The Running Habit

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Today marks something of an achievement for me - it is the fourth week in a row that I have been for a run four times a week. In the grand scheme of things it's not a big deal, and indeed even in the minute scheme of things it's not that impressive really, but nonetheless it has happened, and I couldn't be happier about it!

Background

A bit of back story. Some years ago (probably around six, but I lose track!) I was regularly running with a particular schedule of four days running followed by two days rest then repeating the pattern. It felt good when it happened, but to be honest it didn't always happen.

The reasons are plentiful but things like socialising got in the way, and then it started to get cold, and dark, and once the habit was broken it became all too easy to justify not going again until eventually I didn't go running at all.

Part of the problem was that I was doing my running in the evening - and sometimes work just gets in the way, leading to a late end to the day. And who wants to go for a run in the cold and dark after a long day at work? Some people might, but not always me, that's for sure.

Another problem was that I wasn't tracking my runs at all. I had four routes which I cycled through, but I didn't really measure my times - so long as I was running them in around forty-something minutes everything was fine. I didn't have targets, and nothing to compare recent runs against.

Lastly, the schedule of four days running and two days off just doesn't fit well into the traditional seven day week. As the weeks go on, knowing that you have to go for a run the next day can really put a dent in the activities of the day before. This was especially noticeable at weekends where if I happened to be scheduled to run on Friday through to Monday there was a lot less fun to be had in pubs!

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The result

As a result of all this, my running would go through fits and starts where I would go for a few runs, then get blisters and give up. Or it would get cold, and I wouldn't bother. Or I would find another excuse to skip a day, which would quickly become a week and then a month.

Of course once a month or so has gone by without running, the habit just isn't there any more and it is a lot more effort to even get out the door to run.

I started a new job and began running to work there. Worked well for a while, until winter - then it was a lot easier to just walk - less chance of slipping for a start! Of course, once winter finished, I didn't start running again, and so the habit was broken yet again.

What changed?

No one big change has happened. Instead, as is the nature of these things, I believe it to be a collection of small but nonetheless effective changes.

A poor half-marathon

On a whim I signed up for the Cambridge Half-Marathon in 2012. It was brand new and local, so why not? I didn't do any real training to speak of, relying on my "natural fitness" to get me through. Well, I survived, but I didn't really have the stamina -13 miles was considerably more than my usual distance which is more like 6 miles. And my time reflected that.

Of course, buoyed by the "success" of that effort, I signed up for the 2013 race! However this time I was much less well prepared and it showed - a considerably slower time. Some of that could have been put down to the appalling weather (cold, snowy) but I think I can mainly blame myself and lack of preparation.

As a result of this I realised that if I wanted to break the two hour barrier next year I would have to get a bit more serious about running.

Joining Buffer

I joined Buffer at the tail-end of February just a couple of weeks before the half-marathon. So the self-improvement culture hadn't really kicked in by that point, and even if it had, I think it would have been a bit late! Nonetheless, being able to "work from home" has meant that I have considerably more freedom in how to organise my time. As a result I am now able to get my running done in the morning as my first task of the day, which is a great boost both physically and mentally. Nothing wakes you up more than a vigorous bit of exercise first thing in the morning.

But there is more than that. We all share what we are working on trying to improve, and get feedback and advice from the team. This has been great - everyone is so supportive about my running and really helps to keep me motivated if ever I begin to flag and think about skipping a day.

Over the past few months I have been gradually been increasing the number of runs I have been doing each week - from two to three and now to four. It has been steady progress - I haven't been pushing myself too hard too soon, and I think the results are now really starting to pay off.

Realising I'm getting a bit fat

As time has taken its toll on my body, my weight has been creeping ever-upwards. Occasionally when I go through a phase of running or cutting back a bit it retreats only to sneak up on me again. But I came to realise that running would be a lot easier, all else being equal if I just had less baggage to lug around on those morning runs by the river.

With this in mind, I began to deliberately eat a bit less and also better, cutting back on the beer especially. It's already had a noticeable effect, and not carting around all those extra pounds (25 of them at the last count) is definitely making a huge difference.

By no means do I float round my runs as some people I see seem to do. However, it does seem to be less work to get myself up to pace and to keep going now. Hopefully this will only continue as I get fitter and the pounds continue to drop off.

Using a Jawbone UP

At Buffer, one of the perks is getting a delightful little wristband that tells you just how little sleep and exercise you are getting each day. Obviously that's not exactly the intention, but that's what it boils down to!

Using the UP as a measure, it is great to see the effect that a morning run has - I have a target of 10000 steps a day and my run typically gets me to 8500 steps so it is almost impossible not to achieve my target for those days when I run. Seeing those joyous beams on my daily step count is always a great sight to behold.

However, it has also encouraged me to make the most of my "work from home" ability. I have used this to get out of the house a lot more and make my way round town, stopping off at appropriate hostelries as I go. This alone usually gets me another 10000 steps, so in a good day I can actually get twice as many steps in as I am aiming for.

The important thing is that I am not deliberately going out of my way to get more steps. They are more of a consequence of doing what I am doing. However, knowing that the UP is there to mock me if I fail to achieve my target is always a good motivation to get out of the house!

Using RunKeeper

After some initial half-hearted efforts at running as part of my self-improvement at Buffer I decided to get a bit more serious. I had passed through the phase of blisters and it seemed a good time to now start tracking what I was doing.

As a result I invested in an arm band for my phone, and invested in RunKeeper to keep tabs on how I was doing.

At first I wasn't convinced I would use it very much, but over the past four weeks it has become more and more addictive as more and more data is added to it. It's great to see my times tumbling as I get fitter, more confident, and lighter!

Of course, it also means that I now have my phone with me as I run, which leads nicely on to the next change.

Audiobooks

Did I mention that I work for a great company? Working at Buffer also affords me the luxury of getting any audiobook I like. Since I had been struggling to read as much as I wanted, I thought that I might try the audiobook approach and slay two birds with one stone by listening on my runs.

This has been going great! At first it was a little weird listening to someone waffle on as I ran, but over time it has become something to focus on that helps take my mind off running and really helps the miles fly by.

I did notice that at first I seemed to actually go a bit slower when listening to the book. In order to see if I could overcome this, I cranked up the narration speed to 1.25x and that seemed to do the trick! Again, it takes a little time to get used to the speed of the narration, but now it seems quite normal and if I happen to finish a book mid-run it is definitely weird not to have that voice in my ears as I plod along.
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The future

I don't know what the future holds for my running. The biggest tests will be when my routine is interrupted and when the seasons change. I hope that by the time these things happen I will either be able to adapt and keep up my routine, or else have a strong enough routine that a minor disruption isn't too important.

However, I do now that there are a couple of events coming up that will give me a good test.

Minor test

One minor test is coming up in the middle of July. I shall be away from Cambridge for a few days and will miss one day of my regular running.

I'm still not completely sure how best to deal with this. I could just postpone my run for a day, which is definitely a possibility. It's probably also the best choice as I might be a little the worse the wear on the morning of the intended run. And there is nothing worse than trying to run when not completely fit. I've tried it before, and it was no fun at all.

Or I could try to adapt and have a run in a new location. This is tricky - I have one route that I have been using lately for the simple reason that if I do the same route regularly it is much easier to compare my times. Finding a new route of comparable length in a new place is not straightforward although I could probably do some preparation to find a likely route. And then there is the added bonus of feeling decidedly ill.

The sensible approach is probably the postponement. And I think that is what I will do. But I know in my heart that the second is the better long-term approach in order to build some flexibility into my routine. And flexibility is what will be needed when the major test raises its head.

Major test

At the end of next month I shall be away from Cambridge for over a week. This is a major interruption to the schedule. So I need a plan to deal with this.

I could just stop my running for the week (and a bit). This is fraught with danger though. This is exactly the sort of event that has thrown my routine out the window in the past. While in this case I am sure that my colleagues would quickly encourage me to get back on the horse, I really don't want to get off the horse in the first place.

So, that being said, I will need to run somewhere new.

This does have good and bad sides. The bad - I don't know where to run, or what a good route is, or what the hills are like or anything like that. But the good is that I am there for long enough to probably have five or six runs on the new route - enough to get a good feel for what my pace should be.

Of course that will mean that I need to pack running gear as well as my regular clothes which is a bit of a pain and takes up that little bit more space.

All these things make this a great test, and I really think that if I can keep myself running even when out of my comfort zone I will be all the stronger for it. At the very least, it will be an exciting journey!

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