The Most Important Rule for All Runners: Run Consistently

Run Strong, Stay Hungry reveals the 9 keys to running strong and staying fast. Jonathan Beverly taps 50 lifetime runners—from America’s elite to consistent local competitors—to reveal the 9 keys to run strong and stay fast. Run Strong, Stay Hungry features priceless guidance from Bill Rodgers, Deena Kastor, Pete Magill, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Roger Robinson, Colleen De Reuck, Dave Dunham, Kathrine Switzer, and dozens more.

Enjoy this selection from the book!

There is one rule that’s critical to every aspect of running: Runners must run consistently.

Runner after runner revealed that they have run often, every week, month, and year for decades. Is this simply a sign of their shared passion, or is this kind of consistency actually key to their performance and longevity?

Research confirms the significance of consistency for masters runners. In a study published in the December 2008 Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, researchers questioned participants in the US and Canadian masters track and field championships about their performances and training throughout the years. They found that the most reliable predictor of performance was the amount of training done consistently over the past five years.

“Middle-aged athletic individuals who retain a high level of performance do so likely because they have maintained years of uninterrupted practice, consistently have shorter off-season periods, exhibit higher weekly amounts of practice, and avoid injury,” researchers concluded. The study also found that while the training that masters runners had done in the few months just before their races was a better predictor of their results than either age or early-life training, it was not as important as what they had done during the five years prior. A solid block of consistent training in the years prior to the performance made the most difference. The research revealed that successful masters athletes have learned that they must train “systematically and continually” in order to maintain their skills and fitness.

Run Strong, Stay Hungry by Jonathan Beverly

Steady Dose

It isn’t just masters who benefit from being systematic and continual. Consistency is an essential key to running better at any age. In his comprehensive work The Lore of Running, sports scientist Tim Noakes named “Train Frequently, All Year-Round” as the first law of training. “What is really required is a little exercise constantly; this will benefit you permanently to a far greater degree than a single heavy dose at long intervals,” he wrote.

Running regularly allows you to get in more volume and adapt to that volume so that it becomes normal. Anytime you fall off, you have to rebuild your capacity for work, a slow and risky process. Steve Kartalia, a lifetime competitor still racing at the national level in his 50s, learned the consistency lesson the hard way. After steady improvement in high school, his college running was disappointing due to a continuous up-and-down cycle of injury and recovery. Post-college, with the help of his coach, he found a level of effort that allowed him to maintain more consistent training.

That new level meant pulling back a little from his collegiate training load. His coach told him to run 60 to 70 miles a week, an amount he’d shown he could maintain without injury, instead of the 80 to 90 that regularly put him on the disabled list. “It may take you longer to get fit, but once you get there, you’ll be able to race and keep racing and keep improving, rather than dropping back to an earlier point in the process,” his coach assured him.

What is really required is a little exercise constantly; this will benefit you permanently to a far greater degree than a single heavy dose at long intervals. —TIM NOAKES

ticking to the plan took patience and restraint. But Kartalia was able to build confidence and fitness through a newfound consistency, uninterrupted by the setbacks he had experienced before. Under the new strategy, he said, “I didn’t get injured, and my times just kept dropping.” Four years later, Kartalia ran an Olympic Trials qualifying time in the 10,000 m. Kartalia’s continued success as a master stems from learning this lesson of consistency in his youth.

Run Strong, Stay Hungry by Jonathan BeverlyAvoiding setbacks and the need to restart is especially important for the masters athlete. “Fitness is easier to retain than to gain,” said coach Greg McMillan, author of You (Only Faster). “As we age, regaining it becomes more and more difficult—physically and mentally. So, runners who have had a long successful running career are the ones that just keep racing. They keep training. And, they race lots of distances and do lots of different types of training. Use it or lose it seems to come to mind and these athletes continue to ‘use it’ so they never lose it.”

Whenever you take a break, even for as little as a week, running feels harder when you return to it. Christians tells about taking a couple of weeks off after a race to rest a groin injury. “Even after two weeks,” he said, “it is like, ‘Damn, I’ve never run before.’” It takes a few days of running to get back to normal, and a few weeks to reach the same comfort with the training volume.

At some point, we’ve probably all experienced the feeling Christians expresses, and it isn’t just in our heads. Coming back after time off is hard on your body. Multiple recent studies in a variety of sports have shown that it’s harder to increase training volume than to maintain it. The studies suggest that what we’ve typically called “overuse injuries” would be better named “training load injuries.” In other words, it isn’t regular volume that causes the injuries, but spikes.

A 2016 study out of Australia showed that athletes who maintain a steady, high load of stress are less likely to get injured than those who have less volume of training. But if you increase your weekly load by 20 percent more than the average of the past four weeks, you slightly increase injury risk, and that risk becomes three to five times greater if you have a spike of 50 to 60 percent.

Interpreting these studies, professor of exercise science Tim Gabbett argued in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that chronic undertraining accompanied by overloading spikes is more likely to lead to injury than sustained heavy workload, which can actually protect against injury. In another 2016 article in the same journal, researcher Mick Drew of the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra wrote, “Labeling these injuries as ‘overuse’ may encourage athletes to reduce their training unduly, thus exposing their tissues to deconditioning or an inconsistent loading pattern which have been associated with injuries.”

Run Strong, Stay Hungry by Jonathan BeverlyIt’s Getting Up to Speed That Hurts

Signs indicate, then, that it isn’t volume that hurts us but ramping up to that volume too quickly. If a runner wants to run at the mileage necessary for high performance, the safest way is to build up gradually then stay at a relatively high volume over time. Inconsistency leads to having to build back up continually, thus increasing risk.

There’s another reason inconsistent training hurts our ability to run. “When we lay off, we gain weight,” said Coates. “Even if we don’t gain weight, our bone density and muscle mass are affected in a negative way. When you take time off, you lose what is great and strong about your body. So now, when you start back, if your bone density isn’t what it was and your body fat is higher than what it was, you’re going to be less efficient. Which makes it biomechanically more difficult.”

McMillan has a similar perspective on the issue. “Consistent training seems to also help with weight gain (avoiding it), mobility (maintaining it), and strength (gaining it).”

When you take time off, be it a week, a month, or a year, your return to training is harder and you’re more likely to get injured as you ramp back up. The older you get, the more difficult this process becomes. After the difficulty of having to come back from foot surgery in 2013, author and lifetime competitor Scott Douglas said, “There’s no way in hell I could have started running at 50.”

Many I talked to who had quit running blamed the perils of inconsistency. When small breaks become longer breaks, you begin to lose fitness and gain weight. At that point, you can’t pick up where you once were, everything feels harder, and it is too easy to just accept that you are over the hill and have become a former runner.

In contrast, those who maintain a constant level of fitness are often able to continue year after year, even at high mileage, because their bodies are adapted to that level of effort as “normal.” As Douglas put it, “It’s easier to run 50 miles a week than 20 miles a week.” The consistency makes you stronger, which makes each run easier, which makes doing the next one easier in a self-perpetuating cycle.

Those who maintain a constant level of fitness are often able to continue year after year, even at high mileage, because their bodies are adapted to that level of effort as “normal.”

“Runners intuitively know this,” Gabbett said when I interviewed him. “If they can run consistently, train consistently, it actually builds robustness, it doesn’t build fragility.”

 

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Run Strong, Stay Hungry explores 9 ways any runner can enjoy a lifelong, healthy running career as well as boost enjoyment of running and improve race performance.

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