How to run consistently: 10 tips for forming a healthy habit

A couple running in the hills above a lake
Learning how to run consistently helps to make small, regular gains that culminate in big changes (Image credit: Westend61)

Running has a host of proven benefits for your body and mind, but if you only pull your shoes on once every few weeks for a big blowout run and then mostly just think about running the rest of the time, you’re probably not getting all the benefits you could be. At best, you’re not enjoying the cumulative benefits of regular running for your muscles, cardiovascular system and mind while at worst, you could be increasing your risk of injury by not giving your body ample time and training to adapt to the load of a long run. Our 10 tips for how to run consistently help you make running a healthy habit, rather than an occasional jaunt framed with guilt for not doing it more often.

Let’s start with the obvious: forming new habits is hard. You’re busy and most of us are hardwired towards instant gratification, so it can be tough to keep up with any activity where we don’t see instant results. But Aristotle hit the nail on the head when he said that excellence is not an act, but a habit. Healthy living is essentially just a series of habits that, when taken consistently over a long period of time, produce eye opening results. These tips help you to run regularly, regardless of your goals for frequency, time, distance or pace, so that you can make small and great gains and get the most out of your time on the trails.

A woman trail running in a mountainous region

Our 10 tips for how to run consistently help you make running a healthy habit, rather than an occasional jaunt framed with guilt for not doing it more often (Image credit: Jordan Siemens)

1. Start small (AKA be realistic)

In his bestselling book Atomic Habits, author James Clear advises that one of the biggest mistakes we make when trying to start something new is trying to do too much all at once. “I’m going to run a marathon!” you declare you to yourself one day, which is an impressive goal but rather a lot to bite off all at once. When applied to running, a good strategy is to start  small with regards to frequency as well as distance/time.

  • Frequency: Aim for a realistic number of days per week for your lifestyle – if your schedule is already jam-packed, go for three days a week, not seven.
  • Time/distance: Initially run for a shorter period each time, say 20 minutes or a couple of miles, which you’re more likely to be able to stick to than running for an hour every day. This gives your body time to adapt and lowers your risk of injury.

2. Increase slowly

After your first few runs, you might be feeling really good, get a little over enthusiastic and try to go from 20 minutes to an hour, or two miles to five. This adds a lot of undue strain on your body, and can easily leave you feeling wiped out for a few days, which means you miss your next run and then suddenly you’re right back where you started. You don’t have to increase your running distance or running pace at all, but if you want to, try these strategies:

Teen girl exercising on bridge

A good strategy is to start small with regards to frequency as well as distance/time (Image credit: Getty)

3. Mix it up 

Sometimes the reason you have a hard time running consistently is that when you do get on a streak, you do too much of the same thing and you become bored of it. There are lots of ways to break up your running practice so that you stay excited to hit the trail:

  • Cross train: Mix up your running workouts with other activities, such as hiking, biking, swimming yoga and weights.
  • Schedule rest days: Rest days are vital to allow your body and mind to recover, so even if you want to run a lot, make sure you’re taking regular days off.
  • Vary your terrain: Running the same route every day isn’t exactly inspiring, so find new trails and paths to keep you feeling excited.
  • Mix up your running workouts: Doing the same slog every day can quickly start to feel like a chore. Check out our guide to different types of running workouts and vary your approach.

4. Plan ahead and prepare

This is a really simple but effective approach to integrating a new habit. A lot like how chopping vegetables on Sunday night and organizing them into separate containers helps you stay on track for cooking healthy meals, planning what days you’re going to run at the beginning of the week will deliver more success than just waiting to see what each day brings. When you know you’re going for a run the next day, lay out your running top, shorts and trail running shoes plus your best running headphones if you use them so that all you have to do is pull your kit on and go.

Trail running kit laid out on the floor

Lay out your kit the night before so all you have to do is pull it on and head out the door (Image credit: Jenner Images)

5. Go first thing

If possible, plan to run first thing in the morning, before breakfast and before your day gets busy. There are benefits to running at different times of day, but doing it before you get tired or busy helps to offset the risk of you getting home from work, just sitting down “for five minutes” and then glancing at the clock to see it’s bedtime and you’ve been buried in your phone all evening. Plus, it's claimed that a morning run gives your metabolism a boost which burns calories long into the day. 

6. Join a running club

Lots of us really respond best to motivation from others, so it might really benefit you to go running with a partner, or join a running club. When your alarm goes off at 5 a.m. on a dark, cold morning, it’s much easier to hit snooze if there isn’t someone else out there that’s going to be waiting for you to show up at the trailhead. And if you have a club that meets once or twice after work, you’re much less likely to just head home because you're tired. Not only does running with others help you get your running shoes on in the first place, the social bonds created through group exercise can lead to better performance on your part too, according to a 2015 study by University of Oxford (opens in new tab).

A group of friends running together on a trail

If you have a club that meets once or twice after work, you’re much less likely to just head home because you're tired (Image credit: Thomas Barwick)

7. Track your progress

Maybe you’ve been sticking to your regular run for a few weeks but it never feels any easier or you’re not seeing much progress. That can be discouraging, right? Oftentimes, though, the gains you make in running are small but incremental, and it’s easier to see them if you track them. You might be surprised to discover that your pace this week actually improved over last week by 10 or 20 seconds per mile. Invest in a fitness tracker to get real time data on your progress, or even log your runs with good old fashioned pen and paper. After a few weeks, look back and we guarantee you’ll be impressed with yourself.

8. Identify obstacles

If you keep trying and failing to create a consistent running habit, it’s helpful to understand what it is that’s getting in the way of your success. Are you too busy? Schedule your runs at the beginning of the week. Are you too tired? Get to bed earlier and make sure you’re eating enough and staying hydrated. Do your shoes rub? Get a new pair. Is it a lack of motivation? Phone a friend who will hold you accountable. Once you know what’s stopping you, you can do something about it.

A woman looks at her fitness tracker

Invest in a fitness tracker to get real time data on your progress (Image credit: Getty Images)

9. Reward yourself

Researchers at the University of Iowa found that adding a motivational reward might be the key to making an exercise habit stick, according to a 2016 study (opens in new tab). Now, you don’t want to take this too far and reward every 20-minute run with a 5,000 calorie burrito or bottle of wine, which you won’t do your health any good at all, but do find something you can enjoy in moderation, such as bite of your favorite chocolate or an episode of your favorite TV show.

10. Set a goal

Even though we said that starting out with trying to run a marathon might be a bit lofty, there’s lots of science (opens in new tab) to show a connection between goal-setting and behavior change. Giving yourself something timely to work towards, such as parkrun or a local 10k can be a great way to make sure you keep training.

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.