When I went for my first-ever run as a gangly freshman on my high school’s cross-country team back in the mid ’90s, I would never have guessed that I would still be at it today. Truth be told, in those days, I hated everything about running: the way my legs screamed as I charged up a hill, the burning sensation in my chest, the weird aches jolting through my limbs every time my feet struck the ground. But, thanks to some gentle nudging by my parents, I gave it a couple more tries, and eventually something clicked. I’ve been running ever since.
Even after a disappointing collegiate career, when I lost every ounce of confidence as a runner; focusing on my career; and having three children and struggling to find the hours (and, at times, the motivation) to train, I’ve kept running. My fitness level has soared and tanked, my weekly mileage has been all over the map, but the sport has remained just as much a part of me as my curly hair and freckles. So what’s helped to keep me consistent after so many years? Here are six helpful habits I’ve used to rule my journey:
1. Listen to your body.
Tweaks, niggles, whatever you want to call them … if your body is warning you that something may be off, don’t ignore it. Often times, when runners fear missing out on training, they’ll run through the pain, which, unless they are some sort of genetic freak, will almost always lead to injury. I prefer to take the cautious route and give any issues time to heal before I hit the road again.
By now, I know my body well enough to decipher between a serious threat and a minor issue. But even so, I’m not hesitant to tend to the sore area for a few days, cross-train, foam roll, get a massage. Sitting out of a workout or two can be frustrating, yes, but it’s a far better option than being forced on the sidelines for months further down the road.
2. Don’t fear a day off (or two).
There are plenty of people who cannot—and will not—miss a day of running (they’re called streakers, and they are my heroes). I am not one of them. Over the years, building in days off into my training blocks has been the key to staving off injuries. It also enables the romance between me and running to be rekindled. Instead of being something that I have to do, it becomes something that I want to do.
The longest I’ve gone without a run? Maybe a week (save for the times I was recovering from giving birth). I’ve never lost a huge amount of fitness or turned into a sloth as I once feared, but instead emerged from the break refreshed, recharged and ready to start piling on the miles once more.
3. Set attainable goals.
As ambitious as I am, I’m a realistic runner: I know I won’t be able to run a 37-minute 10K if I’ve never cracked 40. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have “stretch” goals—those always-evolving, just-out-of-reach markers that I aim to hit. Maybe it’s placing in the top three in my age group at a race, or maybe it’s something less tangible, like finishing a race feeling strong, not struggling.
Whatever it may be, I try to set the bar high (but not absurdly so) and avoid putting so much heft on one “A” race or huge goal. I’ve found that this approach keeps me driven but also helps me avoid the crushing, motivation-sapping disappointment that may come along with a bad race or failing to reach completely unattainable marks.
4. Surround yourself with other runners.
Looking back, the times when I struggled most as a runner were when I attempted to tackle a training plan on my own. As much as I love getting lost in my thoughts and absorbing the environment around me on a solo run, having a solid network of training partners and running buddies makes consistency much more doable.
Whether it’s an informal meet-up among friends or a structured workout in a team atmosphere, I’ve thrived and grown as an athlete and a person because of the influence of the runners around me. Even if you’re more of a lone wolf, simply placing yourself in an environment frequented by runners (a local track or a park with popular trails) will likely give you the giddyup that you need to keep on keeping on.
5. Switch things up.
Despite all of its obvious virtues, running can be monotonous. And even the most routine-oriented person will tire of covering the same route, distance and speed. Varying the workouts as well as where you do them will keep your training from going stale.
I spend a lot of time on the treadmill in the winter, yet by spring, I hit the track, do loops around my neighborhood or explore trails around my home so that running is as much of an adventure as it is exercise. Sprinkling speed work or tempo runs into a training plan are also ways to mix it up—and to get faster, too.
6. Run in the moment.
As runners, we become easily obsessed with stats, paces and how we stack up against the competition. But getting so tangled up in the end result of a run or race can be a frustrating process, especially if you’re not generating the numbers you want.
To combat this, I often train “naked” (or, more specifically, partially naked—with my watch covered up by my arm sleeve, or with my phone tucked away in a hip pouch so I can analyze my performance post-run instead of on the run). This allows me to focus less on pace and more on what’s around me: the changing colors of the leaves along the wooded trail, the smell of freshly cut grass, the sound of my breath. Instead of spending my run doing mental math or eyeing my speed per mile, I can become fully absorbed by all of the pure, simple and addictive joys that running has to offer.
Under Armour’s Rule Yourself campaign celebrates that all health and fitness goals worth striving for require hard work and dedication. No matter what your goal, we all need to be reminded that every meal logged, mile walked and workout tracked counts. How do you #RuleYourself?
Photo of the author by Sabrina Steele.