In most cases, these rules started out as a lightbulb over one runner’s head. After a while, that runner told a few running buddies (probably during a long run), word spread, and before you know it, coaches were testing it, sports scientists were studying it, and it evolved from idea to theory to accepted wisdom. Along with each of the rules we present, however, we list the exception. Why? Because, as you also learned in grade school, there’s an exception to every rule.
1. The Specificity Rule
The most effective training mimics the event for which you’re training.
This is the cardinal rule of training for any activity. If you want to run a 10-K at seven-minute-per-mile pace, you need to do some running at that pace. “Runners are best served by running at goal pace and in the expected environment of that race,” says Ann Snyder, Ph.D., director of the human performance lab at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
The Exception: It’s impractical to wholly mimic a race–particularly longer distances–in training because it would require extended recovery. So, when doing race-specific training, keep the total distance covered shorter than the goal race, or run at your race pace in shorter segments with rest breaks (interval training).
2. The 10-Percent Rule
Increase weekly training mileage by no more than 10 percent per week.
Joe Henderson, the first editor of Runner’s World, and Joan Ullyot, M.D., author of three women’s running books, first popularized the 10-percent prescription in the 1980s. “I noticed that runners who increased their training load too quickly were incurring injuries,” says Dr. Ullyot.
The Exception: If you’re starting at single-digit weekly mileage after a layoff, you can add more than 10 percent per week until you’re close to your normal training load.
3. The 2-Hour Rule
Wait for about two hours after a meal before running.
“For most people, two hours is enough time for food to empty from the stomach, especially if it’s high in carbohydrate,” says Colorado sports dietitian and marathoner Cindy Dallow, Ph.D. “If you don’t wait long enough, food will not be properly digested, raising the risk of abdominal cramps, bloating, and even vomiting.”
The Exception: You can probably run 90 minutes after a light, high-carb meal, while you may need up to three hours after a heavy meal that’s high in protein and fat.
4. The 10-Minute Rule
Start every run with 10 minutes of walking and slow running, and do the same to cool down.
“A warmup prepares your body for exercise by gradually increasing blood flow and raising core muscle temperature,” says Jerry Napp, a Tampa Bay running coach. “The cooldown may be even more important. Stopping abruptly can cause leg cramps, nausea, dizziness, or fainting.”
The Exception: It takes less than 10 minutes to rev up on warm days.
5. The 2-Day Rule
If something hurts for two straight days while running, take two days off.
Two straight days of pain may signal the beginning of an injury. “Even taking five days of complete rest from running will have little impact on your fitness level,” says Troy Smurawa, M.D., team physician for USA Triathlon.
The Exception: If something hurts for two weeks, even if you’ve taken your rest days, see a doctor.
6. The Familiar-Food Rule
Don’t eat or drink anything new before or during a race or hard workout.
Stick to what works for you. “Your gastrointestinal tract becomes accustomed to a certain mix of nutrients,” says Dallow. “You can normally vary this mix without trouble, but you risk indigestion when prerace jitters are added.”
The Exception: If you’re about to bonk, eating something new is probably better than eating nothing at all.
7. The Race-Recovery Rule
For each mile that you race, allow one day of recovery before returning to hard training or racing.
That means no speed workouts or racing for six days after a 10-K or 26 days after a marathon. The rule’s originator was the late Jack Foster, the masters marathon world record holder (2:11:18) from 1974 to 1990. Foster wrote in his book, Tale of the Ancient Marathoner, “My method is roughly to have a day off racing for every mile I raced.”
The Exception: If your race effort wasn’t all-out, taking fewer recovery days is okay.
8. The Heads-Beats-Tails Rule
A headwind always slows you down more than a tailwind speeds you up.
So expect to run slower on windy days. “I disregard the watch on really windy days because headwinds cost me 15 to 25 seconds a mile, and I only get a portion of that back after I turn around,” says Monte Wells, a longtime runner in Amarillo, Texas, America’s windiest city. “The key is to monitor your effort, not your pace. Start against the wind, so it’s at your back in the second half.”
The Exception: On point-to-point runs with the wind at your back, you’ll fly along faster than usual.
9. The Conversation Rule
You should be able to talk in complete sentences while running.
A recent study found that runners whose heart and breathing rates were within their target aerobic zones could comfortably recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Those who couldn’t were running faster than optimal.
The Exception: Talking should not be easy during hard runs, speedwork, or races.
10. The 20-Mile Rule
Build up to and run at least one 20-miler before a marathon.
“Long runs simulate the marathon, which requires lots of time on your feet,” says Gina Simmering-Lanterman, director and marathon coach of the Denver Fit training program. “And knowing that you can run 20 miles helps you wrap your head around running 26.2.”
The Exception: Some coaches believe experienced marathoners can get by with a longest run of 16 to 18 miles, while other coaches suggest runs up to 24 miles.
11. The Carbs Rule
For a few days before a long race, emphasize carbohydrates in your diet.
“Carbo-loading” became the marathoner’s mantra after Scandinavian studies in 1967 suggested cramming down carbs following a period of carb depletion produced super-charged athletes. Experts now say simply emphasizing carbs a few days before a race over two hours works just as well.
The Exception: There’s a word for carbo-loading during regular training or before a short race: gluttony.
12. The Seven-Year Rule
Runners improve for about seven years.
Mike Tymn noticed this in the early 1980s and wrote about it in his National Masters News column. “My seven-year adaptation theory was based on the fact that so many runners I talked to ran their best times an average of seven years after they started,” he recalls.
The Exception: Low-mileage runners can stretch the seven years to well over a decade before plateauing.
13. The Left-Side-Of-The-Road Rule
To keep safe, run facing traffic.
“While running, it’s better to watch the traffic than to have it come up from behind you,” says Adam Cuevas, a marathoner and chief of the Enforcement Services Division of the California Highway Patrol. It’s the law in California and many other states to run on the left side unless you’re on the sidewalk.
The Exception: The right side of the road is safer when running into leftward blind curves where there’s a narrow shoulder. The right side can also be safer if there’s construction on the left side.
14. The Up-Beats-Down Rule
Running uphill slows you down more than running downhill speeds you up.
So, you can expect hilly runs to be slower than flat runs. “You don’t get all of the energy that you expend going uphill back when you run downhill,” explains Nimbus Couzin, Ph.D., a marathon-running physics instructor at Indiana University Southeast. “That’s because when your feet strike the ground on a descent, a lot of energy is lost.”
The Exception: When you run point-to-point with a net elevation drop, your average pace should be faster than on a flat course.
15. The Sleep Rule
Sleep one extra minute per night for each mile per week that you train.
So if you run 30 miles a week, sleep an extra half hour each night. “Sleep deprivation has a negative impact on training,” says David Claman, M.D., director of the University of California-San Francisco Sleep Disorders Center. “The average person needs seven and a half to eight hours of sleep, so increase that amount when you’re training.”
The Exception: The extra sleep may not be necessary for some high-energy folks.
16. The Refueling Rule
Consume a combination carbohydrate-protein food or beverage within 30 to 60 minutes after any race, speed workout, or long run.
“You need an infusion of carbs to replace depleted muscle glycogen, plus some protein to repair and build muscle,” says Nancy Clark, R.D., author of Food Guide for Marathoners. “Ideally, the carb-protein ratio should be 4-to-1. Some examples would be 150 to 300 calories of low-fat chocolate milk, a recovery-sports drink, flavored yogurt, or a bagel and peanut butter.”
The Exception: Immediate refueling is less important if you aren’t running hard again within 24 hours.
17. The Don’t-Just-Run Rule
Runners who only run are prone to injury.
“Cross-training and weight training will make you a stronger and healthier runner,” says TriEndurance.com multisport coach Kris Swarthout. “Low- and nonimpact sports like biking and swimming will help build supporting muscles used in running, while also giving your primary running muscles a rest.”
The Exception: The surest way to run better is to run. So if your time is limited, devote most of it to running.