How To Be A Good Runner

Everyone wants to know how to get "good" at running, but what does that even mean?

Photo: John Jefferson, Nike Zoom Camp in Eugene, Ore.
Photo: John Jefferson, Nike Zoom Camp in Eugene, Ore.

This, that and the other thing—there’s plenty of suggestions, tips, “secrets,” strategies and other tidbits about how you can be a “good” runner. But what does “good” mean? I don’t have an answer to that; I only know what it means for me. But for others, “good” means consistent. It means fast. It means dedicated. It means recognizable. Respected. Veteran. “Good” does not have a singular definition in running.

Still, I have plenty of friends that ask, “How do you get ‘good’ at running?” I’m no expert of your version of the word, but here’s a few tips that got me to my version:

1. Be patient. I’ve been running semi-competitively since I was 12 years old, and I probably learned the importance of this tip barely a year ago. Marathon training can change a person, and if you’re not patient, you’re really not going to appreciate or even reach your full potential. Regardless if you’re training for no time goal, a specific time, a PR time or a BQ time, you need to be patient, because the result you’re looking for will not come overnight. I didn’t feel comfortable in my own running shoes until I was a good two months into training for my first marathon, and even then, I still had to talk myself off the ledge when a long run just didn’t go as I had “planned.” (Also, don’t plan based on expectations. Plan based on opportunity.)

2. Be consistent. Just like “good” is a chameleon of an adjective, so is consistency. If you’re a self-defined veteran, perhaps this means running 6 days a week. If you’re stepping out for your very first run ever, this might mean 2 days a week or fewer. Whatever your weekly or monthly goal is with running, be consistent. The mental dedication will pay off on race day—believe me. And if you don’t have a race on the calendar, the mental dedication will pay off when you decide, hey, I kind of like running. Maybe I’ll run a little further next time.

3. Be honest with yourself. Ah, yes, another bitter pill I had to swallow after years of injury. Honesty is important when it comes to your body’s fitness (no, not where you think you SHOULD be, but where you really are). So many factors come into play when it comes to what those legs, hearts and lungs can handle—age, menstrual cycle, work, social life, relationships, overall health. The list goes on. I’m a believer that a “good” runner needs to take a holistic approach to evaluating herself; if your fueling is off or sleep pattern is wacky or work schedule is just insane, don’t push it. Take a day, breathe and hit it again tomorrow. Even if you’re feeling fit in the run legs, your body might not be fit to follow. Be honest with what you can handle.

4. Be educated. I’ve seen and heard of SO MANY RUNNERS taking advice from their “good” running friends on shoes, fuel, mileage, gear, altitude, races and everything else under the sun. The problem? Everyone is different. I have one very seasoned runner friend who took fueling advice from another the day before her target marathon, and she potentially sacrificed a ticket to Boston as a result. Her training was spot on, but she was ill to her stomach race morning and missed qualifying by a large margin. The advice of “don’t try anything new on race day” is probably the only piece of advice that’s worth taking every time, 100% of the time, from any runner. Educate yourself through trial and error on your own runs, with your doctor if needed, or read up on suggested things before testing them for yourself.

5. Be gentle with yourself. Every single runner—I don’t care if you’re a first-timer or the best marathoner in the entire world—has her bad days. It’s the nature of the sport, it’s equal parts rewarding and utterly heartbreaking at times, especially when training is kick-ass but race day is a total disaster. Be kind to yourself when things go sour and ruin your day, week, month or even faith in the sport. The truth is, the strongest runners I know are the ones that have mentally overcome DNFs (did not finish, myself included), serious illness that derailed their schedule, one of life’s huge blows or just really, really, really bad long run days. It is those who bounce back and say, “Tomorrow will be better,” that are the strongest and “best” runners out there. Because even if they don’t believe they are “good” in that moment, they still have faith in themselves to be “good” tomorrow.

6. Be curious. At the end of the day, there’s always room for improvement, whatever that means for you. If you’ve maxed out all your current goals with the sport, try something new. For me, it was the marathon when I felt I lost touch with myself as a runner. Always be curious about the sport, and don’t underestimate yourself. There’s always a chance to improve your time or up your mileage or try a new form of cross-training or pick up a new hobby or try a new location. Curiosity is a beautiful thing—isn’t that how you got into the sport in the first place?