Don’t kid yourself.

There’s nothing more frustrating during a run than watching someone jog past you with ease. Especially when you’re doing everything you can, not to pass out from exhaustion.

“How do they do it? How do they look so good when I look like I’ve been lost in the desert for 30 days?”

We’ve all asked ourselves that question at one point or another.

You may have heard of Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In it, Stephen describes a set of “true north” principles, or characteristics of people effective at achieving their goals.

In essence, the true north principles have to do with how you work alone, with others, and your ability and desire to continuously improve.

As I watch other runners — friends, readers, training partners — I’ve noticed that there are universal characteristics of effective runners as well. Runners who reach their training goals, stay injury free, and keep lasting motivation.

Let’s face it. Stephen Covey’s book is probably a little too self-helpy for most of us to read, so that’s not what this post is about.

Below I’ve outlined the 7 habits or traits I see in effective runners. This isn’t an attempt to get all woo-woo or make you feel bad about where you are failing. Instead, they’re practical. I want to celebrate the habits you have, and set out to improve the ones you’re lacking.

And in turn, become one of the runners doing the passing.

Habits of Successful Trail Runners

1) They’re consistent.

Consistency. I’ve felt like a broken record the past few weeks, stuck repeating “Running requires consistency. Running requires consistency. Running requires consistency,” until your ears bleed.

But I’m not going to apologize. It’s that important.  Why?

Because consistency is a required ingredient to get stronger and stay injury free. Sporadic running and surges of random high mileage weeks are commonplace for many casual runners. And that’s a major contributing factor to why most runner’s PRs flat-line after a few races, and injury rates are through the roof.

2) They have variety in their training.

Effective runners know how to mix up their training. A month’s training log would include:

  • Easy runs, speed workouts, long runs, and recovery days
  • Peak (high mileage) and valley (low mileage) weeks
  • Hill days, both up and down
  • Variety within the speed work
  • Increasing long runs
  • Cross training and strength work

Variety gives your body the opportunity to push while balancing it out for recovery and base building.

A common mistake runners make is to run the same route, at the same pace, day after day.

Have you ever left from your front door, taken a right, only to end up back at that door 5 miles later having run the same exact workout as you did the three days prior?

The repetitiveness means that you’re training your body to only push at certain times during the run. Come race day, your legs will freak when you hit a hill at mile 3 instead of mile 2. Or scream in anger when you end on a downhill instead of a climb.

Repeating the same run also means that you’re only working on your aerobic or anaerobic (depending on how you run) systems, and not giving yourself time for active recovery.

During a typical week, a good mileage outline to follow is:

  • 45-50% aerobic miles: builds base strength, endurance, and active recovery
  • 20-25% anaerobic workout miles: builds speed and explosive strength
  • 25-35% long-run miles: builds endurance, strength, and race day knowledge

For a well balanced trail runner, variety means training on both the trail and the road, and mixing up different types of trail terrain.

3) They track their progress.

Over the past few years, you could say that tracking has become my thing. I never thought twice about it for the first several years I ran, but then something switched. I realized how valuable, and freak’n easy, keeping a training log can be.

Now I’ve talked a lot about this before — how to track your runs and how to gauge progress — and I even put together a free training log that follows my philosophies, so I won’t do that here.

But I should mention that tracking does 3 main things:

  1. Helps you establish consistency and a running routine by logging your progress each day
  2. Creates a map detailing your strengths, weaknesses, and improvements
  3. Provides a blueprint or record you can use for future training or injury prevention

The best part? It’s super easy. Just follow each run with a quick stop by your training log.

4) They have a support system.

Few lasting habits are created alone. They require accountability, nurture, and support from others.

Effective runners have a whole posse of people behind them. They gain support from their family and friends before every major training cycle, and they regularly meet with other runners for training and inspiration.

There’s no shame in leaning on others when you need to.

5) They focus on nutrition.

What you eat before, during, and after a workout directly impacts your training. Before and during a workout you’re fueling for energy. After it’s all about the recovery. This is particularly important for trail and ultra runners, out on runs often much longer than our roadie neighbors.

Here’s a few quick tips to follow for pre-, during-, and post-run nutrition:

  • Pre and during, follow a 3:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio
  • After the run, stick to a 4:1 carbohydrate ratio
  • Always eat within 30 minutes after your workout
  • Rehydrate after a run

I list the ideal ratios above, but don’t suggest getting too caught up in the numbers. Ballpark it. Once you bog yourself down with ratios, it gets too complicated, and you end up eating french fries. Keep it simple.

In between workouts, you want to eat to keep yourself healthy, full of energy, and primed to kick ass when the time comes. I’m not going to tell you what diet to follow or exactly how to eat. I see effective runners following all sorts of diets.

But there is one common thread linking it all together: They pay attention. Diet and nutrition matter.

6) They take recovery seriously.

Recovering from a tough workout or long-run is just as important as the run itself. It’s the forgotten ingredient to training. The step-child brushed aside as irreverent.

Well let me tell you, step-children are people too, and recovery is a key component to your training.

Through a combination of sleep, nutrition, rest, and active recovery, you can turn recovery from a necessary side effect to something that’s actually giving you a competitive edge.

Here are a few of my favorite tools to aid recovery:

  • Rest, both sleep and off days
  • Foam rolling
  • Compression
  • Gentle runs or cross training
  • Massage

Effective runners take recovery seriously and let it work for them, instead of fighting it and risking injury.

7) They believe in themselves.

Alright, now we might be getting a little self-helpy, but I promise to keep it tame.

Effective runners aren’t complacent. They don’t settle for another goalless race or training season.

They push. They have fun. They work to improve and achieve new goals.

It’s easy for runners to fall into a routine of halfheartedly training for a race or not training at all. It’s the easy way out.

But it leaves you right back where you started, and effective runners aren’t happy staying put.

Quit Letting Effective Runners Pass You By

Become one yourself.

In the moment, most of us want to work harder when we’re passed by another runner. For a few minutes our heart beats quicker, and our stride picks up. That’s called motivation. Or inspiration. Or pride.

But eventually the initial burn of that pass fades, and our motivation along with it. Quit letting more effective runners pass you by.

Find your own weaknesses and work on them. Strengthen your effective habits.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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One thought on “7 Habits of Highly Effective (Trail) Runners

  1. This is a great post Doug. I definitely have to agree with points 1-4. Consistency is key, measurement is essential to progress, you can’t do it alone (at least not in perpetuity), and variety keeps you motivated.

    The one point that I think is worth elaborating on is #7. Believing in yourself is so important and the other six points help make that more possible. I think that not comparing yourself to others is key, yet I suspect we all fall into that trap from time to time. We’re our own person, with our own goals, motivations and talents. I think it’s important to remind yourself of that fact and not fall into the trap of measuring your pace, results or anything else against someone else. Comparison is the thief of joy.

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