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Unlock the Power of Out-and-Back Living

There are two ways to plan an outdoor run: in a loop, or out-and-back. You could also call these methods by their practical names: quit early or keep going and see it through.

Nine times out of ten, when I run more than a few miles, I try to do out-and-back. Why? Because I know myself, and if I give myself an escape route, I might take it.

If I’m running six miles, I run three miles in one direction, then three miles back. For longer runs, I especially want to do it this way. An eighteen mile run consists of two parts: one way for nine miles, and then the other way back for the second nine.

But on many days I run shorter distances, typically a few miles around a nearby park that makes a loop of about .75 miles (1.2km). On these runs, the lazy part of me is always tempted to cut it short and go in early. When I finish even a single loop, I want to go in.

When doing an out-and-back run, and as long as you run half the distance without turning around, there’s no way to cut it short. You simply have to get back!

Therefore, many years ago I learned an important lesson: whenever possible, this is the way.

Instead of adding to the pressure, I find this practice actually makes it easier. On out-and-back running, I rarely wish I could get back sooner—even when it’s longer than running a loop. This knowledge leads to the same conclusion: I should run out-and-back whenever I have a choice.

How Else Could You Live Like This?

It’s easy to extend the metaphor to live an out-and-back life. Consider a few examples:

Book non-refundable tickets and deposits. Once you’ve paid, you’re in! Or at least, you’re on the hook for the cost, which dramatically increases the odds that you’ll take the flight or go to the show you might have skipped if you could pay at the door.

To be fair, obviously it’s better in lots of ways to have a refundable or cancellable option. But for those situations where it’s not possible, try to see the benefit in pre-committing. With pre-commitment comes … commitment.

Make public promises. Struggling to finally start that business or write that book? Tell everyone it’s going to happen! And tell them when it will happen, and make a schedule to report your milestones.

Honestly, one of the reasons I enjoy traditional publishing for my books is that it comes with built-in accountability. There are deadlines, pub dates, and a long list of steps in the process that involve many more people than me. Whenever I miss a deadline that affects other people, I know I’ll feel bad—so I try to prevent these situations from occurring, perhaps more so than I would if it was just me.

Note: public commitments work better for some people than others, depending on their level of external vs. internal motivation. Experiment to find what works best for you.

Live life as a series of streaks. Even more than out-and-back running, the #1 thing that’s helped me remain committed to fitness every day is my Apple Watch streak. In some ways, it’s a silly and arbitrary thing—yet it works. After 1,300 days in a row, the cost of stopping would be much greater than the cost of seeing it through. So I keep going!

On “Discipline”

Some people say they aren’t “disciplined,” but I find that discipline is a practice, not an attribute.

In the situation of running out-and-back, I guess it takes a certain amount of discipline to not turn back early. But keep in mind that your greatest fatigue occurs in the second half of the run—so that’s when you’re likely to cut it short. If you’ve headed off in one direction, however, somehow you have to return.

It doesn’t take discipline to get back. You get back because you want to eat, you need to get on with your day, and so on. Not getting back is not an option, so you keep going.


The beauty of out-and-back running lies in its simplicity. It teaches us the importance of pre-committing to a task, and to see it through to the end—because there’s no other option!

It’s also a reminder that discipline is a practice, something you cultivate and develop over time. By applying this concept to our daily lives, we can do more than we think. The next time you head out for a run—or whatever the equivalent is in your life–pre-commit to seeing it through.

Make it so you can’t quit before you’ve accomplished the goal, and embrace the out-and-back life.


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