Ever since my dad taught me distance running when I was a kid - the right way to breath, how to land properly on the ball of by feet, proper running posture - I’ve run on and off. Once in a while I’d decide to pick it up again, come up with a plan, and then quit a few weeks later. My failure to keep running wasn’t because of a lack of motivation, or even necessarily a lack of proper planning. I needed to learn some things about ambition, habit, and self-acceptance before I could properly stick to a running schedule.
In December of 2018, I made my self a plan, and started running. Today, about seven months later, I’m still going.
So what changed? There are a few differences that helped me succeed. First, I made a training program that worked in concert with my life and work schedules. Second, I made that training program easily achievable. Third, I made it resilient to failure. And, finally, I celebrated my successes.
A Better Schedule
Previous training schedules I created either existed only in my head, were too rigid, or both. Making a training program that is tangible, explicit, and convenient made it easier to track my progress. I made a spreadsheet that listed out running days and distances for those days so I could compare my schedule to my average work day, and make sure there was enough time for work, life, and running.
I also put running days on my calendar. My tendency is to look at my calendar, realize I have free time, and book it, regardless of whether I intended to do something like running, chilling out, groceries, etc. Putting running on the calendar helped me remember that I wanted to get home on certain days to get a run in.
Finally, I gave myself permission to move my running days if necessary. If you notice, the running schedule below doesn’t say “Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday”, it says “Day 1, Day 2, Day 3”. That was very intentional. I wanted to be able to move days around if necessary. My only rule was that I needed at least a day between each run. So if I knew I had something going on Thursday that I couldn’t miss, I could make that week a Monday-Wednesday-Saturday week. Giving yourself flexibility makes it much harder to make excuses about why you can’t run.
Make it Easy
The last time I ran consistently, I was using a running app that built a schedule for me automatically. I really liked having milestones to reach, and I found myself looking ahead in the schedule to see how much I’d be running in a week or two weeks. But the schedule was too aggressive, and I eventually ended up injuring my ankle badly enough that I had to stop.
This time, I decided that I didn’t need to go from running one mile to running a competitive 10k speed in two months. The only thing that was important to me was getting exercise and making progress in terms of distance. So I built my schedule so that I gained distance slowly, a quarter mile every week. I varied the distance throughout the week to give myself some variety, but I didn’t ever vary it more than a half mile a week.
It’s easy to get excited about a vision of radical success - pushing far past your comfort zone, and being wildly successful. But radical success is hard, especially when it’s one of a myriad of other goals that compete for our attention every day. Focusing on my real goal - running every day, and eventually making progress - helped me design an approach that was more realistic, and didn’t require as much will power to achieve.
“Resilient to failure” might be a bit grandiose for this particular section - really, I just gave myself permission to miss a day here and there. It’s easy to get upset when you miss a day on your training program, and to feel like you’re going to be set back. Because my training plan was so gradual, I could easily miss a day, and pick up with the very next day on my list. I didn’t even have to delay my overall schedule. Acknowledging at the beginning that I was certainly going to miss a few days here and there made following my program less stressful.
My training program covered 15 weeks, but there were a few milestones. First, the one month mark was exciting, because if anyone asked, I could say I had been running regularly for a month, rather than for a few weeks. Second, supposedly it takes an average of six weeks of consistent behavior to form a habit, so I was excited when I had been running that long. Five miles was the distance I wanted to be able to run consistently, which made one more milestone. And, finally, completing the plan would mean that I had set out to accomplish a training schedule, and that I had succeeded.
I celebrated each one of these successes, often with little notes to myself on the sheet after that particular milestone was crossed. These little pats on the back are what help you believe that you’re succeeding, especially on the days you want to give up. Milestones pull you forward, and give you a sense that you’re accomplishing something, so you should anticipate them, and celebrate your efforts when you pass them.
Each day that I ran was a milestone too, and I celebrated them by crossing off that day on my schedule, and by treating myself to a protein shake. The protein shake thing started off as an idea to maybe build a little extra muscle after I run, but I honestly don’t know whether it helps or hinders my running. The only reason I keep doing it is because it’s nice to have a chocolatey reward after my run that helps me celebrate.
After completing my training program, it’s honestly been hard to keep up the same level of motivation for running. I still enjoy it, and I feel better when I’m running than when I’m not, but without a goal to accomplish, it’s hard to be as interested. Today, I created a new schedule that incorporates the planning and celebratory aspects of the first schedule, but with consistent distances, and some more freedom to take days off.
I think it’s important to keep learning, growing, and changing the plan when things don’t work. This new schedule will hopefully fit my goals better, and keep me running. But if it doesn’t I’ll just try again.