What I Learned From a January Run Streak

Longtime readers of my various blogs know that I frequently throw myself into physical challenges without much forethought. I’ll sign up for a marathon or commit to a year-long workout challenge on a whim, without batting an eye. So it was no surprise that, after reading a blogpost about running challenges on December 31st, I decided I’d start the new year with a month-long run streak challenge: Run at least 10 minutes or 1 mile every single day in January. The fact that I hadn’t run a single mile in months and had been experiencing mysterious knee pain for over a year didn’t deter me, but there were some other factors at play that made me wonder whether I would complete the challenge.

First, I’m an on-again/off-again runner, able to stay motivated for months at a time when I have a race coming up, and then stopping running for months beginning the day after said race. I wasn’t sure if this challenge would be sufficiently important to keep me motivated. Second, previous to this, I’d been a fair weather runner, never ever venturing outside to run if the temperature fell below 20 degrees. Third, and the weakest of my excuses, I don’t own any cold weather running gear (because I don’t run outside in the cold). Finally, I’d consciously avoided run streaks in the past because I’m a firm believer in well-timed rest days. I just didn’t think that running every single day could be healthy.

But since a month wasn’t too long a time period, and since we’d been enjoying the warmest winter in many years here in Minnesota, I put my misgivings aside and the next day I pulled on my $20 Target sweatpants and threw a shell jacket over an old race shirt and headed out the door.

I left my GPS watch at home and did the bare minimum that day – a 10 minute, very slow jog. I was cold and happy to get back inside right away, but the next day I headed out and did 11 minutes. I continued in this fashion for about five or six days, and then gave myself a “rest” day by dropping back down to 10 minutes. To keep myself motivated and provide some measure of accountability, I tweeted my run streak number (which day I was on) and how many minutes I’d run every other day or so. Probably no one read those tweets or cared about them if they did, but it was a way for me to check in, and enough to keep me going. By the end of the challenge, I realized a few things that struck me as profound:

Consistency is More Powerful Than Intensity.
At first, I sort of wondered to myself what the point of a 10-minute run was. But over the course of the month, the minutes and miles added up to many more than I would have done if I’d only been running three or four days a week, as per my usual training program. As it turned out, this was a great way for me to get back into running. Because the runs were short, I was more likely to actually do them, yet by the end of the month, I’d increased my run time enough so that I was significantly more fit than when I’d started.

When starting new efforts, the tendency is often to go “all out” but this can backfire by leading to quick burnout. Making smaller efforts consistently is a better way to build a habit and still enjoy tangible results.

When Commitment is Genuine, Excuses Simply Aren’t Entertained
I hate running in the cold, but I had committed to this challenge for one month, so rather than checking the weather and saying, “it’s too cold to run today,” I adapted. I would either bundle up in lots of layers and do a short run outside, or I’d find a place to do my run indoors. Many of my 31 days of running consisted of slowly jogging up and down the stairwell in my condo building. I’m sure I didn’t cover many miles that way, but my legs got much stronger than if I had spent the same amount of time running over flat terrain.

When we’re motivated, we use creative thinking to find a way around obstacles, and sometimes that way around benefits us more than if there had been no obstacle in the first place.

Timeframe is Key to Habit Formation
Setting a challenge for yourself is one of the best ways to form a new habit, but the timeframe of that challenge has to be just right. If this challenge had been to run every day for six months, or even three months, that would have been too long for me to commit to. On the other hand, a week wouldn’t have been long enough to feel significant.

A good timeline for a challenge is one that is attainable, yet still stretches you a bit.

By the end of the month, I had logged 10 1/2 total hours of running, or the equivalent of nearly two marathons (at a very slow pace). While there were days that my body told me I needed to take it easy, not taking a day off never caused an injury. In fact, my knee bothered me less at the end of the month than it did at the beginning. The challenge was a positive experience for me. It toughened me up to the cold a bit, and taught me some important lessons about habit formation. I’ll likely repeat it again, but I might wait until it’s warm enough to run outside in shorts.

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