A few weeks ago, I ran a half marathon. The goal was pretty simple: keep myself honest with my fitness leading into next year's San Francisco marathon. As a result, there were no ambitions for finishing time or even a personal mandate to run the entire distance. I didn't feel any pressure to keep up with a pacer, or fight around slow runners, or even to run up the 1000 feet of elevation gain. In the end, I had a great time. With only one run between the marathon and the half, separated by a full 3 months, I still "ran" the very hilly course in a very comfortable 2:07.
But one thing I saw noticed during the race, and something that I've heard and observed elsewhere, is the lack of oomph than runners tend to have. Even pretty elite runners (well, in my opinion), capable of sub-3:30 marathons, can't beat my chubby butt up a hill when I give it the beans. And some consistent feedback I've received from my endurance-motivated friends is that I've improved at running faster than they've seen anyone else similarly motivated. That is to say: I've gotten better at running despite clearly not liking the activity.
I think the reason for this is purely in mindset. My observation of the casual runner is that measurable improvement is not a priority. But even the most casual strength athlete is focused on improvement: one more rep, five more pounds, every single workout.
This approach to running can give you very quick progress. In some ways, it's insane to me that people don't think about programming their runs this way:
- Run as far as you can without stopping. Walk back home.
- Until you can run that initial run plus the run home, keep doing that route.
- Add 1 mile.
Maybe I'm hanging out in the wrong corners of society. And I certainly don't hang out in the running world. But somehow no one I've talked to has phrased their workouts in terms of progression like powerlifters or weightlifters do. Maybe put differently: there was a pride, somewhere deep in my soul, when I first deadlifted 405 pounds and when I ran my first unbroken half marathon. Yet the "runners" and "cyclists" that I know don't have that twinkle in their eye or puff of the chest.
Someone I talked to recently mentioned running an ultra marathon, but then almost immediately qualified it with "well but I walked the uphills". I have a suspicion that the ability to stop mid-"rep" during endurance sports removes the ability to have the same pride that a strength athlete might have in their accomplishments.
All this to say: if you want to get better at running, or cycling, or any endurance activity, think like a strength athlete. Every workout should prove that you've gotten better, whether by distance or speed, or should be a predetermined backoff day. You'll start pushing your capabilities much faster that way.