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360 YOU: What to Do If Running Becomes Toxic

"Keeping gratitude in the forefront of my mind saved my relationship with running."

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Running really changed my life.

I had gone through a lot of tough things all at once right around the time I graduated from law school in Washington, D.C., and I was really going through it. I moved back to San Diego because I needed a life change and I picked up running right at the same time.

Running was exactly what I needed: It was like therapy out on the trails, getting to process everything I had gone through. I would work through it, cry, heal from it, and, ultimately, end up choosing peace and joy. I credit running with really helping me through such a difficult time in my life because I was forced to have time alone with my thoughts and get out and sweat and think. It really saved me from rock bottom. That was one of the many reasons I fell in love with running.

As I started running more and being exposed to the running community, I started to set more goals and challenge myself more. It was really fun and exhilarating. I was a new runner so everything I did was a little better than the day before. That’s what happens when you’re a new runner—it’s like everyday is a new personal record of some sort. That was obviously incredible for my self-confidence. And it made me love running more.

Running validated me at a time when I needed validation. I also had been job searching in California during the recession when the law industry was doing terribly; I finally decided to start working with my amazing Dad in the real estate industry. I had no idea what I was doing, was making no money at first (commercial real estate is 100% commission and I was making nothing), and after years of being type-A and looking to work or school to provide metrics of my success I was not able to get this from work. So I looked to running to provide those metrics of success for me.

Bad call.

That only works so long as you’re top. Which I was for awhile. Unfortunately—not understanding how run training works—I totally overloaded myself, was too green to understand that I was overtrained, and bombed four marathons in a row. Suddenly, the thing that had made me feel validated and good about myself made me feel like a loser.

While my results were plummeting, it seemed like everyone around me was succeeding. This made me choose to hide myself from the run community. I didn’t want people to see me “failing” at running. I didn’t want them to see how “slow” I was. Basically, running during this time of my life was extremely toxic.

How sad is that that the thing that brought me so much joy and really improved my mental health, was now tearing down my confidence and making me feel “less than”?

It took me two years though to realize fully what I had allowed to happen: It wasn’t running; it was me. It was my perspective on running and myself.

My negative thoughts on running and myself created a self-fulfilling prophecy. I dreaded every single workout. I would tell my husband, Tyler, “How does Saturday (my tempo/long run) come around so often?” And he told me, “Why are you doing this if you don’t even like it anymore?” I obviously thought that was insensitive, because how can you like something when all you do is fail at it?

How to Detox Your Relationship to Running

I flipped the switch and decided to be proactive about changing my running and my mindset.

Workout with a Friend

I stopped isolating myself from the running community. I invited a friend to do a workout together. I was much slower than her, but I figured the only way I can get faster is by working with other people. I started running short speed workouts, and running with people made running feel like play again. The CDC agrees: Working out with a friend results in people being more adventurous and having more fun than going it alone.

Give Yourself a Win

I decided I needed to start “winning” again. Whatever that looked like for me. I threw myself some softballs so that I could get the taste of some “wins” after years of feeling like a total failure. The more I “won,” the more fun running became again. Give yourself small goals that you know you can achieve: narrow down your track workout to not just completing the workout, but maybe the first two laps. Research from Harvard Business School showed that people who tracked even small wins had stronger motivation and felt rewarded to continue to bigger goals.

Focus on More than Just Pace

Know that your times and your worth are not defined by running. Running is a beautiful addition to life. It’s amazing to be out there, in motion, feeling so free. It should never be something that makes you feel “less than,” and if focusing on paces is draining the joy from your running, it’s time to press pause on those numbers. Try focusing solely on fixing your form for several weeks, or go for a new distance. Maybe even stop wearing your tracking watch if you find you can’t look away from it.

I’ve gone through periods with my health where I didn’t have my running for several month, or I was running significantly less and not at the same fitness that I had before. But because I had done the work in recalibrating my relationship with running, these times weren’t that hard on me. When I had running at all (even just slow easy miles) that still was able to make me really happy. And because I’m confident that my fastest days are ahead, it helps me to weather the temporary things I’m going through.

This has allowed running to be so good for my mental health again. And not something that ever makes me feel less than.

You are more than your running. More than your times. And I hope you enjoy the gift of running and everything beautiful that it can do for our minds. Keeping gratitude in the forefront of my mind saved my relationship with running. I hope it helps yours.