Whether you want to run to lose weight, get outside more, have a healthier lifestyle, increase happiness or to have more energy, you’ll need to build a running habit for the results you want.
However, building this habit can be hard and we often encounter challenges which stop us short from reaching our running goals. In this article, I’ll be sharing 13 top tips to help you build a running habit.
‘Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.’ – Mark Twain
My experience with running habits
In the past I had no good running habit in place. I used to sleep in, procrastinate with Netflix and Xbox, didn’t attend weekly runs (like parkrun) and constantly skipped workout days. Needless to say my progress was poor and I didn’t hit any of my running goals.
I’d always say I wanted to be a better runner but my habits were terrible. I could never commit and couldn’t stay disciplined to put in the work I needed to. It just seemed too difficult and I always found an excuse to not run. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, this is a common cycle amongst many runners!
Frustrated at my lack of results, I decided to investigate how good habits are built. I stumbled upon a book ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear, which I found incredibly useful. After putting this newfound habit building knowledge to use, I started to get better results that I wanted.
After just a few weeks, I’d built a solid running habit and began getting the results I had dreamed of. For example, my 5K personal best went from 19:30 to 18:54 at my local parkrun. My half-marathon personal best dropped from 1:32:33 to 1:30:30. I was also incredibly pleased with a 3:12 marathon on my first 26.2 mile race. I’ve also noticed a decline in my training pace from my typical 7:30 minute miles to a much quicker 7:05 minute mile pace. Everything about my running has improved thanks to my better running habits.
At the time of writing this article I have been for a run every single day since new year’s day, and clocked up a 142 daily running streak in the process. Every day I run regardless of how tired I am, the weather outside, if I’m on holiday and how motivated I am. You could definitely say I have built a good running habit.
Having gone from terrible habits and no results to brilliant habits and excellent results, I want to share what I have learnt with you so you can get the results you want.
What is a running habit?
‘Habits are formed by the repetition of particular acts. They are strengthened by an increase in the number of repeated acts. Habits are also weakened or broken, and contrary habits are formed by the repetition of contrary acts.’ – Mortimer J. Adler
At its simplest level, a habit is a routine of behaviour that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously. We often don’t think about performing the habit and it feels automatic. Strong habits tend to be built with lots and lots of repetition.
Examples of daily habits you probably already have include sleeping, brushing your teeth every morning & evening, eating breakfast, having a shower and commuting to work. These are all predictable patterns of behaviour which feel automatic because they have been performed time and time again. Eventually you get so used to doing them that they become effortless.
Applying this definition to running, a ‘running habit’ would be when someone runs consistently as part of a well-established. They show up to training constantly, regardless of how they are feeling or what the weather is like, and put in the reps and time required to build a solid running habit. Often, the urge to run comes naturally and the runner won’t have any objections to lacing up.
Why can it be difficult to build a running habit?
As many of us know, it can be difficult to build a running habit. There are challenges and obstacles which can stop our habit building attempt dead in it’s tracks. Here are some of the reasons it was difficult for me to build a running habit when I first started the sport:
Trying to improve too quickly – I remember my first proper run which was a total disaster was. I tried to go from 0 to running 7 miles in one go. Big mistake. By mile 5, I experienced sharp pains in my leg and after limping home found out I had pulled my hamstring. As a result, I had to take 3 weeks out to recover which meant I couldn’t train. The reason I injured myself is because I tried to improve too quickly.
Lots of runners start off in a similar fashion. Putting in lots of miles in the first few days only to either injure themselves or feel discouraged when they don’t make the immediate gains that they want to. Some are put off by the sport whilst others quit all together. If this happens, it’s no wonder a habit isn’t created.
Not tracking progress – Runners who don’t track their progress often get discouraged because it feels like they’re not making any progress. They complete a few runs and feel like they haven’t accomplished very much which can lead to not running as much or giving up running altogether.
Having the environment set up incorrectly – If the environment isn’t optimised for running, it’s incredibly difficult for an individual to build a solid habit. For example, if you have to spend 10 minutes lost inside a wardrobe trying to find running clothing & shoes before each workout, you’ll find it easier to skip the run. If your environment doesn’t support running, building a habit will be extremely difficult.
Not being held accountable – One of the biggest reasons people fail at anything in life is that they are not held accountable. If you don’t stick to running every other day, who is going to hold you accountable? Who is it going to remind you of your running goals and your quest to building a running habit? If you or somebody else isn’t holding you accountable for not following through on your promises, the running habit attempt will fall flat on its face.
These are just a few of the many reasons runners fail to build a good habit.
Without further ado, let’s look at the top 13 tips for making running a habit:
1.Get 1% better each day
Successfully building a running habit doesn’t mean making huge gains each and every day. Instead, habit building should focus on small daily gains which compound over time and allow you to achieve your running goals. If you focus on improving your running by 1% each day, you will be 37 times better over the course of a year.
Small daily habits, like running just 1 mile per day or swapping a chocolate bar for an apple, all multiply over time deliver a huge impact on your performance. Though at the time these small gains and behaviour changes won’t seem like any progress at all, after a few months your running game will have improved greatly.
On the other side of the coin, bad running habits compound too. If you skip your run today, it might seem to make no difference. However, if you keep skipping your run you will lose 1% of progress each day and these will compound into toxic results like being overweight or the breakdown of toned leg muscles due to inactivity.
Don’t worry about making huge gains each day, instead focus on the habit of getting 1% better each day and your running will improve in leaps and pounds.
2. Optimise your environment for running
In order to develop a running habit your environment needs to optimise for this behaviour. In other words, your surroundings need to be convenient for you to easily run each time you need to do so.
For example, imagine waking up in the morning and your running clothes, shoes and accessories (watch, sunglasses etc) are hidden in various wardrobes, cupboards and draws.
You’d have to spend a good 5-10 minutes trying to find everything and this would probably be perceived as a hassle. Eventually, you might decide to give up and skip the run. Who needs the hassle when you can just lie in bed, right?
Now imagine if they were laid out neatly by your alarm clock the night before, ready for you to slip into them and run out the front door. You’d be more likely to, wouldn’t you?
You altered your environment to support a running habit, therefore it was much easier for you to get up and run straight away. With enough repetitions, this will quickly become second nature and you will lay out clothing the night before for a morning run without thinking about it.
I optimise my running habit by doing a few things the night before a run. I lay out my clothes & shoes, I get a breakfast of 3 eggs and coffee set up and ready to go when I get back, I leave a tall glass of water and cracker with peanut butter by my alarm clock so I can easily hydrate and fuel up upon waking.
The environment makes it easy for me to run in the morning and I don’t have to think about getting myself a drink or making pre-run food; it’s all set up from the night before, ready to go. It makes it so much easier to just get into my shoes and head out the front door.
If you want to build a running habit, make sure you optimise your environment for it.
3. Make running part of your identity
Did you know that one of the best ways to build a running habit is to change your identity? Most people don’t even consider identity when they want to improve their running but think it’s one of the most powerful strategies available.
Typical goal setting for someone who sees themselves as an overweight person might be ‘I want to be skinny and if I run more then I’ll be skinny.’ On the surface this sounds like a reasonable goal. However, the individual isn’t taking their beliefs into account. Even though they might want the outcome of being skinny, if they still see themselves as an overweight person then they will continue to act like an overweight person i.e. eating unhealthily and not exercising.
Instead, a change of identity means a change in beliefs which will subconsciously drive an individual towards acting in a certain way. For example, an overweight person could shift their identity and start to believe ‘I am going to be a healthy weight because I am a runner.’
This is much more powerful as they have now shifted their identity from an overweight person to a runner (with the benefit of being healthy). To maintain this new identity, the overweight person will act in accordance with it and be more likely to perform running related activities like training and eating healthily to achieve the ‘healthy weight’ which forms part of their identity.
It sounds like it doesn’t work but I know this from experience to be true. When I did my first half-marathon, I didn’t consider myself a runner and thought of myself as an unhealthy impostor dabbling in a sport, I knew nothing about. However, a few friends and family members started referring to me as ‘mad about running’ and started saying I ‘had the running.’ These statements made me feel like I was a true runner and to maintain this new identity, I trained more and participated in more running events.
To make running a habit, start to believe you are a runner and you will be more likely to act in accordance with this new aspect of your identity.
4. Track your progress using visual methods
One of the main reasons people quit running is because they feel like they aren’t making progress. After their first five runs they might still feel out of breath and sore, leading them to wrongly believe they are not making any gains.
A fantastic method you can use to avoid this and make running a habit is to track your progress using visual methods. Examples include marking a black X on a wall calendar for each day you run or moving a marble from one jar to another after each workout.
The action of physically writing or moving something visually signals you have been successful on that day in acting to create a running habit. Tracking your habit visually has 3 main benefits.
It creates a visual cue that reminds you to keep running; a quick glance at a calendar with a string of X’s on it will encourage you to maintain a running streak or keep up with a training regime. Secondly, it motivates you to quickly see the progress you’ve already made which proves you are putting in the work towards creating a running habit. Thirdly, and perhaps the most important reason, is because it feels incredibly satisfying to record each time you stuck with your running habit.
The visual evidence of marking an X on a calendar, or moving a marble from one jar to another, proves that you are pulling the trigger and acting to create a lasting running habit.
5. Reward yourself
An easy way to build a running habit is to start rewarding yourself after each successful run you do.
The reward can be anything and must provide a pleasurable sensation. This positive experience will eventually start to be associated with running and you will feel more motivated to maintain a running routine. After all, each time you successful finish a run you will be rewarded with the ‘carrot’ and experience a pleasant sensation.
Post-run reward can include eating something tasty (and healthy), using a foam roller, drinking a cup of coffee, watching 30 minutes of Netflix, reading a chapter of a good book or spending time with a loved one. As I run first thing in the morning, a coffee and breakfast of eggs on toast is my reward.
This works so effectively because it sub-consciously communicates to your brain than running is a positive experience that is rewarded. Therefore, you’re much more likely to make a habit out of it.
So many times, I see runners deprive themselves of post-run rewards because they feel guilty about rewarding themselves. Big mistake. If you don’t send a signal to your brain that running is a positive thing through post-run rewards, you won’t feel as motivated to keep running and therefore a habit won’t be formed.
Be sure to reward yourself after each run and you will soon build a running habit.
6. Make it easy to start with using the 2-minute rule
Something I found fascinating when I read ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear was his 2-minute rule for habit building. If you’re struggling to get started with building a running habit, then the 2-minute rule is for you.
The 2-minute rule works for running goals because of the inertia of life. Once you start doing something, it’s easier to continue doing it because of momentum.
If you want to become a runner, try running for just 2 minutes. That’s all you need to do, 120 seconds. After this, you can end your run and come home. It’s a low barrier to entry and 2 minutes will be proof to yourself that you have been for a run.
However, most people find they will keep running well beyond these 2 minutes. Once the 2 minutes is up, you will find you’re in the zone and now motivated to keep running. Before you know it, you’ve covered 5K and have completed a nice running workout.
I love the 2-minute rule because it is a powerful strategy for runners struggling to get started. Use it to your advantage; build a brilliant running habit.
7. Associate with runners who already have good habits
By spending more time with people who model the habits you want to mirror, you will find it much easier to model their habits yourself. Constant exposure to successful people who have achieved a running habit will subconsciously rub off on you.
Often, you will learn their tips and tricks to how they build and stay motivated with their running habit. You become who you spend the most time around, which is why it’s important to model the behaviour of a habitual runner in your circle.
For example, I am good friends with a couple who kept telling me they wanted to build better running habits but had kept failing after trying for a few days. I told them to start running with me for two weeks, and I promised they would make running a habit.
After the two weeks was up, they had learnt a lot of the tips I am sharing with you now in this article and were able to successfully create a running habit which I am proud to say is still being followed to this day. You can do this too.
If you know someone who has good running habits, politely approach them and ask if you can run with them for two weeks to learn how they stick to their regime. More than often, people are flattered you asked and will be more than happy to help you out.
By associating with runners who have good habits, you’ll find it much easier to build decent habits yourself.
8. Join a social running group
A brilliant strategy for running habitually is to join a social running group. These groups include clubs, parkrun, athletics clubs and even weekly running gatherings at work.
The key is to find a social running group who run on a weekly basis, ideally two times a week, and joining.
The pressure of sticking to the group norms of turning up twice a week to train makes it more likely you will commit to putting in the reps, even when you don’t feel like it.
Before long, a habit will be created and slipping into your running shoes for a Thursday night club 5K will be a breeze.
Joining a social group has the added benefits of making new friends, learning more about the sport and being exposed to better training sessions which might be led by coaches. This means you’ll not only have fun, but you’ll also be on track to achieving your goals much quicker.
For more information, check out the following blog posts:
9. Get an accountability partner
Lots of runners fail to build a running habit because a lack of accountability. Either they can’t personally hold themselves accountable for sticking to a running routine or they don’t have a designated person who can hold them accountable.
For example, you might occasionally skip a run and feel relaxed about it even though the consequences of not running include losing progress, discipline and breaking a running streak, to name a few. Not good.
If you can’t hold yourself accountable, get yourself an ‘accountability partner.’ This will be somebody who checks whether you’ve been sticking to your running plan and making sure you don’t skip training.
I’m aware some might view this as unnecessary and a form of babysitting, but I believe it is one for the most powerful strategies available for someone struggling to form a running habit.
By promising someone close (a partner, friend or colleague) about your desire to form a running habit, you can ask them to check on you and make sure you are staying true to your promise.
An idea to make this more likely to work is to entrust a sum of money to the accountability partner and agreeing you will only get it back if you stick to a running habit for a month. If you are successful after a month, the habit should be deeply ingrained in you and you can get your money back. It sounds tough, but – from experience – it works!
10. Socially commit to your running goals
If you keep make promises to yourself that you will start a running habit but find you’re often failing to stick to training, socially committing to your running goals might be a solution.
What is social commitment? Social commitment is where you make a promise to do something (like make running a habit) to people within your social circle like friends, family and colleagues.
If you tell people you interact with everyday that you are going to create a running habit you will be much more likely to follow through and take action that is consistent with the promise you made.
Why is this? Most people hate the idea of acting in a different way to what they have promised people in their daily lives. Think of someone in your life who constantly says they are merely interested in losing weight, yet they keep shovelling chocolate and ice cream down their throat. Not only is this incredibly contradicting but you often question their integrity too as it is clear this person isn’t that serious about their goals.
If you make a social promise to those in your circle that you will make running a habit, you’ll be motivated to act in a way consistent with this image you have portrayed of yourself. People will constantly ask you how the running is going whenever you see them, and by sticking to your routine you can give an honest and integral answer which is consistent with the social promise you made.
You can up the stakes of social commitment by downloading a social app like Strava to follow and be followed by people in your circle. These apps provide a no lies snapshot of each run you do, allowing people to see if you are following through with your promise.
People love to act in a way that’s consistent with the image they portray of themselves to those in their social circle. Therefore, socially commit to building a running habit and you will have no problem acting to make this come true.
11. Commit to showing up every time
‘There is absolutely nothing that you can control except showing up and doing your job.’ – Tituss Burgess
‘To stay on the map, you’ve got to keep showing up.’ – Peter Gallagher
The difference between successful runners and non-successful runners is that those who are successful have a habit always showing up every time.
If you start to commit to showing up and running each time you are scheduled to do so, regardless of how you’re feeling, the weather or if you’re on holiday, you will quickly build a solid running habit.
It doesn’t matter if you occasionally have a bad run or sometimes need to shorten the distance by a mile or two. By constantly showing up your body not only gains the physical benefits, you also send a clear message to your brain that you are committed to building a running habit.
Show up enough times, day in-day out, and you will quickly establish a strong running habit that will help you achieve your goals.
12. Book 6 months of running events in advance
This might seem like a crazy idea to some. Why book 6 months’ worth of running events in one go? Can’t you just book them as you go through the year? It makes more financial sense to do so, right?
When I started running, I found I was most motivated when I had an event to train for. After race day, I found my motivation dwindling as I suddenly didn’t have anything tangible to train for. Without the race to train for, I let my running habit slide and my fitness slowly declined.
To combat this, I booked 6 months of half-marathons (1 a month) in one go. Booking them in meant I had something in the diary for the next half year to train for and I immediately found it much easier to run regularly. Not taking training seriously would mean wasting all that hard-earned cash and I’m always trying to beat my personal best, so I was much more motivated to stick to the running habit.
Everybody is different. Some will find this works for them whilst others will find the other tips on this list more helpful. Personally, I’m much more motivated to put in the reps when I have something to work towards.
Outside of running, I play piano and after finishing my grade 3 exam found I stopped playing as much as I had done previously. However, after booking my grade 5 exam I began practising again for at least 1 hour a day up until exam day. Proof that booking in actual events to train for makes me more motivated to put the reps in and build habits. It could work for you too!
Give it a try with 3 running events first and see how you get on. If it works a treat and helps you build a running habit, book 6 months of events next time.
For more information, check out the following blog post:
13. Make running part of your daily routine
A brilliant way to make running a habit is to incorporate it into your daily routine.
Do you usually drive 15 minutes through town to work? Leave 30 minutes earlier and run to work instead. Picking the kids up from school? Run to the school gates and enjoy the walk back as a cool down. Need a fun way to connect with clients or colleagues? Suggest going for a running lunch to discuss business or how things are going in the organisation.
There are endless ways to slot running into your daily routine so it can quickly become a habit. Get creative and see what works for you.
Tip: It’s always good to have a shower waiting for you at the end of your run. If there’s no shower at work for you to freshen up, it might be a good idea to add running into other areas of your daily life. Your co-workers will thank you for it!