Even in a sport noted for independence and simplicity, there are rules that runners quickly learn—often advice from us. Don't run every day. Cross-train, lift weights, stretch. Target one or two major races per year. Eat protein, slim down.
These are rules for a reason: They work for most people most of the time. Often, scientific evidence backs them up. But as with almost any other endeavor in society that doesn't involve criminal activity, running rules can sometimes be broken—or at least bent—without the world coming to an end.
Indeed, many exercise scientists don't even like using the word "rules" when it comes to what runners should and shouldn't do. "They're really guidelines," says exercise scientist Jeff Potteiger, Ph.D., of Grand Valley State University outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan. They're based on studies in which a group of subjects follow a certain protocol or tell researchers what they're doing in their training.
"The so-called rules are extrapolations from the studies," says Lynn Millar, P.T., Ph.D., professor of physical therapy at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. "So if somebody said, 'I really want to do this third or fourth marathon in one year, but it challenges the rule that you should do only one or two,' I'd say OK, as long as you understand you might be running the risk of injury or burnout, because the studies tell us that this is what tends to happen to runners who do more than one or two a year. But that doesn't mean it's necessarily going to affect you the same way."
What works for Millar (a runner herself), for me, and for a thousand others might not work for you. Here, we share the rules that don't always apply, along with some advice from experts on how to safely bend the rules yourself (if you want to).
Don't Run Every Day—Run and Then Rest
Some people are simply able to run more frequently than others without getting injured or burned out. Indeed, there are 523 active members of the U.S. Running Streak Association. But you don't have to run every day to reap the benefits of more exercise.
Bend (Don't Break) The Rule
Add one day. Before you leap into a running streak, try adding just one additional day for two weeks. Vary the pace, the terrain and the distance. If you feel good after two weeks, you can keep the extra day as part of your regimen. But if you feel any signs of overtraining during your experimental build-up period—pain that starts when running and continues when you stop, swelling, decreased sleep and appetite—back off. (Here's how you know you need to recover: 10 Signs You Need a Rest Day.)
Try a week. A day (or more) per week totally off any form of exercise gives most people a welcome break from both the physical and logistical stresses of running. Still, if the idea of "streaking" appeals to you, try it in mini-doses. Start with one or two weeks of daily running, but don't go farther than about 3 miles, and be extra mindful of aches, pains and fatigue.
Do an exercise streak. A better and safer challenge, Millar says, would be to go on a 30-day exercise streak, in which you'd alternate your running days with days when you'd perform 30 minutes of some other kind of low-key physical activity, such as easy swimming, cycling or yoga.