeting, and unreliable.
Remember what the gym looked like on January 2nd this year? Well, it was empty a month later.
That’s because most of us rely on willpower to do something new. Like a battery, it has limited reserves and once it’s gone, it takes time to recharge.
The New York Times compares willpower to a muscle – it gets fatigued if overused. Timothy Pychil, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, says:
After a stressful day at work, studies show people are less likely to exercise and more likely to watch television.
For this very reason, I almost always ran before work after college. If I waited, I’d frequently skip my run because “it had been a long day.”
The habit of running can’t be built on willpower. In my case, I had to show up to practice every day in high school or else I’d be kicked off the team.
This created discipline. And I credit that discipline as one of the top reasons I’ve had any success with my running.
The NYT article would call the team environment an “external control.”
Rather than relying on willpower, create external controls in your life that effectively force you to run, like:
- Meet a friend for your run – you’ll be less likely to skip a workout when someone is relying on you
- Get a coach, or purchase a personal training plan – if money is involved, you’ll be less likely to waste it by not following through
- Register for a race far away and buy your flight – now you have to train or else risk losing a lot of money!
- Check out other examples of external controls on Nerd Fitness’ great post on willpower
If you struggle with getting out of bed in the morning to run or don’t have the willpower to train consistently, you’re not alone.
But with a few simple tweaks to how you approach your running, you’ll improve your consistently rather quickly.
Make Running a Core Value
Lately my wife and I have been talking about what values we want to instill in our children. We haven’t finalized any yet, but a few on our list are:
- Curiousity and inquisitiveness
- Respect for, but polite questioning of, authority and the status quo
- Appreciation for nature and being in the wilderness
- Lifelong love of learning new things
- An active lifestyle
That last one is important. While I don’t care either way if my kids are runners or not, I want them to play a sport as kids and stay active as adults.
When fitness is prioritized as a value – a standard of behavior – it’s nearly impossible to deviate from that behavior because it becomes ingrained in who you are.
Plus, when it’s part of who you are, skipping a run becomes an assault on your identity.
Every big decision you make centers around those values that define what is important to you. Whenever a choice is made, most people subconsciously ask themselves what option best fits within their value system.
You do what’s most important to you. For me, running is a big piece of my identity because it’s one of my core values.
And it sure makes running easier when it’s oppressively hot or I’m feeling lazy!
Plan Your Year as a Collection of Seasons
When your year is a collection of 3-5 “seasons” it’s easier (and simpler) to know exactly what you should be doing at any given time.
Each month has a purpose – even if that purpose is rest and recovery.
A college schedule can be a helpful template:
- June – August: Base training
- September – November: Competition and “peak” phase
- December – January: Recovery and base training
- February – May: Competition and “peak” phase (with 1-2 weeks off at end of May)
Let’s use another example. Our fictional friend Jen wants to run a fast marathon in the spring and it’s now the summer. She ran a spring marathon this year and isn’t sure what to do this fall.
How should she plan the next 9 months?
This is what I recommend:
Summer: Base training for a 5k / 10k focused season in the fall
Fall: Competition phase of training focused on 5k – 10k distances (with 1-2 short and long races as well)
Winter: Rest and base training
Spring: Marathon training
When a year is broken up into seasons (with specific purposes within each season), it’s easier to follow through on your running. If you miss a chunk of training, the entire progression of seasons won’t flow right.
This puts some additional pressure on you to hit your workouts, so only use this strategy if you’re focused on getting faster.
Focus on Process, Not Outcomes
Too many runners want the end goal, but struggle with putting in the work.
Just the other day I was helping a runner train for a 50k ultramarathon. She had 12 weeks until the race – and her long run was only at 6 miles.
With a 2-week taper, this leaves 10 weeks to build a long run progression up to at least 20 miles. There’s also no time for back-to-back long runs and “over-distance” long runs – two staples in any good ultra program.
Not to mention, no time for tune-up races or accounting for bad long runs when you have to cut the mileage short.
Instead of ensuring she was ready to train (process) for the race, she wanted the outcome of having completed a 50k.
And believe me, ultras are really hard!
But if you change your approach, the results will come naturally. Outcomes – like new personal bests or successful races – are byproducts of focusing on the process of training.
It’s like I always tell the runners I coach, training PR’s usually lead to race PR’s.
So what does it actually mean to “focus on the process of training?” It’s simple: You have to be perfect. Like Coach Gaines says:
Being perfect is about looking your friends in the eye and know that you didn’t let them down because you told them the truth.
And that truth is that you did everything you could. There wasn’t one more thing that you could’ve done.
Can you live in that moment?
Can you live in the moment of your training and do everything possible to “be perfect?”
That’s process. And process doesn’t get you discouraged like missing an outcome goal does because it’s much easier to execute.
Focus on process long enough and the big goals tend to fall in your lap. And that makes running very exciting.
The 1-2 Punch of Consistency
Now that you have a collection of ideas that will help you run more consistently, how can you put them all together?
Let’s use the 1-2 Punch of Consistency to roll everything together so you’re an unstoppable force of consistent running.
The first step is to make running a core value. Do you love running? When you have a to-do list a mile long (who doesn’t?) is running an item that has to get crossed off?
Once you’ve made running a priority, it’s time to invest your hard-earned cash to support that value. Studies have shown that as soon as you pay for something, you value it even more.
Here are 5 ways to invest in your running to make it more likely you’ll run consistently:
- Buy all-new gear for $200 – $300
- Purchase a training plan from a good coach who can write it specifically to your fitness level, goals, injury background, and schedule
- Better yet, hire that coach for 1-on-1 support
- Join a gym AND hire a personal trainer
- Register for an expensive race (like a marathon) that requires a flight to get you there
These strategies will magnify the pain of inconsistency. Can you imagine how bad you’ll feel if you skip runs after investing this much!?
All of us know that running consistently is both the “secret sauce” of successful training and a difficult thing to master.
But rolling these strategies into one action plan will give you every advantage.
Just imagine how much more successful you’ll be a year from now.
If you’re interested, check out how we can work together to improve your running.
Quick Announcement: SR’s Beginner Book is Now Available!
In the spirit of helping beginner runners improve their consistency, we have a new book published on the Kindle platform!
This is your handy resource for all questions on:
- How to build your fitness foundation – before you even start running
- Make running a habit and stay motivated
- Training: workouts, mileage, and more
- Injury prevention and recovery
- Strength training
- Racing (pacing, tactical tips, and strategy)
- Common mistakes, problems, and solutions
- A lot more in the book!
Since 2010, Strength Running has been publishing actionable, tested coaching material to help you become a better runner.
Now, we’re taking some of our best advice and putting it all in one place.