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The Greatest Secret To Running Success

Posted by on Sep 14, 2011 | 11 Comments

Is it goal-setting?


Yasso 800’s?


Tracking every run with a Garmin and uploading it to Daily Mile?

Not at all.

Running with a smile on your face?

Well, sometimes.  But that’s not much of a secret anymore.

So what is this secret holy grail that will make you a tremendous runner?  It’s so simple, the vast majority of runners overlook it.  Us barefoot runners have a foot up on the competition because we are at least aware of this concept.

Any guesses???

The most underrated secret to becoming a great runner is…. knowing yourself.

That’s right… know yourself.  I often quote George Sheehan, and one of his most famous addresses this very issue:

“Life is the great experiment. Each of us is an experiment of one- observer and subject- making choices, living with them, recording the effects.”

Okay, maybe it’s not such a secret.  Sadly, not many runners actually follow Sheehan’s advice.  We spend countless hours researching new training plans, ideas, shoes, gear, and crosstraining plans.  We are searching for anything that will make us better runners.  That’s a good thing.

The problem- we don’t really experiment.  We completely change our entire routine.  We do this for a time, then we move on to the next new thing.  We see this in trends during races.  I recently attended a local race where at least half of the runners were wearing compression sleeves.  I silently wondered how many actually found them to improve performance.

We also see this when people begin low heart rate training, Crossfit, paleo diets, POSE running, or any other new idea that comes along.  All of these has value, and all may provide a good place to start.  However, we should be open to the idea of introducing new elements that will customize these concepts to better suit our own uniqueness.

We should treat everything as an experiment.  If some things work, we should repeat them.  If they do not work, we should abandon them.  Through this process, we come to know what works and does not work for us as individuals.

If we apply this process on a regular basis, we usually end up with a strange hodge-podge of training plans, mismatched gear, and unorthodox racing strategies.  They are customized plans that are tailored specifically to us.  That is how we can guarantee success.

People often ask me about my training, gear, etc.  I laugh for two reasons:  First, I’m not fast.  On a good day, I may finish in the top third.  It’s not uncommon for me to finish near the bottom.  Second, everything I do is specifically tailored for me.  Through experimentation, I’ve found the right combination of variables that allow me to perform at my peak based on my available training time.  If anyone were to copy my exact plan, there’s a pretty good chance it would be a complete disaster.  Likewise, if I were to copy someone else’s plan, THAT would be a complete disaster.

Over time, I’ve changed many elements of my training routine over time.  here are a few examples:

  • I used to do a lot of leg exercises, now I do mostly hill repeats,
  • I used to do 400m repeats for speedwork, now I do occasional 5ks,
  • I used to eat Ben and Jerry’s ice cream during ultras, now I eat primarily Gu,
  • I used to use a “get as many miles as I can before needing to walk” race strategy, now I use a “conserve energy early on so I won’t have to walk” strategy.

Each of these original strategies worked, but I eventually found something that worked better.  Here are some tips to systematically introduce new variables:

  1. Cast a wide net.  Look for new ideas to test in unusual places, not just the pages of Runners World.  Recently I’ve been experimenting with some tactics used in the orienteering world.
  2. Don’t make wholesale changes.  Pick one or two variables to change at a time.  This makes it relatively easy to determine what works and what does not work.
  3. Give each variable sufficient time.  The exact amount depends on the variable.  When I first tried handheld water bottles, I hated them.  After three runs, they became more comfortable.  The added convenience of the water bottle versus a hydration pack has been a huge advantage in races.
  4. Occasionally revisit old ideas that failed.  Sometimes some things work well at different stages of our running careers.  Just because something doesn’t work today doesn’t mean it will not work in the future.

Trying new things in a systematic manner helps us find what truly works and does not work for ourselves as individuals.  If we really want to take our running up a notch, experiment!

What about you?  What elements have you tried?  What is one thing you’ve tried that doesn’t usually work for others but worked for you?  How about the opposite- something that works for most but didn’t work for you?






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  1. Chaser
    September 15, 2011

    Oddly enough I have problems with the high cadence. Im usually around 165~175 and only get over 180 if Im running very hard / fast.

    What doesnt work for me is sport drinks. They just leave too much of an after taste and make me thirstier. Is that even a word?

  2. Mondo Duke
    September 15, 2011

    What has worked for me, I believe, to help me become a better runner was to ditch the headphones. They’re just a distraction. I’m still a beginner, of course, with only a few years of running behind me, but I started out listening to music to help get me through the introductory stages. I soon reached a point, however, where the headphones and music became a hinderance rather than a help. Something about running and meditation…

    Sometimes we focus too much on gear, on trying different things and strapping more on, that we forget what running can truly give us. I admit, I love the data points that a GPS watch and heart rate monitor can bring… I understand some people can become obsessed with it as they train. For me, it just adds to the fun of running. “Look where I went! This mile was slow because I managed to catch every traffic light in my path!” Really, Jason is right… all the gear in the world will not make you a better runner. Only through awareness of yourself and your world will you become the best runner you can be. I’m still practicing.

  3. Troy
    September 15, 2011

    I used to drink water exclusively during runs, for some reason channeling “the water boy”. After running into fuel/electrolyte issues during my first marathon and a few subsequent half marathon distance runs, I’ve decided to give gatorade a shot again (I did try it a couple times and didn’t care for it) because it’s a good multitasker (hydration + calories + electrolytes. So far it has been working pretty well.

    I also went with compression sleeves last winter due to tight calf muscles, and have questioned my own judgment by occasionally running without them. Each time i wonder if I really need them (aside from making a decent base layer in the winter) and each time I have found that my calves are indeed much more sore after a run without them than with them. It’s good to at least know I’m on the right track with it! 😉

  4. corey
    September 15, 2011

    I definitely agree that old training plans should be revisited. We are experiments, and any good experiment requires a lot of data collection. One bad experience may simply be an outlier.

  5. Jen
    September 14, 2011

    Great post! The one time I got side cramps was by following advice from Runner’s World to “exhale and inhale completely.” Gave me a stitch almost instantly!

  6. Chris Hurst
    September 14, 2011


    I’m still really young in my barefoot experimentation but have found a few things:

    I give up good form too soon, so that tells me to bring down the miles a bit.

    Intervals on a track (100/200/400m) tend to hurt more than help.

    Going to a minimalist style of running while on active duty in the Army presents lots of challenges and requires a lot of careful planning. We are required to run so much that going immediately to my trail gloves wasn’t the right answer. I do however run long distances in them now without the usual lower back and knee pain.

    Anyhow, thanks for posting. I enjoy your insights.

  7. David Sutherland
    September 14, 2011

    What works for me:

    – Eating cold tortellini during ultras
    – Drinking a 7-11 slurpy while running on hot days
    – Running by feel (not watch) on long runs

    What doesn’t:

    – Structured speedwork (watching clock instead of listening to body ==> INJURY)
    – Running before breakfast or after supper

  8. Jamoosh
    September 14, 2011

    I was skeptical of compression sleeves, but after “experimenting” for awhile, I find they work for me under certain conditions, specifically long, cold runs. On hotter runs they are more of a discomfort than anything.

  9. Rebecca @ Runner with an Appetite
    September 14, 2011

    Aw shucks, I was hoping posting on Daily Mile would make me a better runner. 😛 Great post!

  10. Mike
    September 14, 2011

    Really great and timely advice Jason. I recently finished my 1st marathon and am now training for my first ultra (TNF 50) and have been driving myself crazy by trying to follow others’ plans. In short, i still don’t know myself! I have gone from plan to plan without really experimenting in between. Thanks for the advice!

  11. Josh
    September 14, 2011

    Totally true.