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Running Training Habits - Do the Right Things

by John Hanc
Visit Runner's World Online
We inspire and enable people to improve their lives and the world around them

The best way to improve your running is to build simple, sustainable training habits. The hard part is knowing which habits work best. So we collected the only eight you'll need to run successfully for a lifetime.

In 1989, leadership guru Stephen R. Covey wrote his famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, in which he identified traits shared by successful individuals from all walks of life. Great concept. The book sold millions. We decided to do the same with running. We checked in with Olympians, pros, coaches, exercise physiologists, and regular folks with 2 or 3 decades of running under their belts, and we found that there are actually eight habits of highly successful runners (sorry, Mr. Covey).

An important caveat here: By "successful" we don't necessarily mean fast, though following these habits will certainly help you get faster. To us, successful runners are those who are happy and motivated for the long haul. If and when these runners race, they race well, and get the most from their efforts. They are rarely injured, and enjoy total-body strength and fitness. Above all, successful runners are healthy, energized, optimistic individuals.

And they got this way because of their running habits, which you can easily integrate into your own running lifestyle. At which point they become second nature.

In the end, successful running isn't always a matter of luck or genes or even personality. It's about doing the right things. Eight of them, to be exact.

HABIT 1: Focus on Quality, Not Quantity

When researchers at the University of South Carolina studied 583 veteran runners recently, they found that the most important predictor for injuries was total mileage. Those who ran 40 miles a week or more were more likely to get hurt. This doesn't mean you should never do more than 40 miles a week in your training; some people handle the high mileage just fine. (Also, most marathon training plans have you doing more than 40, but only for a short period.) However, the research does suggest that, over the long haul, running more quality miles may be the way to go.

Mike Keohane, who competed in the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon and is now a New York City-based running coach, says his ideal training week would look like this: A long run, a tempo run, and a hilly run. "Twenty miles a week of quality running is going to beat 35 miles of plodding, hands down," he says.

Make it stick: Try the "7-8-10-Go" plan this winter. In the first stage of this program, you run three times a week: 7 miles on Tuesday, 8 on Thursday, and 10 on Saturday or Sunday. You'll still get 25 miles a week, while giving your body a full day's rest between runs.

After 4 to 6 weeks, begin to add a little quality to this regimen. Throw in some hills on the Tuesday run, and pick up the pace on Thursday--even by just 10 to 15 seconds per mile.

Then, as you get into the racing preseason (March and April), it's time to, that is. Now, you add a fourth day of training: interval repeats. There are lots of ways to do that, of course. One way to ease into it is to do 60-second pick-ups, alternating 60 seconds of hard running with 60 seconds of jogging. Do five sets of those (a total of 10 minutes), then cool down for a mile. Build up to 90-second pick-ups, then 2-minute pick-ups, and so on.

The beauty of this program is that you're getting three or four quality runs in per week, which minimizes total mileage while maximizing fitness. This also keeps injury risk low.

HABIT 2: Pump Iron

Alan Jung, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, recently reviewed the existing scientific literature on the effects of strength training on runners. His conclusion: "Distance runners of all levels can benefit from a resistance-training program." Why? Because it helps prevent injuries. Because it improves your running economy (the amount of oxygen you use when you run), and thus race performance. Because it can offset the loss of muscle that occurs as you age. And because it strengthens the tendons, ligaments, and bones that enable you to run smoothly and effectively.

Make it stick: A program using free weights or resistance machines is the best way to build strength, and you only need to lift twice a week (after running or on a rest day) to see serious strength gains. But you can begin at home with three basic strength-building exercises. If done properly, these exercises--which require only your body weight as resistance--will boost your total-body fitness in just 3 weeks.

1. Pushups: Keep your back straight and your palms flat, slightly wider than shoulder width. Descend slowly, until your chest and hips are inches from the floor. Push up faster than you came down, pause at the top, and repeat.
2. Crunches: Lie on your back with your legs bent at a 90-degree angle and feet flat on the floor. Cross your hands over your chest, then raise your shoulders, keeping your lower back on the floor. Feel the tension in the stomach muscles, then lower your shoulders slowly, and repeat.
3. Squats: Keeping your back straight, your head up, and your hands out in front for balance, slowly descend into a seated position, with legs bent at a 90-degree angle. Then push up from your heels to a straight-standing position, keeping your feet on the floor. Depending on your current strength, try doing two sets of 10 to 20 repetitions of each exercise, and work up from there.

HABIT 3: Get Off The Roads

Physical therapist and ultradistance runner David Balsley has been taking broken runners and putting them back together again for 30 years. His advice: Get on the treadmill, find a trail, hit the rubberized track--whatever it takes to decrease your time on the pavement. "The surface is just too hard," says Balsley. At the very least, he says, "Avoid concrete roads; asphalt is softer. Better yet, try to stay on the soft shoulder."

This doesn't mean you should stay off the roads altogether, as they're still the most available surface for most of us. But there are many other more forgiving surfaces.

Make it stick: Make 1 day a week your "off-road day." This week, try running on a treadmill. Next week, scout out a local trail and run there. If you live near a boardwalk, hit the boards the third week, or find an even, grassy surface in a park. (To find a trail near you, visit the All American Trail Running Association's Web site at

HABIT 4: Take Care of Your Body

You won't be a runner for long--certainly not a happy one--if you're constantly injured or feeling burned out. To help keep you energized and raring to go, Clint Verran, an elite marathoner and physical therapist in Rochester Hills, Michigan, offers this checklist for preventive maintenance of the runner's body:

  • Change your shoes every 300 to 500 miles.
  • Stretch after every run.
  • Get a weekly massage, with emphasis on the legs.
  • Get sufficient, regular sleep (most people need 7 to 8 hours).
  • Consider taking a glucosamine supplement to keep your joints healthy.
  • Seek medical attention for chronic problems, both physical and mental.

Make it stick: Along with the checklist above, try this: After your next run, take a walk. When former U.S. Olympic marathoner and ultradistance champion Ted Corbitt ran regular 30-mile training runs in New York City's Central Park, he noticed that what he did immediately afterward had a huge impact on how he felt. "When I took the subway home, I'd be stiff and sore for days," says Corbitt, now 84 and still running strong. "But when I walked home, which took me about an hour, I'd never have any muscle soreness." Okay, we're not saying you need to walk an hour after all your runs, but even 5 minutes is a great way to cool down, mentally regroup, and help those leg muscles recover more quickly.

HABIT 5: Keep It Fresh, Keep It Fun

We runners can be creatures of habit, which is fine. That's what this article is all about, after all. But we can take our running habits too far, in which case they become ruts. To keep your running from getting stale, make a habit of shaking things up on occasion--by changing your running route, your training program, and your races.

"One way to do this is to plan one new running adventure a year," says Gale Bernhardt of Boulder, Colorado, an endurance coach for "Maybe it's a relay race you do with your training buddies, maybe it's exploring a new trail, or maybe it's a marathon in an interesting place. Whatever it is, make it something different and interesting."

This advice can also extend to what you wear. While ours is not an accessory-driven sport, there have been tremendous innovations in running gadgets and apparel in the last 10 years. Keep your mind open to these things.

Make it stick: Give yourself a running makeover this year--and every year thereafter. Here's how:

  • Try a new brand of shoes.
  • Buy a new winter (and summer) running outfit.
  • Tweak your running schedule: Do one of your weekly runs on a different day than you normally do, or at a different time than you normally do.
  • Run a different course each month--with someone you haven't run with in a while. Plan a running adventure for you, your family, or your training friends. Check or for interesting new places and events to try.

HABIT 6: Run To The Peaks, Rest In The Valleys

Elite runners train hard, but not all year long. After peaking for major races, Deena (Drossin) Kastor, Sonia O'Sullivan, and Joseph Chebet take time off. So should you. A week or two--maybe twice a year--will enable you to rest and recharge. Use the time to do some cycling, begin a home project, or take a vacation. You'll come back to running stronger than ever. And don't worry: You won't lose conditioning during this relatively short break. If you're worried about gaining weight, this is the time to explore the gym, start a strength-training program (see Habit 2), or simply get out for a brisk 20-minute walk each day.

Make it stick: Take a holiday from running, but stay active with a health club "six pack." That is, over a 12-day period, try six different activities spread out every other day. For example, take a spin class 1 day, do a circuit of free weights next time, hop on the elliptical trainer for 30 minutes, do a circuit of resistance machines, walk on the treadmill for 30 minutes, and take a yoga class. The stretching and strengthening will be good for your body, you'll burn plenty of calories thanks to the cardio work, and you'll return to running fit, happy, and energized. Also, you may just find a favorite new cross-training activity or two you'll want to continue with. (If you don't belong to a gym, most clubs sell weekly or monthly memberships.)

HABIT 7: Build An Extended Running Family

When then 42-year-old Dick Murphy started running in 1977, he hooked up with a group of runners who trained near the bucolic Nissequogue River in the New York City suburb of Smithtown. They called themselves the River Road Rats. A year after he started running with the group, Murphy qualified for the Boston Marathon, and he's done it every year since. Murphy, now 68, attributes his consistency and longevity in the sport to the Rats. "They're a great bunch of people," says Murphy. "We run together, solve the world's problems, then go out and have breakfast together every Sunday."

While the solitude of a solo run will always remain one of the great joys of our sport, chances are you'll stay more motivated if you plug into a "running family." That could be a local club or training group like the River Road Rats, an online runner's forum, or simply a group of training partners and friends. Together, you'll help each other stay in the game for many years to come.

Make it stick: Visit to find a running club in your area. Or just make a point to start getting together with a running friend or two each week at the same scenic locale.

HABIT 8: Run For Others

Ask yourself this question: Why do I run? To feel better, sure. To stay fit, definitely. Still, as our running lives progress, we sometimes need more than this to get ourselves out the door. Ruth Anne Bortz started running at age 48. That was back in 1978, and she's still at it. In fact, she completed the Boston Marathon in 2002 with her husband, Walter, making them the oldest married couple ever to do so.

But her motivation has changed during that time. "Early on, I ran for competition," says Bortz. "Then I ran as an example to my children. Now, I'm running to get others started. I see myself as an apostle of running."

Make it stick: Make this the year to join thousands of other charity runners who run and race while raising funds for worthy causes, through such programs as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training ( or the Arthritis Found-ation's Joints in Motion ( Or do like Ruth Anne Bortz does. Be an apostle. Spread the good word about our sport. Each year, try to get at least one friend, co-worker, or family member to start running. Again, the idea here is to incorporate each of these eight training habits into your exercise program. This will take conscious effort at first, and you'll need to sift through what works and what doesn't. But if you're diligent, and stick with the program for a few weeks, these strategies will become standard operating procedure.

The goal of BODi is to provide you with solutions to reach your health and fitness goals. Click here to learn more about BODi Coach Rich Dafter.

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