Habit: A recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition.
There really is no big secret to improve our results as ultrarunners. For all the time and energy we expend on nutrition, gear, cross training, and other peripheral aspects of the sport; in the end our results are a direct reflection of our training mileage. And the biggest obstacle to accumulating the mileage necessary to achieve the results we desire is inconsistency.
Ultrarunners of the previous generation had some big advantages in achieving consistency in their training. Most newcomers simply transitioned into running ultras from a long career competing at shorter distances. Training habits that had been acquired from youth were already in place.
When we talk of habits in terms of sports, we are really referring to two distinctly different things. One sort of habit is the way we perform fundamental skills. In basketball we drill players repeatedly on basic fundamental skills. This is not because they are not capable of performing those skills, but rather, through repetition to ingrain the finer points of the skill until they can be performed in the course of play without consciously concentrating on doing them right. As runners, we also benefit from paying attention to our fundamental running form. Just as a professional golfer might have to regularly work to correct flaws that develop in his swing, despite having practiced his craft daily for decades, any runner can develop sloppy habits in his running form. Frequently the issues we refer to as “overuse” injuries are actually the accumulated damage caused by running with poor form.
The habit that we are talking about here is the habit of daily training. Whenever the term habit comes up, there is a tendency to couch the discussion in negative terms. Habits are bad things that we acquire, and must make an effort to “break.” The truth is, not all habits are bad habits; although it often seems that bad habits can be picked up with a single repetition, while good habits require constant drilling, repetition, and effort.
This advice is not just for the newcomers to the sport (especially those from a non-sports background), but also for those who have been around, and are not making the progress they feel should be made, and especially for those who have been in the sport for a while, but are finding themselves trying to compete with less and less training mileage in the bank. And the advice is simple: run every day. Make training a good habit. It seems to be in vogue to claim that a runner can train adequately on only a few runs a week. While this is technically true, the reality is that few people can pull off that feat. It is too easy to let a day slip here and there. It is unlikely that any days will ever be added. Ultimately most periodic runners become infrequent runners… and eventually non-runners.
I am not advocating that everyone should become a streaker, one of those unique people who have run for decades without missing a day. That degree of fanaticism is not necessary. However, running every day for the duration of a training cycle will yield great results. For example, if you are planning to race primarily during the summer months; start in March or April, and run every day through the summer. Or one can set a goal of running every day during the training cycle for a single event (generally 8-12 weeks). Or, as an initiation of sorts, one can simply try to run every day for a month. Whatever the approach, the results will exceed your expectations. There will be more miles in your log, you will be in better condition, and over time it will become much easier to get out and do the miles you intended. Every race is do-able when you are filling out the entry form. How you spend the time between that, and toeing the start line, will determine how do-able it is on race day.
As easy as running every day may be in concept, there are many obstacles to putting it into practice. The individual days do not all have to be memorable efforts. Even a single mile will serve the purpose. Setting out to do a single mile is enough, because the number one enemy of the daily run is the same enemy that so often thwarts our training – inertia. Inertia is the physical property that a body in motion stays in motion, while a body at rest stays at rest. That law applies to our bodies just as well. There seems to be an immutable truth that the most difficult part of every training run is stepping out the door. This is the first place where daily running pays dividends. That planned hard 10-miler, which might have been skipped just because we did not “feel like doing it” follows naturally on the heels of the single mile we forced ourselves to do. As a daily runner, you will be amazed at the frequency with which you set out to do only one mile, because you have to, and end up running much further.
Another major obstacle is the infamous “schedule.” This is the modern world, where we all believe we are too busy; all the time. One of the great benefits of running every day is learning that, when our schedule necessarily intrudes on running time, we can simply change the time we run. Eventually it becomes a routine part of our schedule to think about when we will run tomorrow. We manage to work in all the necessary facets of living, no matter how busy our schedule. We must eat. We must sleep. And for the every-day runner, we must run. Somewhere in any schedule is 15 minutes to run.
Other limitations are artificially self-imposed. One of the beauties of running is that it requires no special venue or facilities. We can literally run almost anywhere. While it might initially seem that maintaining a daily running schedule while traveling, or facing other obstacles would be difficult, if not outright unpleasant, the truth is finding the time and place to run can be an adventure in and of itself. One can never know what is just around the corner, without going there. And more often than not, what is found is more than worth the trip. One memorable day found me at a motel during a blizzard, with a busy 4-lane highway in front, and the road behind blocked with huge mounds of snowplowed snow and ice. The prospect was distinctly unappealing, but I set off clambering over the ice/snow mounds figuring I would somehow get in my required minimum 15 minutes of running. I soon came to the entrance to a high school football stadium, and inside found myself alone in a vast expanse of pristine, knee-deep snow…. Two hours later, I headed back to the hotel, only because I had run out of time.
And then there is the weather. To a periodic runner, the weather might be an obstacle. To the every day runner, it is just another adventure. Be it 114 degrees or minus 30; a blizzard or a line of thunderstorms, the most extreme weather only adds spice to the daily diet of miles.
The tools to developing the daily running habit are simple; shoes and the desire to become a better runner. I found a simple wall calendar to be an enticing extra. Watching the blocks slowly fill with numbers becomes a motivating force in and of itself. Empty squares cannot be tolerated. Initially, running every day can be difficult. But, soon the habit is ingrained, and those mileage totals seem to climb of their own accord. The results will show on race day.