Runners dream big. Tackling a new distance, posting a personal best, losing weight—we embrace grand challenges. But what happens after that goal is (hopefully) met? You risk losing motivation and stalling—unless you’ve changed your routines to those of a stronger, healthier runner. “Runners who are consistent with good habits have the most success,” says Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist, sports nutritionist, coach, and author of The Marathon Method.
When it comes to making resolutions, consider goals based on process instead of outcome. That way, you can sustain momentum by celebrating small, frequent victories. And you’ll avoid the all-or-nothing thinking that triggers massive disappointment if factors beyond your control interfere along the way—for instance, if you wake up to a sweltering race day.
The benefits of healthy habits spill over into a better life beyond running, too. Here are 4 healthy habits the most highly motivated runners develop, with expert advice on how to make them your own.
Become a Morning Runner
You meant to log those five Km’s today, but between family, work, and social obligations, it just didn’t happen. Or you find your digestive system rebelling—or your sleep disrupted—courtesy of evening runs. The solution: Put running first on your agenda.
“People who start to run early in the morning get hooked on that feeling of having accomplished so much before others are even awake, as well as the extra energy they get from that morning rush of endorphins,” says Lisa Reichmann, a running coach.
Make It Routine
Test the waters. Start with one or two days per week. Knowing you have the other five mornings to snooze makes getting up early less painful. And to stay motivated, make sure you can get to bed on time the night before a crack-of-dawn call, or you risk skimping on sleep, Reichmann says.
Lay it out. Set out your clothes, shoes, water bottle, and reflective gear the night before to eliminate excuses and get out the door quickly. Set your coffeemaker on automatic so your brew is ready when you wake. And put your alarm across the room—jumping out of bed to turn it off makes it harder to hit the snooze button, Reichmann says.
Make a date. Nothing keeps you from going back to bed like knowing someone’s waiting for you. “Good conversation with running friends almost makes you forget that you are running on a cold morning,” says Julie Sapper, who coaches with Reichmann.
Give it time. All habits feel awkward at first. Since it requires resetting your body clock, morning running may require a little longer than most—at least three or four weeks—to sink in. Consider trying this habit in the spring, when weather and darkness are less likely to interfere. And morning runs aren’t right for everyone, so re-evaluate after a month or two, Sapper says.
Strength Train Regularly
Building muscle improves your health, reduces injury risk, and, according to a review in the journal Sports Medicine, improves your running performance—which is always motivating. Across 26 studies of endurance athletes, strength-training programs (either plyometrics or heavy weights) boosted fitness, increased efficiency, and reduced runners’ times in 3K and 5K races.
Design your own program by picking six exercises: two for each of your major muscle groups (upper body, core, and lower body), with one working the front side (say, planks) and one the back side (bridges), says Rebekah Mayer, training manager at Life Time Run. Do them two or three days per week. If you do regular strength-training, leave rest days between hard efforts.
Make It Routine
Build it in. Runners that Reichmann and Sapper coach had an easier time staying motivated to incorporate strength moves when they penned them into their training plans. Now, their schedules might say: Run three miles, then do three sets of 15 one-legged squats, mountain climbers, planks, and pushups. For best results, strength-train later in the same day as your more intense or longer running workouts, allowing a full day of recovery in between hard sessions, Mayer says.
Break it up. Try “exercise snacks”—planks when you get up in the morning, pushups before you leave for work, lunges on coffee breaks.
Take a class. Don’t want to DIY? Choose a runner-friendly strengthening class that sounds fun, like Pilates, a barre class, or BodyPump. It might cost money, but spending can increase the odds you’ll follow through, Holland says.
Change it up. In about a month, your body will adjust to the routine. “Make it harder—whether it means doing more repetitions, more weight, or different exercises—or you’ll stop seeing results,” Mayer says.
If you’re struggling to squeeze three or four runs per week into your schedule, you shouldn’t worry about adding in other aerobic activities. But once you have a steady running habit, workouts like swimming, cycling, or rowing can boost your fitness without the impact stress of running. And by engaging different muscle groups, you can correct muscle imbalances and net a stronger, more well-rounded body. “This can increase your longevity as a runner,” Mayer says. If you do get hurt, you’ll also have a familiar option for maintaining fitness.
Make It Routine
Stay consistent. Sticking to a regular class at the gym is an easy way to automate cross-training. Even if you go solo, set up a regular date and location, such as cycling in your local area on Monday mornings—context cues help habits to form.
Be realistic. Don’t set yourself up for failure by choosing a class you’ll have to rush to attend. Search for an option that meshes with your schedule.
Choose wisely. Gunning for a PB? Go with a type of cross-training that mimics running, such as cross-country skiing or pool running. If, however, your goal is overall fitness, select an activity that’s very different, like swimming or cycling, Mayer says.
Keep it easy. Treat cross-training like an aerobic recovery day; schedule it after hard running days and keep your effort level low enough to carry on a conversation, Mayer says. (However, if you’re injured and can’t run, you can cross-train harder.) And keep in mind that boot camp or fitness classes that involve treadmill running or road sprints don’t count as cross-training—that’s a running workout.
Eat More Vegetables
Low-calorie and packed with nutrients, veggies should be a staple in every runner’s diet. Their high-quality carbohydrates power your workouts, and their antioxidants help you recover.
“Vegetables also keep you regular, and we all know runners don’t need any ‘surprises’ while on a long run,” says Conni Brownell, who serves as the Brooks Running Beastro Chef (cooking for employees at the shoe company). The benefits last long after your cooldown: Each daily serving of produce (up to five) reduces your risk of early death by about five percent, according to a new study.
Make It Routine
Indulge in your favourites. Don’t choke down kale if you hate it. Pick up produce you actually want to eat, even if it’s more costly or less of a “superfood.”
Add them to your menu. When you buy a new veggie, know when you’ll consume it, says Jennifer Plotnek, lead behavior coach at weight-loss company Retrofit. Will you cook that spinach into your omelet, blend it into your postworkout smoothie, or make a big dinner salad?
Start on the side. Dive into the veggies first to avoid filling up before you get to them, says sports nutritionist and exercise physiologist Felicia Stoler. No sides (or only French fries)? Ask to swap or add vegetable soup or a salad and eat it first—you might consume fewer calories overall, according to Penn State University research.
Snack smarter. Trade chips or candy for a produce/protein pair—carrots and hummus or tuna on cucumber slices, for example—to improve between-meals eats.