Learn to Run … and Be Happy About it

Honestly, anyone can become a runner! This I learned from teaching “jogging” as a university elective. With a little guidance, an entire class of 30 students is almost always able to run 40 continuous minutes by week 8—regardless of fitness, experience, and body type. This is a nice accomplishment for students but it is not the ultimate goal of the class. The ultimate goal is to help the student become a “happy runner”—someone who runs often and enjoys it. Unfortunately, most “rookies” struggle quite a bit and feel like they are miles from being happy runners. Fortunately, the truth is that most are just a tip or two away. Similarly, most established recreational runners are just a tip or two away from dramatically boosting performance (shaving 30+ seconds per mile). I will present my top tips to help you become a happy runner and reach your potential.

The primary objective: Engage your brain!
If you want to become a happy runner, you need to forget about your legs! Instead, focus on your brain. You will succeed if you can find ways to make running a positive experience for your brain. Do this and you will become addicted to running; you will become one of those people who simply must run.

Each time you run, the primary goal should be to get your brain in a state of “flow”. Flow is the scientific term psychologists use to describe optimal experience. Simply put, flow means that “you are totally into it”—you become completely engaged in the activity and time flies. Flow was first presented by the famous Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Read his NY Times best-seller “Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience” if you are interested in learning the details. Flow is now very well researched and applied in many fields.

Happy runners find a way to get their brain in a state of flow each run. And most do it with just a simple strategy or two. You likely can too. I’ll share 9 classic strategies for you to try. Try those that sound the best for you. Once you find 2-3 strategies that work well, you will become fired up to run, and run often. Then, your only concern will be “overtraining”!  That is a much better problem than struggling!

Strategy 1. Embrace a moderate challenge
You control how challenging each run will be. It’s absolutely critical to optimize the challenge for yourself. Sport and Exercise Psychologists have revealed that a moderate challenge works best for most people. This phenomenon is described as the “inverted U”. Basically, this means that performance improves as the challenge increases. But performance peaks at a moderate challenge level. Then, when the challenge becomes too great the athlete becomes too stressed/aroused and performance begins to decline.

The bottom line is that you must make your run challenging enough to “intimidate” yourself, but don’t overdo it. A moderate challenge should naturally focus/arouse/engage your brain. Make it too easy and your brain will fail to “wake up”. Make it too difficult and your brain will feel “overwhelmed”. Make it just right and you are likely to experience flow. And after a “flow run” you will feel alive, proud, satisfied, and excited for next time. So, for the majority of your runs, choose a distance and/or pace that is challenging enough to engage your brain.

Strategy 2. Commit to a training program
Formal training programs are brain-friendly for two reasons. First, programs instruct exactly what to do and when to do it. This greatly simplifies life for the brain—it eliminates decisions such as when to run, how far, how fast, etc. Second, formal programs clearly lay down the challenge for each run. The brain loves a clear challenge; knowing exactly what you need to do to succeed should get you focused and in flow.

Beginners/novice. If you are a beginner or novice, try out a program such as “couch to 5k” (http://www.coolrunning.com). The program guides you through three workouts a week for 8 weeks. Then, you will be ready to run a 5K. The app is great—it tracks you and instructs you during the run. The workouts vary quite a bit over the 8 weeks. For example, in week 1 you alternate running 60 seconds and walking 90 seconds for a total of 20 minutes. By week 4 you alternate 3-5 minutes of jogging with 90 seconds of walking.

Advanced. If you are more advanced, or have plateaued, you are likely to become super-engaged from a challenging running program like the McMillan Running Calculator (http://www.mcmillanrunning.com). For this program, you enter your current race time along with the race time you wish to achieve. The program shares the exact training runs to complete to achieve your goal. This program was introduced to me by a college runner who was able to shave his 5K time by over a minute (after being plateaued for 2 years).

Strategy 3. Compete in races
Most runners love to race. Preparing to race elevates your entire approach. The race will likely be on your mind each time you train, eat, etc. This can really improve your brain engagement—you’ll suddenly find yourself training and focused instead of searching for energy to “go for a jog”. Once again, the key is to keep the challenge moderate. Choose a race distance and/or goal time that will intimidate you a bit, but don’t overdo it. A 5K race is the perfect start for most runners. Most 5K races are $20-30, well-organized, and supportive of a good cause.

Strategy 4. Shoot for negative splits
Many runners can fully engage their brain by simply shooting for a “negative split”. All this means is that you try to run the second half of your run faster than the first. Elite runners embrace this strategy—most world records are negative splits. Give it a try on a simple “out and back” run. On the way out, focus on getting in a rhythm. Run as fast as you can comfortably. You should feel like you are “rollin’” by the time you are ¼ of the way through your run—your body should feel relaxed, your breathing should be consistent, and your stride rate should feel rapid. Ideally, you feel like you are on “autopilot”—each stride should feel identical and your legs should feel like they are “running themselves”.

At the halfway point of the run your focus should change slightly. Try to maintain the rhythm you created but increase the effort slightly. Your body will shift from “comfortable” to “comfortably uncomfortable”. The run will become quite demanding at the ¾ point. This is when your body will start to feel “uncomfortable”. But you can fight through it because you are close to the finish! Try to finish hard for the last 100-400 meters. This will do wonders for your fitness. Negative splitting is a great alternative to starting runs quick and struggling with discomfort for the entire race/run.

Strategy 6. Design a “segmented” running route
Try to design at least one running route that is comprised of several different terrains/environments/challenges. This will break the run into smaller “segments”—the variety can do wonders for your brain engagement. Each segment of the run will likely require a unique focus/challenge. To help you better understand, I’ll describe a 6.5 mile segmented run I regularly complete to train for races.

  • ½ mile on a pedestrian path to the beach (warm-up)
  • ½ mile on beach to a park with running trails (establish a comfortable rhythm)
  • ½ mile moderately challenging wooded trail (maintain comfortable rhythm)
  • ¾ mile on paved park road (10K race pace)
  • 1 ¼ mile challenging wooded trail (recovery pace – “comfortably uncomfortable”)
  • Repeat ¾ mile on paved park road (go for negative split – 5K race pace)
  • Repeat 1 ¼ mile challenging woods trail (go for negative split – slightly faster than trial 1)
  • ½ mile down beach towards home (comfortably uncomfortable)
  • ½ mile finish down pedestrian path (“big finish” – faster than 5K race pace)

This run is broken into 9 distinct segments. Each segment is a unique experience and challenge that keeps my brain fully engaged.

Strategy 7. Repeat a run each week
It can be very helpful to have a “bread and butter” run that you complete often, at least once a week. For example, I run a 3 mile loop in my neighborhood 2-3 times each week. I have every step of that run memorized. And I know exactly how my legs and breathing should feel each at each point in the run because I have completed it a few hundred times in the past few years. It’s amazing how much you can learn by repeating runs. The feedback is clear and obvious; it’s easy to learn the impact of training, weather, time of day, pre-run eating, fatigue, etc. This approach offers great opportunities for brain engagement. Also, try establishing consistent runs at places you visit regularly. For example, I complete the same 5 mile run each time we visit the grandparents. I record the run each visit using an app on my phone. I’m always excited to complete that run and compare my results to previous visits. It’s super-engaging and a great way to build fitness over the holidays.

Strategy 8. Commit to a “social run” each week
Your brain is hard-wired to be social. Not surprisingly, most runners love to train with others. Definitely commit to at least one social run each week. It’s easy to engage your brain when you run with others. Performance improves for almost everyone in a group atmosphere; the energy of the group almost always makes it easier to run faster and/or farther than you would alone. Or, your brain may become engaged in good conversation with your running partner (and you may not even notice that you’re running quite fast). Run with a friend, join a club, check for group runs at local running shops… It will definitely be worth it!

I recently discussed this topic with a former student who was a top runner for her university. Upon graduation, she accepted an internship across the country. She immediately found a group of “fast guys” to run with that helped her rise to a new level. After 2 months she broke her 5K personal best.

Another great social option is, of course, the stroller run. It certainly is satisfying to give your child a healthy break and some fresh air. Or, run with additional purpose: push your kid(s) to an event like preschool or a soccer game. The added challenge of the stroller is definitely.

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