The 26 Golden Rules of Running

Here are my 26 Golden Rules of Running – universal truths about running that are applicable to almost all runners, regardless of background and experience level!

The idea is that if you follow these 26 rules, you’ll have a long, happy, and successful relationship with running.

The golden rules touch on every aspect of your running journey – we don’t just look at your actual running game, but everything around it, including:

  • How to keep the fire of motivation for running alive long-term
  • The best ways to cross-train
  • How to optimise all aspects of your life around running
  • Mindset tips and mantras for racing
  • How to approach injuries

And much more!

This post is an abridged version of the full set of rules – to get more detail and deeper into each rule…The 26 Golden Rules of Running is available to download as a PDF eBook for free- scroll to the end of the article to grab a copy!

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Rule #1: Start Slow and Short

Whether you’re a beginner runner, or looking to ramp up your mileage for the next big challenge, don’t be afraid to take your time getting there.

The majority of running injuries are caused when runners get overly-ambitious and try to run faster and longer than their bodies have adapted to.

First comes form, then distance, then speed.

This rule isn’t only for newbies: if you’re a returning to running after a break, try not to compare your efforts with your previous performance, and remember that your cardiovascular system is better adapted than your legs – which encourages you to keep going and end up getting injured!

Related: Running Rules: The 13 Unspoken Rules + Proper Running Etiquette

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Rule #2: It Begins (And Ends) With The Running Shoes

Getting the right shoes is perhaps the single most important thing in your running journey.

Once you’re an established runner, you’ll probably have a couple of brands and models that you know work for you and that you can stick to. But when you’re just starting out, finding a pair of shoes that are right for you can be overwhelming.

The sheer amount of running shoe models, types, and foot categories is all a bit mind-boggling.

Get down to a reputable running store, ask for some guidance, share your running background and goals, and try out some shoes.

Test out the shoes before committing, and remember that comfort is the most important variable.

If a pair of shoes aren’t immediately comfortable in the store, they’re just gonna get less comfortable once you hit the road with them.

It’s important to remember that all running shoes gradually lose their spring and their support after 300-500 miles, so keep an eye on your mileage. Likewise if you’re coming back to running after a break, do yourself a favor and buy a new set of shoes – your feet will thank you!

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Rule #3: Attack Injuries Head On

Injuries are inevitable.

Unbelievably, more than 60% of recreational runners report suffering from an injury each year – it’s a sorry state of affairs.

(Many running injuries can be prevented through regular strength training – see rule #6.)

However, I’ve got some good news: injuries don’t have to derail your training.

Big injuries don’t usually spring up out of nowhere – our bodies give us warning signs through minor aches and pains we might start to feel during or after running. This is the time to address them rather than ignore them or wait to see if they get worse.

Minor complaints and knee pains can usually be addressed with some rest, foam rolling, massaging, and strengthening. If it’s an injury you can identify yourself, it doesn’t take much to find a few strengthening exercises that help address the issue.

If it’s a new running injury or one you’re worried about, get to a sports physio. The sooner a qualified person can assess your injury, the sooner you’ll be back on the road to running.

Either way, if in doubt seek professional help, and always attack injuries head-on.

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Rule #4: Your Competition Is Not Other People: It’s You

For some reason, running events are referred to as races, suggesting that everyone who is participating is aiming to win.

Unless you’re in the top 1%, it’s unlikely you’re toeing the line at your next 10k hoping for a podium position. Instead, you’re like 99% of runners – out to run for themselves.

Running isn’t about competing against the other runners – it’s about competing against yourself.

Run against your previous PR, or a target you’ve set yourself, or the best you think you could be.

Run to beat the sedentary lifestyle, to lose weight, or to maximize your health as you get older.

Run for the changes and positive effects it has on your life.

Let that be your motivation, rather than measuring yourself against others.

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Rule #5: Variety Is The Fuel Of A Long and Happy Running Career

Runners are often guilty of getting stuck in one type of running workout.

5k runners know their regular training loop, marathon runners get used to that weekly long, slow plodding training run. Over time, they get stuck in a loop, only doing one type of training. Gradually, they lose their edge. They get injured. They slow down. They lose interest and hang up their running shoes.

As runners, the best thing we can do for our long-term performance and fitness – as well as our own level of engagement – is to introduce variety in our training.

In terms of running workouts, almost every distance runner I talk with neglects speed work. Likewise, short distance runners skip long runs, as they don’t want to lose their speed.

If you’re in marathon or ultrarunning territory, next time you have a break in your calendar, focus on your 5k PR, or introduce a hill sprints session into your calendar – you’ll be surprised how much it challenges you – and can get you out of a rut you never realised you were in.

Running doesn’t always need to be the dominant activity in your life – try yoga, cycling, or kickboxing for a while!

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Rule #6: Keep Coming Back To Running Form

Spending time focusing on your running form isn’t just for beginners.

Just like sweeping a floor, you can’t just do it once then assume you never need to think about it again.

Checking in on your running form is something you should do regularly (though not constantly).

Your running form is essentially the way you hold and move your body while you run – and every single person has a slightly different normal running form.

Some quick things to check on your next run:

  • ensure your chin is up and you’re looking ahead, no slouching!
  • relax your shoulders and allow your arms to swing gently.
  • hold yourself upright with a slight forward lean.
  • engage your core a little.
  • hold your hips level, don’t let your ass stick out!
  • take shorter, more frequent steps – let your foot land under your hips – not over-striding.
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Rule #7: Strength Train

Many runners have a natural aversion to anything that looks like a gym. They prefer to get their workouts done outdoors and tune out with a head-clearing run, rather than throw around heavy equipment.

However, all runners can benefit from cross-training, and strength training – specifically weight lifting – is where you’ll get the most bang for your buck in terms of improvements to your running game.

Strength training improves your running in three distinct ways:

– It prevents injuries by strengthening your muscles and connective tissues, which are often otherwlse left weak or imbalanced by running.

– It makes you faster by boosting your leg strength and neuromuscular co-ordination.

– It improves your running economy (essentially your own personal miles per gallon) by improving co-ordination and stride efficiency.

Worried about bulking up?

Don’t be. If you’re running regularly, you’re unlikely to add bulky muscle mass unless you cram loads of additional calories down your throat – instead, you’ll develop lean muscle.

Further reading: Weightlifting Guide For Runners

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Rule #8: Train Your Willpower

Little known fact: Willpower acts like a muscle.

The more you exercise it – i.e. put it under stress – and then let it recover, the stronger it becomes.

This is an often-undervalued quality of ourselves that we can tap into, both in our exercise and in other parts of life.

Getting over that mental barrier and actually starting a workout can be the biggest roadblock to exercising for many people. It’s easier in the short term to choose the comfort of the sofa over the discomfort of a hard running session.

But in the long term, we all know that it’s the training session that’s good for us.

It’s actually been shown that long-distance runners have a higher pain tolerance than non-runners. The compounding effect of months and years of voluntarily performing exercise which involves real effort means that their willpower has gradually strengthened.

The more you embrace exercise, discomfort, and physical challenges, the easier they become for you in the future.

That’s why I often find it useful to re-frame hard workouts as willpower training sessions.

I tell myself that my morning sprints session is actually helping to galvanize mental strength that will make tomorrow easier and allow me to reach new highs.

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Rule #9: Be Seasonal

There’s something fundamental about a seasonal cycle of growth, flourishing, tapering off, and rest.

We see it around us all the time in nature, and it bears consideration when planning your running calendar.

All seasoned athletes follow a pattern of on-season where they compete and race, and off-season where they aren’t directly preparing for events. The ebb and flow of an on / off-season cycle allows us to approach training differently – our focus shifts depending on the season.

It’s common to begin a new training phase around January / February, as you begin to increase your training load in preparation for running events over the spring and summer.

Following a periodization-based training plan can mean you spend a few weeks at a time focussing on one element of your training, before combining it all on race day.

Races tend to tail off as Autumn turns to winter, and that’s a great time to schedule one last running event before winding back your training for the winter.

The off-season is a great opportunity to take the pressure off yourself, stop pushing, and try new training modalities or activities that you wouldn’t be able to during your on-season.

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Rule #10: Go Far With Run/Walk

The benefits of adopting a Run/Walk method for any distance – whether it’s couch to 5k or a 100 miler – are massive. While it’s not a strategy that PR-seeking masochists will ever adopt, it’s one that can help you go much farther than you would have otherwise – and will leave your body feeling much better.

By mixing running and walking, you are putting a cap on your exertion levels – every time you feel things are getting too intense, dial it down and move to walking. When you’re ready to go again, pick up the pace.

This method is also much more forgiving on your body – you’re much less likely to feel sore the next day or get injured.

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Rule #11: Morning Time Is The Best Time To Run

Running for over 10 years and coaching hundreds of runners along the way has taught me one thing: the best runs happen in the morning.

Some people are early birds, others are night owls – and the idea of a morning run makes their skin curl. But consistently I’ve seen that runners who do their training in the morning tend to stick to their plan and follow through on their training much more.

Morning runs make you feel awesome for the rest of the day – you have the post-exercise afterglow of blood flowing through your system, and you can be satisfied that you’ve ticked off your exercise goals before starting the rest of your day.

Morning runs have a high follow-through rate, too. If you’re anything like me, a run scheduled for evening time can quickly get curtailed or canceled because of other commitments or being tired after a long day at work.

Morning is a time of potential and opportunity, and rolling out of bed and going straight out for a run is a great way to spend time with your thoughts and get some fresh air too.

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Rule #12: Log Your Runs

Logging your runs through a digital GPS tracker is super simple to do these days, and means you have a library of every workout you’ve done at your fingertips.

Today’s GPS watches, smartwatches, and phones make the process painless: you just tell your device when you start and finish your workout, and it tracks every metric you could wish for.

I recommend Strava for anyone looking for an app to log their runs – it’s a freemium platform, and the free version gives you everything you need. It also works seamlessly with practically every sports tracking device out there.

I enjoy looking back at old runs, and comparing my performance over time. If you’re also tracking Heart Rate (which most wrist-based GPS devices do these days), then you’re adding useful data that Strava can then analyse. Once you get years of data on there, it’s useful to look back at see how things like HR and relative effort change with time.

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Rule #13: Sprint. It Benefits All Other Areas of Fitness

Bad news for all plodders out there: if you’re skipping sprints, you’re missing out on so many gains to your health and fitness.

Sprinting is running’s own form of HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) – when you sprint, you run as hard as you possibly can for around 20 seconds to 2 minutes.

Running fast for short, sharp intervals has a myriad of benefits which regular, relaxed running can’t compete with:

  • Sprinting develops muscular strength in your legs and core, akin to leg-day at the gym
  • Sprinting improves your muscular endurance, so you can keep going for longer on races
  • Sprinting improves your running economy – essentially the miles per gallon you get as a runner
  • Going anaerobic (sprinting) boosts fat burning and metabolism
  • Improves heart health.

Many runners neglect interval training because they feel they’re not fast, but that’s beside the point. Going out for a few intense sprint repeats – regardless of how fast you actually are – has the same benefits for all of us. It’s a challenging new form of running for a lot of runners.

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Rule #14: Listen To Your Body: Run Based On RPE

Rate of Perceived Exertion (often shortened to RPE) is a simple tool that can help you tune in to your body more and still reach your fitness and running goals.

At its simplest, RPE is a scale of 1 to 10, measuring the intensity of your effort – 1 being extremely light activity like a slow stroll, 10 being an all-out sprint which you can only maintain for a few seconds.

When I train, I let RPE guide my running as opposed to my speed or heart rate (i.e. HRZ running).

rate of perceived exertion

Why? Every run is different, and the conditions are never equal. Some days you are tired, or sore, or hungry, or have had a draining day at the office – each of these means you need to apply more effort for the same results. Same goes for external conditions: weather, underfoot conditions, gradients, and even running with company all affect how hard you have to push.

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Rule #15: In Order To Improve, You Need a Plan

If you just go running in order to get in a little exercise and clear your head, then you don’t need to worry too much about structuring your training.

Many runners spend years running junk miles – and end up at the same ability level as when they started.

But if you want to improve, you need to use a training plan.

A good training plan is your complete roadmap from where you are today to where you want to get to. It should be designed around your current running ability, your own schedule, and an achievable rate of progression.

Having a plan also means outsourcing all of your run scheduling and decision-making. Instead of waking up each day and deciding on a whim whether or not to work out or no, you just have to stick to the plan.

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Rule #16: You Know Best When To Rest

When in doubt, rest.

There can be many reasons to take a break, but here are the main four:

  • overtraining (your body isn’t recovering between workouts),
  • illness,
  • injury
  • burnout – you’re mentally drained,

Each of these are legit reasons for hanging up your running shoes for a few days.

When you’re burned out, it’s often better to take that break rather than trying to power through another workout – that can just make things worse.

A nice rule of thumb for taking breaks is to look after yourself as you’d look after a good friend: err on the side of caution and make sure you don’t push yourself too far. You know best when to rest.

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Rule #17: Rest Isn’t Time Off, It’s Recharging

Rest days are a key component of any athlete’s training plan. Even professional athletes who are firing on all cylinders intentionally schedule days of no activity in order to allow their body to recover.

During a rest day, your muscles get a chance to heal, your glycogen levels refill, and your body generally goes into ‘recovery mode. It also allows you a bit of mental breathing space, and gives you permission to switch off the part of your brain which is constantly telling you to train. The importance of a rest day should not be underestimated.

The nervous system has two main divisions, or states: sympathetic (also known as fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and recover). Our mind and body are constantly evaluating our environment for potential threats, and depending on how it perceives things it can put you in one of these two states.

For many runners, recognising that time off is actually productive can be hard to do. Many of us are wired to always be “on”, to be looking for the next challenge, and get restless at the idea of having time off.

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Rule #18: Carbohydrates = Fuel

Whenever we go running, the majority of the energy that moves us forward comes from our glycogen stores, which are topped up whenever we eat carbohydrates.

We also use some stored fat for energy, but typically your energy comes from around 75% carbs, 25% fat. The more intense the workout, the more of your energy is coming from carbs.

A lot of people make running nutrition overly complex. To be well-fuelled before a run, you need to eat some carbs. It’s that simple.

Now, there are some reasons that runners might neglect carbs. Going to a long, slow, carb-fasted run encourages your body to become more efficient at burning fat for fuel – which may be useful for endurance athletes. But when you do this, be aware that your performance will be compromised due to that lack of carbs.

But diets aside, most runners simply want to perform their best when they go for a run – after all, if you’re not able to run your best due to a lack of fuel, you’re not going to be making any performance gains.

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Rule #19: Consistency Is The Key To Long Term Success

When it comes to achieving your running goals, there are no shortcuts or life hacks that really deliver. Anyone who has attempted a half marathon or marathon without properly training for it will testify to that.

While inspiration and bouts of motivation are awesome for setting goals, actually training towards them and achieving them takes a lot of work and discipline.

The main principle I’ve found that overrides all others when it comes to running is consistency.

By consistency, I don’t mean following the same workout routine ad nauseum.

I mean consistently showing up to train.

Consistently thinking about how to reach your new running goals.

Consistently striving to adapt your training and find new modalities to unlock your potential.

Consistently addressing issues such as injuries as soon as they begin to raise heads.

Runners who are inconsistent are the ones who stop training when it’s bad weather or let an injury completely derail their year, or stop working out after they finish their target race.

The best runners are the ones who will show up every day regardless of how they’re feeling.

Not every run is going to be great, but you’re going to get great if you run consistently.

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Rule #20: It’s Better To Be Slightly Undertrained, Than Slighted Overtrained

A friend of mine uttered these words to me at the start line of a 100k ultramarathon when I’d remarked that I hadn’t trained as much as I should have. And it was true – although I was slightly unprepared, I went out cautiously and ended up running a great race.

I’ve gone on to repeat this mantra dozens of times to runners-in-training.

Being slightly undertrained means you’re perhaps just off your optimal condition, which – let’s face it – is hard to get right anyway. Between training to the perfect amount, tapering perfectly, and balancing “regular life” with running, it’s almost inevitable that most of the time we aren’t in our optimal condition when we run up to the start line of a big race.

But being slightly overtrained means you’re turning up to the start line carrying some fatigue or pesky minor injury that hasn’t gone away. It means you’ve not been resting well between training runs, or maybe you’ve not tapered as you could have because you felt obligated to squeeze in a last few runs.

Forgive yourself for the missed training sessions or when you prioritised other things over your running.

Being slightly undertrained can make you humble and hungry, and that’s a great place to be.

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Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

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