I can still remember my first run: I mapped out a single mile in my city grid and planned to run as soon as I woke up. I played my favorite playlist and headed out the door the next morning, music blasting. I want to say the run was magical, but it wasn’t. For an out-of-shape college kid who’d never run a mile in her life, it was a painful slog punctuated with groans and out-loud musings about why I was doing it. The next day, I did it again. The third day, same. The fourth day, I recruited a former runner who also wanted to get in shape to meet me in the middle. At the end of the week, I signed up for my first race. Thirteen years later, I’m still running.
At the time, I was just trying to get through each day, but looking back, I actually did everything habit-forming gurus would tell you to do. Turns out, I’m not the only one who did this: I asked other longtime runners what made them finally turn their desire to run regularly into an actual habit, and here are their best tips:
ENLIST A FRIEND
Your running buddy doesn’t have to be along on every single run, but it’s easier to stick to a running habit when you’re not alone. Steve Hunter, who dropped more than 40 pounds when he started running in 2014 and eventually turned into an ultrarunner, says his best tip is to find a group of people to run with. It provides active social time and builds in accountability. Find a friend you can make plans with on days where your motivation feels low, so you’re never tempted to skip a run you have on the calendar.
The best way to start a running habit? Walking. Too many people jump into the “I’m going to run 3 miles every single day” and end up sore, tired and injured by the end of week 1. The people who keep up the habit are the ones who start slow, with a walk around the block on day 1 if they haven’t been doing any other activities, then build from there. “If you are going to run for training, it may be better to start off at shorter distances with periods of fast walking in-between,” says runner Joe Jefferson, who trained for a 50-miler by run/walking.
For many of us, knowing we’re improving can be a source of motivation. Tracking your progress on an app like MapMyRun can show you that even when it doesn’t feel like you’re getting faster, you really are making great strides. “I’m pretty competitive, so beating my previous times — even by a few seconds — is motivation,” says longtime runner Rob Simmons, “I like seeing progress.”
SET AN APPOINTMENT
“Try to run the same time everyday to create the regularity and form the habit,” says Mark Drogalis, who’s been running and riding almost daily since 1978. “Replace ‘will I run today?’ with ‘how much will I run today?’ Set up running appointments.” This may mean actually blocking out time on your calendar each week for running or setting your alarm clock slightly earlier to get in morning miles. Consider these running appointments just as important as appointments with your clients or your boss.
It turns out, getting more sleep and eating healthier can actually be what pushes you into running as a regular occurrence. This works for two reasons. First, you’re getting healthier by sleeping more and by switching dinner to a big salad instead of a big pizza, and as you start to feel better in general, it’s easier to log miles. Second, those healthy habits tend to start a ‘cascade effect,’ so as you start to make positive changes in one area of your life, it’s easier to do the same in others.
TRY A CHALLENGE
Whether you sign up for a race or a challenge on an app like MapMyRun, putting a goal in place and actually making the commitment can make it easier to stick to a routine. Hunter says, “What has helped me to keep motivated is to sign up for something that scares the crap out of me.” Of course, you don’t have to sign up for something terrifying to start with. Even if you’re signing up for something as simple as a local 5K, just putting your name down means you’re more likely to stick to your training plan.
Most runners start a regular running routine, but end up stymied by injury or illness — and that stall can stop their running forever. So put your body first: Take care of it before it needs help. For you, this might mean seeking the professional help of a physical therapist if you’ve dealt with injuries in the past, a personal trainer or coach if you feel like you’re prone to overtraining or a nutritionist if you feel like you have some gut issues you need to deal with. It could also mean signing up for a weekly yoga class or a healthy meal delivery service and buying a foam roller so you can work out your sore quads while watching Netflix.
TAKE REST DAYS
Habits are important, but rest is a key part of making progress in running. It’s a good idea to take a day off from running every week to stay fresh and injury-free. If you’re afraid skipping a day will cause you to lose the habit, though, get run-ready in your full outfit and shoes, and head out the door for a casual walk instead. Even if you’re trying to keep a running streak alive, you still need rest days. Consider doing an extra-light day with a 1/2-mile jog, or take 36 hours off by running early one morning, and running late the next day. You won’t lose your streak, but you’ll get the rest your body needs.