Cultivate 'Non-Attachment' to De-Stress Your Training

A woman runs by herself near a blank wall

No matter your personality, human beings tend to be control freaks. Runners in particular can get caught in a cycle of thinking if they follow training to the letter, get enough sleep, eat right, and buy the right gear, their goals are all but assured.

It is human tendency to choose action over inaction—something behavior scientists call “commission bias.” People feel the need to do something to push progress forward, which leads them to force results through sheer will power, even when the situation might call for patience and perseverance.

When you’re overly attached to a goal, say running a PR in a race or finishing a certain distance, you have decided that you won’t be happy unless you achieve it. This tight grip on certain goals can lead to injuries, overtraining and burnout. We continue to train when we are sick, on the verge of injury or are in need of a mental break from running.

So how do you overcome this human tendency to control and cling to your goals? A mindful practice known as non-attachment is a good place to start.

A runner ties a pair of Brooks Glycerin 17

To understand non-attachment, you must first grasp the opposing concept of attachment. Take this example: You’re training for a half marathon with high hopes of running a personal best. This is somewhat of a stretch goal for you, but you feel that you’ll be able to achieve it with training and commitment.

To better your chances, maybe you hire a coach, subscribe to an ambitious training plan and clear your schedule for training to be a top priority. All is going well until a couple months into training when you feel a minor pain in your knee during a run. Instead of slowing down to inspect the issue, you continue to push through the workout because you know it’s a key training session.

Later that evening, you find yourself limping and in pain, but even still, you run again the next day and the day after that. You’re terrified at the thought of skipping any training for fear that it will derail you half marathon goal.

You’re stressed, tense and in pain. This scenario is the result of an unhealthy attachment to a goal. Attachment inspired you to cling to your original plan and white-knuckle your training, thereby clouding your judgement, preventing necessary adjustments and causing further damage to your knee.

Fortunately, there’s a healthier alternative response: Non-attachment. This path is underscored by a mind of acceptance. You still put forth goals and dreams for your running, but you also recognize that not everything is within your control. You care about the outcome and will do your best to achieve it, but some things you simply have to let go—lost days of training due to sickness, a skipped workout as a result of injury, a bad race on account of weather.

Two attributes that can help you internalize a mindful acceptance of the ups and downs of training and racing are psychological flexibility and self-compassion.

  1. Psychological Flexibility: According to research conducted at the Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University, psychological flexibility is how well a person adapts to changing situational demands and how readily they can shift perspective. In the case of the runner looking to run a half marathon PR, psychological flexibility helps them examine the reality of the oncoming injury, address it promptly and determine how they might realistically adjust training. Instead of wasting energy clinging to the original goal or pushing feelings of fear and anxiety away, this runner accepts what is happening in the moment and makes a reasoned choice about what to do next.
  2. Self-Compassion: Self-compassion is another key skill to nurture a mind of acceptance. Studies show that while self-compassion is negatively associated with things like self-comparison and social physique anxiety, it is positively linked to intrinsic motivation. What’s more, it can help combat the fear of failure in sport. Self-compassion doesn’t let you off the hook, but rather gives you a realistic lens through which to see the larger landscape of training. When things don’t go according to plan, self-compassion can keep you from getting caught in the trenches of self-criticism and judgment; it encourages thinking that involves analysis and moving on. Rather than wasting time getting down on yourself, research suggests that being compassionate is a more effective way of accepting reality, letting go and reorienting.

If you find that holding too tightly to certain goals has led to less-than-favorable results, consider stepping back and examining your need for control. By embracing the tenets of mindful acceptance through greater psychological flexibility and self-compassion, you emphasize the long game of training and high performance.


By Mackenzie L. Havey. Mackenzie Havey (née Lobby) writes about endurance sports, mind/body health and wellness, and adventure travel. Her work has appeared in Runner’s World, SELF, Triathlete, TheAtlantic.com, ESPN.com, the Star Tribune and elsewhere. In addition to completing 14 marathons and an Ironman triathlon, she is a USA Track & Field-certified coach, an instructor in the Physical Activity Program in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, and has done training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

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