How to Improve Your Mindset When Returning to Running

In October 2018, just about a month before Amy Marturana Winderl was set to run her first marathon, the New York City Marathon, she was hit by a car while crossing the street. The accident left her with a small fracture in her left fibula (the bone between the knee and ankle), which led to an unexpected six-month break from running. When she finally came back to the sport, she felt like a complete newbie—and she didn’t like it.

“To have to start back from zero was really disheartening,” says Winderl, who is based in Central New York. “I was back in the place where running just felt like a slog and I knew that it would take a long time to get conditioned enough to finally start enjoying it again.” Winderl admits that running just didn’t feel worth it anymore and before every run, she would just think to herself, well this is going to suck! “It was hard to be positive, and I dreaded every run.”

While it may not be a traumatic event of this level that puts your running career on ice for a time, pretty much every runner has found themselves having to start over at one time or another. News flash: It doesn’t feel good for anyone. I, myself, a ten-time marathoner and avid runner for about 15 years, am now struggling to manage even a couple of miles after a very long break, and it is absolutely maddening! But that’s exactly why you need to give yourself the gift of grace and patience.

 

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Why You Need Time to Ease Back Into Running After a Break

For starters, “your aerobic energy system is very elusive,” says Percell Dugger, a USATF-certified and Nike running coach and certified strength coach. “When you don’t train it over an extended period of time, the gains and the progress that you’ve made with regards to the development of that aerobic system, the strength of your lungs, your cardiovascular system and your respiratory system, they deplete by more than 50 percent after [about] a month of inactivity.”

In other words, “your body isn’t gaslighting you. It’s actually just part of the natural process that it undergoes when someone hasn’t run in upwards of three-plus weeks,” Dugger says of why it might feel so dang hard to get back into the rhythm of running.

While most folks expect to have to overcome physical hurdles, it typically is the mental obstacles that are far more brutal. Here’s why: We often find ourselves focused on the runners we were before we took a hiatus, regardless if it is due to injury, a major life change, or you simply just needed a break from running. (The last one was definitely me!)

“A challenging aspect of returning to a sport or even aging in a sport is the weight society places on one’s best as a defining part of value and identity,” says Stephen Gonzalez, Ph.D., athletics director for Leadership and Mental Performance at Dartmouth College, who recently ran the Pittsburgh Marathon, his first in 11 years.

It’s harder to adapt to having less of something (like our fitness) than it is to having more, he says. “When you know what you are or were capable of doing and you are not there exactly, it is frustrating to question whether you can do it again,” he adds. “We want the safety of knowing we are good and accomplished, but eventually we deviate and fluctuate from our all-time best and that can cause frustration depending on how tied into our identity and self-worth that previous accomplishment was for us.”

For many runners, it takes a lot to let go of our past running selves—at least for the moment—and embrace where we currently are, so that they can rebuild. “It really is a big mental hill to climb and for me, acceptance was huge,” says Winderl. “I almost felt like I went through a grieving process of my old self and my old fitness routine. When I stopped obsessing over getting back to my old running self, and accepted that running would be a different and maybe smaller part of the fitness puzzle than it was previously, I was able to enjoy it a lot more.”

To help you fall back in love with running when you’re returning to the sport, we spoke with a sports psychologist, running coaches, and a mix of runners—pros and everyday ones—to get their tips and tricks for accepting the runner you are now, while working towards the runner you’d like to be in the future.

5 Tips for Strengthening Your Mindset When You Return to Running

Remember Who You Are

And that is a human being, not a human doing, says Gonzalez. “Running is something that you do, but who you are is someone who enjoys challenges, the act of running, and exploring your limits on this day,” he says. “Be dialed into now and what you can do.” Staying present and mindful of each moment is a big part of accepting what you’re capable of doing now that you’re returning to running.

Just Run, But Not Too Fast

Look, it’s going to suck. Now that you’ve got that out of the way, just start running. “While I was not strong in physics, I do know that an object in motion stays in motion,” says Gonzalez. “Sometimes just getting through a first mile is all that is needed to allow the joy of running to return.”

Still, ease into it, he says, trying a run/walk approach first (think rounds of three minutes of running and two minutes of walking). That’s something that Reannah Sartoris, a runner from Trabuco Canyon, California—who took a lengthy break of eight years from running to raise her sons as a single mother while also going back school to get her master’s degree—had to learn. “I was trying to run at my old fast pace, but getting fatigued a lot quicker,” says Sartoris, who also advises joining a running group to help gain a community of support to keep you focused and motivated. “I had to learn to give myself grace in the process and [take it] one step at a time.”

Winderl also found that focusing on what felt good rather than pace was a smart mental strategy. “I’d tell myself, 30 minutes, that’s it, and then I’d run at a pace that felt sustainable, no matter how slow. This helped me remember that running could feel good, and didn’t have to feel really hard to be worth it,” she says. “And then over time, I found I was covering more mileage in those 30 minutes, and noticed that my pace was improving naturally.”

Calibrate Your Expectations

According to Gonzalez, expectations are the belief that one can or should be able to do something. Belief is the key component that makes expectations inspiring and uplifting—or crushing and toxic. So you may be wondering what is reasonable to expect from yourself when you return to running? For starters, visualize and work on intentionally cultivating a confidence in your capabilities, says Gonzalez.

Part of that means being able to see progress, no matter how small. “You have to be really happy with the small steps,” says five-time All-American Alli Cash, a pro runner for Asics and volunteer assistant coach for the University of Washington. “You can’t get too far ahead of yourself. You can’t think about future you or comparing yourself to prior you or at-your-best you because that is not where your current feet are. It’s super important to be where you’re at.”

Cash, who broke a bone in her foot which led to an invasive surgery, a screw in her foot, and a six-month hiatus from running, says that’s easier said than done. “You have to find so much joy in the process of getting better. I remember being able to run again. I was so stoked. I didn’t care what pace I was running. Slowly you get back into the mindset and plot how you will inch back,” she says.

“Being a runner is about being very centered in the present and not projecting or spending too much energy about creating anxiety or stress about the future,” Dugger adds.

Accept the Ups and Downs

“Running is not linear and progress isn’t linear,” says Makenna Myler, a pro runner with Asics, who also ran a 5:17 mile while nine months pregnant. A lot of times we think success and even failure are linear, like I’m failing and I am going to be failing forever. But when you can take success and failure out and focus on the process instead, there is a lot more joy in it and you aren’t constantly comparing—to your former self or to others.

Myler also reminds us that “you don’t have to be the same person; you can create something new. And as you work your way through [training], if you constantly find markers and ways in which you get to win, then you can constantly build your wins,” and that leads to even bigger gains, she says. For example, maybe you switch your goals from pace-specific to consistency-based, like running three days a week. Every time you hit that goal, you celebrate the consistency and the fact that you’re building your endurance.

Throughout the process of getting better and accepting the highs and lows as they come, it’s also important to remain hopeful. That was key for LiAnn Anderson, a resident of Lake Forest, California who was diagnosed with a severe case of COVID—she was in the ICU for a week and has permanent scarring to her lungs—while eight months pregnant in spring of 2020 and, subsequently, sidelined until fall of 2020. “I kept telling myself that I will get back there someday,” she says, which helped and continues to help her get through every single run. “It may be hard, but if you want it, you can get it,” she says.

Know You Have to Put in the Work Each Days

“When I watch athletes experience disappointment or get frustrated, I always ask: ‘Just because you showed up today and worked hard, does that entitle you to be successful?’” says Gonzalez. “The answer is no, so overreacting to that is showing entitlement. Recognize that you have to earn the goals you have, but you also might have to adjust them.”

It’s completely normal to set and reset goals as you move through your running journey, whether you have your sights set on a race or run for your health. So try to avoid getting frustrated if you’re constantly adjusting your objectives. (Remembering the importance of the process will come in handy here too!)

Ultimately, as you make your way back to running, one thing is for sure, “your most important workout is today,” says Dugger. “You have to show up and earn success today,” adds Gonzalez.

Today is what matters. The past and the future can take a sideline spot while you focus on the now.

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Rozalynn S Frazier is an award-winning, multimedia journalist, and certified personal trainer living in New York City. She has created content for SELF, Health, Essence, Runner’s World, Money, Reebok, Livestrong, and others.

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