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How making running a habit helped me improve

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

I go on and on about how consistency is key with marathon training (and running training in general). But I wasn’t always consistent with my training.

I have written recently about things I learnt from my second and third marathons. My preparation for both was far from ideal. I struggled to follow my program, moved sessions to different days, ran hard sessions back to back, ran in the morning, ran in the evening, ran in the middle of the day. I was the definition of all over the place. And I didn’t achieve the results I was hoping for.

When I started to prepare for the Berlin marathon in 2016, I knew something had to change. The first thing I did was look back at my previous training to see what had worked and what hadn’t. One thing that stood out was that what I was doing was quite complicated, which was probably why I was struggling to do the sessions.

I decided to simplify it to make it easier to manage, with the aim of actually getting the work in. I gave myself the goal of getting five runs in per week – a steady or tempo run on Tuesday, a steady run on Wednesday, intervals on Thursday, parkrun on Saturday and a long run on Sunday. The plan was to follow the same schedule each week to get into a routine with it.

The first thing I did was go back to doing group runs that were easily available. I did a lot of running alone during my training for Canberra marathon, as the program I was following included two interval sessions a week that didn’t fit in with my club’s schedule. I often ended up struggling, not enjoying them, and cutting them short, which meant I hadn’t done enough training when I got the start line.

I decided that the type of session was less important than getting a run done, so I started going back to my club sessions on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Knowing there was a group to run with made it so much easier that trying to go out alone.

My mid-week long run was up to 90 minutes after work. I actually got quite a few of those in when training for Canberra because I worked close to home and could get them started when it was still light. But what I wasn’t consistent with was when I did them, fitting them in on random days depending on whether or not I felt like doing intervals. For my Berlin prep, I had a different job with a long commute, which meant it was dark by the time I started.

I arranged to meet a friend for most of them. Once we had done it a few times, it became automatic to get home, get dressed and go out. Neither of us had every cancelled a training run, and I definitely wasn’t going to be the one to start! We did the same for our Sunday morning runs.

Saturday morning was the easiest, with my partner also getting up for parkrun, and the reward of breakfast that usually followed. I even made it out for a few Monday evening recovery runs.

It became routine because I kept it simple and easy to follow, and didn’t have to think about which to run to do or where to fit it in. I knew that Tuesday meant getting off the train a stop early to be picked up, Wednesday meant leaving the house as soon as I got home so I could have dinner before 9pm, Thursday was a repeat of Tuesday, and the weekends meant early nights for early mornings.

Once I was used to going out at each of those times, it was easy enough to add a bit each week on the sessions that needed to build up for the marathon.

There were only two weeks in my training block when I didn’t get at least five runs in, and one of those was because I was sick. The result was consistent training for the first time in my life, and a big marathon PB.

Image of my running week
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday.. Repeat. Habit = consistency!

The following year (2017), a few things changed. I took a break after Berlin, and the main habits I had were sleeping and eating! I had entered another marathon and wanted to get started on my training, but needed to rebuild the running habit.

The thing holding me back was that I didn’t want to run at nights anymore. My friend’s scheduled had changed and she was going earlier on Wednesdays. Tuesdays and Thursdays finished around 7:30pm, which meant dinner at 8:30pm at the earliest. It had started to feel like we didn’t have an evening, and finishing work and still having to do something was becoming tiring.

The obvious answer was running in the mornings. The obvious problem was I hated mornings!

I planned my approach to create a morning running habit, the first step was just making it out the door. I started small, one day a week, Wednesday. A night time Wednesday run would finish at 8pm, so doing that in the morning would free up a huge chunk of time. I set my alarm to give myself enough time to get out of bed and run for half an hour, get back home, shower and make my train.

It wasn’t easy, I like to sleep! The snooze button was my friend, I’d consider not getting up, and procrastinate until I finally dragged myself out about two minutes before it was too late to fit in half an hour. I put my clothes, my watch, my keys, my ID all out the night before so I could get ready in the least amount of time possible.

I did it one week, then the next, and again the next one after that. I did it for a few weeks until I started to repeat the process on Tuesday, Thursday and eventually Friday.

As my runs got longer, the start times got earlier, and my time saving techniques increased. I snooze for less time, take the latest possible train, have the shortest possible lunch break, eat breakfast at my desk and do my hair on the go.

Once I’m in the routine, I’m usually pretty good at getting up and going. I actually enjoy going out in the morning and feeling like I’ve achieved something before I get to work. And it keeps the nights free for other things, even if it is only dinner and falling asleep at 9pm.

But on the mornings where I’m tired and need a bit more sleep, or if I’m trying to get back into training after a break, I go back to the way I started – getting myself up for at least a half an hour run, just to maintain the habit. It might not make me any fitter, but it does make sure that running in still part of my morning. Because once the habit is broken once, it’s easier to break again!

To summarise, here are my tips for making running a habit, and sticking to it!

  1. Go at the same time each day, each week

  2. Arrange to meet people

  3. Something is better than nothing! If you’re tired or pressed for time, do something short to maintain the habit

  4. If it’s not working anymore, change the habit

  5. Keep it simple!

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