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Returning to Running? Go Easy on Yourself

Returning to Running? Go Easy on Yourself

Ani Freedman

The last article I wrote about running detailed my struggles, mentally and physically, with the injury I sustained after my first marathon in October. Today, I haven’t yet fully recovered, but I have started running again. Very slowly, with walk breaks between short intervals of running, I am making my return to the sport I love. It’s not as seamless of a transition as I had hoped.

Even though I’ve kept up my aerobic fitness with cross-training, my body hasn’t felt the physical sensation of running in months. The motion of bounding from one foot to the next, the effort to control my breathing, and the conscious awareness of my cadence and arm swing now feel awkward. But when I allow my muscle memory to kick in, I cannot help but smile on my short runs, knowing I’m reclaiming my identity as a runner.

My awkward, slow return to running has been challenging as I try to get used to the feeling again. The process has been humbling, and a bit ego-crushing. Even though it feels like forever since I’ve run, it was also not too long ago that I was running dozens of miles per week and that I successfully ran 26.2 miles up and down endless hills. Now, I’m finding it difficult to run several three- to four-minute intervals with walk breaks between.

Just as I’ve begun my return to running, I’ve started coaching my boyfriend as he begins his own running journey as someone who really does not like running. After I became a certified run coach, I somehow convinced him to let me coach him. Considering his minimal running experience, I’ve started him out with run-walking to build up his aerobic system and get accustomed to running — the same process I’m going through on my return to running.

It’s been interesting to be on this run-walk path alongside him. It’s allowed me to realize that running can be difficult for anyone at any stage in their lives; I’m in a season of injury recovery, while he is just beginning his first season of running. Even for professionals, everyone must go through a point where they feel like a beginner again. Running equalizes us, humbles us. Whether it’s new mothers who took months off running, injured athletes, or people who choose to take a break from the sport for months or years at a time: we all must start fresh, forced to confront the reality that running is hard.

Yesterday, I was running on the streets I used to do speed workouts and strides on, where I’d jog a couple miles after a tough hill workout, or where I had finished several long runs over 15 miles. I haven’t touched the big hills yet to make sure I don’t irritate my ankle, but I still feel the impact of the slightest incline in my legs. I joked with my physical therapist that the idea of a hill workout now sounds impossible as my heart rate spikes at minimal changes in elevation. This same person used to sprint up steep hills and enjoy it.

Going through this period of slow return is more mentally frustrating than physically. I’m mostly surprised at how fickle my motivation has been. I thought that months without running, where every day that I couldn’t run felt more dreadful than the next, would have made me restless to get out the door as much as I could. But lately, I haven’t been excited at the thought of another slow, run-walk on a cloudy winter morning.

I think it comes from a lack of consistency and knowing I won’t get that same endorphin hit I used to. Even with dedicated cross and strength training these past few months, I haven’t had the same feeling that comes from consistently running five days per week. It’s almost silly, the idea that for me it’s easier to stay motivated when I’m running most of the week, upwards of four miles on each run. When I could do that, I built a rhythm, a routine, a schedule that I was committed to, and a goal or race I was working towards. It was easier to look forward to those longer runs when I’d be gone for an hour, enough time for the endorphins to pile up. When the short runs don’t feel great, like they haven’t lately, it’s harder to feel like I’m making progress towards the runner I used to be, or hopefully the even better runner I will be.

When I think about those long runs and workouts, I miss the feeling that came with them. I long to run long; I miss packing up my hydration vest with gels and electrolytes, amping myself to get out the door for a hard effort workout, and feeling powerful when I’ve conquered distances or paces I knew would be hard. It’s difficult not to feel discouraged or even inadequate over feeling incapable of doing things that were simply parts of training. I know, however, I have to be patient. I will get back to that point someday.

It’s hard not to let that ego creep in, though. Unfortunately, there is a stigma around run-walking, despite the numerous benefits it provides in keeping our bodies in an easy zone of effort to properly build up our aerobic capacities. Somewhere, someone told someone else that walk breaks do not make them a “real runner” or that they’re “weak.” That is simply untrue. All running is running, even if you must stop and walk, even if you stop and take a photo of a gorgeous sunrise, even if you cut a run short or drop out of a race.

Nothing makes you, me, or anyone else, any less of a runner. Run-walking is exactly what I need right now, and those runs are runs, with or without walking. Through these run-walks, I still have been able to rediscover the mental freedom and relief that I so desperately missed the months I went without running at all.

I would rather run for five minutes than not run at all.

It is so important to recognize all efforts, all paces, all forms of running within our sport. Every effort is a valid effort. Showing up for a 20-minute run is just as important as showing up for a 20-mile run. Choosing a rest day when your body tells you to is just as important as deciding that feeling sleepy is not a justification to skip a training run. The mental and physical efforts you put in, every day and every season of your life are valid, and all runners should treat all runners equally and respectfully of those different efforts.

For now, I am sticking to run-walking, and making sure my boyfriend does too. The second I make running feel too hard for either one of us by increasing duration or speed too soon, that is the second we will both stop enjoying it — or in his case, he will never reach the point where he enjoys it at all.

Coaching him keeps me grounded in my own training. I have the outside perspective to see that taking it slow and keeping the effort easy is essential in his workouts — and I would be a hypocrite not to do the same for me. If I push it too soon, he could get injured, and I could get re-injured.

Runners love to push our bodies to the limits, out of stubbornness, ego, impatience, or simply wanting to believe our bodies are ready for something they’re not. But I have crossed over that limit a couple of times now, and I do not want to re-enter that state of burnout or injury. I would never want a new runner or a runner returning to the sport to do that either. Being his coach helps me think about what I would tell myself if I was my own coach, and those words are, “Take it easy.”

Each time I choose to hold back on my run-walks, on the pace or duration, I know I am making the right choice. The days I opt for cross-training or no workouts instead are likely doing more good than harm. I am still healing, still learning how to get back into running. My ego is screaming, my patience is dwindling, and my body is struggling, but at the end of the day I am running again. I’m grateful to share this experience with my boyfriend and with other runners, who might be going through a similar humbling experience or struggling on their runs.

Give your body and your mind grace. Running is hard for everyone. My hope is that we can all push past those hard moments and know it is all worth it, for our mental and physical health, and with the knowledge that getting through these tough seasons opens the door for those joyful runs, where we feel like we could go on forever.

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