Running When You “Shouldn’t”

On Monday of last week, I awoke at 3 a.m., bundled up in my running clothes, turned on my headlamp, and was running on the streets of Silverton, Colorado where I live by 3:13. On less than four hours of sleep, the brutally early (for me) run was admittedly awful. It was just half an hour of cold, dark road running ahead of a day and a half of travel. Later that day, a good friend questioned whether it would have been better to just get some more sleep. Hmn….

In any technical sense, she was correct. This was a crappy run with little-to-no training effect cutting into an already paltry night of sleep. Ahead of me, I had four exhausting flights with none long enough to give me anything more than an extended nap, thereby guaranteeing I’d arrive on the island of Gran Canaria where I was headed to cover Transgrancanaria even more depleted and with a daunting work schedule over the coming five days. Yeah, missing the better part of an hour of precious sleep was ill-advised, except that it wasn’t.

Sometimes running when you “shouldn’t,” might just be the right thing for you. Here are a few reasons why.

Silverton night run

The snowy early morning run in question.

Momentum

More than three years ago, I committed to running every day. I’d not intended to make anything of it other than to build short-term training momentum after a year dominated with a great deal of work and work travel that far overshadowed my own running. As 2018 rolled around, the fledging running streak yielded more benefits than I could have imagined, particularly when it came time for race-coverage work travel. Too often in the past, I’d skip running altogether on travel days, if I was exhausted in the days after travel, when I was overwhelmed with work volume on (as well as before and after) those trips, and on the day(s) I covered the actual races. That could mean on a typical 9-to-10-day international-race-coverage trip, I might miss nearly as many days of running as the trip.

Well, since committing to running every day,* that’s exactly what I’ve done. Assuredly, there are plenty of “meh” 20-to-30-minute runs of little individual training benefit** and even the occasional 10-minute “streak keeper” run. However, this past week shows the potential upside benefits. So, I had that lame Monday run, but I did it. After arriving on Gran Canaria last Tuesday, I plodded through a rough 5 miler that, again, I might have been “better off skipping.” Wednesday, I made it out again. The run again started pretty poorly, but I felt better as the run progressed and stuck out a 10-mile run that was actually pretty smooth and enjoyable by the end. Hmn… that’s sort of like a real training run. On Thursday, I hit my hotel’s breakfast when it opened at 7 a.m. before a strong 27-mile effort. That’s definitely training!

Step by step, each run was a bit longer and a bit better than the previous. A progression that I don’t think would have happened but for putting in the previous run. I certainly wouldn’t have gone out for a four-hour run had I not had a decent run ahead of it. If I’d followed my “should of” schedule, I’d guess my Monday to Thursday would have looked like 0, 0, 3, and 5 miles or maybe 0, 0, 5, and 7 miles. In the end, I ended up with a solid-enough training week three weeks out from running the White Mountains 100 Mile later this month. I’ll take it.

Gran Canaria long run

The sun climbing above the canyon wall during the successful long run.

Grit

Of course, there’s then the benefits of building a little mental muscle, both in getting out the door and in continuing when the going is uncomfortable. Although I was fully committed to getting out the door ahead of travel last Monday, it was still less than pleasant, as was the run itself. Both before and during, I could and did consciously acknowledge that discomfort and continue on despite it. I did the same while getting through Tuesday’s run after more than a day of travel. The same goes for the early miles on Wednesday. I love me some joyous runs and, indeed, a not-insignificant reason for my training is so that I have more such runs, but it’s handy to be able to train… and race when things aren’t pleasant, comfortable, or enjoyable. (Search for AJW and grit, for plenty more on the subject.)

Buy-In

In addition to physical gains and building mental skills, I personally feel like logging training runs at times, in circumstances, or in conditions that aren’t ideal–and consciously noting that you’ve done so–results in tangible commitment or buy-in. Whereas grit can remind you “I can do this again,” past commitment can remind yourself  that “I did THAT, so I’m sure as heck going to do THIS,” whether THIS is a future difficult training outing or, more importantly, a challenging moment in an important race or adventure for which you logged that previous less-than-fun outing.

Call for Comments

When have you found value in getting in runs when maybe you “shouldn’t” have? What value did you get out of them?

Ps. from Daily Life

On Sunday and knowing I was busy with race coverage and travel, iRunFar’s wonderful managing editor let me know that she had a substitute article lined up in my column’s stead for today. I was psyched to hear this and tentatively accepted the offer, as I was exhausted from Transgrancanaria race coverage and had plenty of work and travel between that moment and when I’d need to get her a draft of a possible article for my column this week. Well, for the very same reasons that I slogged through those runs last week–momentum, grit, and buy-in–I exhaustedly wrote this article amidst travel on Monday and edited it on a layover on Tuesday. And I’m glad I did. :-)

* What the last 20 years have taught me is that there is always some time to run in a day, whether it’s at 3:15 a.m. before work travel, a 12:15 a.m. study break while working full-time through law school, or even in an airport terminal during an international layover. On top of that, there’s almost always some time in a week to get in one or two more substantive runs, whether that’s one hour or four.

** Of course, 20 such 30-minute runs in a year do add up to 10 hours–or roughly a week of normal training–over the course of a year. This is easily the case for me in any given year.

There are 17 comments

  1. Avery Frantz

    Bryon, it’s such great timing to read this article. I did the same thing as you starting on Jan 3, 2019. I wanted to break out of the weight gain, training lull of the winter and use the momentum of a run streak to prepare for the Zion 100k. The longest streak I had before that was a 90 day streak so my first goal was to beat that. Once that was done, I ran all the way up to Zion…lo and behold, I had the best race of my short racing career just missing the podium by finishing 4th. The next day my wife wanted to go out for a run and I thought why not give a little shuffle a try. Fast forward to the summer when I moved continents from Mexico to Belgium, I, too, would find a 3am or late night way of continuing the streak. As of today, I hit day 434 and everything you mentioned in your article rings true. I feel a deep connection to this streak and it holds a very high value to me. The mental strength this has given me is practically immeasurable. No matter how blah I feel on a particular run, I know deep down that I can grind through anything and the extra physical capacity these extra runs has given me has catapulted me into having much stronger long training runs than the past. Hear! Hear! to the run streak and all that it can give you!!!

  2. Travis

    I think the real comment to dig into here is 20-30 minutes a day and that you didn’t say 10-15 miles day. In my time in the ultrarunning scene (15+ years) it is far easier to keep track of the people still doing it vs the ones that jumped in tried to repeatedly do massive workloads and then either mentally or physically burnt out. This sport is excessive. “Ultra” is right in the name. I agree 100% that consistency is key. Give me 50-60 varied terrain miles with some vert every week for months on end vs 80+ mile weeks that I can’t ever quite recover from. Everyone is different in terms of tolerance but rest is where gains are made. No one ever finished a race and said “I should have prioritized sleep more throughout my training cycle”, but science says that is absolutely an overlooked part of recovery by most. Ultimately it does takes work, grit, mental buy-in, and momentum,to do big things. But I’d argue “finding the right balance” should be in that list too.

  3. John Vanderpot

    I assume the footprints in the first photo are yours since, let’s face it, who else would be out there?

    They suggest a real shuffle, nice work!

  4. Ric Moxley

    I’m all for streaks, but I do feel there is a need for one caveat, based on personal experience. When I choose to run no matter what, even if I’m physically or mentally at half mast, it’s wise to choose a route that is a little less technical, one that doesn’t require me to be in fine form to be safe.

    When I think back upon the times I’ve had an accident/injury on the trail, it was usually when I was soggy-brained from being short of sleep or recovering from a sickness (like that wrist-fracturing trail run I did back in October on slippery rock that would’ve posed no threat if I had been mentally on point). So, nowadays, I might choose a dirt-road run, rather than a technical trail, if I feel like my head or body isn’t fully in the game.

  5. Brian Haviland

    You’ll be on auto-pilot when it comes time to leave the warm cabin behind and head back out into the cold, dark night of the White Mountains.

  6. Jonathan Gardner

    I agree with the idea of a streak to build momentum for somebody struggling for consistency, but sooner or later there will be runs that you do that will be *only* about the streak. At that point, maybe, like Cal Ripken Jr on Sept. 20, 1998, sit one out.

  7. Bryan Page

    Hey Bryon just wondering if you are going to do an article on coronavirus and ultrarunning?
    I have a couple big races planned and I am wondering if they may be cancelled or if they plan on having different aid station protocol.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Hi Bryan,
      We will have a science-focused article on Covid19 and running. We don’t have any sort of article planned rounding up postponed or canceled races or ones that have issued guidance on changes to protocols or provided updates on future decisions. In those cases, simply check in with each race’s website and social media channels.

  8. Bryan Page

    Thanks Bryon! I always look to irunfar for the best news and guidance on everything ultrarun ing. After the NBA suspended play yesterday, I knew everything was on the table. I respect you guys at irunfar so much that I am looking for your guidance and information during this crazy time

  9. Irrelevant Runningjesus

    Grit? Injury? Lack of sleep? Sounds like you are addicted to drug more than any benefit of running itself. Sad you and dumb, very dumb.

    1. Bryon Powell

      Hi IRJ,
      I’m sorry that you’ve chosen to respond in such a disrespectful and unproductive manner. I hope you’ll considering engaging with me, iRunFar, and, indeed, any other medium in a more appropriate manner in the future.

      As for being addicted to running, while that can certainly be a problem in our community, that’s not a problem I’ve had at any point in my life. Indeed, I started my streak and built other tools to encourage my running as work, life, and all it entails sooner have me running just a few miles a few days a week to the detriment of my long term happiness and health.

      Building some grit’s not a bad thing.

      Not sure where you get running through injury? Sometimes limited running is warranted during an injury, sometimes it isn’t.

      Sometimes running with a lack of sleep isn’t a bad thing. I spent too many years getting too little sleep and have corrected that over the past few years. I wouldn’t go chronically under slept again. Heck no. But a night or two of less than ideal sleep on occasion might just be fine… even if I prefer the glorious nine hours of sleep I got last night.

      Respectfully,
      Bryon

  10. Jim Killingbeck

    Thank you for a very well written and timely article, Bryon. During this time of uncertainty amid fears of COVID 19, the intangible values of running are more important than ever. Most days the therapeutic value of a run to collect your thoughts and detach from the grind is exactly what we need.

  11. Michael Hall

    I have committed to a daily run streak every so often for the past 10 or so years (in my mind only). Your use of the terms grit and streak breaker were epiphanous. It reminds me of something a long lost friend once said, “When I move the desire to do better from my head to my heart, I get results”. Bryon thank you for helping me move this goal of a daily run from my head to my heart.

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