Everything I read about “how I ran 1,000 miles!” didn’t actually explain how to run 1,000 miles. Or it did, but not in terms I could understand.
For context, I’m a slow runner. REALLY slow. My fast days (12-13 minute miles) are most people’s super slow days. More often, I’m a 14-15 minute per mile runner. And I historically haven’t run very much. Most years I ran ~60 miles. My biggest running year was the year I ran my first marathon (2013), when I accomplished 356 miles. Since then, I’ve never gone much above 200 on a really good year. It didn’t help that I broke my ankle in January of 2019 – or maybe it did, because it made me determined to learn how to walk and run again, and use running to help me regain and improve my overall biomechanics. So I decided to run a second marathon in 2020, which was canceled from the pandemic, and 2021 became the year of the second marathon. It was scheduled for July 2021, and my goal was 400 miles for the year IF I was successfully training for the marathon, and back to a “stretch” goal of 200 miles if I didn’t end up training (because of injury or other reasons like the pandemic).
But I set out, managed 400 and even 600 miles by the end of July when I ran the full marathon. And because my training had gone well (more below with the “how to”), I decided to also continue training and tackle a 50k (31 mile) ultramarathon at the end of September. From there, I thought I’d be stuck around 800 miles but then I decided with effort that I could make 1,000 miles. And I did. Here’s how it happened:
Baby steps, a focus on process, and a heck of a spreadsheet. Or as they say in answer to “how do you eat an elephant?”, “one bite at a time”, ergo, one run at a time.
I focused on building consistency first, and at a weekly level. My goal was 3 runs per week, which I had never consistently managed to do before. That started as Monday, Wednesday, Friday, with a rest day in between each run. After a few months, I was able to add a 4th run to my week, which was often Saturday. This was my first time running back to back days, and so I started with my 4th run being only one mile for a few weeks, then increased it to two miles, then up to 3 miles. My other three runs consisted of one “long” run and two other short, 3ish mile runs.
The focus on consistency at a weekly level is what enabled me to run 1,000 miles in a year. Even 400 miles felt like too much for me to tackle. But 3 (then 4) runs a week? I could focus on that.
The spreadsheet helped. I had the number of miles for each run laid out. After I completed the run (using Runkeeper tracking on my phone so I knew how far I’d gone), I would hop on my spreadsheet (using Google sheets so it could be on my laptop or on my phone), and log the miles. I found just recording in Runkeeper wasn’t a good enough psychological anchor, I wanted to “write down” the run in some way. The other thing I did was put checkboxes for the number of runs per week into my spreadsheet, too (did you know you can do that? Awesome Google Sheets feature.) So it was satisfying to open my sheet and first, check the box that I had done one of my weekly runs. Then, I entered the miles for the run. I had put in conditional formatting to check for how many miles I was “supposed” to run for that run, so that if I was within a half mile or over the run distance, it turned bright green. Another nice feedback mechanism. If I was off by more than half a mile, it was a lighter green. But regardless, it turned a nice color and emphasized that I had been putting in some miles. And, I also had a formula set to calculate the weekly total, so after each run I could see my weekly total progress. (Again, all of this is automatically done in Runkeeper or Strava, but you have to go to a different screen to see it and it’s not as satisfying to be able to track inputs against multiple outputs such as weekly, monthly, and overall totals at a glance, which is how I designed my spreadsheet).
I added a miniature chart to visualize weekly mileage throughout the year, and also a chart with a monthly view. All of these made it easier to “see” progress toward the big mileage goals.
If you’re a well-established runner, that might sound silly. But if you’re trying to build up to consistent running…find a feedback mechanism or a series of logging mechanisms (maybe it’s a bullet journal, or a handwritten chart or log, or moving marbles from one jar to another) that you can do to help cement and anchor the completion of a run. Especially when running feels hard and terrible, it’s nice to find something positive and constructive to do at the end of the run to feel like you’re still moving forward toward your goal, even when it’s hard-earned progress.
The ‘baby steps’ I took to build up to 1,000 miles literally started from baby steps: my first run was only 5 steps of running. After I broke my ankle, it was a huge effort to return to weight-bearing and walking. Running was also a huge hurdle. I started with literally running 5 steps…and stopping. Calling that a success, and going home and logging it on my sheet with a checkbox of “done!”. The second time I went, I did 5 steps, walked a while, then did a second 5 steps. Then I stopped, went home, checked the box, etc. I focused on what the smallest running I could do successfully without pain or stress, built up a series of intervals. Once I had 10 intervals strung together, I expanded my intervals of running. 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds, etc. That took months, and that was ok. The point I focused on was the attempt: go out and “run”, with the smallest measurable interval counting as success, and not worrying about or really even focusing on overall mileage. In part, because the amounts were SO small (0.07 miles, 0.12 miles, etc – nothing to write home about). Most people who talk about starting running focus on “30 minutes” or “1 mile” or “5k” which felt so far beyond my reach coming off of the broken ankle.
So take it from me (or really, don’t listen to anyone else, including me): focus on YOUR achievable interval of running (even if it’s measured in a handful of steps), do that, call it a win, and repeat it. Over and over. You’ll find you build some strength and endurance and improve your biomechanics over time, even with baby steps and small intervals of running. The consistency and repeated efforts are what add up.
It’s ok if you find a distance or time interval that you can’t go past – maybe it’s 15 seconds or 30 seconds (or more or less) of consecutive running that’s your sweet spot. Great, stick with it. Run that interval, then walk, then run again. There’s no wrong answer for what’s the best length of interval for you. I had a bunch of foot issues pop up when I was trying to lengthen my intervals, and it turns out 30 seconds of running is my sweet spot. I can run longer (now) but I still prefer 30 seconds because psychologically and physically that feels best, whether I’m running faster or slower. So I do most of my runs with a run of 30 seconds, then walking whatever intervals I want for that run, e.g. 30:30 (run 30 seconds, walk 30 seconds), or 30:60 (run 30 seconds, walk 60 seconds), etc.
Don’t believe it’s possible to do long distances that way? I did it for my 50k ultramarathon. In my July marathon I ran 60 seconds and walked 30 seconds. I achieved my time goal but it was hard and less fun during the race. For my ultramarathon two months later, my goal was to just finish before the time limit and to have more fun than I did during the marathon. I used 30 second run, 60 second walk intervals for the ultramarathon, and it was fantastic. I beat my time goal (finishing hours before the cutoff), and felt awesome throughout and at the end of the 50k. I even passed people at the end!
Remember, there are no rules in running, other than the ones you make for yourself. But don’t listen to rules you read on the internet and feel bad because you can’t do what other people do. Do what you can, repeat it, build up safely, and if you’re having fun you’ll be more likely to continue. And like my running 1,000 miles in a year, you may find yourself reaching goals that you never would have thought were possible!