A while ago, I read Marathoning by Bill Rodgers. Published in 1980, the year Rodgers achieved the last of his four Boston Marathon victories, the book interweaves autobiography and advice to other runners. Rodgers took an intuitive, non-intellectual approach to the sport, which the book reflects. He believed that running was a simple sport that was best done in a simple way. “Sometimes people tend to make running too complicated,” he writes on page 1.
Running is like diet in this regard. People tend to make nutrition too complicated as well. The nutrition writer Michael Pollan was aware of this problem and famously addressed it by creating a diet philosophy that consisted of seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Inspired by Rodgers and Pollan, I sat down to see how few words could be used to say everything a runner needs to know about running. I got it down to 14:
Build step by step. Push yourself, but not too hard. Learn. Keep it fun.
The rest is details. Some of those details are important, but a runner should not get wrapped up in them to the degree that they distract him or her from these four simple princples. That said, let’s unpack the principles a little.
Build Step By Step
The principle of patient, incremental progress is the first principle of running. The ability to run improves with running, but not instantaneously. It takes time. You stimulate improvement by running a little more or a little harder than you’re used to doing. If you try to do more than a little more than you’re used to, you’ll break down. That’s why it has to happen one step at a time.
There are two levels of building: short-term and long-term. Short-term building entails building fitness step by step toward your next important race. Unless you’re already experienced, you probably can’t realize your ultimate potential in time for your next race, and you shouldn’t expect to. The idea is to build as much fitness as you realistically can in that time. It takes many years of consistent running to become the best runner you can be.
Rodgers never ran more than 35 miles a week in high school and he didn’t run much more than that in college—and he never regretted easing into serious running in this manner. He felt it all worked out for the best in the long run.
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Push Yourself, But Not Too Hard
Hard work is rewarded in running. In fact, hard work is the main path to improvement. Expecting to improve as a runner without working harder is like expecting to get more money out of your bank account without having put more in it. Too many runners try to convince themselves that they can improve by means other than pushing themselves more. They try to improve by shuffling the pieces around. They believe that if they can just do a little work, but do it more scientifically, they will run faster. This attitude is a copout.
Bill Rodgers didn’t train scientifically at all. His friends in the Greater Boston Track Club could talk him into doing any given workout on any given day, because he didn’t care. As long as the workout contributed to his step-by-step fitness building, its particular format didn’t matter to him.
Every runner has his limits, though. Competitive runners just as often fail to respect their limits and push too much, to the point of injury or overtraining fatigue. Rodgers was conscious of his limits—which were way out there; he often ran 150 miles per week—and he wasn’t afraid to take it easy when his body needed rest.
“If I have had a minor quadriceps[s] injury that has sidelined me for a week or more,” he writes in one example, “I may try to go just two or three miles in the first day back… If I feel the slightest twinge in the injured area, I’ll quit and return.”
There are more and less effective ways to train. To become the best runner you can be, you have to learn the most effective ways to train. For example, to run the best possible marathon you need to do some speed work in training. Early in his career, Bill Rodgers ran a couple of marathons without having done adequate speed work and he bombed as a result. He learned his lesson and never made the same mistake again.
The principle of learning encompasses a pair of rules. The first is, “Don’t reinvent the wheel.” Through generations of trial and error, runners have learned what works and what doesn’t work generally. There are certain standard workout formats, such as easy runs and tempo runs, that every new runner should learn about and begin to practice as early in his or her development as possible. The same goes for basic practices such as the hard-easy pattern (i.e. alternating hard and easy workouts in training).
The second rule encompassed by the principle of learning is, “Discover what works best for you individually.” Each runner is unique and therefore each runner must do things his or her own way to a certain degree. You shouldn’t run 150 miles per week just because Bill Rodgers did.
The real learning in running comes through individual experience. You need to pay attention as a runner so you can see what works and what doesn’t work for you, and alter your practices accordingly. In Marathoning, Bill Rodgers hammers this theme. “You learn through your own experience,” he writes. “I keep stressing that, but it’s true. You know your body better than anyone else. You know it better than orthopedic specialists, cardiovascular surgeons, podiatrists.”
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Keep It Fun
Enjoyment is hugely important in running. Not only is enjoyment enjoyable, but it also yields better results. In Marathoning, Bill Rodgers states his conviction that the two keys to success in marathoning are heredity and motivation. You can’t control heredity, but you can control motivation. The more you enjoy your running, the more motivated you will be to work hard at it and the more you’ll get out of it. You should not be afraid to make training decisions based on how they affect your enjoyment of the sport, putting this consideration even ahead of the physical effects of your workouts.
Rodgers did. Throughout the prime years of 1975 to 1979 that are the focus of his book, Rodgers did much of his running on cross-country courses, varying his pace as he pleased, without any kind of plan. He did so because it was fun and it reminded him of when he used to run around rural Connecticut chasing butterflies as a child.
Here we come full circle. “Running has become too complicated for many people,” Rodgers writes on the point of enjoyment in running, “and they wind up turning sour on the sport, or losing the focus of their direction.
Remember: 14 words.