What Happens When a Lifelong Runner Stops Loving the Sport?

“I got out there, but each day I tried to run, I found myself taking more frequent walk breaks and stopping before I reached my destination.” (Getty Images)

I can barely remember life before running. I was a track and field athlete in high school and college, and a marathon coach for a charity organization after that. For more than 30 years, I’ve spent my weekends socializing over long training runs or post-race beers, and my vacations tackling races in far-off locations. I even once squeezed in a marathon during a work conference. I was the friend who ran to meet you at a restaurant and the mom who ran around the soccer field as her kids warmed up for their games. I loved all of it, from the soreness in my legs after a hard workout to the thrill of ticking off another mile on a long run.

Then, one day, I stopped. I had lost interest in signing up for races, and meeting new time or distance goals. I struggled to find the joy in running. I had lost the motivation to do the one thing I had loved for most of my life. In a way, I had lost my identity. Most troubling, I didn’t know why.

Maybe it was a mid-life crisis, but I was pretty secure in my age, accomplishments and progress toward my life goals. I knew it wasn’t depression because I still enjoyed the rest of my life and stayed active in other ways. Sure, my running partner had moved away, I had an injury that sidelined me for four months and I was busier at work, but all of those barriers – and more – had gotten in the way before, and I had made epic comebacks. I’d moved across country three times, endured an ACL reconstruction, fractured my ankle, given birth to two kids and earned a promotion. Each time, I adjusted my priorities and kept running. I’d even trained for a marathon after an ACL surgery and, though it wasn’t easy, I enjoyed all of it. But this time, it was something else: I just flat out didn’t want to run.

So I did what most Type A American women would do: I persevered. I scheduled runs into my calendar and brought running gear with me wherever I went. I got out there, but each day I tried to run, I found myself taking more frequent walk breaks and stopping before I reached my destination. I tried changing my playlist, signing up for races and giving myself lots of pep talks. “Just get out there,” I’d say, “you’ll feel better after it’s done.” I went to local running meetups, planned times to run with friends, bought new gear and tried new routes. I tried reading books and watching movies about running. I even looked at old photos of me completing races. It just made me sad. Nothing worked.

So I did what any good scientist would do: I researched. I wanted to understand what causes a slump. What drives our motivation or our preferences? Is it how we feel while we are doing it, or is it the process of achieving a goal? Do we like ourselves more when we are done? Is it a means to connect with ourselves or others on a different level?

My research revealed that I needed to engage both my rational and subconscious mind to overcome this type of challenge. In other words, I needed to sit down and set realistic goals for where I was now, but I also had to reflect and understand what was keeping me from moving past these barriers. Well, duh. After all of that research, I came to this riveting conclusion: I was overthinking it.

As a mother, this realization reminded me of parenting. Yes, we need to be intentional and reflective when raising children, but trying to control every moment is futile. Maybe this phase was something that would pass, like temper tantrums. Maybe I should take the advice I’d give my kids in the same situation: Have fun!

Ultimately, that’s what I did. I made a pact with myself to make running fun again. I decided to put my shoes on and take it one step at a time. I stopped thinking about why I wasn’t running and focused on other things I like, like Pilates and swimming. For several weeks, I didn’t feel guilty about not running and I allowed myself to enjoy and be present for other activities. I shifted my mindset from being angry and disappointed with myself for not running to being proud of myself for completing different kinds of workouts. And just like that, running came back into my life.

The game-changer was helping my son, who was never a runner himself, complete his dry land workouts for swim team. It was a task he hated, but needed to do. So I went with him for what were very easy runs for me, but huge challenges for him. We got out there each day, repeating the mantra, “It doesn’t have to be perfect, you just have to do your best.” Helping him achieve his goal brought me back to loving running because it allowed me to connect with my son. We had some great talks while I was trying to distract him from the task at hand, and we also celebrated together by buying new running gear when he met new milestones.

Falling back in love with running meant sharing it with someone else. Being in a teaching or coaching role allowed me to remember everything I loved about running in the first place. Training with a novice helped me experience the joys of running through someone else. Each new mile was a personal best, and each additional hill was a lifetime first. We even completed a local 5K race together – something he’d never done before. I now look forward to running, and on those days when I’m just not feeling it, I don’t stress out because I know the joy is still there, hiding. I just need to encourage it to come out.

Skye Donovan, Contributor

Skye Donovan, PT, PhD, is a certified specialist in orthopedic physical therapy who began writi…  Read moreSkye Donovan, PT, PhD, is a certified specialist in orthopedic physical therapy who began writing about fitness and other wellness topics for U.S. News in 2015. She is the program director for Marymount University’s physical therapy department, where she also serves as an associate professor. Her areas of practice include orthopedics and sports medicine. A member of the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), Skye has a very active research agenda focused on obesity prevention and outcomes following orthopedic surgeries. She presents her research at national meetings, such as those of the APTA, ACSM and the Arthroscopy Association of North America. She also publishes in a variety of peer-reviewed rehabilitation and health-care management journals. Skye is also a mother of two active young boys who has ushered thousands of athletes across half-marathon and marathon finish lines in her role as a volunteer coach for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program. You can follow her on Twitter at @JSkyeDonovan.

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