Getting Back on the Roller Coaster: A Return to Running

I often compare the journey of running to a roller coaster. Lots of twists and turns, ups and downs. And some time periods of running are like those big, giant roller coasters – the ones where you have to make sure you don’t eat a full funnel cake before getting on. Others are maybe more mild, like the kiddy coasters. Maybe a few dips here and there but nothing that will make you scream out loud. 

For a lot of people, I think 2020 was one of those big coasters. Except, maybe we can add that after all the twists and loops, no one really had any idea when the ride would end or what was coming next! For me personally, I found some big highs at the beginning of the past year and then just a big drop. And that big drop ended up being a break from running. It started with just a week off after a hard 5k time trial. Then another week. Before I knew it, I had barely run for 4 months. I wasn’t injured, I just couldn’t find the motivation to lace up and get out the door. I felt guilty at times but ultimately, I kind of just went with it. Instead, I focused on a return to work, focused on juggling a busy schedule, and was quite content. The coaster was just kind of chugging along. Then, it started to climb. 

Right around the end of December, I started to feel a bit of an urge to get back to running and, if I could, get back to some sort of regular training routine. Maybe even tackle an upcoming virtual race. As we entered the new year, I began again, one foot in front of the other. But as I continue to return to running, I am trying to keep in mind some important tips and lessons that I have learned in the past. 

(Please keep in mind that I am not a professional runner or a medical professional, all advice is from my own experience).

Ditch the numbers, run by effort

I love my Garmin watch. But in the past, I had become a slave to the numbers that would flash on that screen. What was my pace?? Why am I so much slower than I was before? Focusing on pace at this point of a return can be much more detrimental than helpful. Instead, focus on effort. Remind yourself to run easy and to focus on your breathing. If you are injecting some speed into your runs, focus on running hard – without a pace in mind. The goal at this point is simply to be consistent. Some wonderful workouts to train yourself to focus on effort instead of pace are fartleks and strides. Run hard for a particular distance or until, for example, you hit the next tree, and then slow it back down. Rinse and repeat. Do this maybe 4-6 times and gradually, your legs and mind will start to go “oh yeah! I can do this!”

Start where you are, accept it, and progress gradually

Of course, numbers do creep in and when you see how tough it was to run the same distance you had just done with ease before your break, it can be very discouraging. But start where you are not where you want to be. I would even add to this, don’t start where you were. It may be tempting to try to pick up where you left off but remember, you may not be the runner that you were before your break, but maybe you’re on your way to becoming an even better one. 

As you do start to increase the distance or paces that you are running. Do so gradually! Again, start where you are and grow from there. Remember to keep expectations realistic to avoid discouragement from creeping in.

Rock a routine and get a goal

Finding a routine that works for you is important. And it may be quite different from what you did in the past. This is okay! Things change. The point is to find your new routine and try your best to be consistent and stick with it. I have found that trying to run in the mornings has been best for my new schedule, but I try my best to keep the same routine each night and morning. Make sure running clothes are laid out, coffee is set up (we have ours on a timer), shoes and other winter gear is by the door. The less you have to think about, the easier it is to just go with the routine. 

Just as you set a routine, it may be a worthwhile step on your comeback journey to set a goal. The important thing is to keep these goals realistic and achievable. A good idea is to establish A, B, and C goals. Goal A may be a loftier goal, Goal B may be achievable but still lofty enough to make you raise your eyebrows, and Goal C may be the one that has you nodding your head going “okay, yeah”. Having these tiered goals is a great way to still establish moonshot type goals while still keeping things attainable. 

Don’t compare

Finally, and this is one particular tip that I very often fail at: Do not compare yourself or your running journey to anyone else. Social media is a wonderful thing and it can connect so many of us and our stories. But when you start to compare yourself to someone else and think, “Why can’t I do that?” then you are not giving yourself the credit that you deserve. Remember: start where you are. Your starting point is vastly different from someone else’s. And when your journey doesn’t exactly follow another person’s, that is okay! It does not make you a lesser runner or less of an athlete. You are simply on your own path, and whatever path that may be is your own to take.

If running and roller coasters are similar, then I am wishing all of you the happiest ride of your lives because despite the ups and downs, twists and turns, I think I would no doubt get on this ride over and over again. I hope that you will too, even if you’re like me and you’re just starting to get on for another go-round.