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Can you be a serious runner without a training program?

What’s the definition of a serious runner anyway?

Is the desire to run faster and longer a requisite part of the job description?

On Monday, I touched upon the fact that I don’t create any type of training program when preparing for a race. That means no schedules, no established tempo runs, no long runs and rest days — at least none of them planned ahead of time.

For someone who’s going after the gold, or even first, second or tenth in their age group, this is probably — actually, this is definitely — a horrible idea, unless you’re a freak of nature with innate athletic skill. This is also probably less than ideal for anyone going after a PR of sorts.

But for someone whose true purpose of running is in finding a sense of mental release and physical accomplishment, I have to say, I kind of love the way I roll, and I’m embracing it to its fullest (at least, for now).

One thing to remember is that running without any type of rigid training program whatsoever requires one very real ingredient: personal commitment. Without it, it is far too easy to skip a run or generally slack off. With it, you stand to enjoy the freedom to choose when, where and how you train without the burden of a regimented list that shackles you to your goals.

Here are a few of the elements I believe are vitally important if you plan to train for a race without lists and logs.

1. Establish a base. Without a base, it’s probably a terrible idea to run so lackadaisically. Running without a training plan is best suited for the established mid-distance runner. If you can complete a minimum of 3 to 5 miles comfortably on any given day, then I’d say you’re good to go. If you can’t, then this is something to work up to anyway!

Flashback to my sophomore year at The University of Michigan, when I stepped out for my very first run. “I’ll be back in 10 minutes,” I yelled out to my roommates. I doubt I made it more than 3 (minutes, not miles, duh).

It’s amazing how quickly your body is able to build physical endurance though. 3 minutes quickly turned into 5, which then turned into 10 (holy crap I just ran a whole mile without stopping, who am I?). 1 mile then turned into 2 and 3 miles. The first time I ran 5 (at Noah’s insistence before we were dating; he told me it was really pretty down by the river, and I wanted to check it out), I got a fever for 3 days. My body completely rejected the idea of running for an hour at a time. Looks like I’ve showed it who’s boss since then.

I probably maintained this level of comfort — this ability to run 5 miles at the drop of a hat — for quite some time. By my senior year of college, I loved that post-run feeling so much that I had committed to running at least 3 miles almost every day of the week, and squeezing “longer” 5 milers in at least 2. Without even knowing I was — or was on my way to becoming — a runner, I had established a mental “training” plan of sorts, all that without jotting down a list, downloading an App, or consulting any website devoted to tracking the heck out of your every step and breath.

After graduating, 3 milers began to feel rushed; 5 milers became the norm. That’s the beauty of your base — you can only go up from there.

2. 8 days a week. The blogger behind Run Work Breathe Live recently commented that she tells herself she’s going to run 5 days a week so that she’ll run at least 4, or 4 days a week so that she’ll at least run 3. I love this idea, and find that it’s very much aligned with my own approach to personal commitment in that everyone needs to cut themselves some slack at times amidst all other personal obligations.

Me? I tell myself that I’m going to run every single day, the ultimate goal being to run as many days as possible while knowing that I’ll of course need to incorporate days of strength training, yoga and, yes, even rest. For example, I ran 11 miles on Saturday, rested on Sunday while hanging with my new baby niece (and nephew! not pictured, though), ran 5 miles both Monday and Tuesday, and decided that this morning, Wednesday, because it is already 82 degrees and tomorrow’s temperatures will be perfect, I’ll strength train indoors.

Note: If you are training for a summer race, try not to opt out of sweatier runs. You can’t plan for flawless weather on race day, and so you should prepare yourself for the worst (evidence below). This is why I’m skipping all longer races this summer, and instead signed up for a September half marathon!

3. Establish your “non-run” activities. If you haven’t heard, I’m kind of a gym-hater, and so knowing what I’ll do to complement my training comes easy; after all, I only have two options. On mornings when I’m too tired or sore or unmotivated to run — or when it’s too rainy or too hot or too humid or too whatever — I roll out my yoga mat in front of the television and turn on my go-to videos. Each is no longer than 10 minutes, and knowing that I don’t have to think about how I’m going to squeeze in a solid strength training workout makes it that much more inviting.

My other passion is yoga. If you’re a yoga or Pilates type of person too, then hash out your favorite studios, instructors and DIY videos beforehand so you’re not fiddling with the remote (or computer), or searching for facilities 20 minutes before you decide to do it. Better yet, seek out studios that specialize in restorative poses (like Jivamukti’s Spiritual Warrior flow) or yoga specifically designed for runners.

4. 1 longer run per week. Anytime, anywhere. Most athletes save these longer workouts for the weekend, but if you have the freedom to choose, then who cares if you wake up at 5am on a Saturday, Sunday or Wednesday to log miles before the heat? I sometimes find that, while difficult to wake up earlier, running 7 or more miles before work makes me that much more productive from the moment I sit down in my chair until about 4:00, which is around the time my production starts to dwindle anyway.

Having the freedom to choose which day to run long on a whim isn’t just liberating; it enables you to listen to your body and enjoy those days when you feel extra great. Like this past Saturday, when Noah and I were planning on covering a maximum of 7 miles and ended up completing 11 around Manhattan’s tip — you know, just because.

So this is the part where I return to my original questions, and give you the opportunity to respond. Who knows; maybe you have to talk about speed and splits and distance and training programs and gross gu’s in order to define yourself as a runner. But then again, maybe you can meet the requirements without all the typical runner’s jargon too.

  • Can you be a serious runner without a training program?
  • What’s the definition of a serious runner anyway?
  • Is the desire to run faster and longer a requisite part of the job description?