Runner or non-runner, whichever you call yourself, I've been there. And I think I've finally figured out that whole label thing.
When running is fun -- when, even when it's hard, it comes easy -- that's when you feel like a runner.
But most of the time, for most of us, it doesn't flow like that. It's a chore, a discipline. A struggle that's worth it, but a struggle nonetheless. Those times, we don't feel like runners.
If you're the former -- a runner, all the time -- you don't need this post. Go run because running is fun for you, for its own sake, no other reason necessary. And know that the rest of us envy you, and wish it could be that way for us.
But if you're not always that runner, today you're in the right place. I've been on both the winning and the losing side of the daily battle to get the miles in. And when it's working -- when it's actually and truly fun to run (words I never thought I'd say) -- here's what makes it so.
The Two Schools of Running Fun
- A powerful, obsession-worthy goal, or
- An interest in the mind-body bliss that running (when done right) offers.
Frazier's First Rule for Enjoying Running: Slow the f* down. Way down.
If all you know of running is running fast, then you don't know running. You know gym class mile-run torture, and almost nobody (not even runners) thrive on that kind of pain.
If you're having trouble running consistently, just slow down. Think of your task as movement, rather than running. If you're used to running nine-minute miles, run 11-minute miles one day. Walk when you want to. Like a kid, run for short bursts now and then, just because it's feels good.
Even in the course of more serious training, you can't run hard most the time. Fully 80 percent of my miles are at conversational pace, meaning I can carry on a conversation without difficulty while I run. Another sign to look for: if you're terrified of seeing someone you know because you're going so slowly, you're doing it right.
Running slowly makes it more comfortable, more enjoyable in the moment. And tomorrow, when it's time to do it again, all of a sudden it doesn't seem so bad.
For a slightly more scientific treatise on the benefits of running slowly, check out the Maffetone Method, by Phil Maffetone, M.D.
With that understood, let's look at the two different ways to enjoy running.
Fun Running Approach #1: A Powerful, 'Unreasonable' Goal
You know that distance in your head that you'd like to run, and probably could if you could just stick to the training? Good.
Try doubling it, and see what happens.
When I talk about compelling goals, this is what I mean. The goal that's so out there, so incredible, that to imagine the type of person you'd need to be to achieve it makes your palms sweat.
That shift alone can be life-changing. And all of a sudden, because the end result is fascinating and attractive, the (literal) steps to get there become a lot more enjoyable. (Not very Zen to focus on the end result, perhaps, but that's why there's also an approach #2.)
As for the nuts and bolts of the goal-oriented approach to running...
Get Inspired: Read a running book that gets your mind spinning with fantasies. Born to Run is the modern classic for running inspiration, but Scott Jurek's Eat & Run rekindled the flame for me and, in hindsight, marked the beginning of my finally making a 100-miler happen.
Movies can be even more powerful. I've always liked The Spirit of the Marathon, and used to watch it the night before every race. I haven't seen the sequel, but it's on my list. There's also Running the Sahara and Unbreakable, and lots of new ones, including the shorter Finding Strong.
Train: By finding a proper plan to help you achieve what you're seeking. Chances are, someone has done it before.
There's no shortage of programs for running your first marathon, half marathon, 5K, or triathlon. For ultras and trail running, there are blogs like Rock Creek Runner and iRunFar. There are plenty of books and programs out there to help you do whatever it is you're going after, so save yourself the frustrations of trial and error and let someone who has done it guide you.
- iPod -- I'm big on audiobooks and podcasts, but most people like music. Be smart about headphones and traffic.
- GPS -- if data is your thing. Accountability has been shown to help with habits, so logging your miles and making friends on a social media community where you upload your workouts can help keep you motivated.
- Foam roller -- if your plan has you doing anything other than easy runs, get a foam roller to massage your muscles and help prevent injury. These things are amazing, and simple too.
- Shoes -- obviously. You can get lost in the discussions about which shoe is best, but if you've never run seriously for any amount of time, go to a real running store and let them suggest something. But don't leave the store in a pair of shoes that doesn't feel fantastic on your feet with lots of room for your toes. If you're between two sizes, get the bigger one.
- Whatever you're listening to, to the pass the time
- Visualizing yourself achieving your goal (I did this over and over when I was working to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and sometimes I did it with such intensity that my eyes would tear up. Weird, but I got there, and I think this helped)
- Taking 180 steps per minute. Good Form Running has a few other simple keys, but if you can only focus on one, make it 180.
Given the choice, I prefer the psychotic, obsessive chasing of a crazy goal for motivation. But when you're feeling burnt out (not merely bored), there's a second approach that can work to get you back on the roads. For me, several months of what I call "mind-body" running have several times preceded a period of intense focus and heavy training towards a goal -- I think of this approach as a sort of goal incubator.
With this approach, you don't care how many miles you log in a week. You ignore paces and splits, and run always at conversational pace, perhaps letting your breathing pattern dictate your pace.
You meditate, if you wish. You let your mind wander (for which the slow pace is definitely conducive). You try not to listen to music, but rather to your breathing, the birds, and any other sounds that exist in this present moment, right here and right now.
And when you return from a run, you feel more energetic than when you left.
Get Inspired: Bar none, my favorite book for this type of running is Body, Mind, and Sport, by John Douillard. Running & Being might be a good companion, too, even if a little headier. Other runners have enjoyed Running with the Mind of Meditation, but I got more out of applying the techniques of Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness to my running. Stu Mittleman's Slow Burn, while more fitness-motivated and slightly off the wall in places, would also serve to inspire a period of easy, wholesome, mind-body running. And no list like this would be complete without Way of the Peaceful Warrior, by Dan Millman.
Train: The simplest shift, for me, is that from focusing on miles to focusing on time. Or even doing away with your watch entirely and just running for however long it feels right.
If you need more structure than that, which I usually do, try a small-steps approach borrowed from habit formation techniques: start with five minutes (if that's too much, do two -- just get out there) each day for the first week. Take a day off if you need it, but with so little and such relaxed running, it might not be necessary. The next week, do 10 minutes a day, or a smaller amount if 10 is too much. Then 15, 20, 25, and so on, until you reach the point where it's boring or overly fatiguing.
(This, by the way, is how I started the only significant runstreak I've ever done -- I started with 20 minutes and increased each week five minutes. I went about 75 consecutive days, stopping the increases when my runs reached an hour or so.)
Tools: Really, the less the better here. I've found a heart monitor to be useful for learning my body's training zones, but when you're only running easy, you can make sure you're running easy enough by manually taking your pulse. (65-70 percent of max heart rate is where most slow-running advocates suggest you stay, though the formulas can get much more complicated.)
And if you're curious about minimalist running, this is probably the best time to try it. Not only does less shoe help you stay in touch with the surface you're running on; the low intensity of these runs makes discomfort less an issue.
- Your breath (nasal breathing is way more fascinating than it sounds; also useful is to measure your breathing by steps and gradually lengthen each breath)
- The present moment
- A mantra
- Nothing, or the space between your thoughts
- An image like "lifting your feet only enough for the earth to pass under them," or "holding butterflies in your hands" (Stu Mittleman has lots of ideas like these)
It would be great if running came easy all the time. To love running so much that you need it, that your day isn't complete without it.
But so many of us don't feel that way about running, at least not most of the time. I sense that's where all the "I'm not a real runner" feelings come from.
And so I propose an alternative: Just like you can be a baseball fan when it's summer, but forget by Christmas who won the World Series, you can be a runner when you're having fun running. In between those periods, be something else, and be okay with that.
But if you'll be intentional about how and why you're running -- with an approach like one of these to help you get over the hurdle of starting -- don't be surprised if you find yourself being a runner just a little bit more often.