4 Running Mistakes that Keep You Stuck and Frustrated

Sometimes, you just need someone to give it to you straight.

Occasionally Jason Fitzgerald and I do 30-minute coaching calls with new Run Your BQ members to help them build some initial momentum when they join our program. I’ve done a few dozen of these calls now, and in the process I’ve noticed something striking:

Almost every runner’s frustrations are the result of the same small handful of mental mistakes.

The good news is they’re fixable: all but one of these mistakes has an easy, obvious solution, once you’ve identified the problem. And that’s what I hope this post will help you to do.

I’ll repeat: at least one of these mistakes is to blame for the frustrations of just about every single runner I’ve talked to on a coaching call. If you’re not getting the results you want, look extra hard at yourself. Be brutally honest, and see if one of these mistakes isn’t behind your lack of progress.

Awareness of the problem is the first step to fixing it, and a huge one. After that, I’ve suggested a solution to each to get you started on the path to correcting it. The rest, of course, is up to you. 

Mistake #1: You run too many races.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with racing every month, or even every week … if racing often is your only goal. But if you want to get faster, especially at longer distances, you simply can’t put forth a race effort every month. The cost to your body is too high, not to mention the quality training time that you lose to tapering and recovery, and even the race itself (no, that half marathon you raced doesn’t count for the 20-miler on your schedule). This is why marathoners who make their living at the sport often race only two marathons per year.

Solution: Decide which you really want: to race often, or to race better. Do you want to be a 50-stater or a Marathon Maniac or a Half Fanatic? Or do you want to run the best race you can? The two goals are in conflict – so rather than half-ass both of them, pick the one that matters most to you, and do it as well as you possibly can. And if your choice is the latter, one or two big races a year is all you need.

Mistake #2: You don’t change anything after you get injured.

Injuries tend to come when you’re most excited about running. You’re feeling better than ever and loving your workouts (and your progress), so you push just a little harder. Your easy runs get too fast, you start skipping your day off. It’s too much, but of course you don’t realize it until something breaks down.

When you’re injured, you do all the right stuff: you take time off, you do rehab exercises, you ease back into running. But once the pain is gone – really, truly gone, as best you can tell – you go right back to the routine that got you injured in the first place. Same quick ramp-up of mileage, same form, same training, surface, and shoe. And surprise, surprise … same result.

Solution:  Stop looking at your injury as a fluke, and take responsibility for it. Whatever you did caused you to get injured. So if you don’t want it to happen again, you’ve got to change something – even after you’re back to 100 percent.

Start with form. If you’re not running with a fast turnover – around 180 steps per minute – then now’s the time to start. How about posture and footstrike? Next, think about your easy runs: are they really easy, as in “you can carry on a conversation while you’re doing them”? How about your overall mileage – do you have a history of getting injured every time you exceed 40 or 50 miles per week? If so, you’ve got to spend more time building up to that level, and consider strength training, trail running, or another change to whatever repeated actions are resulting in injury.

Mistake #3: You want to PR by 30 minutes in your very next marathon or half.

From the time I became obsessed with qualifying for Boston, it took me seven years to get there. I had a lot of time to take off my marathon (more than an hour and forty minutes!), but that’s not the reason it took so long. It took seven years because every time I started a training program, I planned to qualify for Boston – in that very next race. The result was a pace and mileage that I couldn’t sustain, which of course led to burnout and injury. By the time I got to the start line a few months later, I couldn’t wait to take a break. And so I would, until inspiration stuck again, at which point I’d repeat the same routine.

I’m all for ambitious goals, but if you don’t give yourself adequate time to make them happen, you’ll keep shooting yourself in the foot.

Solution: Remember that we tend to overestimate what we can achieve in a year, and dramatically underestimate what we can achieve in a decade. So take the long view, and practice patience. Decide what it is you want – to break four hours in the marathon, to break an hour-thirty in the half, to qualify for Boston – and deliberately give yourself more time than you optimistically think you’ll need. Plan to do it two or three years from now, even choose the race you’ll run, and then set intermediate race goals along the way. Be ambitious and unreasonable in the long term, calculated and reasonable in the short term, and finally, flexible in your approach … and you’ll have a bulletproof plan for success.

Mistake #4: Your plan is sound … you just don’t execute.

Big picture, only two things can go wrong: either the plan is bad, or the plan is fine but fails in the execution.

If you’ve been conservative in your time frames, chosen a proven training program, and otherwise modeled what you’ve seen to work for others like you, then your plan is probably alright – and you can always make adjustments as you learn more about what’s working and what’s not.

Now it’s up to you to make the plan happen. And here’s where a lot of people get stuck. For whatever reason, they just don’t get out the door to put in the runs they’re supposed to.

Why? I’ve heard a lot of reasons:

  • The long runs hurt.
  • It’s hard to get up early.
  • It’s too cold/hot out.
  • A rain or snow day makes it impossible.
  • Life gets in the way.
  • It’s just easier not to.

And so you miss a workout, then two. Then you’re behind, then you think you need to somehow catch up, then you give up entirely. Until you get frustrated enough with the current situation, resolve to change, and do it all over again.

Solution: This is the toughest mistake to correct, because it involves the mental blocks and procrastination and self-sabotage that affect so many people for so many complex reasons.

Can you make the experience less painful or more pleasurable, by taking care of a form issue, getting new shoes, or listening to music or an audiobook while you run? Is your goal compelling enough; does it give you butterflies to envision accomplishing it? Are you starting too big, so that even the first workout is unapproachable? Is there another approach – say, starting a running streak, or using running as meditation – that would represent a big shift for you and make things easier?

Or is there something deeper going on: do you, on some level, doubt that you can ever achieve whatever you’ve set out to do, so your body simply responds by not even trying? As I said, this one is tougher, and it takes some rumination to figure it out – but often a little thought and re-engineering of the situation can make the difference between disciplined, consistent execution and giving up before you ever really start.

New Running Stuff from Friends

Coincidentally, two of my closest online running buddies put out new programs this week:

These are affiliate links and these guys are good friends of mine, so I can’t say I’m completely unbiased here. But I really respect what both of these guys do, in their work with me and on their own, so I hope you’ll check out their new stuff if it interests you.

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Comments

  1. Juan Sanchez says:

    A little advise for mistake number 4. It worked great for me and still does. Do not decide wether you´re going to run or not today until after you’ve put on your running gear. Dress up, put on your running shoes and then ask yourself if you´re willing to go out. And if you´re not, just remember, you´re already dressed for it, perhaps you should reconsider!

    • I agree! Good strategy. One never regrets a run….

    • Great article Matt.

      I completely agree Juan – even take it a step further and promise yourself that you’ll run just for a few minutes, then you can give up if you still don’t feel like it. Invariably once you get going, it’s unlikely you’ll decide to stop. It’s a pretty cool trick to play on yourself, and I’m stupid enough to fall for it every time…

  2. I need someone to write “Injury Prevention for Streakers” … lol

  3. Great article, Matt. Unfortunately, I’ve fallen victim to mistake #2. I suppose I’m not really the victim, but the culprit. Last fall I developed a nerve injury in my leg (unrelated to running) but didn’t quit running. After a few weeks of hobbling along my favorite paths, I was forced to stop – I had developed runner’s knee from overcompensating with my good leg. I had a 25k coming up and didn’t want to miss it, so I ramped up my training and completed the race. The same knee hurt worse than ever by the time I reached the finish line. I knew I had to take some time off.

    I took all of a few days off, then began training for my upcoming marathon. Within a few days, I was back to icing my knee. This time I’m taking the proper time off, and looking at making some changes in footwear and form. I want to be sure that all areas are covered before I start hitting the pavement again. In fact, I’m looking at finding more trails in my area to run. This has been a growing experience. I’m thankful for the online running community and all of the help and inspiration I’ve received.

  4. I’m currently in the middle of (31 days to go!) training for marathon number three. I’ve been lamenting the fact that I haven’t been doing many races because there aren’t that many in driving distance. When I trained for my last full, I did a half just about once a month. It made me feel “race ready” and confident when the big one rolled around. Now I’m thinking, based on your advice, that I’m probably better off not doing all the races. Instead, I’m sticking to my plan (Run Less, Run Faster) religiously.

  5. Thank you so much for writing this article!! I’m about to sign up for my first half IronMan and you just gave me peace of mind. Time to do a reality check and decide if I’m ready or not.

  6. It sounds like I’m doing a good job by taking my time. I purposely choose not to race every month even though members of my running group are pretty fanatical about halfs. If you’re not doing the next popular race, that everyone else is doing it’s almost like there’s nothing to talk about. But I resist the peer pressure of doing lots of big races or completing runs in a certain time compared to others. I’m only 9 months into running and I don’t want to burn out.

  7. Jon Weisblatt says:

    Great Post Matt. My biggest issue is the injury bug. In the middle of it right now. Makes me feel now where I don’t trust my own body sometimes. Despite being an avid follower of Chirunning, I still get chronic calf/achilles issues. Another round of graston treatment today. Ouch. I think for me the biggest thing is realizing I’m 45, not 25. Can’t ramp up too fast just to keep up with the Joneses.

  8. I’m definitely in the first category. I love racing, but I also want to run a sub-4 marathon. And, surprise, I’m hitting exactly the obstacles you outlined right down to the specificity of “Okay, I’m supposed to be doing an 18-miler that weekend in training for Surf City, but wait, that’s the same day as Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona!

    And guess which choice I made.

    But hey, that RnR medal is awesome.

  9. Thanks for the article, Matt. I am also a victim of Mistake # 2. I have developed a pretty serious case of ITBS this season. My only problem now is that while I’m making an effor to change, I feel like I don’t enjoy running as much b/c I am constantly analyzing my running style. Is my posture good? Is my core engaged? What’s my running cadence at? Chin up, don’t toe in, lean back… it’s like I miss being able to run on auto-pilot. Hopefully when this new style becomes my norm, I can relax a little bit more.

    • I’ve had some of those problems, I’ve found when I turn those “exhortations” into mantras I can monitor my body and maintain good form. One of my favorite ones when it get’s late in the race is “toe up, knee up”, can’t take credit for it, my running coach came up with that one. Maybe turn the reminders into mantras: “engage your core”, “lean forward”, “cadence, cadence, cadence”……all of those help.

  10. These are some great solutions to common mistakes. As someone who has run eight marathons, I tell people my mistakes so they can avoid the errors I ran into. I have a few thoughts to add on these points.

    1. I agree about running too many races can lead to injury. In fact, the body takes 2-3 weeks after a hard marathon effort to fully recover, so races should not be scheduled after hard ones are completed and the body has fully healed. Too often we think that the legs are ready to go after hard races, but the micro tears in the legs need more time to heal.

    2. One of the great ways to avoid injury is to follow the 10% rule: don’t increase your total weekly mileage by more than 10%. Some coaches may let this slide into 15%, but that’s about it. Also, vary the workouts each week. Think about 1-2 easy runs, a track or tempo run, and a long run on the weekend for endurance.

    3. One of the neglected elements of racing is the negative split. Let’s say you want to run a new personal record. This is great, but be realistic about the goal. Also, avoid the crowd energy at the start of the race as you may go out at too quick a pace and crash and burn later. Follow your splits with the race clocks or invest in a GPS watch. If there’s gas in the tank at the halfway point, try to steadily increase the pace so the second half is faster than the first.

    4. Sometimes the plan is sound, but the other variables like the weather get in the way. Also remember that nutrition and hydration are going to become much more vital as the distance increases (half or full marathons). Train with these in mind so your more likely to execute your plan well.

    There’s nothing like staying injury free. At 32 years old, I think about this even now as I would very much like to keep running 30 years from now. I hope you will take a moment to check out my running blog for more running tips and ideas – with a dose of humor.

    Happy running,

    Austin

  11. #1 for sure…but races are just too damn fun!

  12. Realley good post!!! Escpecially for a gymjunkie who dreams about a triathlon and who tries to get her ass away from the dumbells, and more out in the forest..running. No I am going to rethink my strategy! THANKS!

  13. hi been running for about six mths now I do the same route , the times when I started was about 40mins give or take got my time down to about 30-31mins and I just cant get seem to get under the time how can I improve any ideas pls , getting very disheartened .
    thanks chris

Trackbacks

  1. […] 4 Running Mistakes that Keep You Stuck and Frustrated I definitely needed to read this as I start running seriously again! “Almost every runner’s frustrations are the result of the same small handful of mental mistakes.” […]

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