Overcoming the Runner's Identity Crisis

Us runners can be very meticulous individuals. We become students of the sport and reshape nearly every aspect of our lives to fit the runner lifestyle. We also over-analyze each little piece of data from our many gadgets to track improvement and try to find an edge where science can bring us to the next level. In other words, once we are bitten by the running bug, we are all in on running.

But what happens when we are sidelined from running, either temporarily or permanently? When a running injury, health concern or other life event strikes, we can be left feeling like a chunk of our identity has been stripped away. What do I share on Instagram if I am injured? What about Strava? What do I do when all my runner friends are training and going to races together and I am stuck at home? Can I take a break from running and still get better?

This feeling of emptiness is commonly referred to as the runner’s identity crisis, but it is not exclusive to runners. When we dedicate hours and hours of our lives and fully invest ourselves into any one thing, we are set up for a potential void when that piece of us is absent. For those who have experienced an identity crisis, it becomes a challenge to replace the passion with another and find new purpose.

Having a strong identity as a runner, in and of itself, is not a negative trait. In fact, it is an advantage when we are healthy and running well because being all in on achieving our goals can propel us toward being our best. The pitfall comes when we allow our sense of purpose to fully hinge on our success, or lack thereof, as a runner. Not balancing our passion for running with a well-rounded sense of purpose spanning all facets of our being introduces mental struggle, especially during injuries or after a bad race.

Know Your Greater Purpose

What is your purpose for running? Sure, it may be to improve health and physical fitness. Or, maybe you are competitive and want to be faster than your friends and set a personal best. Those are great reasons to run, but is there a greater purpose behind your running?

Imagine if all the usual reasons for running didn't apply. The multifarious purposes of running—health, physical fitness, sense of personal satisfaction—can be achieved by taking a pill. Would you still run? If your answer is yes, then you must think that running has something more than mere instrumental value.

If your purpose is solely to beat your friends, run a personal best or lose some weight, then it's easy to feel under-accomplished anytime you don't. Instead, if your purpose is larger and focused on the big picture, then it's easier to manage setbacks and replace running with a different activity that fulfills the same purpose.



A runner resting on stadium bleachers after a workout

Take Time to Reflect

Reflection is a crucial process for exploring and examining ourselves, our perspectives, attributes, experiences and actions. It helps us gain insight into what went well, what didn’t go well and steps to improve moving forward. Through reflection, we delve into our greater purpose to remind ourselves of what is truly important to us and whether our purpose is being fulfilled.

Reflection should be a continuous loop in which we are constantly assessing how things are going. But it is also imperative to have a big reflection once in a while, to step back and look at the bigger picture, especially after a big event or decision in our lives. The beginning of the year is a perfect time to reflect on the successes and shortcomings of the past year and set goals for the months to come—although assessing your life on April 7 or Oct. 24 work just as well as on Jan. 1.

The intended outcome is to learn from and implement a course of action to correct past missteps. This starts with creating and sticking to habits that achieve a desired change in lifestyle. Incremental changes that compound over time are easier to enact than making a colossal change all at once and hoping it sticks.

Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself

As the sport of running grows, we are often asked by other runners, “What is your PR?”, which ingrains in us the idea that success is time-based. We strive to beat our personal bests, and the more we improve, the harder this becomes. It is OK to be upset and mourn a bad race, especially a goal race for which you had high hopes, but the best athletes in the world know that there are lessons to be learned from the bad races and mental toughness to be built from struggle.

The only way you can truly fail during a race is to walk off the course, hang up your shoes and never run another step in your life.

As a runner, you will spend time overtrained, injured, mentally burnt out or all of the above. You will have bad workouts and races. Sometime you may have several bad races in a row. You may spend multiple years without seeing a single personal best, but you can choose now to be unshakable. Challenge yourself to see past the failures; they are there so you can appreciate the success.

Being Well-Rounded is Key

Dedicated runners are busy people. The demand of endurance sports not only requires tens of hours devoted to working out each week, but also can limit participation in other activities due to fatigue and the need for downtime to recover. When everything else in life takes a back seat to running, there is inherently more pressure to succeed, which sets us up for mental hardship when running comes to a halt. The excess pressure we place on ourselves leads to worse results because we try to force success, instead of letting it flow naturally.

It is important to have other interests and passions that leave us feeling fulfilled should running no longer be possible, even if it is something as simple as having more time to spend with family and friends. Balancing running with the rest of your life brings improvement in all aspects of life as skills are refined, new perspectives realized and synergies developed that can be leveraged across activities.

If all we do is run, life can be pretty boring. We only have one opportunity to live life as happily as we can, so it is important to not take running, or ourselves, too seriously.


By Chris Robertson. Robertson races competitively for Chicago’s Fleet Feet Nike Racing Team. He holds a marathon personal best of 2:24 and is the Beer Mile American Record holder (4:46). He is currently training with the goal of qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Trials Marathon and defending his 2017 Beer Mile World Title while working full-time as a Technology Consultant and pursuing additional entrepreneurial endeavors.

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