One of our greatest assets as runners is our longevity. If we’re the right blend of smart, lucky, and determined, we’ll reach our physical prime later than our non-running peers and enjoy our sport for the better part of our lives. (Ninety-six-year-old Roy Englert and 85-year-old Ginette Bedard are living proof, and in surprisingly good company.)
The best part about a long relationship with running—health benefits aside—is all the time we have to learn, experiment, and improve. I’ve been fine-tuning my approach and stockpiling wisdom from runners and coaches I admire since I entered the sport. As a result, am a constantly evolving athlete.
The way I trained, raced, and recovered in college was markedly different from how I went about it in high school. In some specific ways, it’s also a departure from my current style, honed over the last seven years since I graduated from Rice University (one of them encompassing a round-the-world trip).
Here are the major lessons I’ve learned and embraced as a pro. You can be any age, any speed, and on either side of your peak to reap their benefits.
Context is everything
It’s tempting to take other people’s training reports—whether through Strava, social media, or in person—at face value, and feel deficient as a result. But don’t. It took moving from Houston to Boulder, Colorado, three years ago to appreciate just how much context matters. Besides the obvious difference—5,000 feet of elevation—factors like humidity, wind, terrain, undulation, and training load combine to make workouts as I knew them in Houston a different experience in Boulder.
Even in the same city, one session can feel completely different from one week to the next. Once I grasped that, I started having much more fun establishing new altitude and seasonal bests, rather than clinging to my old sea-level cache.
There are so many variables that go into training, and all of them matter—not just the number of reps and the flashy splits. Remember that while scrolling through your social feed and training in new or tough conditions.
Your body is the worthiest of investments
Whenever I feel guilty for shelling out $80 on a soft-tissue therapy session or $300 on groceries for two, I recall something coach Andrew Kastor reinforced the summer I trained in Mammoth Lakes, California: Invest in yourself, early and often. Though naturally thrifty, I still take his advice to heart, never going more than two weeks without some type of body work, paying a little extra for good flights, and choosing high-quality food over cheaper alternatives.
Rather than listing all of the things I could have bought instead of going to that one appointment (a concert ticket, 16 cappuccinos, a nice dinner out with my husband), it helps to view those choices as investments rather than splurges.
Try to do the same when it comes to addressing niggles immediately, retiring shoes as soon as they feel flat, and facing other decisions pertaining to the state of your body.
There are countless ways to get the job done
It didn’t take long, as I hopped from country to country in 2012 and 2013, crashing and training with other runners, to drop the illusion of the optimal training system. Every destination opened my eyes to a local flavor, with many variations, that yielded very good results (and also some poor ones). There were the Lydiard disciples in New Zealand, the Nurmi zealots in Finland, and Haile Gebrselassie himself in Ethiopia.
I met great runners who logged extreme km and great runners who didn’t track km; ones who did hard workouts twice a week and others who rarely ran easy; ones who proselytized “clean” diets and others who ate like adolescent boys at a birthday party. By the end of my trip, it was undeniable that there are countless ways to get good at running, and that pinpointing the very best one was a futile pursuit.
More important than the nuances of a training system is trusting in the one you’ve chosen.
Runners with a healthy, long-term approach generally go the farthest
This lesson eluded me in college, when some of the women I competed against (I now know) were tangled up in extreme or unhealthy behaviors for the sake of running fast. It was unclear at the time who, as my coach would say, was playing with fire.
At age 30, I’ve now amassed enough data points to know that the most accomplished and consistent runners are those with a long-game approach. Rather than annihilating themselves in workouts or subscribing to the latest fads, these champions have stacked up years of hard work and found a way to make their running selves an extension of their “real-life” selves.
Some people who embody that mindset, to me, are Molly Huddle, Deena Kastor, Meb Keflezighi, Des Linden, and Sara Hall—all of whom I’ve had the pleasure of running with and learning from. I’ve shared doughnuts and cake with Deena, run with a hungover Des, and seen foreign travel and motherhood make Sara come alive. I believe that all of them are better because they nurture, rather than stifle, the things that fill them up. They also know how to bring it when it counts.
If you want to enjoy running for years to come, avoid shortcuts and extremes, and keep the long term in mind. The best approach is a sustainable one.
Where you start doesn’t dictate where you finish
This principle holds as true in a race at it does over the course of a career. Think of how many times you’ve seen a runner (or pack) rocket off the line and create a colossal gap only to be swallowed up in the final meters of the race. (The 1972 men’s Olympic 800-meter final is my favorite example, though Donovan Brazier’s recent Diamond League Final win is a close second.) Likewise, it may take you several seasons and diversions to realize your potential.
My last big races as a collegiate runner were 3,000-meter steeplechases, culminating in the 2012 Olympic Trials final. Seven years later, I primarily identify as a marathoner—a discipline that’s 14 times longer than the steeple, contested on pavement, and involves no (planned) barriers to maneuver. One build-up and race was all it took to settle my love for and potential over 42kms. But now that I’m here, I’m grateful for my detours, and I still aspire to improve at the kms on up.
If you’re not yet where you want to be—but your trajectory is forward and you’re enjoying the ride—in my opinion, you’re doing it right.