12 Ways to Tell You’re Getting Better at Running That Aren’t All About Your Time
Getting better at running isn’t just about lowering your pace or your time. In fact, focusing too much on the numbers can be counterproductive.
Even if your goal is to run faster in a race, or just over a given distance, pushing yourself every single day to make those numbers fall isn’t the best way to get there, Kaitlin Gregg Goodman, an elite runner and running coach in Boston, tells SELF. And perhaps even more important, doing so can make your runs feel like a whole lot less fun.
“Constantly trying to beat your time from the previous week, or previous day, adds a lot of pressure,” Goodman says. “Changes in running—we tend to see those happening over the course of weeks, not days.”
After all, your pace can fluctuate based on everything from how far you’re going to the terrain you’re covering to the temperature—and even how much you slept last night, Indianapolis-based running coach Carmen Knowles tells SELF.
Now, there’s nothing saying that getting better at running has to be your goal. Maybe you’re fine with the pace you’re at, and that’s perfectly okay. In fact, you don’t necessarily have to want to get better or faster at all—if your main goal is just to get out there, maintain your fitness, and enjoy that mood boost, that’s also perfectly legit.
But if you do find progress motivating, you might be looking for other markers that show your cardiorespiratory fitness is improving. The good news is, there are plenty of them. And if you’re planning to stick with running for a while, it’s really helpful to tune into them.
“I often find that people identify too much with their pace,” Subha Lembach, a certified running coach in Columbus, Ohio, tells SELF. That can lead to bigger psychological challenges—and potentially tempt runners to quit altogether—when injury, age, or other factors slow them down.
“For longevity, it becomes really important for people to identify at least a couple of different ways that running gives them benefit, value, and identity beyond pace,” Lembach says. Here are 12 ways to measure your running progress that have nothing to do with your time.
1. You’re more consistent with your training.
Running can bring tons of benefits—everything from making you feel happier and healthier to boosting your cardiorespiratory fitness—as SELF recently reported. But reaping all those rewards requires getting out there on a regular basis, Goodman says.
If you’re running once a week or less, your body will feel like it’s nearly starting from scratch every single time, which can make your session feel a lot more challenging. On the flip side, with regular practice, your musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, and neurological systems learn to absorb the impact of running—and make adaptations to get better at it.
Because consistency underlies so many of running’s effects, it’s a good idea to set regular runs as an early goal, Goodman explains. If you can swing three runs per week—even super-short ones—for three to four weeks, it’ll likely start to feel easier. “Running might not be a lot of fun for the first month. But if you can get over the hump and stick with it for a month, you see the change,” she says. (If three a week seems daunting to you, just remember it’s likely dose dependent, in that if you’ve been running once every couple weeks, increasing that to just once or twice a week would likely bring some regularity benefit.)
2. The motions feel more natural.
Megan Roche, M.D.,—an elite trail runner, researcher, and coach based in Boulder, Colorado—agrees that running form can feel awkward and uncomfortable when you’re first starting out, ramping up, or coming back after a break. Every step and leg swing can feel arduous, like you’re conscious of exactly what your body is doing.
But once you lock into a groove, the connections between your brain and your muscles become more efficient and less effortful. “It’s almost like this feeling of floating,” Roche says. Bonus: If you’re able to run outdoors, getting to this point helps you take in and appreciate the scenery around you, another sign you’re making progress.
3. You’re able to handle longer distances.
Knowles first dabbled in running in 2012. She remembers struggling along a stretch of streetlights that lined the canal path in downtown Indianapolis. “I could not run the length of those lights—at some point I always had to stop, catch my breath, and walk a little bit,” she says. In 2016, she returned to the sport on a more consistent basis, and her cardiovascular system grew strong enough to carry her from the first streetlight to the last.
Lembach advises new runners to begin with a run/walk, and count it a win every time they decrease their walking interval and increase their running one. Once you’ve worked up to a consistent run, you can set a goal to go even farther.
Neely Spence Gracey, an elite runner and coach also based in Boulder, recommends designating one run per week as your long run. If your goal is to go longer, slowly increase the distance of that one weekly outing—say, from two miles to three miles or four to five, and eventually more, if you like. Your pace may not be changing, but powering through more miles is a clear sign your cardiorespiratory system is getting stronger.
4. You can run more, week by week.
Most runners also track their weekly mileage, Gracey notes. Because it’s a high-impact sport, adding too much, too soon can put you at risk of a running injury. But gradually building up is a sign your muscles, tendons, and joints are adapting to become stronger and more resilient.
Say you’ve run two days a week for a few weeks—try adding a third and see how your body responds, Lembach recommends. If you want, you can then work up to four or even five. Just aim not to increase your total weekly mileage by more than about 10% at a time—so that might mean making each day shorter at first.
One way to make sure you build up instead of burn out: Track your training. Digital logs on sites like Strava, Garmin Connect, or TrainingPeaks, can help you monitor your mileage, but it’s also important to note how your body feels. Gracey and Lembach both use the Believe Training Journal ($22, believeiam.com), which offers space to note goals, aches and pains, and also emotional states along with numbers like miles and times. Revisit your logs frequently and you’ll start to notice patterns in how you feel, how much your body can handle, and all the progress you’re making, Lembach advises.
5. You charge up hills.
If you live in a place with undulating terrain, consider it a built-in benchmark. “Often the first thing I see from athletes who are rapidly improving is ‘Oh, my gosh, I feel so much stronger on this uphill,” Roche says. Perhaps they once had to walk, but now can ascend without breaking stride.
Hills not only provide a supercharged boost to your cardiovascular system, they also fire up nearly every muscle in your core and lower body. The stronger you get, the easier it is to climb. “There’s something about running uphill that makes people feel powerful too; there’s some good energy tied into that,” Roche says.
If you live where it’s flat, see if you can seek out an incline—even a parking garage will do—and practice running short, fast efforts up it while walking or jogging down. If you can do more of these repeats without slowing down or taking a break, you’ll know you’re getting stronger, Knowles says.
6. Your heart rate is lower.
When you first start running, your heart has to work extra hard to keep oxygen-rich blood flowing to your working muscles. As your cardiovascular system becomes more efficient, each pint of blood can carry more oxygen, and your heart can push higher volumes of it with each pump.
Tracking your heart rate over time can help you see this happening, Goodman says. Your baseline will vary based on factors like your age and family history—but wherever you start from you’ll likely see your average decline even as you run the same pace. (A chest strap will usually give you more accurate readings than a wrist-based monitor, she notes, but either will probably allow you to spot trends.)
Lembach used this method when returning from a foot injury several years ago. “I wouldn’t necessarily see improvements in my pace. But my heart rate would be about 10 to 20 beats lower than it had been a few weeks ago,” she says. “To me, that was another really good indicator.” Your resting heart rate—which you can measure when you get up first thing in the morning—might decrease too.
7. You can breathe more easily—and even chat while you stride.
Have you ever felt like you couldn’t even run a block, let alone a mile? When you’re first starting out, any distance can leave you huffing and puffing as your lungs struggle to pull in enough oxygen, Knowles says.
Training-induced changes in your muscles and cardiovascular system eventually raise your ventilatory threshold—the point during a workout where your breathing becomes labored. As a result, you can go farther and faster without becoming winded.
Eventually, you might be able to carry on a conversation with your running buddy, or on the phone if you’re running alone, Knowles points out. “Being able to tell stories and engage with people on the run is fun—and it’s a good sign of fitness,” Roche says.
8. You finish a run feeling strong.
Over time, you’ll likely find that not only can you run longer, you’ll feel better as you do it. Whereas you once thought you might pass out a quarter-mile before the end of a two-mile run, you might have enough left in the tank to speed up a bit at the end. This increased energy will come naturally as your body adapts to the sport, and to the distance and duration you’re covering.
Plus, you can deliberately practice positive self-talk to further boost your stamina. When you feel yourself fading, try repeating an affirmation—you can also adopt one for your week or your whole training plan, Gracey suggests. Some of her favorites: “You can do this,” “Strong, smooth, smile,” and ”Trust the process.”
9. You’re less zonked immediately after a run, and less sore the next day.
The first time you take on a new distance, you might feel like you need a nap, or at least a healthy dose of Netflix time on the couch afterward. “You might find yourself super sore, or when you wake up the next day and you’re getting out of bed, you’re feeling pretty creaky,” Goodman says.
As your muscles and connective tissue grow stronger, they sustain less damage when you run and also repair more quickly from the stress and strain of running. So you’ll be able to handle the same amount of running—or even more—with fewer aches and pains.
Eventually, you might be able to knock out a long run in the morning, then get on to the rest of your day energized instead of exhausted, Roche says. (Also note: Fatigue can also serve as a good gauge of whether you’re striking the right balance in your running—if you’re always zonked after a run, you might be overdoing it or not allowing enough time for recovery between outings.)
10. It’s emotionally easier to do it again the next time.
The improvements in fitness and recovery you’ll experience when running regularly also influence your motivation. Sure, even experienced, elite runners sometimes have a hard time getting out the door—or have moments of doubt or frustration along the way.
But on the whole it’s a lot easier to lace up once you’ve gotten into a groove and made running a habit. “That confidence starts to build, the ability to know you’re going to get through whatever day is out there,” Roche says.
Ultimately, you’ll also develop what’s known as self-efficacy—a belief in yourself and your ability to succeed that transcends running. Lembach puts it this way: “I’m capable, I’m valuable, and I can accomplish things.” One great but surprising potential sign you’re improving as a runner is when that feeling starts to carry over into other areas of your life, from your work to your relationships, she says.
11. You make other changes on behalf of running.
And speaking of the rest of your life—once running becomes a habit, you might find yourself shifting the rest of your priorities. Lembach and her family—her husband and daughter—now prioritize nutrient-dense foods to fuel their regular running habit, for instance.
You might also find yourself going to bed earlier or investing in a foam roller or similar tools to enhance your recovery. And if you want to stay healthy as a runner in the long term, you’ll find ways to make strength training and mobility work—which might include yoga and Pilates—a regular part of your routine as well, Lembach says.
12. You’re motivated to aim bigger, while having fun along the way.
If you take a healthy approach to gaining speed, there’s nothing wrong with having goals linked to time—although they’re far from the only option. Whether they have to do with pace, distance, consistency, or otherwise, you’ll know you’re moving forward as a runner when you set goals, reach them, and then feel compelled to set new ones. (On the flip side, setting goals that are too extreme, such as running every day when you’re currently lacing up a couple times a month, or progressing straight from two-mile regular runs to five-milers, can make them way less sustainable for the long haul.)
“Not every day will be great, but you should choose goals that get you excited and have you enjoying the work,” Gracey says. “Set attainable goals at first, then check them off as you go. You’ll build the staircase that will take you to those bigger goals that seemed a dream at first, but after a little work, feel realistic.”
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