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Training for Life, Not Marathons

Our running goes through seasons. Embracing general fitness over peak performance takes an attitude adjustment.

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I used to be a person who trained for races. For much of my adult life, August had been particularly full of tempos, long runs, speed workouts, a lot of snacks, and Sunday afternoon naps. It was a time when I was motivated by specific goals like fall marathon PRs and age-group awards.

I am not that person anymore. Or, at least, I am not that person right now.

One thing eventually leads to another for most runners, whether those performance goals cease serving as inspiration or life just guides us in different directions or we discover how much more time and energy we have for literally everything else when we’re not putting in 20 miles at 6 a.m. every Saturday. Then, after a while, maybe we struggle to get back into a routine or we’ve come to the depressing realization that we’ll never perform at the level we once did. (Take heart, runners, it happens to all of us.)

I admit, I’ve encountered all of this and more over the past several years. The part I’ve had the hardest time reconciling is that running doesn’t have to be tied to training. It can also just be exercise. Imagine the epiphany: I don’t have to race to continue running. I don’t have to follow a 12-week schedule or log a certain number of miles every seven days. I can just choose a comfortable distance and pace, several days a week, and enjoy the views and a decent level of fitness. Who knew?

Gradually, running has become less a part of my identity and more an aspect of my overall health and wellbeing. I still like running—for the sake of a good sweat, the endorphins, community, and the time outside in the fresh air—but I also have come to love the liberation from the watch, races, and (self-created) expectations.

Steve Magness, health and human performance coach, as well as author of Do Hard Things, recently wrote about this concept, too, and how he came up with a plan to stay fit without training at the high level he once did. So I called him up to discuss and, maybe, commiserate a little bit, too. How do I, as a recreational runner, make this mindshift after years of specific training?

“It’s almost like developing a hobby…the real goal is to find something that is enjoyable and fulfills you to some degree over the long haul,” he said. “Fitness is the level where I enjoy running and it allows me to stick with it. Being fit is when I feel good and able to do the things that I want to do in life—like, if I wanted to, I could go for a longer run or hike and be OK.”

So, how do we do that? Magness boils it down to:

  • Lots of easy movement;
  • Occasionally moderately difficult efforts;
  • Lifting heavy objects or doing things that make you feel fast or powerful (such as hill repeats and short sprints, for example);
  • Working on balance and coordination.

Existing in that middle space, where we’re active and pushing ourselves, but not to the point of specific training exhaustion, takes a little experimentation. I went from 70 miles a week with all the grueling workouts and ancillary resistance training to doing almost nothing for a little while because I just couldn’t find the point in moderation. I quickly discovered doing nothing as a lady in her 40s is definitely not OK—it’s a point in life where women really mentally and physically benefit from movement. I also discovered, thankfully, that it doesn’t take much to reclaim fitness, either.

I started out with a promise to merely move my body in some way for a minimum of 30 minutes every day, knowing that consistency is key. It could be an easy run, a brisk walk, a hike up a mountain, or a strength-training class. (I have caved to the Peloton app—I am addicted to a good Jess Sims full-body session.) After I established that routine, I have increased my activity level little by little as I regained my footing and desire, going for five to six days per week of activity ranging from 30 to 90 minutes. Most of it is easy running or aggressive hiking; one day per week it’s a bit longer and hillier, and I throw in at least three 30 to 45-minute full-body strength classes in there. (Again, women of a certain age need to lift heavy things to preserve deteriorating muscle mass.) Plus, a dog walk every day, too.

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Magness’s fitness activities are similar: six days of 30-50 minutes of easy running; one daily dog walk; one moderately hard workout like 2 x 10 minutes at a steady pace or 8 x 1 minute moderately hard with a 1 minute jog; once every two weeks he sprints up a hill 6-8 times for 10 seconds; and two times a year he does something “very hard.”

“It’s a combination of what the research and science says is important plus the kind of minimum dose I could do that makes me feel healthy,” he said. “You know, without pushing me down the path toward competing. The research was pretty clear, especially as we get older, maintaining that aerobic system is highly important.”

Since I’ve eased into this routine, I’ve noticed all the benefits you’d expect: I sleep well more often than not, I’m more creative and clear-headed when I’m working, and I’m definitely not as moody as I was during that brief period of inactivity. The bonus? I still have the time and capacity to socialize and be present with friends and family, which I couldn’t always claim during those years of chasing marathon PRs.

Now when I’m asked, “What are you training for?” I answer, “I’m training for life.”

Our running will always go through seasons—its role in our lives changes constantly. Maybe I’m not done chasing specific goals, but I’m done for now. Fitness is a lifelong process that takes its own special kind of dedication. The payoff is different for everybody. But for runners? You just never know when it’ll come in handy.

“What if for whatever reason you hit 50 and you really want to compete and do a marathon?” Magness said. “Well, you have the capacity to make that decision and relatively quickly, get back into training mode if you so choose.”

Maybe that will seem tempting again one day, but for now you can find me taking it easy, enjoying the views.

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