Updated: Aug 13, 2020
At some point, every runner asks themselves the same question...how do I get better at running?
If you search online for an answer you'll find everything from detox diets, to running products, to stretches and running workouts.
And those might help you run a little faster, for a while.
But if you're really trying to run faster, run longer, and stay healthy over the long haul...the truth isn't as easy as buying a new foam roller.
In fact, the truth is ugly. And slow. And boring. So, it's no wonder why so many people never get to become the runner they want to be.
When we set goals in life, we try to take the quickest path from where we are to where we want to be.
Something like this...
A straight, flat road taking us where we want to be, as fast as possible.
If you want to become a doctor you plan on graduating high school, going to college, going to medical school, getting a residency and then becoming an attending doctor.
If you want to become a professional violinist you might plan on practicing every day, attending a prestigious performance program, being picked up by an orchestra and playing professionally.
Those sound like great plans...of course, what you plan and what actually happen are two very different things, and life rarely turns out the way we expect it to.
I'm not saying you shouldn't have goals, and I'm not saying you can't achieve those goals.
What I'm saying is...
1) You have to plan for the unexpected. As the old saying goes...Life happens. There are countless reasons why your plans may be thrown off track. It's important to be prepared for bumps along the way. You can't give up at the first sign of adversity.
2) You must be willing to adapt. When you run into a problem you have to be willing to be flexible and change your plans to the new circumstances. If you are unwilling to compromise it will be much harder to succeed.
What happens if you realize you can't afford college? Should you give up on your dream of becoming a doctor? NO! You just need to adapt. Maybe you can work for a few years to save up enough money for school. Maybe you can go to a cheaper community college and earn scholarships.
What happens if you don't get accepted into a prestigious performance program? Should you give up? NO! You just need to adapt. You might need to perform locally, create a name for yourself online, and market your skills before you're able to audition for an orchestra.
More often than not, the path to our goal looks more like this...
Yes, it can be frustrating, even demoralizing, to change your plans or re-imagine your dreams...but the alternative is worse.
The alternative is giving up. Letting the sun set on something that once meant so much to you because it was too hard.
Well, if I've learned anything about life over the past 33 years it's that the best things in life don't come easy...you have to earn them.
Running is no different.
Becoming a better runner will have it's ups and downs...
As soon as you find a running program that you really like, you'll have to start traveling for work.
When you finally feel like you're getting over your ankle injury, you'll get shin splints.
After saving up enough money for your first pair of nice running shoes, your car will break down.
It can feel like you're always taking 2 steps forward and 1 step back and, in a sense, you are.
But after taking those 2 steps forward and 1 step back, you're still 1 step ahead of where you used to be, and that is the art of becoming a better runner.
A big part of improving is learning what works for you, and what doesn't. You have to figure out what a good weekly mileage is for you, what workouts really help you build endurance, which workouts leave you the most drained the next day, how you recover the best, and tons of other things that you can't just learn by reading a book.
Lots of times, the way that we learn these things about ourselves is by doing them the wrong way. When we do things the wrong way it often leads to setbacks. So although you might not feel like you're progressing, you really are.
You are gaining experience which is laying the foundation for you to build on.
So, just do your best. Take things easier than you think you should and remember that it doesn't matter how fast your moving, as long as you're moving forward.
Which brings me to my next point...
Improving as a runner takes a long time.
You won't make noticeable changes in speed, strength or endurance in just a few weeks. It takes months, maybe even years, to make significant and consistent changes to your running.
Over the course of those months or years you will encounter setbacks, I promise!
You might get injured, have a baby, get married, quit your job, get a new job, travel, get sick, have a family emergency, over-train, or lose motivation!
I have personally gone through every single one of these while trying to improve as a runner.
The reason I'm still running today is because I'm willing to adapt.
I know that I'm going to encounter twists and turns on this journey to becoming the best runner I can be, so when I face a problem, I'm mentally prepared. I knew this was coming, now it's time to adapt my plan and carry on.
My most recent example of a setback...
Several weeks ago my wife had a family emergency and had to travel to Ecuador (where she is originally from) to be with her family.
That meant I was taking care of my two kids and working from home!
Obviously I wasn't going to be able to go for a run during my kids' naps, because I can't leave them home alone! So, did I just stop running...? NO! I adapted to the situation and I started running on my treadmill and lifting weights at home.
About 3 days in, my treadmill broke! Did I stop running...? NO! Again, I adapted to the situation and I started riding my bike trainer.
Yes, I probably lost some fitness during those 3 weeks. Yes, it hindered my running progress. Yes, it was a bummer to not be able to run for almost a month.
But, the bottom line is my family is more important than running, and I did my best to adapt to the new circumstances and continue working hard to make the best of the situation.
If I had just said "Well, it's out of my hands now, I can't run...guess I'll just watch TV instead" I would have been setting myself up for failure.
I would have lost even more fitness, but more importantly, I would have shifted my mindset.
I would have been a quitter.
Instead, I chose to earn it by finding an alternative plan that still allowed me to chase after my goal of becoming a better runner.
While it wasn't ideal to be riding a spin bike instead of running, I was still getting a good workout in everyday and I was proving to myself how determined I was not to give up.
Listen, I know it's hard.
One day you're doing 15 mile long runs and crushing PR's. The next day you roll your ankle and you're off your feet for 3 weeks.
Or you have a baby and start averaging 4 hours of sleep a night.
Or you get sick and feel like you can't get out of bed for a week.
I know it sucks because I've been there too.
And sometimes, it's not so dramatic. Sometimes you might not be making progress like you think you should. Maybe you've been having a hard time keeping up with the distances or paces you're aiming for.
Maybe you just don't feel like running anymore...
There is no magic way to change your situation, but you may be able to change your mindset.
So, here are a couple things I do to help me keep my mind right when I face those inevitable setbacks.
Remember that you're not alone in this. It might not seem like it right now, but everyone faces problems like these. Every runner I've ever met has dealt with the types of issues that I've encountered, whether it's sickness, injury, or lack of motivation.
Think about the long term. It always helps for me to look at the big picture. If I have an injury and I need to stay off my feet for 4 weeks, what is that in the grand scheme of things? I hope to be running for the rest of my life, so a couple weeks here and there isn't a big deal.
Treat your setback as an opportunity. I know it seems kinda cheesy, but I always try to look at my setback as a learning experience. If you can pull 1 or 2 things away from this experience that will help you be better prepared for the next setback, you're winning!
Most of the times these help me deal with whatever problem I'm having, but sometimes they don't.
When I really feel down in the dumps about where I'm at with running I just talk to other runners. It's cathartic to lament with others who have dealt with similar setbacks and often times they'll have great advice on how to overcome it.
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If you're facing obstacles in your running journey right now, leave a comment below and I'll get back to you.
I really do think that talking with other runners about your setbacks is one of the best way to move past them.