When we train our bodies as runners we generally try to follow a pattern of steady growth. There are always ups and downs, but generally over the course of weeks, months, and on into years we find ourselves hoping to become steadily more and more capable as runners. There are of course age limitations to this, and eventually even the most perfectly trained athlete will slow down as they age beyond a certain point, but up until that point we spend a huge amount of our energy as runners training our bodies and minds to keep growing. Despite this persistent goal though, the reality seems to be that virtually everyone has some serious bumps along this path. In some cases it’s injury or illness, in others it’s life commitments (family, job, etc), and in many it’s as simple as lost motivation or a shift in priorities. Whatever the cause, nearly everyone who identifies themselves as a runner comes up against time(s) when this path of steady growth is significantly derailed.
In virtually all of these circumstances it’s challenging to get back on the path of steady growth. Many people decide they don’t want to or that they don’t think they can. Others attempting a “comeback” succumb to some of the same challenges that set them off track in the first place and simply give up, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Some people decide that they just don’t want to run again, but it seems like more people want to, but decide that they can’t. In some cases this is certainly true, but more often than not I think these runners are set up in a perfect position to run stronger and wiser than ever. I’ll attempt here to briefly explain why, and perhaps a few of you can find motivation in this perspective.
I have been through this entire process before. I began running in junior high school and followed the path of steady growth for about six years. When injuries put my running on hold after three semesters of college I lost interest in the sport and began a period of almost 10 years in which I ran very little. Then, inexplicably, in 2005 I began to get the running bug again. After not running for nearly 10 years I had all kinds of hunger, my body felt like it was just waiting for the day it would be tested in that manner again. I never thought I would run at the level that I did back in school, but with all the things I learned in that 10 years of not running now on my side (not to mention 10 years of “rest”), I was set up perfectly to run much stronger and wiser than I ever did in the past. I came out of the gate running, and for nearly seven years I was on the steady growth train once again.
Toward the end of this past summer though, all this came crashing down in the form of severe health problems, and I have been on fewer than a half dozen runs in the past five months. I once again find myself going through this cyclical process. I am faced again with all the same questions. Do I want to get back on the steady growth path? Will my body allow me to? What do I need to do differently to stay on this path as long as possible going forward?
It’s not possible to definitively know the answer to any of these questions, but what I have learned from going through this process once before is that getting back on track will almost certainly require a major shift in the way I approach running. When I began running again in 2005 it wasn’t possible for me to run the way I did back in high school. At least not for any length of time. I actually tried for a year or two and then realized that it just wasn’t effective or sustainable. When I figured this out and began to run in a way that made sense for my 30-year-old self, and not my 17-year-old self, I began almost instantly to put in running efforts far beyond anything I ever imagined I could get out of my body.
Right now I don’t know when I will make a serious attempt to start back on this path, but based on the improvements in my health in the past month it will quite likely be sometime in the next few months. I know that I will need to take things very slowly at first, but I also know that once I do start to get my fitness back and begin to run on a more regular basis (possibly as soon as April or May, but maybe not for several more months) I will need to do some things very differently than I have in the past. Rather, not that I will have to, but that I will want to, and my experiences these last five months will be the thing that will give me the wisdom and patience to do so.
To me this is all a terribly exciting thing, and the entire reason I’m writing this article. I think that any major setback in our running is an opportunity to learn how to run in a different and more effective way. There is no exact “right” way to run, and because of this there is always something we could be doing to be better runners. When we’re on the path of steady growth we often become complacent and unaware (with reason) of this reality. When we get derailed from this path though, we are forced to step back, regain our bearings, and come back with a new and fresh approach. In this sense any major setback in our running is an opportunity to become a better runner. Often times the things which cause these setbacks teach us a lot more about running than smooth and steady stretches of running ever could.
I don’t say all of this in a cup is half full, blatant optimist (something I am often accused of) kind of way. I’m not writing to urge people who have been derailed in their running to push ahead and try to make the best of a bad situation, but rather to show people that it might not be a bad situation at all. Cup half empty or cup half full might not be the only options. The cup might instead be all the way full.
Of course this can all be hard to believe when you are in the midst of derailment, but I know for certain that my 10 years not running after college made me a better runner the past seven years than I ever would have been otherwise, just as I am expecting that my time away from running right now will make me a better runner in the future than I would have been without this experience. What exactly this will look like I have no idea, just that my best running days are ahead of me, and so too may be yours, even if you feel totally derailed right now – or rather, especially if you feel totally derailed right now!