The Daily Run

Runners are generally creatures of habit. We have our standard loop, our daily schedule, and we stick to it more or less. Though they always sounds nice in theory, runners know that exploratory runs in new directions or in different cities are fundamentally disruptive to the training schedule. We prefer to know every inch of our path; it makes getting around it easier mentally. Our hardest workouts are done on the most uniform surface possible -- a 400m oval, which in its simplicity and uniform nature is a striking metaphor for the habitual nature of the runner's activity.

The deeper the runner gets into heavy training, the more essential habit becomes. When the body begins to resist the miles, when the legs feel heavy, or the brain fogs from fatigue, the easiest thing to do is what one did yesterday -- hit the standard loop. We have run it so many times that it almost literally runs itself. We are responsible for a minute or two of effort, but once out the door and on the loop, the loop itself seems to carry us around.

In the same way, the rhythm of running imposes a sort of order of habit on daily life. We put our runs into place, then the rest of life falls in around that order. You see this rhythm carried to the extreme with the streakers. For the streaker, the run takes on an almost metaphysical quality -- it becomes not just a form of exercise or a way of moving the body, but a reality, a necessity, as real to that runner as the rising of the sun and as cold and hard a necessity as the stars that shine on a clear winter night.

These rituals and repetitive behaviors make runners seem obsessive or compulsive, and in a way we are -- some more than others. We worry that all of this running is a symptom of a loss of freedom, that we run like panthers pace a cage. But repetitive behaviors are not always obsessive or the mark of psychological damage, and routine or habit is not always dull. Indeed, some form of daily rhythm is essential to the health of every living organism. A life without routine of some sort is simply a disorganized life.

The older I get, the more I realize that freedom is about the establishment of routine. The very nature of meaningful and free action is bound up in repetition. To live a life with purpose is to make choices that lead us to develop and grow along certain channels. If we find the right channels, they deepen and grow more complex and variegated each time we return to them. This process is often imperceptible; our lives and personalities grow through a force that is similar to erosion.

Not to find these deep channels, not to return to them -- to live as if each day were brand new! This sounds lovely, and this advice is doled out often. But such a life would be a life of surfaces without depth, a life of noises and screens and words, but not music, not art, not meaning. The great musicians and the great athletes know what the runner knows: that talent is discovered and refined through the erosive force of habit.

It is true that ritual and repetition can easily give way to boredom and mechanical routine. Every runner experiences these things, perhaps just as often as the experience of strength or talent or identity. It is tempting to say that these things -- boredom and purpose, mechanical routine and deep meaning -- are two sides of the same coin, but I think such a statement avoids the problem we regularly face.

In its simplest form, the problem is this: control, order, and organization are necessary to life, but in their most rigid forms, they are the worst thing that can happen to life. As we face the challenge of becoming free and productive adults, we seek to impose some degree of control over our lives, but then chafe constantly at the way in which this control, once established, seems so quickly to turn against us -- to begin to control us.

Is there a way out of this bind? I don't think so. It's the bind that life puts us in: we must adapt to preserve ourselves. Running is both of these things, both adaptation and preservation. It's an attempt to adapt to life; an attempt to build strength and endurance, to learn to deal with pain, to enjoy our bodies, to live outside and in the world, to work alongside our friends. It's an attempt to preserve our life; an attempt to find calm, to escape the demands of contemporary life, to delay the onset of age, to heal minds made foggy by too much talking and not enough moving.

What's my point here? I think it's something like this: let's be careful not to call every routine a compulsion, characterize every rhythm as a type of monotony, or separate the idea of habitual action from the search for freedom. These things come together for us in the same way that the wooden legs and resistant mind of the early miles of the daily run almost magically transform themselves into free and full movement and refreshed consciousness. Just so, dull routine becomes deep experience, reminding us that beauty lies just beneath the gray tones of ordinary life, waiting always to erupt.

This is the lesson of the daily run.


  1. Ahh! This is a routine I have missed...reading your blog.

  2. Well said. In my 40+ years of running, I have always been a fierce creature of habit, and at times thought myself boring or non-adventurous. But one day I realized that just getting out the door every day (usually twice) is the courage and adventure that I choose to take on, and that most of my peers do not. In that thought, I am comforted. Thank you for validating this.

  3. Beautiful, Jeff. We got lost somewhere, thinking that habit was to be avoided. Of course, it's our great guide!

  4. Total agreement here....You can't ever stay at that perfect place between healthy and unhealthy routine, but through practice you come to recognize when you've gone too far one way or the other. It's the constant moving back toward the point of perfect balance, not the achievement of perfection itself (which is impossible), that gets us closer to whatever we're meant to find and be. It sure took me a long time to figure that out, though!

  5. I found the cosmic signs interesting that this post came out about a week or so after Desi Davila was quoted on the frontpage of Let's Run about the need not to do a marathon that had (to some degree) become routine for her. I do realize her reference to Chicago is much more micro in scale than the macro scale you are referring.

    Instead of "as if each day were brand new" what if it read "as if we were reading a love letter"? Does a love letter ever get old? Do we ever throw those away? Sure, they may seem silly (especially looking at the love letters from high school), but the authenticity they still have is why (at least I) will never get bored reading them (or get bored of my hardest 6x1600 workouts on that uniform, flat oval).

    One last thought I had as I read this post. I love the idea of clarifying our purpose as we develop routines. Especially the idea of freedom being an expression of those developed routines. But what if we removed the concepts of control, order and organization for the singular concept of responsibility? As we take on the challenge of being free and productive adults with the development of routines as a means to develop the habit of responsibility.

    I told myself I would ignore this post until I had a more free evening, but I couldn't resist! Thank you for more gold that I will share with others!

  6. Check out The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg - about business by very relatable to running. He proposes The Habit Loop, which involves a cue, a routine, and a reward, which then invokes a craving for starting the habit loop over again.

    For me, a simple cue would be seeing my running shoes sitting by my bed. The routine is the act of running. This leads to the reward of a sense of accomplishment or the serenity I feel in nature. All this has created a craving for more of the reward.

  7. Jeff,

    Here is my humble suggestion for the title of your eventual book, "Habits of the Leg: What the philosophy of John Dewey has to do with Running"(read this entry as the running version of Dewey's habits of mind). Just to comment on your interesting insights.... I like the routine analogy as channels but it does trouble me for these reasons 1. My father in law, although very polite, proves these channels can turn into a dogmatic gully washer of an intellectual trap with age(as far as politics are concerned) 2. With running the channel will be heavily dependent on the subjective state of the body (the "daily run" will have to be redefined over time with injury/performance may eventually be the daily shuffle )3. So I like the channel analogy but I personally would try to cross into other channels, temporarily at least, just to get more perspectives/insights. Thanks for writing!


  8. I agree with many of your conclusions, however my running experience couldn't be further from your own. Perhaps that is because I'm coming from an Ultra Trail Running background. What we share is routine in that I run daily (when healthy) but how its expressed; where, when, how far, how fast, etc, differs greatly. If I could define my routine it would be one of constant change. I do not write my responses to take away from your own experiences as a runner, only to point out that the perspective you are proposing to be universal to runners is not shared by at least one.

    "Though they always sounds nice in theory, runners know that exploratory runs in new directions or in different cities are fundamentally disruptive to the training schedule." I completely disagree with this... Taking day trips from Phoenix (where I live) to places like Prescott, Sedona, Pine, and Flagstaff have proven invaluable to my training and preparation for races. I don't know the areas well, so I simply look online for a trailhead the night before, pack water, food, drive up the next day and run. Sometimes the trail is exactly what I expect, but most times its not. In fact most of the time I end up getting lost and running a completely different trail. Then when time allows, I'll try to find a new trail and do it again. I believe those types of experiences are fundamental to success when training for trail ultras rather then fundamentally disruptive.

    "We prefer to know every inch of our path; it makes getting around it easier mentally." Of all the races I've run, I found loop 100 mile races to be the most mentally challenging. Races like Javelina 100, Silverton, Across the Years, will challenge the notion that knowing every inch of your path makes things mentally easier. Sometimes it's the not knowing which captures our imagination and fuels our will to continue - I can't speak for anyone else but this is true for at least me.

    "Our hardest workouts are done on the most uniform surface possible -- a 400m oval, which in its simplicity and uniform nature is a striking metaphor for the habitual nature of the runner's activity." Many runners have track days and I have a desire to get on a track one of these days but due to my lack of set routine and specific times and days when tracks are open to the public (at least in my area) I haven't actually been on a track in 18 years. Even if I do eventually make one of these track days, my hardest workouts will still take place on the most technical and challenging terrain I can find.

  9. Great read but I disagree with the necessity for known environment. What if your routine is to stray from the routine elements? Relentlessly breaking away from known loops and trails is what motivates me and evokes in me the deepest signs of freedom.

  10. Dear commenters:

    Thanks so much for your thoughts. It makes me happy to read both the comments of agreement and the criticism. I wish I had the time to gather us all together over a beer and respond to them all.

    For those who are new to the blog (thanks Tony Krupicka), I'd encourage you to browse around -- you might find answers or contradictory opinions or points in other posts.

    One general reply: one effort I make with this blog is to try to use it to reach beyond my own individual experience and speak more generally about the experience of running. This is risky business -- at its worst, it sounds like I am trying to say everyone's experience should be like my own. But through the years of the blog, I'd say that this attempt has been really successful because it has allowed people to say that this blog is not just about me, but it's about us, a community, heterogeneous, ruggedly individual, pluralistic to the hilt, but a community nonetheless.

    Each of your comments reminds me that while our experience is not universal, it is still shared. Thanks for reading.


  11. Good one Jeff. Glad you're back at it. Routines offer some comfort in a very uncomfortable world. I agree with you that just because its a routine doesn't make it dull. That's the fun challenge for me. What small part of this routine run is different enough to keep me interested.

    Someone asked this about me playing the same golf course everyday when I was still doing this. It may be the same course but each hole is different each day and even on the same day. You just need to notice the small changes and it opens up a whole new perspective.

    Good read. Good read indeed.

  12. I agree with you Jeff. Whether doing 100 mile loop trails or 100 second loop splits on the track, the payoff from having a routine is routinely discounted. Thank you for so eloquently expressing this insight.

  13. According to anthropologist Victor Turner, ritual is a repeated, but non-mechanical behavior. In case of running, the freshness and runner mystique tends to wear down if not careful. In the ritual (in anthropological sense) every moment is potentially full on meanings and otherwordly experiences. In a dull training ritual, step is followed by step with blank look on the face, mind wandering away.

  14. Well done, Jeff. The habit of running can become destructive when it is no longer a creative choice and crosses the line into obsession. I've seen this happen to more than a few runners. They not only run themselves into severe physical problems, but will also risk previously important personal relationships in order to get their training or racing fix. They're seemingly no longer awake or self-aware. Creativity and freedom go hand in hand, in the present. If you bring a creative orientation to life, habits become choices...expressions of freedom. You can change them at any time, though there will almost always be some level of discomfort in doing so, as energy always follows the path of least resistance. If you think in terms of probabilities and probable experience, then habits we create or leave in place make particular outcomes more probable. Can a habit bring deeper meaning to our lives? A deeper enlightenment? A musician can put his 10,000 hours of practice in, and become technically proficient, but if they aren't in a creative orientation, they will never be an innovator, or a true original. The music will be hollow to them. The light of creativity needs to be turned on. Habits won't turn it on. It turns on spontaneously. When the light is on in someone, they can be free and innovate within almost any medium, whether it be the arts, business, science, relationships, sports, etc. John Lennon once said "I'm an artist, and if you give me a tuba, I'll bring you something out of it." Why the light goes on in some and not others is a mystery.

    Thanks, Jeff. Your blog is like hanging out with an ambulating Socrates (pronounced So-kray-tz). Keep going!

  15. Interesting but I can agree with some of the comments. Individual runs stick in your head because they did not conform to the routine. I ran most days - I ran 35 consecutive days once and felt great, But the run that sticks in my head as being extremely difficult was a run I took whilst working away. I popped out of the hotel where I was stopping expecting to find a convenient 5 or 6 mile circuit just to keep in touch with the habit. Ran a couple of miles, crossed the motorway via a footbridge and turned left. In the UK motorway bridges and underpasses are quite frequent. Turned left kept an ear out for the traffic on the motorway and trudged along. Couple of miles I expected a bridge, none appeared. Oh well carry on... Must be a way over somewhere - no point turning back.... carry on... no point turning back... 2 hours had past... A bridge turned up relief. Unknown to me the motorway had gently arched round in a big circle and the way back was an even bigger loop back. Five and a half hours later... 3 AM in the morning, I turned up at the hotel, raised the sleeping night porter, had some sort of slanging match with him trying to convince him I was staying there. Had a shower, got into bed cross at the world... Up at Seven... Spent the next day trying to stay awake...
    I could knock a marathon off in 3.15 - so I reckon nearly 35 miles - it was only going to be 6!
    Plan people Plan!

  16. I agree with what you said here. I am a new runner and I have found it to be common that I do similar routines everyday with my running. However recently I got a stress fracture in my shin. After doing some research I have started to wonder if my running routine has caused this injury? What are your thoughts on this?

  17. This is EXACTLY what I needed to read today. Thank you so much!


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