Follow these guidelines to navigate the benefits, risks and best training methods so you can reach your own running goals.
Photo illustrations by Oliver Baker.
Reasons To Run
The best way to approach running depends on what you want to get out of it. Follow these guidelines to navigate the benefits, risks and best training methods so you can reach your own running goals.
Each year, Running USA conducts a comprehensive survey of runners that includes a few questions about why people run. According to the 2017 edition of the National Runner Survey, “staying healthy” was the number-one motivation for running, with 77 percent of respondents rating it as a primary reason for lacing up their trainers and getting out the door a few times a week. Other popular motivations included “to enter/train for a race” (62 percent), “improving my state of mind” (53 percent), “controlling my weight” (53 percent), “socializing with friends/family/others” (41 percent) and “appreciating nature/scenery” (39 percent).
As these results show, people run for a lot of reasons. One of the great things about running is that it offers a wide range of benefits and can be equally fulfilling for people with diverse motivations. To get all that you want out of running, however, you need to be aware of certain risks that are specific to your primary reason for running and approach the activity in a way that is conducive to your particular goals. To identify your reason to run, choose the phrase below that you most closely identify with, then use the following tips to make your unique running journey more rewarding than ever.
“I just want to get faster.”
Running is not just a form of exercise; it’s also a sport. That’s why races post official results and give awards to top finishers. But although each race has only one winner, every participant enjoys the same opportunity to earn the satisfaction that comes with improving relative to past performances. The 30-minute 5K runner is every bit as proud of her PR as the 20-minute 5K runner is of hers, and she learns just as much about herself in the process of testing her limits.
Running to get faster is not without its risks. Competitive runners often lose perspective—placing so much emphasis on outcomes that they cease to appreciate the day-to-day journey—and they may even view their training as wasted time if they fall short of a goal.
Cory Nyamora, Ph.D., a Sacramento-based clinical psychologist and endurance sports coach, encourages highly competitive runners to practice focusing more on the journey and less on the destination. “It’s important to compare your achievements to your past self sometimes,” he says. “Remind yourself you barely could run at all before, or that you’d never imagined being able to run this far. Even step back and write down how far you’ve come and what you couldn’t have imagined for yourself a year ago or 10 years ago.”
The sport of running has been around for a long time, and the most effective ways to train for maximum performance are well-established. These can be boiled down to three basic guidelines:
- Run a lot relative to your personal limits.
- Do about 80 percent of your training at a pace that allows you to talk comfortably and the remaining 20 percent at higher intensities.
- Increase your training load gradually from week to week, cutting back every third or fourth week for recovery.
“If I can just lose X more pounds, I’ll be satisfied.”
Although you hear a lot in the media these days about exercise not being an effective way to lose weight, the research that is cited to support this claim is contradicted by countless real-world examples. One of our favorites is Sue Reynolds, an educational entrepreneur in Bloomington, Ind., who between the ages of 55 and 60 lost 200 pounds, largely through running.
There is also solid scientific evidence that aerobic exercise prevents people from gaining weight in the first place—and from putting weight back on after it has been lost. A 2016 study published in The Permanente Journal reported that “a program of regular exercise has been shown to be the strongest predictor of success with maintaining weight loss for some time.” In other words, weight loss—whether achieved through diet or exercise or both—is rarely permanent without exercise.
Interestingly, whereas weight loss is a strong motivator for starting to run, it appears to be a much weaker motivator for continuing to run. Cited as the second-most popular reason for taking up running in the National Runner Survey, the desire to lose weight ranks only ninth among reasons to keep running. This is likely because running can be hard work, and as such it is not a sustainable habit over the long term unless you enjoy it. So if weight concerns are your top motivation for becoming a runner, try to identify and nurture other motivations as well to bolster your chances of falling in love with it.
The most effective way to run for weight loss is to emphasize high-intensity intervals in your training routine. This has been shown in a number of studies, including a 2014 experiment by researchers at the University of Salzburg, who separated a large sample of runners and other endurance athletes into four groups, each of whom trained for nine weeks at different levels of intensity. The authors reported that those who spent the most time at high intensity (53 percent) lost the most weight.
What exactly is high intensity? Think of it as anything you do at or above the fastest pace you could sustain for 8–10 minutes. Your high- intensity runs should always be done in an interval format, with fast efforts lasting between 20 seconds and a couple of minutes separated by easy jogging recoveries.
“Running is my therapist.”
Running is arguably even better for the mind than it is for the body. Aerobic exercise has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, boost self-esteem and improve symptoms of conditions ranging from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder.
There is some risk that running itself will become an unhealthy dependency for those who find in it a dependable way to overcome an issue such as substance abuse or depression. According to the Exercise Dependence Scale, a diagnostic tool developed by psychologists, running through injury or illness, feeling that running controls you more than you control it and withdrawal from other activities and interests are signs that what started as a solution to your mental-health needs has become a separate problem.
Nyamora’s advice for those who rely on running as a mental-health tool is to strive for balance. “As you look at your daily, weekly, monthly and yearly goals,” he says, “ensure you are making time for social interaction and relationships, participating in other sports or activities that bring you joy or that you’d like to try someday (travel, games, movies, art, music, reading), a spiritual practice that reminds you to have perspective when things are challenging, as well as a therapist, mentors or others you can connect with when times are tough.”
Using running as a tool for mental health is really about using running to feel better. So the best way to train for the sport is to go by feel, if indeed the mental benefits are your main concern. Don’t tie yourself down to a structured program or standard methods if these things don’t feel right. Run your way, whatever that may look like. Do you prefer to mix running with walking? Fine. Do you draw comfort from covering the same route every time? So be it!
Connecting With Nature
“I’d rather run in a downpour than on a treadmill.”
In her 2017 book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative, journalist Florence Williams writes of an “epic dislocation from nature” that plagues our society today. Although many of the health benefits of running are intrinsic to the activity, some of its positive effects on mood and cognition (the science behind which Florence details in her book) come from its power to overcome this dislocation by leading us out the door and back to nature.
Among the runners whose main reason for running is connecting with nature are some who don’t enjoy running anywhere except in pristine environments. When such environments are inaccessible due to travel, foul weather or another factor, these runners may struggle to find the motivation to run at all.
To avoid the resulting lapses in training, learn to think of urban or indoor running as a different activity altogether and one with a distinct appeal. For example, use the occasional treadmill run as an opportunity to catch up on your favorite podcasts.
If you run primarily for the sake of enjoying the outdoors but you also care about how you perform in races, you may need to make some compromises in your selection of training venues for the sake of adhering to proven methods. For example, you could find it difficult to stay at low intensity throughout a run on a steep mountain trail, in which case you’ll need to find other routes for the 80 percent of your training that needs to be done at low intensity to yield maximum fitness.
“I hope I’m still running when I’m 85.”
The closest thing on earth to a panacea, or universal medicine, is aerobic exercise. The list of proven health benefits of running and other such activities is lengthy, ranging from reduced risk of heart disease, dementia, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and various cancers to better sleep, longer life and even improved sexual function.
As a high-impact activity, running carries one small negative for health, which is heightened risk for certain overuse injuries such as tendonitis and plantar fasciitis. To minimize this risk, avoid running with abnormal pain anywhere in your body, purchase your footwear from a specialty retailer whose staff knows how to match each foot with the right shoe and complement your running with regular strength training.
If better health is your main reason for running, then “moderation” is your watchword. Whereas the goal of maximizing fitness and performance demands that you routinely test your body’s limits, research suggests that highly exhaustive workouts suppress immune function and may cause mild heart damage. A 2015 review published in the American Journal of Medicine reported that the health benefits of aerobic exercise peak at a volume of 45 to 60 minutes a day. Consider this your sweet spot for adding life to your years and years to your life.
“The best part of running is the community.”
According to the National Runner Survey, 16 percent of runners prefer to run with a partner and another 14 prefer to run in a group. For such runners, having one or more companions for workouts is not only a source of motivation but also an opportunity to enjoy quality time with friends and others with whom they share at least one common interest.
Running with others can be a double-edged sword for those who are also serious about improving on the race course. The most common and costly mistake that runners make in their training is going too fast in their easy runs, a problem that becomes all the more likely in group environments, where there is a tendency for faster runners to drag slower runners along. Avoiding this pitfall requires self-awareness and restraint.
Proven training methods, such as the 80/20 rule for intensity balance, apply to social runners no less than they do to solitary ones. To get the best of both worlds as a social runner, you need to understand the specific purpose of each run you do and choose your company accordingly. Selecting a different partner or group for easy runs than you do for hard workouts and, yes, even going it alone sometimes may be necessary to ensure you maintain the right pace. If you run with a club, ask your coach to help match you up with the right companions in different situations.