A year or so a go, a friend responded to a survey asking him to state the one word that best encompassed what running means to him with the word “routine.” There is a lot of power in that concept, as it’s the attitude of creating a routine (and therefore a habit) that gets you out the door every day (or most days). And since consistency is the key to long term success as a runner, regardless of your goal, making it routine can be a real asset.
But there can be a point where routine becomes limiting. The negative connotations of the word include “boring”, “repetitive”, “unexciting”. So it should be easy to see that too much routine can lead to getting into a rut, or to burnout. Worse, when you have tunnel vision about the manner in which you train, you miss opportunities that are even only slightly different from what you are used to. This in turn can lead to shortfalls in your performance, as it is often new opportunities that bring the biggest growth opportunities
Being open to variety in some ways the opposite of routine, helps you ramp up your performance through:
- setting new goals in new types of races
- adopting new training techniques to reinvigorate your development
- finding social opportunities via a team or running partners
- getting help from a coach to realize your full potential
There are at least five aspects of your running where relying on routine, while initially helpful, can quickly become limiting.
Time of Day
At first, establishing a routine around running at a certain time of day goes further than any other step in helping to make it a habit. You carve out a specific time of the day and become pretty good at defending it, and your family and potentially co-workers learn to respect this time. Or, if you are a predawn runner, it provides the ongoing motivation to get up early, which in and of itself is a hard habit to establish.
Eventually, running at or near the same time every day can become an issue for several reasons. First, if a temporary or permanent schedule change is forced on you, it can be difficult to react as you may not ever have considered other possibilities (and the challenges each brings). Also, if you participate in races, they may not be scheduled at the time you typically like to run (I’ve had a devil of a time finding a predawn race). As such, you may not know how to fuel properly or manage your energy levels to give your best possible performance, or be acclimated to different temperatures.
Solution: Make it a regular practice to run at other times of day than what you are used to. Doing so once or twice per week can be enough to help convince you that it is possible, and to understand how you need to adjust your diet or attitude to do so successfully.
Just like finding a time of day that works, establishing a weekly pattern can be helpful initially for a runner as it gives a sense of predictability. For example, if your family gets used to your long run on Saturday, it can become less of a burden as they learn what activities they can do without you. If you mentally gear yourself up for speed work on Monday (and, for example, rest on Sunday), you may find yourself always ready to give your best to the workout.
But a lack of variety in your schedule can eventually limit your gains. If you always head into each key workout with the same level of fatigue (presumably “low” if you are following a easy/hard sequence), then you miss the potential gains that come from having to push a longer run on tired legs, for example. And if you get used to running long on Saturday but then have to race on Sunday, your diet may be different than what you are used to on the day before a long run, or your sleep patterns may be a bit off. It’s these “little bits” that can take the edge off a race and cost you a PR.
Solution: Mix your schedule around on a regular basis. Obviously this doesn’t mean piling on long runs back to back, but a hard-medium combo once in a while can be a valuable training asset. This sometime I try to be careful about with Team Predawn Runner members to the extent possible based on their schedule constraints, as running the same type of workout on the same day each week can also just simply become boring.
Finding a handful of courses of known distances can be an asset to a runner, as you can head out for your 7-mile run without thinking too hard about how to get the right distance (or time). There are also potential safety benefits, as your family will generally know where you will be in the event something happens to you.
But nothing breeds boredom and complacency like getting too comfortable with your routes. Running successfully is about occasionally getting uncomfortable and learning to deal with it (actually, it may involve frequently getting uncomfortable). This is just as important mentally as physically, so having to think a bit when you run, to be aware of your situation and surroundings, and to plan ahead to manage your mental energy is a valuable training asset. Plus, if you always face a big uphill late in your long run, what’s going to happen when you face such a hill early in a race? Will you know how to manage your effort appropriately? Will you be mentally prepared for a situation you are not used to? And running constantly on the same type of surface can be a contributor to injury, or at the least a higher degree of fatigue.
Solution: Vary your routes regularly, or have a dozen or more that you can tap into, perhaps with minor variations. Even running a route in reverse can provide a fresh stimulus and perspective to help keep your training fresh. If your goal race has a unique course profile (like the Boston Marathon, for example), get creative in mimicking such a hill profile in some of your long runs.
This one is a little more insidious, but over time many runners find a pace groove at which they are comfortable. This can be helpful in just being able to zone out and knock off the miles, but this pace often falls at something a little faster than “true easy” effort, and in fact the temptation bleeds in to try and do a “little better” each time. This in turn can lead to a “medium effort trap”, in which you run a lot of your miles in a zone that is not optimal for aerobic development (it’s too fast) but yet doesn’t really touch your anaerobic capabilities (it’s too slow). In fact, many runners run their hard runs too slow and their easy runs too fast, thus missing out on the specific stimuli for which the workouts are designed.
Solution: Your training should touch a range of paces/efforts during each training “microcycle” (usually a three week training block), and even better if you are hitting a few paces each week. These paces and workout structures should be done with specific objectives in mind, of course, targeting specific gains for a specific race in most cases. At a minimum, even if you are in a generally easy base-building phase, you should mix in some strides or hill sprints each week to hit on your turnover and leg strength on a regular basis.
It is important to find a pair of shoes that works for you as a runner, that let’s you run “well” without pushing you towards injury. However, shoes change over time as new models come out, and new material and assembly technologies allow for ever lighter shoes. Thus, the shoe that worked for you in one iteration may not work after a redesign, and you may miss out on new possibilities by never trying other shoes.
Further, running in the same shoe all the time is like running on the same kind of surface – by stressing your muscles in only one way, you limit the “broadening” effect that alternating shoes can bring by engaging different muscles and risk overuse injuries. Further, you may well find that different kinds of shoes are better for different workouts – the cushioned, heavier shoe good for long runs doesn’t work as well for an uptempo set of intervals as well as, say, racing flats do.
Solution: Try having at least two shoes in rotation at all times, preferably not only different models but different types, that differ along at least one dimension such as heel-to-toe drop, degree of stability, or stack height / cushioning. In this way, you become a better runner by utilizing different muscles as you train, helping improve your efficiency and reduce injury risk.
Like so many things about running, routine is great until there is too much of it. By intentionally building in smart variety to keep your motivation high and physical and mental gains proceeding, and by introducing situations to become uncomfortable, you can develop more quickly to realize your potential.