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Why Consistency, Not Intensity, Is the Key to Running Success

The best way to build fitness is to build a big wall. Focus on putting in as many daily bricks as possible, even if they are really small.

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Reaching your running potential is a lot like the future of the free world. Both depend on one person’s determination to build a really, really huge wall.

Unlike claims about that other wall, no one is going to pay for your running wall. You have to earn it in the daily grind, month after month and year after year.

Here is how the wall works. Each day, you have a brick to add. On workout days, that brick might be 20 percent larger than normal. On race day, it might be 50 percent larger (or even more). But every time you take more than one day off in a row, a mini sledgehammer smashes out some of what you have built. (Other things chip away at the wall as well, like poor nutrition or sleep.)

So how do you build the biggest wall? There are two options. First, you can do lots of workouts and races, counting on those supersized bricks to erect a massive structure. Most runners who do so, though, experience dysfunction when injuries or burnout take out way more bricks than they are adding with workouts. (A disappointing erection is the result.)

The best way to build fitness is the second way: Focus on putting in as many daily bricks as possible, even if they are really small. You can’t do much in a month or two (though you will progress). But over the course of years, consistently laying brick after brick is the key to running success.

Why Running Is Different

Running is different than almost every other endurance sport dependent on aerobic development because it is both weight bearing (meaning it involves substantial impact forces, unlike cycling or swimming, for example) and highly dependent on form and economical motion (again unlike like cycling, where form/economical motion is less important than raw power output).

What does that mean for training? To put it simply, it means everything.

You optimize your form, economy and aerobic development only by doing lots of running over time, with constant practice needed for both neurological and physiological adaptations. At the same time, the volume and intensity you can do are limited by injuries that stem from impact—do too much, too soon, and you’ll have to go back to the drawing board and start over.

In other words, to be any good at running, you have to train frequently and consistently (to improve economy and aerobic development), not necessarily hard and long (which increases injury risk).

RELATED: Feel-Good-Finish Long Runs

Construction Manual

If you are new to running (in your first year of consistent training), focus on laying down the little bricks as often as possible. Start with every other day—even a one-mile jog counts. When you are no longer sore the day after running, move to four days per week before you ever run hard. Once you have the wall built up a bit (or are a more experienced runner to start), follow these rules:

5 days a week

Aim to run five days a week if you are abnormally injury prone or a runner over 50 concerned about overuse injuries. If you are running five days a week, you can do one workout and one long run, but be careful about stacking hard efforts on top of one another, and err on the side of easy efforts.

Remember, being busy is never an excuse. You always have time for a mile.

6 days a week

This is the sweet spot for most runners, where the dueling goals of consistency and injury prevention are in equilibrium.

If you are advanced, you can do multiple workouts or long runs, along with adding easy doubles (where you run twice in one day). Remember, though, aerobic volume is more important than hard workouts for long-term development. Prioritize increasing distance before increasing intensity.

RELATED: Consistency Rules

7 days a week

I am generally not a proponent of running every day unless a runner is extremely durable, with no history of stress fractures and almost no history of overuse injuries. Aim for this approach only if you are guided by an objective understanding of training goals and philosophies.

Before you indulge yourself with complex training philosophies, focus on running consistently. Commit to laying down brick after brick, for years and years, and you’ll build the biggest, strongest, most tremendous wall possible. Cut corners and make false promises, and it’ll all come crumbling down sooner or later.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.