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Please join me in a short meditation as we stare listlessly at a pair of mud-battered shoes, the ones in the corner that smell like an old sponge.
Keep staring as you bring your gaze, your mind, and your violated nostrils to next-to-zero motivation for putting them on for today’s run, for the workday was long and the weather looks ominous. Do you bail? What’s so bad about a zero day, anyway?
Suddenly, a whisper. Follow the sound; see where it goes. Eventually, you’ll hear it, a tactic pulled from your toolbox in moments just like these. It’s a rule, one of the simplest yet most profound training tricks of all time—the Rule of 10.
What is the Rule of 10?
Ten minutes. Ten minutes is the time it takes for me to fold laundry. To take a powernap. To grind, brew, and enjoy a pourover. To scroll Instagram and come out the other side wondering if I remembered to breathe. Ten minutes is a blip, a negligible unit, hardly anything at all.
But this is exactly the point.
Whenever I’m feeling heavy or unmotivated to get out the door, I aim for this puny number. Ten. Over the years, it’s had a profound effect on my training, injecting it with injury-free consistency over the long haul.
The Rule of 10 was something I first heard of while running through Portland, Oregon’s Forest Park with friend and decorated ultrarunner Jennifer Love. We were discussing motivation.
“When nothing else seems to work,” she said, “I call forth the Rule of 10.”
“The Rule of 10?” I said between labored breaths.
“The Rule of 10.” Love explained that, despite its simplicity, no matter what life brings you can nearly always complete ten minutes of activity. “If I’m ever feeling like I just can’t do a run, I always give myself ten minutes. And if, after ten minutes, I still want to quit, then I’ll turn my train around and stop running.”
At first, it all sounded too cute, some life hack reframe designed to make me feel accomplished about settling for less, for just doing something as opposed to nothing. A participation trophy for minimal effort. But that wasn’t the point.
The point was this: Whenever things feel heavy, think bite-sized, something author James Clear is known for underscoring in his book, Atomic Habits (one of marathon world-record holder Eliud Kipchoge’s favorite books of all-time). “When making plans, think big. When making progress, think small,” writes Clear. “Every action you take is a vote for the kind of person you want to be.”
“So many times,” Love continued, “if you just get yourself up and out, you’ll soon realize that, no matter how hard, it was nearly always worth it.” Amen. It’s clear that the crux of most bread-and-butter weekday runs is just getting out the door, and I’ve practiced the many ways of minimizing obstacles to entry, like stacking your running gear by the door the night before an early outing. But ten minutes? Really? Turns out, yes, really.
Barring serious injury, not only can you almost always complete ten minutes of activity, but research shows that you also reap most of the physiological benefit of a longer outing by getting out for that long. And think about it: if you log ten minutes every time you were tempted to log zero, over the course of a lifetime that would add up to a helluva lot more miles.
Toss in the satisfaction felt by vaulting over the resistance of staying home and you’ve got yourself a recipe for success, the momentum of a habit in motion.
We’ve all been walloped by self-help gurus demanding we live more optimized, quantified lives, and I’d be lying if I told you I’m not in some small way obsessed with these sorts of tricks. Gamify my life! But I’m also equally repelled by them. You can only measure so many things in a day. But the more I think about the Rule of 10, the less I see its value in overprecision, and the more I champion its importance in building momentum.
Here’s James Clear from Atomic Habits again: “Never miss twice. If you miss one day, try to get back on track as soon as possible.” The takeaway? Inertia is real.
The Rule of 10 is so much bigger than running. It’s a psychological buoy, similar to when, in mindfulness meditation, you return to breath whenever thoughts get hard or distracting.
Just to clarify, the Rule of 10 is not a running streak. There is no prescription to run every day or to override your body’s signals for rest. To stick unwaveringly to a rule or streak is often at odds with the erratic nature of life. Rather, the Rule of 10 is to be used whenever one needs a swift kick in the fanny to get out the door.
Because we know that consistency turns into momentum, and momentum turns into commitment for future practice, to be used for those moments in races when you desperately don’t want to keep moving forward, but then find that you’ve cultivated a deep well of fortitude for just this point. Just ten more minutes.
Look, times are hard right now. We all need as many tools as we can get to keep us motivated, headed in the right direction, and psychologically steadfast.
“Mental resilience is how quickly you are able to feel back on track after being dysregulated,” says Sarah Strong, an ultrarunner and licensed clinical social worker with Fireweed Counseling in Colorado. “To promote mental resilience, you need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Asking yourself to do things that you don’t want to do – like getting out the door for a pre-dawn workout or running in miserable weather – helps you practice feeling uncomfortable, while providing an opportunity to explore the thoughts and emotions that arise.”
The Rule of 10 is so much bigger than running. It’s a psychological buoy, similar to when, in mindfulness meditation, you return to breath whenever thoughts get hard or distracting. I know, it’s annoying to be reminded to breathe, but mindfulness teachers use this tactic for a reason: it’s incremental, it’s readily available, and it works.
You know when running at night, sometimes you feel like you’re moving faster than you actually are? That’s called “optic flow,” a phenomenon that distorts the perception of speed when all that you can see is what’s immediately in front of you. I like to think of optic flow whenever life or training gets thick and all I have is my little headlamp orb in front of me. The Rule of 10 works like this: a beaming headlamp in the dark, a way to dice up your training into manageable bits.
“Consistency compounds,” says running coach Steve Magness. “Small steps repeated over time lead to big gains. Don’t aim to be consistently great. Aim to be great at being consistent.”
So for today? How about ten minutes out the door. Not one hour. Not ten miles. Ten. Dumb. Minutes. If not running, try meditation. Try writing. Try going to the gym. Try crochet, protest, or deep listening to your partner. Try it for playing that dusty violin stuffed in your closet. Chances are you’ll get to the end of that ten minutes and stick around for more, because once you’ve made the initial effort, you’ll be glad you did.
Okay, back to the meditation. Keep staring at those muddy shoes, that uncertain weather. Acknowledge your lack of motivation but then try and summon the Rule of 10. Hell, Joey Chestnut ate 76 hot dogs in less than ten minutes. The least you can do is lace up, set out, and see what happens. I’ll be willing to bet that once you’re outside, shuffling along a trail, you’ll forget all about the numbers, for all it took was a bite-sized effort to show up, and showing up is way more than half the battle.
Now, time to shuck the rules. Time to fly.