Distance running is obsessive. To engage in a sport that often means spending 40 minutes to 2 hours in blazing heat, freezing cold, or howling wind alone, you’ve gotta be a little obsessed (with a side of crazy). The obsessive nature distance runners have with their sport is both a blessing and a curse.
Obsession with running is a blessing when it’s 9 am on a Saturday, but you’ve already done more physical activity than most Americans will do all week (probably an actual stat). Or when you’ve had a stressful day at work and those miles you force yourself to get out and run clear your head and refresh your mood. But the obsession can quickly turn from productive to problematic.
Despite training through 8 years of competitive cross-country and track, countless 5ks, numerous half-marathons, and four fulls, I still have not mastered the art of listening to my body but some of our most important training days are the ones that we truly take easy. It can be a struggle when training for a big race not to run every run to your fullest potential, but it’s necessary.
The most difficult part of learning when to take it easy is being able to tell the difference between feeling like crap and…feeling like crap. You may head out for a run and feel like crap because you decided to push the pace or the mileage a little bit faster or farther than usual. That is the good type of feeling like crap and that is what makes us better runners. Other days you may head out for an easy run and still…feel like crap. You may have run harder the day before, not slept well the previous night, or caught a cold. Or there may be no logical reason at all that you can think of. Either way, you feel like crap and your body is telling you something. This is when you need to listen.
I am notorious for getting down on myself any and every time a run does not go as well as planned. Today I did not let that happen. Today, I had one of those “feel like crap for no apparent reason (but probably 6-7 little reasons)” kinda of days. Often on these days I get frustrated and rather than take it easy, push my run harder and faster than I would have had I felt good off the bat. This is counter-productive. I will literally take the sign my body is giving me to slow down, cut it short, or rest and give it a big FU by doing exactly the opposite of what I need. (This is probably why I went into the Boston Marathon with a torn hamstring.) BUT, today was different.
By a half a mile in I made the decision to NOT look at my watch. I decided I would run easy and 100% by feel. I also made the decision to run one mile less than I set out to do. Finally, I decided when I got home I would stretch, shower, and eat without analyzing my splits or my distance run.
Today, my body gave me a sign and I listened. A year ago I would not have and a year ago I sustained an injury that took me out for 3 months. As runners, we need to look at the big picture. We need to look ahead to the goal that we are working towards, whether it’s a PR, a new distance, a running streak, or another goal. If you are struggling to get past a less than stellar run, put it in perspective. This afternoon I cut my run short by a mile, will that affect my time at the Boston Marathon in May? Probably not. Will if impact my ability to run Chicago in October? Maybe. Not running that mile probably did more to prevent injury and illness than running that mile would have done to improve fitness.
When you have bad running days (and you will) do not take them to heart. You don’t let every great run make you think you’re unstoppable, so don’t let every underwhelming run make you think you’re incapable. Look at the big picture, remember the goal, and take it all in perspective. Ask yourself: will running this run 10 seconds per mile slower or two miles shorter decrease my chances of reaching my goal? If the answer is no, take off your shoes, put down you watch, and be done. Tomorrow is a new day and there are always more miles to run.