When you’re on fire, you know it.
Running is all you can think about. You plan your meals, sleep, and social life around your workouts, and although those runs may be tough, they’re the best part of your day.
After each one, you feel unstoppable, and you can’t wait until tomorrow, so you can do it all again.
When you’re not on fire? When you’re not living for each run?
Well, that’s when running is hard. I’m talking really hard. It feels forced, and you know deep down that even if it looks like you’re running, you’re really just going through the motions.
As a runner, this is a dark place to be in. Not because a few bad runs are a big deal, but because as soon as running is no longer fun, it’s no longer productive. You get into a training funk, where workouts aren’t where they should be, and your mental game isn’t on point.
Runs get skipped. Workouts knocked down a notch. And race day disappoints (if you even make it to race day).
And though you may give yourself a pat on the back after you grind out a workout, you can’t help but remember all the times when you didn’t need to fight for each run — when you ran because running was all you wanted to do.
8 Ways to Break Out of Your Running Funk
Let me start by saying, “it’s okay.”
It’s okay to get in a rut like this. It doesn’t mean you don’t still love running. It doesn’t mean you can’t go on to achieve great running goals. It just means you’re in a rut, plain and simple.
And thankfully, ruts end.
I’m on the other side of a nearly year-long rut, and when I say that was discouraging and tough to deal with, I mean it. Running has been my life for a long, long time. And when I found myself no longer wanting to do it, it was like I had lost a piece of my identity.
When you’re in a funk that deep, quick tricks or hacks — like listening to a podcast or testing out a new pair of shoes — just don’t cut it.
So I made some pretty drastic changes to the way I trained, and how I viewed my running.
Matt has been in that same boat before, and together we’ve come up with eight ways to break free of the funk.
If you’re having trouble getting yourself to run, no matter if it’s because of the winter weather or it’s inside your head, we know the feeling. Here are actual solutions that have worked for us in the past, and can work for you today.
1. Have a goal that’s bigger than any one race. (Matt’s Tip)
There’s something to be said for living in the moment — savoring the joy of achieving one goal before you look ahead to the next.
But so many times now, I’ve made the mistake of finishing a race and then finding myself goal-less when it comes to running. This mistake never fails to result in a period of prolonged laziness.
I’m not saying that as soon as you cross the finish line of your half marathon, you need to start training for the next. What I suggest, instead, is that you have a bigger, longer-term goal to do the work of keeping you motivated.
So maybe your long-term goal is to run a marathon. When you finish your half, go ahead and celebrate it with a massive champagne battle in a locker room covered in plastic wrap … but because you know your half was just a stepping stone to the bigger goal of a full, you won’t be tempted to take three weeks off.
Which easily becomes three months. Trust me, I’ve done it.
2. Change the structure. (Doug’s Tip)
Training plans tend to follow a specific structure: Long run on the weekends, a workout or two mid-week, and a few recovery runs. Throw in 1-2 days off and the week is over.
When you’ve followed a plan like that for any period of time, it begins to feel like that’s the only way to maintain your fitness. And when that structure breaks down for any reason, motivation breaks down along with it.
This is what happened to me after having our baby. For awhile, I no longer had the time (or energy) to get out for my daily run. The structure collapsed, motivation collapsed, and the few runs I did get in felt useless.
So I sat down and reworked a plan far different than the normal structure: Three runs per week, two long and one fast. That simple shift worked for my schedule, and my attitude immediately shifted.
Sure, there may be optimal training schedules for certain distances, but rarely is your life in an optimal place for training. Allow yourself to break free of that structure, and look at running and training as more of a fluid cycle than a rigid plan.
3. Track it. (Matt’s Tip)
When it comes to goals and routines, you’ll see a lot of benefits from tracking your results. Running is no exception — tracking helps reinforce the habit, especially when you’re trying to get back into it.
An interesting method of tracking I learned from Leo of Zen Habits is that of simply marking down a “1” when you run, and a “0” when you don’t. It’s a lot less intimidating to put together a string of 1’s than it is to have to write down every detail of every workout, especially when I’d be writing down paces that I would have scoffed at when I was in peak shape a few years ago.
Meticulous tracking has its place, sure, but if writing down “1 mile warmup, 8 X 400m at 1:30, 1 mile cooldown” isn’t doing it for you right now, try 1’s and 0’s.
4. Stop running. (Doug’s Tip)
That’s right, I said it.
NMA’s resident running coach just gave you the thumbs-up to stop running.
Because sometimes the best thing a runner can do is to not just run less, but stop running altogether.
Even many of the world’s best runners take weeks or months off during the off-season to allow the body and mind to rest. It’s like hitting the reset button, and after several weeks of little to no miles, your legs will almost certainly be itching to hit the road or trail.
And just because you’re not running doesn’t mean you can’t do other fun activities. In fact, this is the perfect opportunity to try out a different sport or cross-training. You could:
- Focus on full-body strength.
- Join a yoga studio.
- Take up disc golf (my go-to these days…).
- Dust off the bike.
- Try CrossFit.
Or any other activity that you’ve been meaning to try, but haven’t had the time for because of running.
Or maybe… just maybe…
Spend a few weeks watching movies and taking naps.
5. Set a 4- to 6-week training challenge for something wildly specific. (Doug’s Tip)
I’m a challenge guy. Mini-goals within the context of a larger goal are big motivators for me to get out and push when I wouldn’t otherwise.
With a little structure, those mini-goals can end up propelling you towards the larger race or training goal.
For example, after a tough race experience where the hills beat me up, I took on a 4-week vertical gain challenge.
I’ve used run streaks, speed workouts, and strength exercise challenges all to keep me motivated and improving.
To set up a challenge like this, think of something that will be both fun and work on a weakness of yours. Maybe it’s consistency (run streak), climbing (vertical gain), or speed.
Once you have the goal, be specific when designing the challenge. Establish parameters and rules that provide structure you can apply to your training, and that will help keep you in check.
6. Train with a friend. (Matt’s Tip)
You always hear that it’s great to work out with a partner. They’ll keep you accountable, so the advice goes.
If you’re an introvert like I am, you’ve probably brushed it off and said to yourself, “That’s not for me; I motivate myself just fine, thanks.”
But if your running has stalled, make an exception and give it a shot. I’m not talking about running every single run with someone else, but establish a standing weekend long-run group, or an early morning outing once or twice per week with a friend.
Knowing that someone is getting up just like you — even if they’re just as cranky when they arrive — can make all the difference.
7. Change what running means to you. (Matt’s Tip)
When running came easy to you, it was because it meant something important.
Maybe that was a huge goal of losing weight, and now you’ve lost it. Or maybe it was running a certain distance, and now you’ve done it.
If it isn’t going so well now, look at what running means to you. If it still means weight loss, and weight loss doesn’t motivate you anymore, you need to find another reason to run.
Instead of the old motivator, make it about breaking 20 minutes in a 5K. Or being in shape to keep up with your kids.
Or make it about something that has nothing to do with fitness — make running your uninterrupted time each day to meditate, or to brainstorm, or to spend 15 minutes thinking of everything in your life that you’re grateful for.
When you see it in a new light, it’s amazing how completely different you feel, even during the run itself.
8. Become a different type of runner. (Doug’s Tip)
We runners tend to get set in our ways. We figure out what works for us, and stick to it. We get comfortable.
And comfortable is a motivation killer if I’ve ever heard of one. What likely drove you to running to begin with was some wildly inspiring, wildly uncomfortable goal.
So what if you flipped it and reversed it?
… Do you typically run marathons? Try truly training for a speedy 10K instead.
… Do you typically run roads? Commit to weekly long runs on the trail.
… Do you avoid the track at all costs? That’s right, train for a wicked fast 400m or track mile.
… Haven’t run an ultramarathon? Maybe now’s the time.
You can always go back to what’s comfortable, and you’ll likely be a better runner for it.
Taking Small Steps Out of Your Slump
The suggestions above are big — some very big — changes to the way you train or think about running. It’s those big changes that will likely have the strongest impact on pulling you out of a running slump in the long term.
But sometimes the first step towards a big shift is actually a small one. The tiniest acts — even just five minutes — could be what kicks off a comeback. Each time you take one of these steps, you’ll be grooving the habit deeper and increasing your desire to do it again.
So take one or two of the big actions above and start to work on it, but instead of going all in today, take your time. Start with just a few minutes of running today, and a few more tomorrow. When the time feels right to jump in with a larger strategy, you’ll know what to do.