I was sitting across from my friend in a tattered brown leather booth at a Thai restaurant on a busy street in San Diego. I lifted the fork from my bowl of brown rice and vegetables, took a bite and then laughed at what my friend had just finished saying.
“My average run is around five miles.”
“I can hardly run one,” I quickly responded. “I can’t imagine running five.”
And, at the time, I couldn’t.
I had started running [again, for the umpteenth time] earlier that week. My first run went — to put it lightly — awful.
I started out full of hope….
“Look at me! I’m running!!”…
…and then, after all of about one singular block, all hope had disappeared into the ceaseless void of my run tracker.
This was the exact opposite of a runner’s high.
It was a runner’s low. A runner’s rock bottom.
I spent the rest of that run heavily heaving struggling to catch my breath like I was in a room quickly filling up with water, wishing I was doing anything else. I hated every. single. moment. of that first run.
And the moment, the literal second, it was over….
I wanted to do it all over again.
18 months ago, I ran a whopping total of zero miles per week. Since then, I’ve successfully completed one full marathon, two halves, and a handful of 5Ks. I am far from a world-class runner nor was I exactly an athletic person when I started running. In fact, I was the opposite. I had just quit smoking and was almost 100 pounds overweight when I started running.
Then, after consistently running for one year, I had lost nearly 100 pounds and felt better than ever.
I am certain that if I can build a healthy, sustainable running habit from the condition I was in, so can you.
Running changed my life. Here is a list of just some of the benefits I’ve received from running:
- It gave me a boost of energy.
- It increased my discipline, willpower. and motivation in other areas of my life.
- It gave me increased confidence in my abilities and appearance
- I looked and felt better.
- It gave me time to think.
- It helped reduce stress and anxiety
And despite knowing running could help us in a whole host of ways, it is still a challenge to get started.
I tried unsuccessfully for years to start a running habit.
I’d buy all of the gear — running shoes, shorts, hat, shirt, reflective vests, whatever — because you know you can’t start without all the gear. I’d plan out exactly what my runs would be for the next few months. I’d get so pumped because “go me!” and then I’d run for exactly one week before trading in my running shoes for the television remote and a bag of chips. All of the gear would be shoved in the back of my closet where it was abandoned, left to gather dust.
If you’re struggling to start or maintain a running habit, I feel you. I’ve been there. I know how hard it can be. I know how hard it is.
But I also know how rewarding breaking through our own barriers can be.
There is a litany of listicles [say that three times fast] offering advice on how to build running habits. I’m going to share three beliefs, mantras if you will, that were helpful to me.
CUT THE BS AND START
Like I said above, I’d find any excuse to not start running. I didn’t have the right shoes. I didn’t have the right shorts. I didn’t have the right exercise gear. Punxsutawney Phil, the legendary weather prognosticating groundhog, hadn’t seen his reflection so there’d be three more months of winter and I’d start when winter was over. And I would always start on Monday.
‘Someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you.— Tim Ferriss
F*ck Monday. Forget someday. Forget the shoes and the gear and whatever stories you tell yourself about what you need to get started.
Start where you’re at.
Whatever you have, just start. Don’t have the right running shoes? Run in your dress shoes. Don’t have dress shoes? Run in sandals. Don’t think you can run in sandals? The Tahumara tribe has been doing it for years, and even smoked (literally — they were smoking cigarettes) fully geared ultramarathoners in a race. Think you need to have running shoes to run but can’t afford a new pair? Fine. Go to a thrift store and grab a used pair for six bucks.
There will always be excuses and reasons why you shouldn’t run.
Do it anyways.
And if running really is too much for you right now, walk.
Excuses are like the fabled Hydra of Greek lore. The Hydra possessed many heads (the amount varies — some accounts say 6 and 9 while others say there were up to 50). Whatever the exact number is doesn’t matter. Point is, it was a lot of damn heads.
And when one head was chopped off, two more would grow in its place, strengthening the Hydra and making it pretty darn challenging to defeat.
Overcome one of your excuses and two more appear.
“I can’t run. It’s raining.” You can run in the rain. You’re not the Wicked Witch of the West. “So I won’t melt, but what if I slip and fall? My shoes have bad traction. And my clothes will get soaked. I don’t have a weatherproof coat.” If you’re concerned about falling, go do a fast-paced walk for a bit. And wear a trashbag. It’ll help keep you dry. “I can’t wear a trashbag! Such a faux pas. The attractive neighbor that I’ve been crushing on might see me and then I’ll never be able to go out with them.”
And on it goes like this until you’ve excused yourself into sitting on the couch watching Seinfeld reruns. And be real — you were never going to ask them out. Unless you take this advice, stop making excuses and start.
When Hercules finally defeated the Hydra, he had to cut off the final, immortal head.
You, starting now, exactly where you are, is that final blow. No excuses about why you can’t start running will survive when you start.
RUN YOUR OWN RACE
You’re not Usain Bolt. You’re not going to run a sub-10 second 100-meter dash and that’s okay. That’s why he’s Usain Bolt and why you’re, well, you.
We’ve been lied to our entire lives. We’ve been told we’re precious little snowflakes and that we deserve anything we want. But, odds are, most of are average. Or probably below average.
Especially when it comes to running.
That’s why you’re reading this article.
And that’s why I’m qualified to write it.
I was remarkably (like, astoundingly) below average. To call what I was doing running is egregiously offensive to anyone who actually runs.
Olympic athletes run.
Heck, even those old folks in the running club at the local Y run.
I did not run.
What I did was more of a mobile dry-heaving, a slow-to-moderately paced walk interspersed with brief periods of something I called “running.” It was, at best, a fast-paced walk.
And it was a slow fast walk at that. I wasn’t keeping up with those women with the pink wrists weights with rigid forearms pumping their elbows or the old dudes from the Y. I used to have little 12-year-olds blow by me.
Do you know how demoralizing that is? Here I am struggling to maintain my snail’s pace and some little sh*thead comes blowing by me with a grin on his face.
I was WELL below average. And you probably are too.
And that’s okay.
Give yourself permission to be average. One of the worst lies we can tell ourselves is that we’ll never be good as “Timmy Overachiever” who ran a four-minute mile so we shouldn’t even bother trying.
Stop comparing yourself to other people.
Instead, compare yourself to yourself. Be your own metric. Are you a better you now than the you you were yesterday?
That’s a lot of you’s.
What I’m saying is: Be a better version of you. Be the best version of you. Be better today than you were yesterday. If you commit to being a better version of you, you’ll improve with each passing second.
You will surprise yourself. You’ll look back in a year and marvel at how far you’ve come. The seconds and minutes and steps will add up.
Run your own race. At your own pace. If you didn’t run yesterday, take one step today. If you took two yesterday, take three today. Then try a quarter of a mile. Then maybe a half mile.
And if you keep that up long enough, you might eventually start running races. A 5K then a 10K. A 1/2 then a full.
You’ll carry yourself further and faster than you ever imagined possible.
You still won’t be Usain Bolt but that’s okay for now.
When I started running, I was set on running on a marathon. At the time, I couldn’t run around the block without being absolutely convinced that I was going into cardiac arrest. And still, if I wasn’t running a marathon, it just wasn’t worth it. Might as well not even run.
I held steadfast to this belief for years and for years I’d run for one, maybe two, weeks then call it quits because it was too hard, my body was too tired and the runs were too long. After a few weeks, I’d be back to running exactly 0 miles a week and my top-of-the-line running gear had become a playground for dust bunnies and moths.
This is the exact sort of thinking that prevents us from maintaining a running habit. We start with large goals and aspirations. We have all this motivation when we start but at the first sign of a challenge, when it’s been two weeks and the alarm is going off at 5:30AM and people have stopped caring about your Facebook post about how “this is finally the time! I’m a runner now!!”, we give up.
Our past selves tend to overestimate how much our future selves are going to want to run. We think that our future self will have the same gusto for running that we have, that we’ll still somehow have the same Richard Simmons’ level of enthusiasm for running in the future. Somehow, you’ll completely forget about the fact that, less than a week ago, the thought of running was absolutely nauseating to you. And because the present you overestimates future you’s enthusiasm, you’ll overcommit to a huge goal which you’ll feel really good about for a week and then you’ll give up when things start to get hard.
This is why we need to think small.
In fact, we should start small. Like really small.
And if you think you’re thinking small, I need you to think smaller.
Research shows that your willpower is like a muscle; it strengthens over time. The more decisions you make that support your goals, the easier it becomes to make those decisions.
Apply this to your running habit.
When you start, your goal is not to run five miles. It is to build the habit of running.
Start so small that it is next to impossible to say no. Run 0.2 miles for 5 days then do 0.5 miles for 5 days. Make it so easy to run that you get it done without having the motivation.
You may feel silly for running so little. “I could do more. I should do more!” And that’s exactly the point. You’ll want to run more. These small steps will help you build the habit of running and when you keep at these incremental gains for a year, you may find yourself running 26.2 miles.
[RunBet and C25K are great apps that support the “start small” approach. Both of these apps helped me build the habit of running. If I lapse with my habit, I come back to one of these apps to get back on track. C25K also has a great community on Reddit.]
The effect that running has had on my life is nearly miraculous. It has helped change nearly every aspect of who I am. Running has become meditative for me. It is time alone to reconnect with myself and my surroundings [or stare at a blank wall in the gym].
I used these three mantras to build my habit. I hope they help you do the same.
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