The Secrets to Consistent Running (even when you don’t feel like it)

You and I both know that consistency is the “secret sauce” to successful running. I’ve been ranting and raving about it for years!

Consistent RunningConsistent running allows you to:

  • run more mileage
  • Get fewer running injuries
  • Feel smoother on each run
  • Run better workouts
  • Race faster!

In fact, in college if we didn’t run track, we weren’t allowed to run cross country in the fall. Consistency was so important that our coach demanded we train competitively year-round.

But I realize running constently – no matter the weather or commitments in your life – can be daunting.

So today I’m excited to share a guest article by Jon Mitchell, a Physican Assistant and the creator of Ready to Tri. I met Jon when I spoke at the National Endurance Sports Summit at Princeton earlier this year.

After we spoke, I knew he was doing smart things in the triathlon world and was excited to accept this article from him.

And Jon’s no stranger to the value of consistency. As a triathlete competing in events that last several hours at a time, he knows that training well is the only way to race well.

Take it away Jon!

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I was driving with my girlfriend a few months ago. I don’t remember where we were going or what we were doing, but something abruptly began to churn in me.

It was Sunday and I had just heard the Fox NFL theme song on the radio and I immediately wanted wings… and beer.

So as not to sound like some crazed lunatic to my girlfriend, I nonchalantly tossed out the suggestion that we should get wings. My girlfriend agreed and I silently rejoiced.

Four hours later, I woke up from a heavenly post-wing-and-beer nap and thought to myself, “what the heck happened?!”

I had such productive plans for the day, how did I end up here? And why do I feel so guilty?

How many of us have been here before?

Maybe after a long run you thought, “I just killed that run. I deserve a treat!” And before you know it, you’ve decimated french fries, pastries, a few beers, ice cream, or maybe all of the above.

You know that this is going to hinder the recovery process and make you feel sluggish all day, but so what? It’s not like you can’t afford the extra calories.

Or perhaps you planned on running before work and woke up to a frigid morning with no clean running clothes left. And you really didn’t get a great night’s sleep and your bed feels oh-so-warm!

So you hit snooze on your alarm. “I’ll just run tomorrow,” you tell yourself, even though this was the third time you skipped your morning run in the past two weeks.

Of course you’ve been here, we all have!

Even the most regimented of us falters at some point.

And don’t get me wrong: I think periodically allowing ourselves to indulge our whims is a great thing. The problem arises when we feel we have lost control of those impulses.

How can we stay more consistent and keep those urges in check? How can we consistently train without skipping sessions or eat well without wanting to cheat at every damn meal?

This is one of the biggest struggles runners face.

Sure, we can make it out for a grueling interval workout when we had a great night of sleep and ate well the day before. That’s not the problem.

The struggle is sticking to our plans on the bad days, when motivation is non-existent and stress levels are high.

The problem is that when we set ambitious goals, like setting a PR, consistency becomes crucial.

Every time we falter, we seem to dig ourselves a bigger hole, bringing on feelings of doubt.

And as many of us are well aware, doubt is a HUGE energy and motivation drain.

3 Pitfalls to Consistent Running

Let’s start by revealing the three common mistakes that feed this doubt and destroy consistency.

Relying on Willpower

Relying on willpower is probably the biggest reason for poor results (I don’t like the word failure).

Many of us hope that we can harness the energy of Tony Robbins every day and say, “I don’t care how hungry I am after that run, I’m not touching a french fry or candy bar.” And this may work for you initially, so you stick with this plan.

Two weeks later, you get in from your run, and you are STARVING. Like ‘I was lost in the woods for 3 days and couldn’t find anything to eat’ starving. And you forgot to go food shopping this week AND your spouse left four slices of pizza in the refrigerator.

Do we even have to ask what’s going to happen to that pizza?

The point is, willpower is a finite resource.

It is highest in the morning when we are well rested and slowly diminishes as the day goes on. Every hard decision reduces our willpower, like:

  • practicing restraint when dealing with an unruly customer
  • saying “no” to donuts in the office
  • managing a whiny child

As behavioral psychologist Dr. Mark Muraven states in Charles Duhigg’s illuminating book The Power of Habit:

Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms and legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.

Translation: Willpower works until it’s depleted. It’s great to get you started, but it won’t keep you going.

Shaming Yourself Into Action

I think there is something seriously wrong with us. For some unknown reason, we try to shame ourselves into action.

I used to do this ALL THE TIME. If I would sleep in and skip a workout, I would berate myself throughout the day:

“You’re so lazy, did you really need that extra 30 minutes of sleep? Now you disrupted the whole week of training. If only you didn’t decide to stay up and watch that rerun of Game of Thrones! It was a reeeeruuunnnn!”

Yeah, it could get ugly.

The thinking goes that we can guilt ourselves into action. That if we feel badly about something, we will want to change it.

The problem with this approach is it doesn’t work. If it doesn’t work for children or when training animals, so why do we think it will work for us?

Shaming ourselves leads to discouragement, not action.

Attempting a Hail Mary

This tactic is very much related to the willpower mentality.

With this approach, we try to make HUGE gains in a short amount of time. We think that the quicker we make progress, the more motivation we’ll feel.

For a small percentage of people this can work, but for the majority of us it won’t. What’s really insidious is that it often leaves us in a worse place than when we started.

You see, with quick progress comes excitement and energy. Sure, you are working damn hard, but boy is it paying off! You are getting compliments about how great you look and you just feel amazing.

And then you get hurt or hit a plateau. Discouraged, you start to lose momentum. You haven’t spent the necessary time developing simple, sustainable habits and routines. Without these safeguards, you begin to backslide.

Soon enough, your weight loss goal seems impossible or you still can’t run without pain.

Dejected, you give up. Even worse, the seed of doubt has been planted. You start to question if you are even capable of staying healthy or keeping weight off. You see your body as broken and injury prone. You tried your hardest and you have nothing to show for it.

Why even bother?

The Secrets To Consistency

Jack Canfield, famous for the Chicken Soup For The Soul series, tells a great story about a retired nurse named Helen Klein.

She was in her mid 50’s when her husband suggested they run a 10 mile race together. Clearly he was out of his mind, she thought. They were over 50 years old and Helen had NEVER run over a mile in her life!

On the first day, she could only run two laps in her yard before collapsing in exhaustion. She was so embarrassed that she swore she would either walk or run an additional lap each day until she reached the 10 mile goal.

When she got tired of running laps in her back yard, she started running laps around the block.

Six months later she was able to run 10 miles. By the time she was in her 80’s she had completed a 100 miler, numerous ultra-marathons, and several ironman triathlons.

Everything you need to know about consistency can be found in Helen’s story.

Let’s address them one by one.

Start small (like really, really small)

Instead of attempting The Hail Mary discussed above, make your first steps stupid simple.

Notice how Helen didn’t say, “I’m going to run as hard as I can every day until I make it to 10 miles.” She ran (or walked) 1 extra lap in her yard every day.

That’s it!

It’s so simple that it’s difficult not to accomplish. They key is not dramatic, overnight change: it’s creating momentum.

Riding momentum is the best and easiest way to stay consistent.

Warning: If you are anything like me, you will want to take things 5 steps further right away. Don’t do this!

There is a reason why nearly all of the top experts on motivation suggest making such small changes.

BJ Fogg, Stanford Professor and behavioral change expert calls them Tiny Habits.

Todd Herman, founder of The Peak Athlete, calls them Microchanges

John Wooden, the Hall of Fame UCLA mens basketball coach who has more national titles than any other coach had this to say:

When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. When you improve conditioning a little each day, eventually you have a big improvement in conditioning. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but eventually a big gain is made.

Don’t look for the big quick improvement, seek the small improvement one day at a time. That’s the only way it happens and when it happens, it lasts.

Don’t take it from me, take it from them.

Flip the script

Contrary to popular belief, your goals should focus on a positive, not avoiding a negative.

For instance, many people have a goal of losing fat. That’s a losing battle. You will constantly be judging your progress by your looks.

Every day you will look yourself in the mirror and that will decide how you feel.

This inevitably leads to massive amounts of shame. Not good.

The solution is the Shame-to-Game Technique.

Ever notice how parents try to feed their infants? They don’t scream and make them feel guilty.

They play games!

They say, “Here comes the airplane, here comes the choo-choo train,” as the spoon full of food dances in front of their child.

They make eating an enjoyable experience. How novel!

Helen made running a game by telling herself she was going to run 1 extra lap every day.

How can you make training more of a game? How can you focus on adding in the good?

Strategy #1: When you finish a long, hard run and are starving for some fries, tell yourself you have to drink 16 ounces of water with a pinch of sea salt first, wait 15 minutes, and then you can eat whatever you want.

The body often craves carbohydrates when it is dehydrated, so by drinking a little extra you are helping to fight those cravings. The pinch of sea salt is a good move because it contains electrolytes and essential trace minerals that cannot be found in table salt.

Strategy #2: For breakfast, instead of cutting out your favorite pastry, sauté yourself some spinach and eat that first. Then eat that pastry guilt free!

Each week add in another healthy option. Eventually your mindset will change from, “I want it, but can’t have it,” to, “I can have it, but don’t want it.”

Track and iterate

If you are struggling to keep a budget, where would be the best place to start?

You would hopefully start by tracking where your money is currently going. Only then can you formulate a plan to cut your costs.

In other words, you need to develop awareness.

Consistency is never a linear progression. There will be ups and downs throughout the process.

The secret to consistency is to track your progress, keep what’s working, and change what isn’t.

As business legend Peter Drucker says, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”

For Helen, she realized that running laps in her backyard wasn’t going to cut it after a while, so she switched to running laps around her neighborhood.

Personally, I noticed that my biggest hurdle to working out in the morning was getting out of bed. As soon as I was out of bed, I was good to go. But that first step was a real struggle.

I needed a way to force myself out of bed as soon as the alarm went off. After months of struggling, it finally hit me: I left my phone on the floor across the room.

Now I was forced to get up as soon as the alarm went off.

This simple iteration was an instant success. I have yet to get back in bed since instituting this new system.

The 4 Rules of Consistency

I want to leave you with several action steps that you can take today to run (or lose weight, or start any new habit) more constently:

  1. Track your daily goals with a simple checklist. This can be kept in an excel spreadsheet or a simple, 3-inch pocket notepad. Do what works for you.
  2. On the days where you missed a goal, don’t shame yourself! There are no failures, only tests. Write down the reason why you didn’t accomplish your goal and move on immediately.
  3. At the end of the week, review your progress. Keep what worked, change what didn’t.
  4. Iterate each week until you perfect your routine!

One last thing…

In the comments below, let us know your biggest challenge when it comes to being consistent.

Is it getting up for an early-morning workout, turning down unhealthy food, or perhaps warming up before a run? What have you tried in the past? What’s keeping you stuck?

Jon Mitchell is a licensed Physician Assistant and co-founder of readytotri.com, a website devoted to helping busy beginner triathletes succeed on and off the race course. Jon has recently created a Youtube series helping triathletes create and maintain simple, healthy routines.

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