Run Forever: Your Complete Guide to Healthy Lifetime Running

by Amby Burfoot

Clock Icon 8 minute read


Running is the simplest of sports. It deserves a simple book. That's why I wrote Run Forever.

In the last twenty-five years, running has grown massively popular and increasingly complex. There are too many shoes, drinks, energy bars, training plans, stretching devices, massage tools, and books willing to dissect and discuss all of them.

I'm here to say the opposite: running is not complicated. Run Forever doesn't attempt to explain everything there is to know about running. It explains only what you need to know. It drills down to the essentials.

I've organized Run Forever in a clear and easy-to-follow manner. There are just six main sections: "Getting Started," "Nutrition for Runners," "Going Farther," "Dealing with Injuries," "Getting Faster," and "Running Forever." Even though it contains a training plan for half marathons and marathons, which some might consider the ultimate running challenges, "Going Farther" precedes "Getting Faster." Both require consistency and determination. But "Getting Faster" is the harder of the two, because it also demands specialized workouts and true grit.

Each section contains ten to twelve "chaplets," as I call them. These provide short, concise summaries of key information, and conclude with at least three direct actions to follow.

Everything you'll read on these pages has emerged from my half century of running experience, the testimony of the world's best runners and coaches, and the scientific conclusions of top running researchers.

At the personal level, I've road tested every piece of advice in Run Forever. Over the last fifty-five years, I've run 110,000 miles—more than enough to make lots of mistakes (bad for me) and figure out better ways (good for you).

Once I was fast. I was fortunate enough to win the Boston Marathon in 1968, and to run a 2:14 that year. Now I'm slow. I'm a happy member of the "back of the pack" gang. And I'm proud to be there.

I've finished the same Thanksgiving Day 5-miler fifty-five years in a row. A few days after this book is due to be published, I hope to complete the Boston Marathon on the fiftieth anniversary of my win in 1968. Along the way I've run marathons with Will Ferrell and Oprah Winfrey. If they can do it—and both did, finishing their races impressively—so can you.

Many friends helped me write this book. In four decades of work at Runner's World magazine, I had long discussions with hundreds of elite runners: Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Kathrine Switzer, Grete Waitz, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Deena Kastor, Meb Keflezighi, Ryan Hall, Shalane Flanagan, and more. Their wisdom and insight is woven throughout Run Forever.

I also have a consuming interest in sports science, and have interviewed many of the leading lights of the last half century—Ken Cooper, David Costill, Ralph Paffenbarger, James Fries, Jack Daniels, Tim Noakes, Steven Blair, and more. Their evidence-based findings underlie the most important concepts in Run Forever.

My high school coach and mentor John J. Kelley, winner of the 1957 Boston Marathon, played a bigger role than all others combined. Not because he compiled a lengthy list of running rules, but because he lived true. He taught me that one's actions, philosophy, and guiding principles—the simple, big-picture stuff—are far more important than the day-to-day minutiae. I try to remember this lesson every day, and to live by it.

Certain themes return frequently in Run Forever. That's because they are so central to healthy running. One of these is a practice I call "adaptive excellence."

I believe we should always aim high, but appropriately. Today it takes me two hours longer to finish the Boston Marathon than it once did. But I'm still moving along. To every thing there is a season—a time to run fast, and a time to run slow and relaxed. But we must continue to pursue excellence, even as we adapt to new circumstances.

Other themes: Listen to your body. Less is sometimes more. Hills are good for you. Recovery is a necessary part of peak performance. Run-walk builds fitness many different ways. Patience and consistency are eternal virtues.

In my twenty years as executive editor of Runner's World magazine, we regularly asked readers how long they planned to continue running. The response was nearly always the same: 99 percent said they wanted to run for the rest of their lives.

That's my goal too. And I bet it's also yours. Ultimately, it's the main subject of Run Forever.

Running doesn't get easier with age, but the payoffs grow greater. While none of us can know for sure that running will add years to our life, there's no doubt it will add life to our years. Which is far more rewarding.

The most important aspect of Run Forever is its emphasis on the mind. The book begins with a "Brain Training" chaplet and ends with one. That's because I believe running is not so much a physical challenge as a cognitive one. Running doesn't depend on the size of your heart, the length of your legs, or the cholesterol content of your blood. They are entirely secondary. Your brain rules all.

You don't need to do twenty-five squats today to build your quad muscles. You need to think five positive thoughts about your motivations for running, fitness, and lifelong health. Because it's not the quads that will get your legs moving, it's the thoughts.

Life is not a part-time sport. It's a full-time challenge. President Teddy Roosevelt said, "The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly." Few would disagree with this view.

No one wins every race, but we are the better for engaging. If we sit on the sidelines, we can only wither away.

I believe that every run is a new adventure, and every mile a gift. I hope Run Forever will make you feel the same.

Stay the course. Run long and healthy.

Getting Started

Essay: My First (Horrid) Run

My first long-distance run was one of my worst. Maybe THE worst ever. It came as a form of punishment. Too many runners get their start this way. It's all wrong. Indeed, it's no doubt the main reason so many stop running: an initial, painful introduction to the sport.

I hope you'll find a different way. In fact, it's essential. If you don't organize your running as a positive part of your days and weeks, you won't continue it for long. I was lucky, as you'll learn in a moment. You might not be so fortunate. In that case you'll need to discover ways to create your own luck—to surround your running with many positive reinforcements.

I grew up the son of a YMCA director. He introduced me to all the popular sports—primarily football, basketball, and baseball—and I played them all with a wide-eyed energy and enthusiasm. I like to think I was pretty good too. I grew nearly a foot in junior high school, reaching the six-foot mark. That helped me choose my first high school sport. I decided to take a shot at basketball. It seemed a good fit. I had a burning desire to be a star athlete. I would do whatever it took.

I tried out for the basketball team as a tenth grader. More scrappy than talented, I somehow managed to make the cut and was placed on the JV squad. At the very bottom of the squad. I was the worst player on the team. Even I could see that. Before this, in my inexperienced youth, I hadn't realized how many basketball players were stronger than me, not to mention better jumpers, better dribblers, better shooters…the whole works.

The coach saw fit to put me in only one game. As I recall, we were behind by about thirty-seven points with 2 minutes remaining. Coach figured it was safe to let me play at that point—there was nothing to lose. Not for the team, not for his personal reputation. Both were already scraping the bottom of the barrel. His assessment proved accurate. In my 2 minutes of play, I performed no miracles.

That first season of JV basketball shocked me to my senses. I realized I hadn't reached the brink of athletic stardom, but didn't know where to turn next. At one practice Coach grew particularly exasperated by our efforts. He threw up his hands in despair and ordered us off the court. As punishment, he told us to run the school's 3-mile cross-country course. "You guys aren't tough enough," he said. "Maybe cross-country can teach you a lesson or two."

None of us were excited by the prospect, but what were we to do? I was the quiet, obedient type, so I set off at a dutiful pace behind my peers, the better basketball players. To my surprise, most of them were walking after a quarter mile. I kept going.

It turned out that, while I was the worst player on the basketball team, I was better than the others at running 3 miles. I'm not saying I enjoyed the run. Hardly. It was absolute torture, especially the two big hills on our high school's cross-country course. I struggled to keep running on the hills. My teammates walked.

If our basketball coach intended to punish us with this workout, he succeeded. By the end my face was caked with salt, and my thighs felt heavy as tree trunks. Worst of all, my feet were raw and blistered. To wear high-top basketball shoes on a cross-country run is a little like using a wooden matchstick to brush your teeth. You can get the job done, but you know that better equipment would make things much more pleasant.

At any rate, I finished minutes before anyone else. And soon found myself calculating my sports skills. Did I want to be last in basketball, or take a chance at a new sport where I seemed to have some natural talent?

I chose the latter. It made all the difference.

I didn't meet my cross-country coach, John J. Kelley, until the first day of practice the following September. Still, everyone in my high school knew about Kelley. He was a Boston Marathon winner (1957), 1959 Pan American Games marathon champ, two-time US Olympic marathoner, and still among the half-dozen best marathoners in the country.

I soon learned that these were the least of Kelley's accomplishments. More important, he was a brilliant, iconoclastic, unique individual—way ahead of his time. Kelley was a vegetarian, organic gardener, Bob Dylan fan, peacenik, ardent environmentalist, raconteur, student of great literature and philosophy, and believer in the essential goodness of all people, especially artists, freethinkers, and the downtrodden.

I understood little about running at the time, but of course it had a terrible reputation. Cross-country was for skinny, weak, uncoordinated kids who couldn't catch or throw. Worse, it was tough, sweaty, boring, bone wearying, soul sapping, and completely unrecognized by newspapers and the sports-loving public. My school's cheerleading squad got more respect than we runners.

I didn't care. I only wanted to be good at something. I was even willing to endure the endless tedium of interval training on a track, if that's what it took. In the early 1960s, when I joined Kelley's cross-country team, everyone did interval training. Almost every day.

Kelley wasn't "everyone," however. He followed a different drummer. We never ran endless loops around the cinder track that circled the football field. Instead he led us on romps through apple orchards, nearby parklands, and marshy trails at the edge of Long Island Sound.

Kelley never spoke a word about how to run. I have no list of commandments that he proffered us. There were no quizzes. He just showed us how he ran, and we followed along as if he were the Pied Piper, amazed by the wonders of almost every workout. For more on Kelley running, see the essay introducing section five, "Getting Faster."

For Kelley there was just running and being—living for the moment. We youngsters didn't realize that we would win state championships based on this training. We just had fun scrambling over walls, sweating up long hills, scampering along narrow, rocky paths, and exploring the world around us.

It is the way I have run ever since, and I highly recommend it to you. Gadgets and gizmos can be nice, but you don't need them. Running partners are fantastic, some of the time. Training plans can establish good guidelines, but be careful that you don't fall into the perfectionism trap. Don't let running rule your life; it doesn't have to.

Instead, use running to enhance your life. Think big. Run free.

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