What’s Stopping You? Excuses vs. Barriers in Running

I spend a lot of my day interacting with runners. It’s rewarding because it highlights how diverse we are, coming to the sport from different backgrounds, for different reasons, with different goals. At the same time, I see similarities between us, beyond stories of epic races, favourite shoes and disgusting gels. I gotta say: we’re consistently hard on ourselves. 

Diagnosis: analysis paralysis

There’s an old trope about a runner mentioning a recent race to non-runners. The reactions are something like, “Wow! I don’t even run for the bus!” The runner then downplays their achievements: “It was just a 10k!” “Yeah, but I missed my goal.” “It wasn’t that big a deal.”

When it comes to justifying a less-than-desired performance to ourselves and other runners, though, it becomes a big deal. Every possible angle gets explored. Did we eat the wrong food? Maybe we went in dehydrated or over-trained. The temperature was hotter than ideal- that definitely contributed. Was it hormones? It was hormones, wasn’t it. They suck.

I appreciate honest recaps but, now in my 13th year of running, I know that some runs are terrible. There isn’t a single definable reason. However, I’m not immune to over-interpretation; I understand the desire to analyze and control the uncontrollable. What I feel when I read tales of races-gone-wrong, miserable long runs and life getting in the way, is empathy. What has never once crossed my mind is that someone who falls short of their objective or needs time off is somehow a lesser runner, just “didn’t want it enough” or is downplaying their performance with a questionable excuse.

On that note, let’s talk about excuses.

Online motivational fodder loves confronting excuses. asking “What’s your excuse?” or just a simple “No excuses!” usually posted over a photo of someone climbing a mountain. Success boils down to who craves it most, who can hit the “override” button hardest. Among the things I’ve seen labeled as “excuses”: unsafe weather conditions, severe menstrual cramps, mental illness, all types of physical ailments (including the “oh my god I had it coming out both ends” varieties), children, being out of shape, lengthy work hours, and just plain-ol’ needing a rest day. 

The more I connect with people trying- in many  cases, repeatedly, with setbacks – to cement running into their lives, the more I dislike the idea of excuses. It’s a loaded word, only fractionally away from another loaded, moralizing word: lazy. I don’t believe there’s nothing that counts as an excuse (as I write this, the only running I’m planning to do today is to run home and watch approximately 13 hours of Stranger Things). It’s that I don’t think struggling to incorporate running into one’s life exists as a simple binary of actively avoiding exercise or not. This is true for experienced runners, but perhaps even more for those at the beginning of their running journey, before the sport has become second nature.

Mindset matters, but…

I didn’t grow up running or playing any sports. Is it possible to be so unathletic that you absorb skill from those around you, like an inept black hole? That’s me. I still can’t do a layup and I would need to windmill my arm to serve a volleyball over the net.

When you’re (very) unskilled as a youngster, it’s easy for adults to write you off as a lost cause. Fitness isn’t for you. Don’t bother trying. This was the message I received from every person in my life, and, given my tendency to be picked last for teams, I had no reason not to believe it. Years later, when I decided to improve my fitness, I chose running because it was relatively simple. All I had to do was put one leg in front of the other. I didn’t have any bucket list dream to do a marathon- I half expected to go flying off the treadmill. 

Saying my initial doubts were just excuses devalues the years-long work I did (and do) to move past that mentality. I wasn’t looking for an excuse to remain unfit; I just didn’t want to feel embarrassed, again. It’s easy to look back with rose-colored glasses and talk about consistency, cross-training, and getting proper footwear. The reality is there were many factors contributing to my progress, beyond me working on my mindset. My family supported my running and I had a home in a safe community. I had a consistent 9-to-5 office job, which gave me the finances for things like a gym membership. I don’t have kids, nor have I ever worried about being discriminated against because of race or religion.   

Rethinking what we call excuses

All this to say…what if we replaced excuse with barrier

“I don’t have time!” A single parent juggling multiple jobs isn’t trying to skip a workout- minimal free time is a barrier, and they’re deciding between spending time with their kids or running. 

“Running’s just not for me.” A runner belonging to a marginalized group feels out of place attending an “Open to all!” running event- these feelings are a barrier to enjoyment, and why would someone want to continue with something they don’t enjoy?

“I don’t feel like it.” An seasoned marathoner struggling with depression notices an increase in symptoms during winter months, and feels unmotivated and tired while training for a spring race. Their illness creates a barrier to maintaining a consistent running schedule.

Breaking down barriers

This outlook helps me peel back some of the layers covering these “excuses”. For example, someone saying “I’d run, but I don’t have the gear” could mean, “I’d start running, but finances are tight right now. Spending a few hundred on new shoes and an outfit just isn’t in the picture.” A comment like, “I’d run, but I’ve tried and it wasn’t any fun,” translates to, “I’m new, and I’m self-conscious about my slow pace.” What we say and what we mean can be profoundly different.

There are often limits to what I can do to help dismantle any barriers. However, as someone who wants people to find running rewarding, it’s far more productive than placing all responsibility on the individual. Kindness, insight, and where possible, assistance, go a long way when the well of tough self-talk and willpower has been drained.  

Running is going to be hard sometimes, no matter what. More and more, I see everyone competing in their own race, completing their own journey. We’re looking for sustainable paths to success- whatever that means to an individual. Some of us find it easy; some of us have more barriers blocking the road. For anyone championing the sport, helping another find the workarounds to their barriers is a win for us all. 

Photo credit: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/sign-traffic-sign-road-a-notice-417828/