Key lessons from 20 years of competitive running
After having completed 100+ races and 20K+ miles run over the span of 2 decades, here are some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned along the way. These lessons have helped me stay healthy while running high mileage, avoid injury, race competitively, and build upon my fitness throughout the years.
Running is a very repetitive action so adding variety to training has been a game-changer for me. This can be done by running on different surfaces or by running in different heel-to-toe drop shoes.
This change in surfaces and shoes helps to activate different muscle groups to make you a stronger more well-rounded runner. Hilly, uneven trails are particularly helpful for activating the lateral muscles that are not always used while running on flat roads.
For shoes, a different toe-to-heel drop shifts your center of gravity while you run and thus focusing more on different muscle groups. For example, low drop (0–4mm) shoes focus more on the calves and ankles regions, while high drop (8–10mm) shoes focus more on the knee and quad regions. This may not run true for everyone, but this is what I have noticed personally from these separate types of shoes.
Here’s an example of my training that incorporates variety into my weekly runs.
Monday: Easy Run — on trails, low drop shoe
Tuesday: Long Run — on roads, high drop shoe
Wednesday: Easy Run — on trails, low drop shoe
Thursday: Easy Run — on trails, high drop shoe
Friday: Workout — on roads, lightweight high drop shoe
Saturday: Easy Long Run — on trails, low drop shoe
Sunday: Easy Run — on roads, high drop shoe + several barefoot striders on grass
Easy days mean EASY DAYS
This is one lesson, admittedly, I need to come back to fairly regularly. Just like workouts and long runs, easy days serve a crucial role in training. Think of it this way, what if you studied all semester with the same intensity you would when studying during finals week? This is not a sustainable long-term option.
Easy running is the foundation of your weekly mileage. Even pros spend the majority of their weekly training at their easy pace. If you have a heart rate monitor, target your run effort to be in the range of 120–140 bpm. If you don’t have a heart-rate monitor, think of it as a very comfortable conversational pace. Remember, keep those easy runs easy!
More Miles, More Fitness
Whoever first said there is such thing as ‘junk miles’ are COMPLETELY FALSE. Aerobic training is like a bank. Every time you run, hike, swim, or bike, you increase your heart rate and add a deposit into your current fitness safehold however small it may be. With the next lesson on consistency, these deposits start to add up, resulting in increased endurance and speed.
In the past, I’ve fallen into the trap of trying to think if there is a shortcut to fitness. At the end of the day, just putting in more miles and more time on your feet consistently has been the best (and certainly most unglamorous) way to do it. No shortcuts here, but make sure you gradually build up to whatever your target mileage may be.
Consistency is King
I’m a big believer in the mantra: “small progress, every day”. Fitting in with the previous lesson about more mileage is the fact that if you are running most days of the week, week after week, this consistency alone will help to grow your fitness. It is never one workout that will make you fast, but rather the accumulation of weeks and months of consistent training. I’d argue that this one lesson had been one of the biggest contributors to the continual development of my personal fitness.
Train the gut
This lesson is more tailored to the long-distance runners out there. When you run long enough to deplete your glycogen stores, having an appropriate way to fuel against the dreaded effects of ‘hitting the wall’ is critical. This vastly differs for everyone so I don’t necessarily want to recommend certain types of foods, but rather, suggest several ‘fuel test runs’. These ‘fuel test runs’ will be where you learn and record what fuels did or didn’t agree with you during a long run effort. Before a long-distance race, you want this fuel & hydration regimen down to a science and to have your body conditioned for consuming these fuels during the race.
Here’s a list of fuels I’ve experimented with over the years to give you some ideas: gel packs, electrolyte powders, bananas, rice & miso, apple, pear, black licorice, apple juice, orange juice, honey, saltwater with maple syrup (please don’t try this), raisins, jelly beans, potatoes, and peanut butter
Quick side note: for those looking to maybe try a trail marathon or anything in the ultra distances, the gut training I did during my long training runs was a HUGE part of my success on race day. Don’t overlook or undervalue the importance of nutrition and hydration!
Practice ascending AND descending
I knew training on uphills and hill sprint repeats had a lot of benefits for leg strength, but as I transitioned more to trail races, I quickly realized the importance of downhill training too. There is nothing more freeing than opening your stride as you pick up speed down a hill. However, the impact forces take a toll on the quads and if you haven’t properly trained for downhill running, your legs might not be ready for the pounding and quickly fatigue. This was an eye-opening lesson I discovered during my first trail marathon. Even though this applies more to trail racing, there are quite a few net downhill races (i.e. Boston Marathon) that can definitely take you by surprise if you haven’t properly trained for them. Take time to practice running downhill and maintaining good form, your legs will thank you come race day.
Focus on form
Just like swimming, and other sports, running form is a key component of efficient energy transfer while you take each step. After a past injury, it forced me to take a look at how I actually ran. By filming myself run, consulting coaches, and referencing some data from my Garmin watch, I noticed I did quite a bit of overstriding, which previously resulted in hot spots on my feet at faster paces. Over several months, I gradually increased my cadence and practiced drills (the next lesson) to avoid overstriding and the results have been really beneficial. I can now run faster, and more comfortably all thanks to improving my form. Just remember, adjustments like this are slow and gradual.
Stretching, and drills are non-negotiables
As runners, stretching, and drills can sometimes feel like that lukewarm veggie casserole at a family dinner — untouched. However, just like maintaining your fitness, having a solid stretching and drill routine has been one of the biggest factors for avoiding injury, and maintaining high mileage training over the years. I have gravitated around 9 different types of dynamic stretches that I do both before and after my runs. It is really important to stay consistent since tightness and inflexibility can creep in if you are not routinely stretching and doing drills. Plus, I have found these practices to also help strengthen and maintain good running form.
Here’s are some of the dynamic stretches I do before and after my runs:
- Leg swings (sides & fronts)
- Butt kicks
- Side skips
- High Knees
- Straight leg skips
- Single leg high skips
If you have any questions about how to do these drills, I have found Sportplan to have a number of really helpful videos outlining how to do these.
Have fun out there!
Oh yes, I am ending with a cheesy cliche phrase. But really… I meant it! I’ve had some of my greatest, most memorable runs when I was just going out and enjoying the views and running with friends. Everyone has a different motivation for running (weight-loss, mental health, competition, time goals, etc.) Regardless of your motivation, cherish the time out there whether you like early mornings or late-night adventures. Find a friend, join a group, drive to a cool place, and have fun!
Thanks for reading!
I hope these lessons help you in your training. Reach out if you have any questions!
I’m an Artist & Designer working in Durham, NC. Feel free to reach out and say hi! 👋