It can be challenging to feel strong and competitive without a finish line — which is why a lot of runners are suffering from a serious identity crisis. You may be wondering: If no one sees you finish that half-marathon, can you still call yourself a runner? The logical answer is absolutely yes — if you run, of course, you’re a runner.
Around the world, millions of people, from pros to weekend warriors, are struggling to feel like athletes right now. “Most people are not able to get out and train in the same way that they were, and I think that has a huge impact on the way that people are able to feel good about themselves and feel like they’re being athletic and productive,” says Alison Pope-Rhodius, PhD, sports psychologist, host of Wee Chats with Brilliant People and Director of Applied Sport and Performance Psychology Program at Holy Names University. “But, I think what people can do is realize that they’re not alone in this situation. Their opponents, their fellow competitors are also experiencing the same thing. I think it’s really important for athletes to realize that they’re not falling behind because everybody else is in the same situation.”
Here, Pope-Rhodius and an ultrarunning coach break down how you can rebuild your athletic identity without crossing a finish line.
You probably got hooked on running after finishing a goal race, but behind that goal was a reason to run. Maybe it was to start to feel healthier, maybe it was because you were stressed that you couldn’t keep up with your kids at the playground, maybe it was simply to feel more empowered.
Whatever the reason, remember that the race finishes have never been the only goal. “One thing that I always try to remember is that we all contain multitudes,” says run coach David Roche, author of “The Happy Runner.”
It might be time to revisit your athletic identity and unknot it from the concept of any one race finish and instead, start thinking about other ways you can feel like an athlete. Is there an adventure or another challenge you can do instead of racing this summer? Instead of ‘a runner is someone who races,’ a runner could be someone who regularly goes on long runs on Saturdays, or who tries out a new trail once a month or who convinces her friends and family to get out the door for a jog. We all have an imagined ideal of what a runner is, and maybe it’s time to re-imagine that runner as you.
If you’re reading this because you’ve been skipping runs regularly and are frantic to recommit, it’s important to remember that right now, it’s OK to give yourself some grace. “This is obviously an unusual time and almost everybody’s stress levels are going to be at least slightly elevated with what’s happening,” says Pope-Rhodius. “By adding small stressors that typically would be fine for us to deal with on a daily basis, those might make a big bigger difference because we’re already at an elevated level. So you have to find what works for you.” That might mean getting your run in, it might mean skipping your workout but going for a walk, and it might mean taking a nap instead. Ultimately, Pope-Rhodius says, it’s fine if you don’t feel like ‘a runner.’ You will get back to it again eventually, but don’t force yourself to try to fit an identity that is just causing you more stress right now.
Some runners only thrive when there’s a countdown to a race day on the calendar, says Roche, and that’s perfectly fine, too. “If you need a goal, that’s not a character flaw,” he says. “And with that in mind, we’re trying to give those athletes goalposts right now that aren’t race-related, whether it’s setting a new best time on a local road or even tackling a Fastest Known Time (FKT) near them.” Ultimately, if you’re more motivated with an end in sight, it’s now up to you to set that new goal. Run your own race (complete with a chalked-in finish line in your driveway) if that’s what keeps you feeling like a runner.
The good news is that even if you don’t have a race right now, you can still be preparing for the same one next year, perhaps with an even more ambitious goal than you had for this summer. If you can, flip the script and see skipping a year of racing as the gift of time and the chance to develop a long-term training strategy that will help you achieve even greater success. It’s easier to feel like a runner with a race on the schedule — just not in the immediate future.
“Even in the depths of winter, we’re still celebrating the idea that the spring bloom is coming eventually,” Roche says. “In fact, we always want athletes to zoom out as far as possible, and that usually means 3–5 years in the future.”