Summary: By being consistent, focused, having the right guidance and patience to wait for delayed gratification, you’re on the right path to achieving your goals.
I started running in January 2016. I can’t say that I’m a seasoned runner – although I’ve clocked more than 2100 km so far this year (in comparison to 132 km in 2015), I am still very much a beginner and am constantly learning from every single run (mainly about myself) and from my major mistakes. Last Sunday I achieved my new half marathon PB of 1:36:20, improving upon a 1:54:07 from May’s Hackney Half Marathon.
I don’t know if 18 minutes’ improvement in 5 months is objectively a lot – for me it is and I’ve decided that I would like to share some points on my journey with the hope that these might help some of the beginners and inspire some of the more experienced runners, reminding them of the basics. Here we go – how did I manage to become 18 minutes faster within 5 months?
- I got a trainer
That’s got to be the first point, as it definitely made the biggest difference. Before May, I used the generic Nike+ training plans, not knowing really at what pace I was supposed to be going and pretty much winging it. It kind of worked for the first two runs – Reading in 1:59:51 and Hackney in 1:54:07. Then I had the luck of stumbling upon a crowdfunding project for a young guy who wanted to run an ultramarathon. I supported it and chose the prize of a months’ worth of cooperation with his trainer Piotr (http://run-passion.pl). We started working together and we’ve been (remotely) training together ever since. It is amazing how different from a quality point of view my running has become with Piotr’s supervision. I’ve become stronger, yet have not overdone it and have not suffered from any injuries. I’m getting weekly plans from my coach and following them with full trust, to the letter. My trainer helped me get to where I am now in terms of my performance and he’ll help me get to my ultimate goal of finishing an IRONMAN by 2018 (health permitting).
You might be thinking “I’ve just started running, it’s too early to have a coach”. Yeah, those were my thoughts, too, but I decided to give it a go. And have not regretted this decision for a single second! The luxury of being looked after by someone who knows what they’re doing is invaluable. Plus it’s that additional external motivation – you know he’s going to look at your Garmin runs, they better look like you have made an effort… But I’ll come back to the whole subject of motivation in a different post.
- I have not missed a single run
Obviously, my trainer could’ve prepared the best plans for me, but ultimately it was down to me to execute them. It’s just like with a business idea – unless you’ve implemented it, it’s not worth a penny. Therefore I focused on the execution of those plans, day by day, week by week, month by month and haven’t missed a single session. I was always faster than my excuses. Every single week I ticked off 5 runs. It’s like with every other habit – you build it through consistency. And running has sort of become a habit of mine now – whenever I go out for a run after a rest day, I feel like I hadn’t pounded the streets for ages! Your body and mind get used to regular endorphin shots and they almost force you to maintain a steady supply of those.
- I started getting up early…
I wrote about it here. I started getting up at 5:33 AM every single day (that means during the weekends as well). This has changed to 5:09 AM now and ultimately will become 5:01 AM (or maybe earlier? who knows). I’ve got my little morning routine – I get up, drink a pint of cold water with lemon juice, then I exercise (see next bullet point), have a banana, some nuts and an Oomf porridge (I’m addicted to them!). After that, I get a cold shower for a few minutes and prepare 3 eggs with mozzarella cheese afterwards. This wouldn’t have been possible, had I not learned how to get up earlier. If you put this in number-terms, I started getting up an hour earlier than before; this means that weekly I get at least 7 hours more awake time. In an average month of 4 weeks, I get a day more out of my life, 12 days additional days a year (or 48 working days of 7 hours each)! Sounds like a no-brainer to me.
- … and regularly training my core and overall strength
On Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 5:16 AM and 5:50 AM I do a mixture of strength and core exercises – push ups, planks, abs rolling, push ups on a ball etc. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at the same times I focus on my core – use my Beast Gear Core Sliders, my gym ball and my Bosu to give my core a right beating up.
This is something many runners and endurance athletes forget about – that having a strong, trained core can give them that extra edge, that additional advantage to get them over the finish line quicker and make it less painful the day after. I have been doing this consistently (see a running theme here?) and have been seeing significant improvements to my running performance, but also to my overall wellness and energy levels.
- I ate healthily
MyFitnessPal is one of my favourite and most used apps. I track everything that I’m eating to make sure that I’m hitting my nutritional targets. A few months ago I calculated my required calorie intake + how many gs of protein, carbs and fat should I be eating to become leaner and faster. I reduced the amount of carbs ingested and replaced them with healthy fats; I eat loads of protein (about 180 g per day) and try to minimise carbs. I don’t eat any overly processed food, I don’t do snacking and don’t fill up my free time with eating (which is quite common – if you’re watching a TV series or reading a book, munching on something comes naturally, at least to me). I’ll create a separate post on eating soon – for the purpose of this post it’s necessary to say that appropriate nutrition has increased my energy levels, reduced cravings and had a noticeable impact on my life in general. I still like to eat crap from time to time, but I do it consciously and don’t feel guilty afterwards – as I’m not rewarding myself with food. The healthy way of eating has become my way, my choice – I definitely do not perceive it as a “diet”, which makes it easy to sustain it.
Running, core & strength training and proper eating habits led to these results (left is end of December 2015, right is September 2016 – that’s my flexing face):
Losing some weight definitely made me faster – a few kilograms here or there can really make a difference, surprisingly. We’ll see where I will get to at the end of the year, as from November I’ll be adding swimming & cycling to the routine!
- I have not given up
In the points above, I have mentioned the word “consistently” multiple times. All of these improvements wouldn’t have been possible had I not been patient and just kept going. I will write a whole post on this shortly – but the key here is giving yourself time. It’s about understanding that habits aren’t formed over a few hours or a few days – they take persistence, patience and consistency. You will have worse days – it’s how you get over them that makes you stronger. Walter Mischel wrote about the phenomenon of delayed gratification ages ago – and it is essential to fully comprehend that your hard work today will result in future gratification, if only you keep ploughing on. We’ll expand on this soon – for now remember please that:
a) Whenever you feel like giving up, think about the reasons why you even started your journey
b) You will experience worse moments, moments of helplessness and even sadness – it’s the natural change curve
c) Every day that you maintain your habit makes it stronger (also physically, the neurons in your brain strengthen as well). Just make sure that you’re faster than your excuses.
That’s it. That’s my “magical” way which in its essence is just hard, consistent work on self-improvement, patiently pushing my own limits and keeping in mind why I’m doing it. You can apply the lessons above to all contexts, not only running – get a mentor who you can learn from and who will guide you; be consistent, habits are build over time; don’t adopt a “diet” or something that is in its nature temporary – change your lifestyle to make it sustainable; train yourself in the disciplines you want to be successful in, but remember also about improving in other areas that might not be directly connected to your subject of focus; finally, understand that there will be ups and downs and that every time you get up, you become stronger.