I have a theory about why so many people tell themselves that they don’t like running. Remember how we all used to have to do the mile run in gym class? One day, instead of playing dodge ball, floor hockey, or something else that was fun, our gym teachers would make us run as fast as we could for a whole mile.
For most of us, it was the only time we’d run that far all year. Our times were recorded, and if you were the ten-minute miler in the class or simply the slowest, you were laughed at.
In this way, we learned to run. Go as hard as you can for a mile. It’ll hurt, you’ll probably cough a lot, and that last lap and sprint to the finish line will be pure pain. But in a few minutes, that miserable mile will be done, and you won’t have to do it again until next year.
If this is running, is it any wonder so many of us say we hate it?
Before I was a runner, that’s exactly what running meant to me, but I’d run in-between weightlifting sessions anyway, hoping to burn some fat. I remember the first time I ever pushed the distance to two miles on the treadmill—as fast as I could manage, of course—and I found it so painful and boring that I distinctly recall thinking, “If this is how it feels to be a runner, there’s no way I’ll ever become one.”
If this sounds familiar, take heart. I am living proof that the ability to run well isn’t something you’re either born with or you’re not, though there’s no denying that some people have a gift for running. Most of us will never approach a four-minute mile or two-and-a-half hour marathon, but I truly believe that if done correctly, anyone can learn to love running. And perhaps more inspiring, just about anyone (that’s you!) can train themselves to run a 5K, a half marathon, a marathon, or even an ultramarathon (any race longer than 26.2 miles). You read that right—just about anyone.
You, the Marathoner?
There’s a secret about distance running that people who think they hate it don’t understand. Ready?
Running a 5K (3.1 miles) isn’t three times harder than that gym-class mile was, and running a marathon isn’t even close to 26.2 times as hard as that mile.
Why? Because nobody could possibly keep up their gym-class mile intensity (and misery) for much longer than that one mile. That was an all-out effort, and it was often the only running we did all year! If you’re not in shape and haven’t built up your aerobic system and your endurance, then of course running hard for eight or ten minutes is going to feel terrible.
But to run a marathon, a half marathon, or even a 5K—and more importantly, to endure the months of training that go into it—everything about your running must change, from your mindset to your form. And that makes endurance running an entirely different (and much more comfortable) experience than that gym-class mile ever was.
Demonstrating to yourself that your body is capable of running long past what you probably think is the breaking point can work absolute wonders for your confidence, your motivation, your body—in short, your entire life.
I once heard Brendan Brazier, the vegan professional Ironman triathlete, say that the longer an endurance event is, the more the race becomes about the quality of your training and the less about your natural talent. That’s how Brendan was able to become a pro athlete—as a kid, he understood that if he worked hard enough and was smart about his training and diet, he could become a pro Ironman triathlete (an Ironman requires its participants to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and if that weren’t enough, run a marathon to cap off the day).
This is a remarkable distinction, with an incredibly inspiring implication! It means that as average Joes and Janes, we’re far more likely to perform well—and enjoy the profound benefits to our lives that come from proving to ourselves just how much we’re capable of—if we focus on the very events that appear the most daunting. I’m talking about endurance events, like half marathons, marathons, and beyond—awe-inspiring distances to the average person on the street who likely won’t run that far all year!
This is why I love running and endurance training in general. And it’s why I hope you’ll give it a chance, even if somewhere along the line you’ve gotten the idea that you’re not built for this sort of thing. Demonstrating to yourself that your body is capable of running long past what you probably think is the breaking point can work absolute wonders for your confidence, your motivation, your body—in short, your entire life.
And as another bonus: if your interest as a vegetarian or vegan is in spreading the message, what better way to inspire your family, friends, and coworkers than by doing something the “old you” would have thought impossible?
Like a Fine Wine …
There’s one more reason running is a fantastic choice of sport for getting fit and staying that way for the rest of your life. It’s that, in a way, running favors age. As runner and author Joan Ullyot put it, “No matter what your age when you start running, you can expect about 10 years of improvement. That’s how long it takes to learn the game.”
Hear that? No matter what your age. If you look at aggregate marathon statistics year-to-year, you’ll see something remarkable: Runners aged forty-five to forty-nine consistently average faster finish times than those in the twenty-to-twenty-four age group. How can this be? Surely those twenty-somethings are fitter, more durable, and more energetic, right?
Perhaps. But in general, they don’t have the experience that older runners do, and with endurance sports, experience trumps youth.
With every stride you take, your brain improves at directing your legs to propel you forward, and over time, running becomes easier as you become more efficient.
The reason is that running, like other endurance sports, is more cerebral than it lets on. As you run, you learn. And not just the obvious, conscious distinctions, like when and what to eat and drink and what pace is right for the distance you’re running, but also subtle skills, like interpreting the messages your body is sending you—such as the heaviness in your legs 15 miles into a marathon that tells you to ease up if you plan on finishing this race. And there’s an even deeper level of improvement, one that comes more from the mind than the muscles: With every stride you take, your brain improves at directing your legs to propel you forward, and over time, running becomes easier as you become more efficient (even without paying much attention to form).
If you’re searching for a sport that you’ll be able to improve at for a long time to come (and one that’s more physically demanding than riding around in a golf cart), look no further than running.
Let’s get started. Here’s how you can learn to love running and make sure running loves your body, too.
(As a side note, because running is my sport and exercise of choice, I’ll use it as the example throughout the book. But if you prefer another sport, especially an endurance sport, such as cycling, swimming, or triathlon [the combination of all three], you should be able apply the advice here to help you get started.)
Find Your Inspiring Obsession
Before you read any further, whether you’re already a runner or not, I’d like you take out a piece of paper. We’re going to have some fun. (Come on, do it! This is the most important part of the whole book!)
I want you to allow yourself to think big for a few minutes, to ignore whatever limitations you have in your head about what you’re capable of, and to give yourself permission to dream.
That’s right, we’re going to set a goal. We’re going to set one single goal that will become your driving force, the thing that right now is far out of reach and whose achievement will require you to change and improve.
Because we’re in the running and fitness section of the book, that’s where I’d like you to focus. You can always go back and set a dietary goal, too (“I’ll become a weekday vegan within three months,” “I’ll eat raw for a month,” etc.), but I think right now it’s best to choose a single, primary goal, and eventually set related goals that will aid in achieving it.
Right now let’s just focus on something athletic-related that you would absolutely love to achieve.
Note the wording there: absolutely love to achieve. I mean it!
SETTING YOUR GOAL TOO LOW IS WORSE THAN SETTING IT TOO HIGH
For a lot of people who have never run before, I’d wager that the first thing that pops into their heads when I mention a goal is “run a 5K.” If that’s what you thought of, let’s look at it closer: Does the idea of being able to run a 5K, and the level of fitness you’d need to possess to do it, give you butterflies in your stomach and make your palms sweat a little?
If so, fantastic. Those are good signs that a 5K might just be the right goal for you, right now. But I suspect that for many people for whom a 5K seems like a “reasonable” goal to start with, it isn’t exciting enough to really get you jazzed up. If, when you think about setting the goal to run a 5K, you think, “Yeah, the training might be tough sometimes, but I could see myself doing that,” then it’s not exciting enough. Come on, think really big!
Would a 10K (6.2 miles) be more inspiring? What about a half marathon? What about a full marathon? A triathlon? What would be so motivating that when your head hit the pillow at night, you couldn’t wait to wake up so you could keep making progress toward it? I’m not encouraging you to be foolhardy here—once you’ve thought of a goal, we’ll examine it a little closer to make sure it’s right for you. And absolutely, whatever goal you decide on, we’re going to make sure to set a reasonable deadline to give yourself plenty of time to work up to your goal. But what we’re not going to do is limit whatever that ultimate desire of yours is.
I always know that I’ve set a good goal when something about it scares me.
I always know that I’ve set a good goal when something about it scares me. It might be the goal itself: when I decided to run my first fifty-miler, I was literally afraid of doing it. I was scared of how much physical pain I would have to experience on race day to keep going after thirty or forty miles when I wanted to stop more than anything in the world—except for one thing, of course, which was to finish.
But other times, the fear isn’t of the goal itself, but of what your friends or family might say when you tell them about your goal (which by the way, you’ll need to do). It’s nice to think that we surround ourselves with supportive people. But I know a goal is worthwhile when I’m actually kind of embarrassed to tell people about it—and not just because of the natural fear of failure and the humiliation failing would bring. More than that, the fear is that friends and family will laugh at you for even daring to think you could achieve what you’ve just told them about! When you feel that kind of afraid, you know you’re onto something that could change everything for you.
This is what the Boston Marathon was for me. When my college buddies and I set out to run our first marathon and decided we wanted to qualify for Boston in the process, of course our other friends laughed. But it was in good fun, and I can’t blame them: They had every reason to doubt us. We were brand-new to running, and here we were thinking we were going to achieve something that so many serious runners fail to ever do!
But after that first marathon, after we limped across the finish line with a time 103 minutes slower than what it would have taken to qualify for Boston, and after I truly understood just how daunting a task it is to even run a marathon (much less finish under three hours and ten minutes to qualify), that’s when it became a real goal. After turning in the time that I did, it was almost embarrassing to go around telling people I planned to qualify for Boston. But the fact that I wasn’t ashamed—because I had made myself so certain that I would do this one day—is what I now can see was the biggest edge I had going for me. (It certainly wasn’t my ability as a marathoner!)
I want you to choose something like what Boston was for me. Something that you currently cannot do, something that will force you to grow inside and out.
It took me seven years to qualify for Boston, but your goal absolutely doesn’t have to take you that long. My goal to run a fifty-mile ultramarathon, which I mentioned earlier, is another good example of something that felt huge and out of reach at the time I set it, and it took only six months or so to come to fruition.
A WARNING ABOUT ATTAINABLE GOALS
A lot of people have had the unfortunate experience of being taught about S.M.A.R.T. goals (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound).
I’m sure some of S.M.A.R.T. is actually, well, smart, but let me tell you something: “Set attainable goals” is the most limiting advice I’ve ever heard when it’s interpreted the way most people interpret it. The real point of this maxim is to prevent you from becoming overwhelmed—for some people, setting too big a goal discourages them because they know deep down that they’ll never get there. But most people don’t need to worry about setting too big a goal; what we need to watch out for is the tendency to play it safe. Most people never take any action because they set their goals too low—they set goals that don’t excite them to the core.
Most people never take any action because they set their goals too low—they set goals that don’t excite them to the core.
I suppose one could argue that qualifying for the Boston Marathon (for me) was attainable, while, say, trying to win an Olympic gold medal would not have been. Fair enough, but where do you draw the line? For me, Boston sure didn’t feel achievable at the time I set out to do it! Back then, most people probably would have argued that taking, say, fifty-three minutes off my marathon time to get down to four hours was an attainable goal, but running a 3:10 marathon (another fifty minutes faster!) was not. I had no reason to think I could ever train myself to hold a 7:15 mile-per-minute pace for 26.2 miles when, at the time, I couldn’t hold that pace for even one mile! It’s a good thing I was “unreasonable” and didn’t listen to anyone who told me what I was trying to do was impossible.
I’d rather you set a goal that’s too lofty and make a ton of changes but ultimately fall short, than aim too low and never get motivated enough to start.
If you set a goal that feels very attainable, not much changes because it’s something you know you can achieve, thus there’s no need to take any massive action, no need to crash through your perceived limits or transform yourself into the incredible person you’d have to be to achieve that goal.
When you set a goal that seems impossible, though, that’s when the magic happens. First, you get insanely excited because it’s something you’ve never dared to lust after before, out of fear of failing. It energizes you just to think, “What if, just maybe, somehow … ?”
Shoot for the stars, sure, but give yourself a reasonable amount of time to reach them.
Then you recognize that, yes, it is impossible—right now. There’s a tremendous gap between where you are and where you want to be, and to close that gap, your whole life will have to change. And that—how you’ll need to change and the person you’ll need to become to achieve your goal—is the real point of setting your sights on something incredible.
If you’re hung up on attainable versus unattainable, just forget about it and instead apply this simple test: Does your goal inspire you? Does it make you want to get out the door right now to get to work? If not, find the level of goal that will inspire you the most. If it’s too lofty, you’ll know because you won’t be motivated to do anything. Likewise if it’s too small. When it’s right, you’ll know because it motivates you into action.
I’ll add one disclaimer here, an exception to what I’ve just stated. The one time I do like the requirement of “attainability” is when it comes to the time frame in which you’d like to reach your goal. It’s said that most of us overestimate what we can achieve in a year, but drastically underestimate what we can achieve in a decade, so don’t fall into the trap of hoping for dramatic changes before you’ve had the chance to put in the work.
I’ve often failed at reaching my goals because I didn’t set the time frame far enough in the future. Often, the temptation to set a really short time frame for doing something far beyond your present ability is a result of laziness (simply not being willing to work for a long time at achieving your goal) or even a form of self-sabotage. For example, if you told yourself you wanted to make it to the Olympics in ten years, you’d be in for ten years of immensely hard work. But tell yourself you’re going to do it in six months and deep down, you know that effort will burn you out and give you an excuse to quit.
Sometimes, when I’ve experienced failure as the result of aiming to achieve a goal too quickly (such as when I failed at qualifying for the Boston Marathon the first six times), I’ve avoided getting discouraged and simply set the goal again, with more motivation than ever. But more often, the initial failure took the wind out of my sails and I’ve abandoned goals that at one time meant a lot to me. Shoot for the stars, sure, but give yourself a reasonable amount of time to reach them.
Stop Setting Goals and Start Making Decisions!
I’ve used the word “goal” up until now because it’s familiar. But setting goals is not really what you should be doing—instead, you should be making decisions.
I know it sounds like a stupid language device that won’t really make any difference five minutes from now, but I promise it’s more than that.
When you set a goal, that goal is something you’re hoping for. It’s the target, and you’re going to shoot for it. But when you make a real decision, your whole persona shifts. Once you decide that you’re going to do something (no matter what happens!), in some way it’s as if you’ve already done it. You start acting and thinking like a person who could achieve it, and that’s a heck of a lot different than just hoping.
Let’s Set a Huge Fitness Goal, Right Now
Here we go. Let’s get started now. And again, please make sure you actually do this! Don’t just read passively; reading alone will never get you anywhere. It’s action that makes the difference.
STEP 1: GET SOME DREAMS ON PAPER.
Right now, give yourself permission to be like a kid writing a Christmas list. Take five minutes to write down every accomplishment that excites you, focusing (for now) on physical health and fitness. Remember, don’t limit yourself. We’ll look closer at these in the next steps, but for now, put down everything you can imagine wanting to do, no matter how long it’ll take. Keep writing for the whole five minutes, don’t let your pen stop moving!
One caveat: I’d encourage you not to set weight-loss (or weight-gain) goals. Though those results are often happy consequences of other goals, no number is going to inspire you enough to get out the door to train, time and time again, even when it’s raining out and you had a rough day at work and all you want to do is lie on the couch and watch TV.
Would running a half marathon for a charity that’s deeply meaningful to you get you excited? How about running a 10K with your spouse? A marathon relay with three runner friends? Competing in a Tough Mudder or other obstacle race? Beating your favorite celebrity’s marathon time? Running the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon? Running half an hour without stopping? How about running a destination marathon in another country?
And remember, although I’ll focus mainly on running in this book, there’s no reason you should limit yourself to running. What about finishing an Ironman triathlon? Completing a century (100 miles) bike race? A fifty-mile bike race?
This is about what inspires you! Go wild with it.
STEP 2: CREATE A TIMELINE FOR EACH GOAL.
Go through your list and next to each item, estimate how long it’ll take you to achieve each goal. Be optimistic, but be realistic. You don’t need to be too specific yet, just write down “six months,” “one year,” “five years,” “fifteen years,” etc.
STEP 3: CIRCLE YOUR TOP THREE ONE-YEAR GOALS.
Choose the three goals that, if you could accomplish them all within a year, would transform you as a person, whether that transformation shows up in your body or your character.
Don’t choose more than three because it’s too easy to get overwhelmed. And now put a star next to the one that’s your main, “banner” goal—the one that, even if it was the only goal you accomplished this year, would still be pretty darn incredible. For example, if your main goal is a half marathon, perhaps your other two will be stepping stones along the way, like first running for a half hour without stopping and later running a 10K.
STEP 4: GET SPECIFIC ABOUT YOUR THREE ONE-YEAR FITNESS GOALS.
Specificity is crucial. We don’t want to be vague here. “Run more” would be a pretty useless goal (and this is why so many New Year’s resolutions are forgotten in the first week of January).
Make sure each of your goals has a deadline, whether it’s a full year in the future or something you plan on doing within three or six months. And if adding details makes your goals more exciting or easier to visualize (say, a specific race or location or who will be there to share it with you), by all means add them. Just don’t let these additional specifications become so detailed that your goal is no longer within your control (like requiring that it’s sunny and cool on your race day).
Another crucial component is your “why.” Having a strong enough reason to achieve a goal, at first, is so much more important than the “how.” Very often, the “how” takes care of itself once you believe that what you set out to do simply must happen. Under each goal and the details about it, write down a few sentences about why you’re absolutely committed to seeing it through to its achievement—why you simply must do it.
You’ll want to review and think about these goals as often as possible, ideally every day, and remind yourself of the “why” at least once a week. I like to do little things, like setting an image from my goal race’s website as the background on my computer or even cutting out an ad for the race from a magazine and putting it in a place where I’ll see it every day. It’s not that I want to sit and visualize myself running the race without taking any action. Instead, I want to have a reminder, in a place where I won’t miss it, that serves to motivate me and help me stay focused on my outcome.
Get specific about what it is you’re going to do and then write it down, find photos on the Web, or do whatever will motivate you most and remind you daily about your commitment.
STEP 5: MAKE PLANS AND TAKE AN ACTION.
If you were to stop at Step 4, you’d be far more likely to achieve these goals than if you had simply let them remain thoughts in your head. By putting pen to paper, you’ve taken a big step toward transforming these desires from thoughts into outcomes. But you can go far beyond this, right now, by making plans and starting with the first real-world action toward the achievement of each goal.
Again, let’s take the example of a half marathon, assuming you can run a mile or so right now but not much farther. The first thing I’d do in this situation is find a race that will work with your time frame. Once you’ve got it, pull up a calendar and figure out how many weeks you’ve got until the race. Then look at some training plans and figure out how long they are (many are twelve weeks) and how far you need to be able to run before you start the plan (many require that you’ve been running twelve to fifteen miles a week for a month or two before you start). Then think about how your other goals fit into this plan. Perhaps you can time your first 10K to happen four months before your half marathon, for example.
Continue working backward in this way all the way to the present moment, where you can use the principles of habit change described earlier and in the next chapter to get started.
Finally, take one action (today!) to start making your main goal real. If you’re brave, put your money on the line and sign up for your race. Or tell someone about your goal and enlist them to help keep you focused.
Congratulations! You’ve drawn a line in the sand and declared that you’re going to make this happen! Can you feel how much closer this fitness goal—and the person you’ll need to develop into—is to becoming a reality, now that you’ve made a real decision about it?
Great. Give yourself a pat on the back for making this decision and taking the first step, and when you’re ready, we’ll discuss in the next chapter how to make running a habit so that you don’t need to rely on willpower alone to keep you motivated.