Sometimes, no matter how much you love something, your interest begins to wane. For me, it happened while I was training for my second marathon, two years after finishing my collegiate cross-country career.
Training started to become a chore, something I made myself do to accomplish my goals — not because I got enjoyment out of the activity. I kept pushing anyway. I pushed through the mental fatigue, burnout and the desire to give running a break for the first time since I was 6 years old. Competing at the highest level possible was the only thing that was important.
Then two weeks before my big race, I injured my hip during training and was told I’d need extensive rehab and possibly surgery to correct the issue. It was just the excuse I was looking for to give up running completely. In the process, I discovered cycling was a suitable alternative.
That was 15 years ago, and until recently, I hadn’t even thought about training for a single running event.
It started when my 8-year-old son came home from school one day and said, “Dad, we have a race at school. It’s on March 3rd, and I’m going to do it. It’s 2 miles, and I need to win.”
I laughed, of course, because I’d hardly ever talked to him about running. I’ve never been one to push my interests on others, and believe each person has to find their own activities that make them happy. Until then, I thought he’d been happy with soccer and jiujitsu. But he had fire in his eyes.
So I told him, “If you really want to win, you have to practice. It’s just like all the other sports. If you do it every once in a while, you won’t be any good. Do you really want to run every day?”
He promised me he did, and so we started to run. I bought him a new pair of running shoes, and took him out to the dirt canal by our house. “One mile,” I told him. “You have to run 1 before you can run 2.” I drew a line in the dirt and pointed to a bridge a half-mile away. “To the bridge and back.”
What I thought would be a struggle to finish turned into a foot race. Every time I inched past him, he started to sprint. He crossed the line two steps ahead of me and raised his arms. Victory. “Tomorrow we have to do it two times,” he said.
So we did. The next week, we did it three times. Three miles. After a month of running, my son won his race at school. But still it wasn’t enough. So we signed up for a mile fun-run a few weeks later and then a 5K a month after that. He was having a blast, mostly because he was beating me and getting shiny medals of his own to hang on his bedroom wall. But the funny thing was, I realized I was having more fun than he was, without even thinking about what I was doing.
Suddenly, it was all so simple.
THE LESSONS I LEARNED
At one time in my life, running was about how fast I could go. It was always about going faster, breaking an old PR, beating a rival or running negative splits in a monster track workout. Finishing at the top of a race was what I thought gave me joy because it meant something. It was proof that I had talent, that I was good at something.
Ultimately, it was that line of thinking that led me nowhere. What I discovered through my son was that having fun and pushing yourself were what mattered. What I can do today might not be the same as what I can do tomorrow or what I did yesterday, but as long as I’m having fun, what more can you ask for? And if you’re not having fun, what’s the point? There are plenty of other things you can do to stay in shape.
While I’m definitely not as fast as I used to be, I recently coaxed my wife into training for a half-marathon with me. Just for fun, I told her. And it worked. The furthest distance she’d ever run before was a 10K. Seeing her run a distance she never thought possible was more enjoyable than any of my previous experiences.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
If you’ve given up on the sport or are in the midst of your own running crisis, there are some things you can do to turn it around. Here are some things that helped me get back into the sport and start to love it again:
Try to remember why you loved it in the first place. There’s something about the simplicity of running that no other sport can provide. In cycling, there’s so much gear, so much planning. It can make your head spin. For me, simply grabbing a pair of shoes and going outside is a form of meditation that brings me peace.
Get someone else into the sport. Sometimes, all you need is perspective. Witnessing the excitement of a new runner falling in love with the sport for the first time is often enough to rejuvenate your own spirit.
Don’t take anything too seriously. Put away your GPS watch, your training log and your pre-calculated track workouts. Sure, this isn’t the path to a new PR, but it could help if you’re on the verge of burnout. Focus your runs on having fun. Instead of looking at my mile splits constantly, I look up and try to enjoy the scenery around me.
Try other activities. I’m the kind of person who, when I choose a sport, it’s all about that sport. Nothing else exists. But sooner or later, this mindset can be extremely draining. Mix your runs with other activities. Some days I ride my bike, others I play tennis. I’ve found this is a good way to stay mentally fresh so I look forward to those days when it’s time to run.