What does it take to make a running habit 'stick'?

Plus races in Albuquerque, Spokane, Wales + Big Bend Ranch State Park

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“Run with your heart instead of your mind. When you think with your mind, you think of the things you can and can’t do. But when you run with your heart you forget about what you can’t do, and you just go out and do it.” — Gerry Lindgren

Beginning the habit of running regularly may be one of the hardest things you can try to do, especially if you’re a parent or you have a full-time job with a lengthy commute (or both).

The strange thing is that it doesn’t seem like it should be. All you need to do is put on a pair of running shoes and step out the door, right? Each of us ought to be able to find 30 minutes in a day to exercise, shouldn’t we?

But we all know how other worthwhile things — a scroll through your work email right after you get up, or the kids need their breakfast, their lunch and help getting out the door — exert a gravitational pull that can feel impossible to resist. They tug at your conscience, your feelings of responsibility to your job and your family, and pretty soon the window of opportunity you thought was open is now closed.

Those things are the big rocks in our lives that we’re trying to find open spaces to fit the little rocks — like running and taking care of ourselves — into.

That happens to me even now. A few weeks ago, I was doing great with my own running, as I’m trying to train for a 10-miler this October here in Atlanta and a half marathon on Thanksgiving day. I was running four days every week and feeling really good, both physically and mentally about the direction I was headed.

Then, of course, I hit a snag and a few weeks later, I’ve completely fallen off the wagon. It’s during weeks like these past couple that I can completely relate to a reader named “GR” who wrote this post below, in response to a discussion thread back in July on your questions about running and training:

In 2017 I saw a pic of my and I was like, omg!! I look like a 225 pounds pig 😱 ( I was 225 for real), I decide to do something, I went to see a nutriologist to help me, so I started losing wight, my friend invited me to do a 5K, I wasn’t sure but I did it, now I love it!! when I started I wasn’t on shape, but little by little I’m being improving, I added music I think with music you focus more, so now I want to run but for some reason it’s hard for me, I’m 54 years old.

How can I start running I know it’s not hard to start but I’m been trying but I can’t my legs feel heavy, that it’s my next step is run more then walk, when I do a 5K I start walking then I run like 30 seconds and that’s it because my legs aren’t helping. 😥

Just by coincidence, earlier this week I listened to this podcast interview with James Clear, the author of the 2018 book Atomic Habits, on what it takes to integrate running into your life in a consistent, sustainable way.

One of the things he said that stood out the most to me was that so many of us — when we take an honest look at ourselves, as the writer above has — decide we want to make a big, dramatic change. Because that’s what’s called for, especially if we’ve wandered a long way from the path we want to be on, right?

That’s actually wrong. What works, Clear says, isn’t saying to yourself, “I’m going to set aside 45 minutes on three to four days a week to run.” Rather it’s becoming the kind of person who runs regularly.

What he means by that is something he calls the two-minute rule: at first, commit only to what you can do in two minutes. Because what you’re trying to do isn’t simply to go out and exercise; you’re creating a new habit within your life, and that’s something that will take time to build and strengthen.

“When it comes to building a good habit, the behavior is not automatic. It hasn’t been built yet. So one of the key factors of building a good habit is repeating it enough times to gain fluency and fluidity, and gain the ability to make it routine — because it’s not that yet.”

It’s unfair to expect yourself to go out and run three miles at a time, three to four days a week, when you start. Instead, start by simply putting on your running clothes and shoes a few times a week. Then advance the ball by adding a run down the street or around the block, even if it’s only for a few minutes or a few hundred feet.

That’s how you build a habit, Clear says, which is “something you have repeated enough times that you slide into them naturally, by default, on auto-pilot, without thinking about it.” Here’s how he says it’s done in the interview:

“Ultimately, you want to perform a habit enough times that you feel like it’s reinforcing being a certain type of person... True behavior change, at a certain level, is really identity change. It’s really about looking at yourself in a new way.

“There are a lot of people, who when they start working out or starting going for runs, it feels like a lot. It feels like a sacrifice, or like it’s not normal. It feels like it requires a lot of energy and effort to do that.

“But there are also plenty of other people for whom going to the gym three days a week is normal. It doesn’t feel like a sacrifice, it’s just kind of what they do. I think that shift occurs once you start to adopt that action as part of your identity.

“This is why I say things like, the goal is not to run a marathon — the goal is to become a runner. Once you identify as those things — I am a writer, I am a meditator, I am a runner — well then, doing those actions does not require a lot of additional effort or motivation. Because you’re just acting in alignment with who you already believe yourself to be.

The whole podcast is worth listening to, there’s so much to chew on, especially if you’re just starting out, or if you’re a casual runner who wants to take your training to a different level (or even if you’re a really experienced runner who’s looking for ways to improve).

Those questions — as well as the one from the original poster wrote above — are why I’ve invited Lisa Jhung, a writer for magazines like Runner’s World and Outside and the author of the brand-new book Running That Doesn’t Suck (How to Love Running Even If You Think You Hate It), to join us for this Friday’s open thread chat.

The book is a very easy read, with chapters broken down into checklists and how-to instructions for every aspect of running. As Lisa described it to me, it’s for “people formerly intimidated by running, those who have a love-hate relationship with running, and seasoned runners who could use a little pick-me-up in their sport (so, basically, everyone).”

I hope you can join us — we’ll start at 9:00 a.m. Eastern time. Until then, I hope each of you has a fantastic rest of your week, and as always, keep me posted on how your running is going. You are all awesome.

Your friend,

— Terrell

Photo by Hayden Walker on Unsplash.

Great Balloon Chase Half Marathon

Albuquerque, N.M. | Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019

If you’ve ever seen the jaw-dropping images of Albuquerque’s annual International Balloon Fiesta — or even better, had the chance to see them up in the sky yourself in person — then you have an idea of what you’ll take in at this half marathon, which unfolds mostly along a fast, flat route next to the Rio Grande. The race begins just a few miles south of Balloon Fiesta Park (where the giant balloons take off into the air), and from there you’ll run north along the Paseo del Bosque Trail on the river all the way to the turnaround at the Alameda Open Space, where you’ll see the balloons up in the sky as you run; after that, you’ll make the turn and head back.

$60 and up | Sign up here

Big Bend Ultra

Big Bend Ranch State Park, Texas | Sunday, Jan. 19, 2020

Named for the “big bend” in the Rio Grande as it winds through the rugged Texas desert in the far west corner of the state, the state park where this race takes place each January spans some 311,000 acres near the U.S-Mexico border, and features “rugged mountains, steep canyons, amazing views, unparalleled night skies, and solitude in a high desert setting.” You can choose among five distances — 10K, 20K, 30K, 50K and 50 miles — and you’ll need gear and clothing for an event that will likely start at 30°F and finish somewhere around 70°F. You’ll be far away from anything resembling the modern world here; the closest airport is more than 200 miles away. But the experience is said to be unforgiving and beautiful all at the same time.

$100 and up | Sign up here

Lilac Bloomsday Run

Spokane, Wash. | Sunday, May 3, 2020

Nestled along the Spokane River, just over 90 miles south of the U.S.-Canada border, this city of just over 200,000 has seen more than 50,000 runners in some years take to its streets for this annual rite of spring. A 12K race that’s one of the largest of its kind anywhere in the country, its name was chosen by founder Don Kardong, who was inspired by the James Joyce novel Ulysses. In the novel, Leopold Bloom wanders the streets of Dublin, Ireland, in much the same way as the legendary Greek king Ulysses wandered the world and then returned home to Ithaca. Scholars and fans of Joyce named the day of Bloom’s fictional journey through the city “Bloomsday,” and it’s been celebrated ever since. And because Spokane’s motto is “the Lilac City,” Kardong put the two together to create a race that will make its 43rd running next year.

$22 and up | Sign up here

Whole Earth Man vs. Horse Marathon

Llanwrtyd Wells, Wales, U.K. | Saturday, June 13, 2020

People racing horses? Are you serious? Here in this green region known as Powys, Wales, a place filled with forests, hills and farmland, there really is such a race. It’s not a marathon exactly — the distance used has fluctuated over the years from 18 to 26 miles, and settled in recent years to 22 miles. But if you travel here for the race, you really will get to race horses. Runners get a 15-minute head start over their four-legged competitors, but that hasn’t helped much over the event’s 40-year history; only twice have runners crossed the finish line ahead of the horses in all those years.

TBD | Sign up here

A song to run to today

New Sensation” from the album Kick by INXS.

Listen to our full playlist on Spotify here.

Photo at top courtesy Lisa Jhung.