My Running Habit

I was a sprinter as a kid: I counted myself among the fastest runners in my grade-school classes, and would routinely challenge friends to ad hoc dashes across arbitrary stretches of playground grass or asphalt.

As much as I enjoyed pushing my body to its limits for these explosive, 30-second jaunts, the idea of running any longer distance filled me, as it did most kids my age, with utter dread.

In Junior High (around age 13), we were compelled to “run the mile” at least a couple times a year. We anticipated such events for up to a week in advance. “We have to run the mile on Friday,” was the empty refrain of doom shared by all except the weird cross-country kids, who seemed to somehow derive pleasure from the challenge.

25 years later, I am no longer a sprinter. Running a mile sounds like a mere warm-up. I typically cover distances that my younger self would have seen as impossible. And somehow, I too derive pleasure from it.

I started flirting with long-distance running in my early 20s. I worked at Apple, and the company fitness center had treadmills with TV. In an era before podcasting had taken off, what better way to pass the time than to watch endless episodes of Judge Judy and reruns of Matlock? I gained an extremely dubious understanding of the legal system while running in place at a very comfortable pace.

I carried the treadmill habit with me after I quit Apple. I ran through my second college career at SFSU, and made a priority of finding a suitable gym every place I lived for many years. I enjoyed the grittiness of the Cambridge YMCA, where I recalled an old iPod’s near death experience while running on the treadmill. I upgraded to the lush MIT Zesiger Center, where the impressive olympic swimming pool even got me cross-training for a stretch. In Brooklyn, I stuck to the academic plan and took advantage of Brooklyn College’s modest yet reliable athletic center.

By this point I had been running “long distance” for 15 years or more, but had scarcely run a mile off of treadmills. I had come to lean on the predictability and relative ease of treadmill running: it’s easy to do in any weather, at any time of day, and requires little motivation beyond stepping onto the platform. You simply set the machine to the speed you think you should run, then do your best to keep up.

Running off-treadmill, as people have more typically run for millennia, was a fairly foreign concept to me until a few years ago. I had occasionally gone for jogs around Boston or Brooklyn, but found it frustrating to keep my pace, to plan the route for the desired distance, and to keep my momentum in urban areas where pedestrians and vehicle traffic were constantly interfering. If I ran 100 times in a year, at least 98 of those times would be on a treadmill and only 1 or 2 in the great outdoors.

That ratio inverted completely when I moved from Brooklyn back to the Boston area, settling in to Arlington, MA. I was too far from my beloved MIT fitness center, and frankly all the local gyms seemed bleak to me. I didn’t know what to do, but it was September and the weather was nice. I committed to sucking it up and running outdoors at least until I found a better long-term solution. Surely I would need a gym for treadmill running by the time winter came.

That was the fall of 2011, and I have rarely stepped foot on a treadmill since. The only times that come to mind are when I’ve been traveling and found for whatever reason that a hotel’s fitness center made for a more expeditious workout than venturing out into the surrounding city or town.

I am very lucky to live in a town with a rail trail: a recreational path recovered from former railroad right-of-ways. A typical outdoor run for me consists of a few blocks jog through suburban streets, a few miles run up “the bike path,” and a few miles back home. Occasionally I take more adventurous routes, especially if I want to explore an area of town I haven’t seen much of, or if I’m trying to diversify the distance or terrain of my workouts.

It turned out I didn’t need a gym and I didn’t need a treadmill. Not even in the dead of winter. That first season of running outdoors was relatively mild, so I gradually invested in the necessary gear: thermal underwear, gloves, and a beanie cap. In subsequent winters I’ve made good use of extra-insulated running shirts, even a balaclava! There were days when I ran in 5F weather and practically froze my face off, but I got, and get some kind of perverse thrill running in all weather conditions.

What’s kept me going all these years, on treadmills and then on roads and paths, has been the establishment of some kind of rule system, and then sticking to those rules as if they were not negotiable. Eventually, this becomes a habit. Back in the early Apple days, I made a sort of pact with two co-workers to go to the gym nearly every afternoon (yes, the flexible hours were a god-send). More often than not it would be one of us getting motivated, and dragging the other two away from their screens kicking and screaming. But it worked. Committing to the habit together made it easier for all of us to start the habit, but eventually it became easy for each of us to preserve the habit on our own as well.

In more recent years, I’ve had to piece together new rules and conditions. Especially after switching to outdoor running and inevitably upping my mileage, I struggled with some moderate injuries that threatened to put an end to my running. I countered this by taking a hardline stance that was rigid and unforgiving, but also gave my body time to rest: I must run every other day, but must not run two days in a row. To me it’s important in establishing any habit to have a fairly easy to understand system. Will I run today? If I didn’t run yesterday, then barring a very good excuse, the answer is yes.

To give the habit some teeth, I have also imposed certain minimums on my running. At first it was just “2 miles or more.” Then, as I dabbled in my first efforts at running in official races, I upped my minimum to 5K. Eventually I worked up to a point where I was running at least 5 miles, and for the past several months I am running to a landmark that logs me 6.5 miles in total. I’m free to run longer than the minimum, and in extenuating circumstances I run less, but as a general rule the decisions are all made for me.

Eliminating questions about when and how far I run has made it far easier to keep the habit going. Is it a running day? If so, put on clothes, load up a podcast, and go. Meet the minimum distance, then turn around, or keep going. I still have choices, but they are delightfully few.

When people ask me about starting a running habit of their own, I try to emphasize how gradually you can grow one. Start by jogging around the block once or twice. Set a standard, and then stick to it. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find that as your body gets used to the standard regimen, it will eventually yearn for something more. Add another block. Make it an even mile. Shoot for 5K. You’ll feel better, be stronger, and develop a hopefully lifelong habit that makes it easy to rest assured you are getting enough exercise.

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