By its very nature, running is simple: put one foot in front of the other; quickly repeat; keep going. That formula is burned into our brains. For our ancestors, running meant the difference between eating or being eaten, so the skill was there from day one.
We don't need gloves, helmets, bats or racquets. As runners, we don't have to pump up tyres, keep score with stubby pencils or memorise the vagaries of the LBW law. We just slip on our shoes and go. Easy, right?
Well, not always. Sometimes your running can become as cluttered as the rest of your busy life. How to fit it in? How far to go? How fast? How often? Where? When? What to eat? What to wear?
When things get like this, that's when you need to simplify the situation. The following tips, contributed by RW staff members and running experts and coaches across the country, will help.
You won't need all of this advice, but we think that many of these suggestions save you time and aggravation. They'll leave you free once again to enjoy the simple pleasures of running. And they might even make you a better, faster runner.
Get in sync
If your schedule allows it, run at the same time each day. If you have to decide when to fit your run in every day, you waste valuable time and energy.
Cross it off
Want a simple way to help you stick with your training? Mark an 'X' on your calendar on the days you exercise. In a recent Canadian study, exercisers who did this fared better than those who didn't keep track at all.
Put it in writing
Crafting a four-month training plan may not sound simple, but it only takes an hour or two, and once it's done you won't have to worry about it for another four months. Work backwards from your goal, and plot out each week's work-outs one by one, including long runs, speed sessions, hills and rest days. Nothing is simpler than glancing at a schedule, then heading out the door to follow it.
Set your alarm
Whenever possible, run first thing in the morning. Not only will you
avoid having to shower twice a day, you'll also be less likely to skip your run. (You know how it works - the longer the day drags on, the more time you have to find an excuse not to run.)
Streamline your stretching
So you don't have time for a 20-minute stretching routine? Then focus on your calves and hamstrings, the most important muscle groups for runners. Here's a stretch that works them both: place the balls of your feet on a low kerb or a piece of wood with your heels resting on the ground. Slowly bend at the waist as if you're trying to touch your toes. Hold for 30 seconds.
Get a grip
Negative thoughts or minor aches and pains can turn a good run into a bad one in a hurry - but only if you let them. "When I'm on a run and feeling down, I remind myself how miserably out of shape I was five years ago. "This usually pulls me out of it," says psychologist Robert Frisk.
Turn things around
You've heard that tempo training is one of the best ways to improve your performance, but you've also read so many tempo-training work-outs that you're not sure how to begin. It's easy: run slowly in one direction for 30 minutes, then turn around and run nearer to your 10K race pace for the next 20 minutes; when that's done, jog back to your starting point.
Do more with less
Many runners train more or faster than necessary to achieve their goals, says Jack Daniels. "If I told a group of runners that 40 miles a week would allow them to race a 40-minute 10K, and that 80 miles a week would also allow them to race a 40-minute 10K, some would actually choose the 80-miles-per-week option," says Daniels. Rather than pile on the miles mindlessly, examine your goals and set your mileage accordingly. "Then you can better savour the miles that you do run."
You'd like to, of course. You'd like to burn more calories and maybe plant the seeds for a possible marathon some day. But you feel too tired after just 30-40 minutes. What do you do? Take a one-minute walking break after every nine minutes of running. If that's still too hard, take a one-minute walking break after every four minutes of running. You should be able to double the time that you're out almost instantly. You'll feel great, and that marathon seed will take root and grow.
Turn off your brain
Set aside one day a week as a 'simple run day'. Get up whenever you feel like it, drink a cup of coffee, and then head out. On this run, don't worry about time, pace or distance. Just run.
Listen to your heart
Worried that you're overtraining? Find out in 60 seconds by checking your resting heart rate before you step out of bed. Monitor it first, though, for a couple of weeks to establish what's normal for you. "An increase in waking heart rate is a sure sign of fatigue," says Daniels. "If it's eight beats or more above normal, take it easy that day."
The full series: Training, Nutrition, Racing and Speedwork, Gear, Gym
Plus: Ten Things You Don't Have To Worry About