Like a lot of people, I used the lockdown to take up a new hobby: running. Having had a few failed attempts at developing a running habit in the past, I tried a slower, more methodical approach. Eventually, I developed a more sustainable running practice and found the longer distances – especially on trails – could be the most enjoyable, leading me to ultra-running. Fortunately, I stumbled upon a few lessons along the way.

For the longest time, running was simply a means to an end for me. While I was active in sports when I was younger, running was typically utilized in one of three ways: conditioning, weight loss, or punishment. For most sports, we would run to build endurance, or as negative reinforcement when we played poorly. In addition, I was often logging 50 miles or more a week to make weigh ins for wrestling. With all those miles though, running was still simply a means to an end, and not something to be enjoyed. 

Unfortunately, these associations with running would persist for me well into adulthood. As I became older and less active in sports, the need for running dissipated, and I generally became less active over time. Every few years I would get the jolt of motivation to get back in shape, bringing me back to running, but always with the same result: injured, burnt out, and back on the couch.

However, in 2020 several things changed. It was my last semester of grad school, and I was at the least active and unhealthiest weight of my life. I was also spending much of my time analyzing data and presenting findings to business audiences, when I was reminded of the following quote: 

“You can’t improve what you don’t measure.”

Peter Drucker

With the Apple Watch my wife had got me, I set a simple goal: measure my activity level and work to steadily improve it. After a few months of finding a way to carve out time for exercise – thanks in part to a global pandemic – I eventually came back to running. Within three years, I went from not being able to run a few minutes, to running my first ultramarathon. During that span I learned a number of lessons that helped me become a stronger, more durable runner, leading to a more sustainable practice. Some of those lessons were:

Checking the Right Boxes

My goal was not to run races or to get faster, but to build a habit. So, I started by answering a simple categorical question:

“Did I exercise for at least 30 minutes today? “

The image below shows three months of activity from my Apple Watch. On the left is from the month before I started purposefully tracking my activity. In the center represents the first month I started tracking activity. On the right is from a few months later, once I had established a routine of exercising at least 30 minutes a day. Once that routine had become developed, everything else fell into place for me with running.

December, 2019 (left) / January, 2020 (center) / June, 2020 (right)

It is important to note that exercise could be just about anything. Running, walking, stretching, foam rolling, etc. It all counted, as long as it added up to at least 30 minutes. While this may scream “consistency” to most people, please know that is not how what I was striving for. Doing the same workout, or working at the same intensity every day will lead to boredom, burnout, or injury. I wanted continuity, or the state of being unbroken. This is why I focused on carving out time each day, but allowed for a lot of flexibility within it.

Embracing Variability

In a perfect world, our progress would be linear, consistent, and predictable. However, that is rarely how anything works, especially in running. You have to allow yourself to be ok with a tremendous amount of variety, especially as distances increase. For example, walking is prominently featured in ultra-running, due to the terrain and the distance. There is even a name for it: hiking. This means you may have some fast miles and some really slow miles right next to each other, simply out of necessity. In addition, most training plans utilize a polarized approach, where roughly 20% of your workouts are hard (i.e. speed or hill workout), and the other 80% are at an easy (i.e. slow) pace. Finally, most training cycles have weeks where you intentionally cut back mileage or intensity to allow for recovery.

Scatterplot of pace over time (left) / Box-plot of pace by Workout Type

In the charts above, you can see the distance of each run throughout a half-marathon training program. The chart on the left shows a scatterplot of distance over time with a clear, positive slope (red line), but lots of variance in the data. The chart on the right shows box-plots representing the dispersion of running distance by workout type. Notice how these data on the right, show some workout types with very little variance (like segments and intervals), while other workouts have a ton (like we see in the long runs). Context matters, especially when when working with data.

Leaning into Qualitative Data 

While it is easy to gravitate towards numeric (i.e. quantitative) data, qualitative data is the real MVP when it comes to running. Qualitative data may come in the form of text data, like a running journal, or images, video, audio, timelines, etc. Below is a perfect example of the difference between quantitative data and quantitative data from the same run:

Weekend long run at Redondo Beach (June, 2022)

On the left are the mile splits of a typical long run I would do on the weekends. Nothing stands out about that run on the left. The image on the right is from a run along Redondo Beach. I didn’t eat breakfast and got a late start, so I was fading at the end. Right as I was finishing up, I ran into my wife at the beginning of her run. So, I joined her for a few more miles where I really hit a wall and felt awful. Afterwards, we got tacos and beer on the beach, and it was all better, but I learned an important lesson about fueling for runs that day.

While both of those images are from the same run, only one of them was memorable. That’s the power of qualitative data. This is why people recommend keeping a running journal or using descriptive measures like perceived effort during a workout. The better I got at listening to my body, I could run much further and have a much more enjoyable experience, while also not getting injured or burnt out. That came in part from trying to take a broader view, and not becoming overly obsessed with numbers. 

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned in the beginning, my original goal was to develop a long lasting running habit.  By establishing a regular (and achievable) routine, being patient, and learning to listen to my body, I was able to develop something sustainable to build upon. With each new challenge or increase in mileage, I found myself coming back to these principles more and more. Over the course of a few years, that took me from completely sedentary to running my first ultra-marathon at the Salmon Falls 50K:

2023 Salmon Falls 50K

While it is tempting to end this post with a “couch to 50K Training plan,” I will leave that to other experts on the Internet. The truth is, nearly everyone is starting at difference places, has their own obstacles to overcome, and their own unique running goals. With that being said, I am happy to share my own timeline and progress from couch to 50k:

  • Spring 2020 – Started tracking daily activity and later completed the C25K training program, which I write about here.
  • Summer 2020 – Wanted to work on running faster, so I completed the faster 5K program, which I write about here. 
  • Fall 2020 – Completed the Half Marathon Goal program by RunTracker, which I write about here
  • Summer 2021 – Worked over the summer to improve my 5k/10k times.
  • Fall 2021 – Trained for and ran my first half marathon (Philadelphia Half Marathon).
  • Spring 2022 – Participated in a training group through Fleet Feet. Ran the Shamrock’n Half Marathon. Joined a trail running group.
  • Summer 222 – Ran the Dirty Secret Trail Run, the Napa to Sonoma Half Marathon, and the Blood Sweat & Beers Trail Run.
  • Fall 2022 – Trained for and ran my first marathon (California International Marathon).
  • Spring 2023 – Trained for and ran first ultramarathon (Salmon Falls 50K):

As you can see, I opted to take the long term approach. Also, it should be noted that running a 50K was not something I initially set out to do. Not even close. Things just went that way once I was introduced to trails. Surprises like that have been one of the most enjoyable parts of running for me. It seems like there is always some new adventure just around the corner.

If you have any questions, or want to share your thoughts, I would love to hear them in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!

2 responses to “FROM COUCH TO 50K”

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