When I ask runners why running consistently is so important to them, they usually say that they expect being more consistent would give them better outcomes, such as better endurance and efficiency, meaning they don’t tire as easy. It’s at this point that a lot of runners ask for a training plan, hoping it will give their running the structure they crave and motivation to run consistently. It’s also when I point out the biggest flaw of any training plan you get from a book, website, or even from a coach.
Which is this: Plans are great … until extenuating circumstances (like life) happen. Runners—myself included!—tend to start out with the best intentions with an ambitious new training plan in hand. At first, it feels pretty easy to do all you have planned.
But before long, it feels harder to stick with. Going for a 6 a.m. run is hard when you were up late into the night with a sick child, or run at lunch when your boss is anxiously awaiting your finished report. Every day presents difficult choices between sticking with your workout schedule or attending family commitments, spending time with friends or checking one more thing off the to-do list.
Other, less tangible forces come into play, too. Maybe your motivation wanes. Or your energy drains away as you struggle to balance an already-hectic week while making time to run. It seems as though there simply isn’t enough time in the day for everything you want to do, so you’re constantly having to choose between something that’s for you (like running) versus doing things for other people.
I get it. These decisions are hard and exhausting. What’s even more detrimental is the resentment that arises when you feel “locked in” to a rigid training schedule. That in itself makes consistent training feel impossible to maintain. Skipping workouts, cutting them short or in any other way deviating from your plan usually leads to feelings of guilt, frustration and self-doubt.
Naturally, you start to wonder:
Will I still be fit enough to reach my goals?
Does my inability to stick with a plan or routine mean I’m uncommitted … or even lazy?
Is running not worth doing at all if I can’t do it consistently?
So what does it take to get you back on track? Rather than equipping runners with a training plan, I teach them tools for adapting their running routine to their ever-changing lives, schedules, health, energy and goals.
1. The first step is to give yourself a heavy dose of self compassion.
You probably already know this, but it’s worth saying because we all do it: Berating yourself for not running as well or as much as you think you should will not help you run more. Holding yourself to incredibly high standards and expectations only makes it harder to run well. The answer is more self-compassion. Dr. Kristen Neff, author of the book Self Compassion, has conducted extensive research on the impact of self-compassion on women’s motivation to exercise. “Ultimate health and well-being are achieved by people feeling kindness and compassion for themselves because they are human beings, not because they have some particular trait such as being physically fit,” says Neff.
And she points out that self-compassion differs from self-esteem. “Whereas high self-esteem depends on successful performances and positive self-evaluations, self-compassion is relevant precisely when self-esteem tends to falter—when one fails or feels inadequate.”
As applied to running, self-compassion allows you to organize running around your life in a way that is aligned with your values and what’s most important to you right now. In this way, you bypass the guilt trips because you’re confident in your choice to either run or not run, run more or run less.
2. The second step is to approach running as a sustainable practice.
CONSISTENT running is having a set routine, or expectation to run the same number of times, or a certain number of miles week after week or month after month. Running may start to feel like something that has to get done, like another thing on the to-do list. If you miss several runs because of another obligation or injury, you feel frustrated, and perhaps anxious at the setback. But while you stew in your self-created stress state, the reality is that you’ve probably lost very little fitness during that time.
Whereas SUSTAINABLE running naturally ebbs and flows around all the other things you have going on in your life. It is built on principles of flexibility, adaptability and is guided by your intuition, cultivated through mindful running. Your running changes with the seasons, school calendar, your mood or other events that affect your time, energy and desire to run. Time away (for a day, or even a month) is anticipated and planned for. But you resume easily when circumstances support your return to running.
Says trail runner Tonya Card of Alberta, Canada: “To me, sustainable running means being flexible to the needs of my body which varies from day to day, month to month; it’s a qualitative measure. Consistency would seem more quantitative in nature and may not always be in keeping with what my needs are.”
3. The third step is to approach running as a practice.
Think of training as something that prepares you for a race or big event. Training has a beginning and an end and intensity progression in between. And you’re usually pretty darn relieved when it’s over because it was so much work. A running practice, however, has no end date.
A practice is a continuous exploration of the running experience. Every day you practice something new, see how it feels in your body. A new trail? A new pace? A new way of managing breath, your cadence or form? As a practice, running’s potential to challenge you, engage you and teach you new things about yourself is endless. And like any practice, your running needs a sound framework in which to occur.