2016-01-12

Double Your Running Distance With This One Weird Trick

Last week, I wrote about leaning into declines, and picking up the pace during inclines, to maintain or improve running speed. Today I'd like to tackle another aspect of running: endurance.

Faithful Stationary Waves reader CS recently asked me, "How do you run so far?" Like many people, CS doesn't have a problem running, say, three miles. But when it comes to something more like an eight-mile run, he's not confident that he could actually do it. I, on the other hand, consider an eight-mile run not much more difficult than a three-mile run. Other than the time commitment - and for diabetics, some minor blood sugar management considerations - eight miles don't challenge me more than three miles do.

Now, some of this relates to what's known as "running economy," or the efficiency with which a runner's form propels him forward. Improving running economy requires meticulous effort in some cases, and a great deal of experience in all cases. (For a more in-depth look at running form, see here and here.)

Still, assuming there are no obvious "form issues," it's possible to get over the "mental hump" that keeps people like CS from running longer distances, but it sometimes requires a little mental trick.

If you can run from A to B, you can run from B to C

It Works Like This

Start with a distance you know you can run. Suppose you're like CS, and you know you can run three miles. In that case you'll want to choose a location that is exactly three miles from your starting point, and run there. When you get there, turn around and run back.

I can sense your skepticism, so let me explain why this works so well. If you run three miles in any direction, then you'll have to travel the three miles from that endpoint back to your starting point somehow. Chances are, you'll be tired of running (having never run that far before) and will want to get back home as soon as possible, so that you can do... pretty much anything other than running. You won't have any form of transportation readily available to you, other than your feet, so that means the quickest way out of your predicament is to... run back home. Congratulations: You just ran six miles.

Is this kind of a dumb, cheap trick? Yes. Does it still somehow work? Yes. Yes, it does.

One of the reasons I think it works is because retracing your steps always seems somehow shorter than setting out initially. You're already familiar with the scenery, the puddles you saw along the way, the corner coffee shop with the blue thing on its street sign, the overpass where you nearly fell on your face, etc. So, when you see all this scenery in reverse, for some reason it feels like, "Oh, I was just here. I can't believe I only have two miles left..."

Another reason it works is because even if it fails, it improves your endurance. That is, if you "only" make it to the halfway point and then turn around and walk the whole way back, then you just increased your workout from a "three-mile run" to a "three-mile run, followed by a three-mile walk." That still improves your endurance.

In fact, I developed a whole beginners' running program around this principle.