Can running really be fun? Okay, I’ll tell you the truth.
Every once in a while, yes, running is fun … for a few minutes. But most of the time — even for me, a longtime runner — it’s not fun. At least, not in the normal, instant-gratification way we usually think of fun.
But here’s what running is.
Peaceful. A time to unplug and enjoy the outdoors. A chance to think through problems, to brainstorm, or to shut your brain off. Cheaper than therapy. Uninterrupted time to listen to something that inspires you, whether that’s music or an audiobook or a podcast. A means of doing things that once seemed impossible, reserved for the athletically gifted. And an invigorating activity that leaves you feeling accomplished and energized for the rest of the day.
Oh, right … it also happens to be a really efficient form of exercise.
Of course, the first time you run (and probably the second, and third), it’s none of these. It’s hard and it’s painful and it leaves you gasping for air. It’s no wonder so many people claim to hate running.
How to Learn to Enjoy Running
It doesn’t have to be this way — it shouldn’t be this way. There are simple steps you can take to make the process of becoming a runner a whole lot easier than most people make it. I’m going to share those with you here.
1. Walk before you run.
Many people, when they start running for the first time, aren’t able to run more than a few minutes without stopping. But because they think a workout should last longer than that, they try to tough it out and run right through the point where their body says, “Stop!” The result, of course, is a lot of pain, and a bad mental association with running.
Instead, incorporate walk breaks into your running. Couch to 5K and Runner’s World offer free beginners’ training plans that start out with just one minute of easy running between longer walk breaks. As you gain fitness and become comfortable with this amount of running, you’ll gradually increase the ratio of running to walking until you’re able to run for three miles or 30 minutes without stopping.
2. Run slower than you think you need to.
When we were kids in gym class, well-meaning teachers hammered into our heads that the point of running was to run fast: Run the mile, as fast as you can (you’ll be timed and compared to everyone else!). Run a lap, and if you finish last, run another one.
Is it any wonder that now that we’re all grown up, we hate running?
The point of running, at least now that we’re out of the jungle (and out of gym class), isn’t to go fast — it’s to run in a way that feels good. So try something for me next time you go for a run. Start with the pace you’d normally run, then slow down. Way down.
If you know what your normal mile pace is, try slowing it down by two minutes to start. That should be slow enough that you can easily carry on a conversation while you run. It’ll feel like you’re barely exceeding walking pace, and you’ll hope nobody that you know sees you!
But want to know a secret? Slowing down like this is how people finish half marathons, marathons, and ultramarathons. And even advanced runners do the bulk of their training miles at this “conversational” pace. While you’re learning to love running, you should too — give up the notion that you need to feel winded at the end of every workout, and just enjoy the feeling of running this way.
3. Take short, quick strides.
Trying to remember 10 different form tips while you run is a sure way to suck the fun out of it. Instead, just remember one.
You want to take about three steps each second (180 per minute — 90 on each foot). That’s way more than what feels natural, but this doesn’t mean you need to run any faster — instead, shorten your stride so that even though you’re taking more steps, your pace stays the same.
Why run this way? As ultramarathon legend Scott Jurek puts it in Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour Body, “When you focus on increasing stride rate, much of the rest corrects itself.” The shorter, quicker strides help prevent injury by forcing you to run gently, with your weight over your feet, instead of crashing down hard on your heel with your leg way out in front of you with every step. Essentially, this technique forces you to run the way you were designed to — the way you would if you were barefoot.
One warning: increasing your stride rate is going to feel really weird at first, and you’ll probably have to slow down a bit from the pace you’re used to running to avoid getting winded. Your body will adapt within a few weeks, but if you find this is making it harder for you to enjoy running, skip this step and come back to it once your running habit is more ingrained.
4. Engineer the experience the way you like it.
So what if running purists don’t wear headphones? If listening to upbeat music or even a podcast or audiobook (this is what I do) helps you look forward to your time on the roads, then do it!
And speaking of roads, who says that’s the only place to run? Try trail running, running on a path around a lake or through a park, or running along the beach if you’ve got the luxury to do so. Pick a place that inspires you.
Another idea: try running in minimalist or barefoot shoes. Doing so requires some additional precautions, since most of us have run and walked in shoes our whole lives and haven’t developed the muscles in our feet, but running without clunky running shoes is an entirely different experience than the running most people know.
Or how about meditating? Running with a friend? There are so many ways to make running more fulfilling than just, well, running. Experiment and find which one takes running to another level for you.
5. Train for a race.
Running for exercise is one thing. Training for something bigger than any one run, something that right now might seem downright impossible, is an entirely different experience. And it happens to be my favorite part of running.
Not everyone likes having goals, and not everyone likes racing. But even if you don’t care about how long it takes you to finish (“race” is a misleading term), training to run a certain distance can be what reveals the runner you never knew was inside you. And if a 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon, or ultra doesn’t excite you, keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be a traditional race: trail races, mud runs, and obstacle races add another element of excitement and fitness that you might find more appealing than simply running on roads.
So once you’ve achieved a basic level of comfort with running (enough that you think you’ll stick with it), consider what signing up for a race and committing to a training plan to get you there would do for your motivation level. If it gives you butterflies just to imagine crossing that finish line, you know you’re onto something.
Finally, don’t forget to reward yourself!
Remember, as with any other habit you’re trying to form, rewarding yourself is important when you’re trying to condition a habit of running. So as soon as you walk in the door after your run (or your run/walk), do something that feels good. It could be as simple as making a big, red X on your calendar, or checking in on Facebook or a similar site that’s geared towards running, like Daily Mile.
Of course, the ultimate goal is to make running its own reward. And as unimaginable as that may seem right now, if you follow the five steps above, don’t be surprised if you get there sooner than you think.