When To Run And When To Rest

How to diagnose and deal with not wanting to run.

By on March 12, 2014 | Comments

As an avid runner, it is really easy to embrace and to thrive on the times when we have a strong and consistent desire to get out the door and go for a run. Sometimes running just seems to come so naturally, and the more we run, the more we want to run. To some degree I think this is what we are all seeking as runners. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of itching to get out the door on a run every day. I have had many long stretches like this in my life, and have taken great satisfaction every time I’m in this mindset.

What about the opposite, though? What about those times when every run seems like a challenge, and just stepping out the door to run for 30 minutes feels nearly impossible? Obviously no runner would seek out these kinds of mindsets, but over time I have come to believe that we can respond in a way that can make these situations a lot better than they otherwise would be.

I think there are different levels of not wanting to go for a run. Sometimes we just have a lot going on, are having a bad day, are very tired for one reason or another, or we’re simply uninspired by our running options in a particular location. In these cases, which I will call ‘shallow disinterest,’ I think the best remedy is to just put on the shoes and force yourself out the door, even if just for 15 or 20 minutes. It’s amazing what a two- or three-mile run can do in these cases. I’m certain I have had at least 100 times in which I’ve felt like I was too tired (physically and/or emotionally) to go for a run, but after forcing myself out the door for a short run, have felt totally energetic and excited within minutes. Sometimes all we are lacking to feel very excited about a run is the quick burst of endorphins.

Contrary to this, though, there are the times of ‘deep disinterest.’ These can be a lot harder to recognize, and even harder to accept. It’s easy to think that if we just get out the door and go for a run that we will feel better for having done so, and over the course of several days we will no longer have these feelings of not wanting to go for a run. Typically this approach works if we are out of shape, and simply don’t want to go for a run because it doesn’t feel good physically. In these times I think it’s important to recognize this, push through a handful of somewhat unenjoyable runs, and in time we will gain the fitness to start enjoying each run a lot more. Usually this will begin to occur in less than a week.

Other times, though, we are experiencing this disinterest not because we are simply out of shape, or not because we are just having a bad day, but because on a much deeper and significant level we need a break from the physical and/or emotional stresses of running. Again, it can be really hard to know when this is the case, but I do feel like over time I have come to understand more and more when this is what I need. I think one of the biggest indicators is if you force yourself out the door for a run and then feel no better, or even worse (physically and/or emotionally) when you finish. With shallow disinterest you will usually feel better for having gotten out the door, whereas with this deep disinterest you will typically feel worse for having done so. I think another indicator is if you notice that your mind and/or body doesn’t feel any better or any more excited about running after you take a rest day, or several rest days. In other words, if you take it easy for a period of time and this doesn’t result in renewed mental and physical energy, then this is almost certainly an indication that you really need to take more time off/easy.

I have been experiencing one of these deeper phases of disinterest for the past few weeks (ever since running the Moab Red Hot 33k), but one thing that I’ve really noticed this time is that I have not been fighting it. I have accepted it for what it is. I would almost go so far as to say that I have embraced it for what it is (an opportunity to rejuvenate my mind and body). This I think is the most important thing to learn to do when encountering one of these phases of deeper disinterest. First, as described above, we need to be able to recognize when this is the case, but more than just recognizing it, we need to learn to be able to accept it and work with it, as opposed to trying to fight it.

In many ways I think my health issues of the past year and half have allowed me a much greater ability to do this. I was essentially forced against my choice to not run for nearly a year. It took me a long time, but eventually I came to accept that reality, and every time I moved closer to this acceptance I noticed that my health (physically and emotionally) would improve measurably in the days and weeks to follow. Now, I feel like I have a much better understanding of when to force myself out the door on a run, and when to stay inside and put my energy into something else. Even more importantly, I feel like I now have a better ability to accept when this is the case, and not look at it as a bad thing.

I’ve gone running three or four times in the last three weeks. For most of my running career I would have looked at this as a bad thing, as though there must clearly be something wrong with me. Now, though, I feel like I have gained a better sense of not seeing an unexpected break like this as a problem, or as a bad thing. I took a few days off after running Red Hot, and when I started running again my body and my mind both seemed to be begging for a longer break. I tried to run through this for a couple days (thinking this was a ‘shallow’ issue), but quickly realized that things were only going to get worse if I tried to run through it. Now a few weeks later, and I can easily see that I have made the right choice to take a little down time. A month or two from now I will be in a much better place than had I been running every day for the past few weeks.

Certainly this can all be hard to recognize and to respond properly to, but I highly recommend that any runner try to pay attention to their body and their mind when they seem disinterested in running. If you track this for awhile you will notice there are times when this is not a big deal, and there are other times when it is a much larger deal. If you can learn to recognize these differences and accept all of it as a necessary (and beneficial) part of your running, you will be greatly increasing your potential as a runner going forward.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Can you tell the difference when you feel ‘shallowly’ or ‘deeply’ disinterested in running? If so, how?
  • When was the last time you felt what Geoff calls a ‘deep disinterest’ in running? Was your response a little rest or did you try to work through it?
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Geoff Roes
Geoff Roes has set numerous ultramarathon course records including the Western States and Wasatch 100 milers. Salomon, Clif, Drymax, Ryders Eyewear, and Atlas Snowshoes all support Geoff's running. You can read more about his running on his blog Fumbling Towards Endurance and join him at his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camps.