Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
The end of the summer is a difficult time to be a distance runner. After several months of oppressive heat and, depending on where you live, smothering humidity, your legs and lungs are likely fried. Your motivation flags and achieving that fall goal seems impossible to attain. No matter if you’re training for your first marathon or are a veteran of many, the requisite weekly long runs and high-mileage training in sweltering conditions can be downright demoralizing—especially this year.
For many runners, an end-of-summer slump complete with drudgery and malaise is inevitable. Workouts are harder to nail. Long runs often seem an impossible task. Just lacing up your training shoes is a real chore, knowing you’re about to head outside and melt. A 3-mile run can sometimes seem like 30. The mind seeks out ways of talking the body into lying on the couch and soaking up the air conditioning instead of getting out the door to train.
What’s a weary runner to do?
Before you try to remedy the late-summer slump, it’s important to understand that you are not alone. Elite athletes, age-group aces, and recreational runners who live in warm-weather climates all have to deal with this formidable challenge.
Hot and humid summer weather is its own stimulus. Sure, it’s tough grinding through a sweltering day, but don’t forget that these conditions can also make you a lot stronger as you wait for the cooler weather to arrive. Approach the late-summer season with caution. Experiment with your training approach and open up your mind to trying new ways to cope with scorching, sticky situations.
Distance running isn’t for the faint of heart; it takes courage to hit the streets and trails, especially in the heat. The same day-in, day-out routine, especially when weather conditions are challenging, can lead to boredom, mental fatigue, and even injury.
Top athletes and coaches such as Brad Hudson (an elite marathon coach), Jason Hartmann (fourth place at the Boston Marathon in 2012 and 2013), Bob Hodge (third-place finisher at the 1979 Boston Marathon) and John Honerkamp (a coach with the New York Road Runners) have experienced late-summer slumps themselves and with the athletes they mentor. Here are their top 10 tips to help keep you plugging away when the dog days of summer roll around this month.
Don’t Be Afraid to Take a Zero
It might seem counterintuitive, but if you’ve been training for an extended stretch of time, late summer might be the perfect time to relax a bit and let your body recover with a day (or days) off from training. “Perhaps you are potentially over-trained or mentally exhausted,” Hartmann says. Specifically, take an “inventory” of yourself from your head to your feet.
- Do you feel fatigued before you start running?
- Do your legs hurt?
- Are you just not mentally into it?
- Do you just want to stop running after 10 or 15 minutes?
Answering yes to these questions might be a sign that you should back off your training a bit. Hartmann suggests that runners who find themselves in these situations should back off their running and cross-train for at least one to three weeks. Specific activities to consider include swimming or hopping on an elliptical machine at the gym. Consider dedicating a week in the late summer to strength training at the gym, or spending 20 to 30 minutes a day completing a series of simple bodyweight exercises such as push ups, crunches, planking, or doing dips at home.
It’s important to know that taking a zero or two in your training log won’t harm you in the long run, no pun intended. Taking time off from running may seem intimidating, but your mental slump may be your body asking for a well-deserved break.
Get on the Track or Even a Treadmill
The track may not seem like the most logical place to head during a late-summer slump kick-start, but it is definitely the place to go for affirmation. Running on the track requires less thought and consulting, and eliminates a lot of guesswork in regard to pace. But the fast surface and continual flow of running around the oval can also put a spring in your step, allowing you to run at any pace with seemingly less effort. Hudson, based in Boulder, Colo., assigns fartlek workouts on the track to his runners during the late summer.
“I think these are great, because it doesn’t challenge them too much from a mental perspective,” he says. “The body also naturally holds back in a fartlek. It’s not going to naturally overdo it.”
Hudson’s main goal with these workouts is to stay within a relative comfort zone so you aren’t pushing your body into a realm where it can get injured. “Like anything else, you have to go by feel and not care about the watch,” he says. Specifically, Hudson calls these workouts “variations.”
The time period to complete them is 3 minutes. He lines his runners up on the track and has them do 15 to 20 surges for anywhere from 30-60 seconds each. He then subtracts the time spent surging from 3 minutes to calculate the rest period, so, for example, if you are running fast for 60 seconds, you will get 2 minutes of recovery before the next surge. Besides the fact that the workout isn’t long in nature, Hudson says that it’s also fun to complete. “You get a little stimulus change by doing these things,” he contends. “You’re not out on the roads doing something long.” And if hitting the track isn’t an option or isn’t desirable, you can also do these variations in the middle of an easy run. “It won’t take much out of you to do them,” Hudson says of his variation workout.
Another option Hudson gives his runners in the late summer is running on the treadmill. He says doing so helps break up the monotony of training. “Getting somewhere cool and out of the sun definitely helps them,” he says.
Find Running Buddies
Training solo in the spring and early summer may work for you, but as you begin to struggle with motivation when the dog days of summer settle in, just having someone to run with can really help your morale. “It can be lonely out there, especially in a slump,” says coach Honerkamp. “Ideally it is a slower runner, which will force you to run a recovery run.”
Camaraderie can be a good tool to fix a case of the summer slumps. Your running partner may be going through the same thing and being able to establish a running “date” forces you to get out the door when you may not have otherwise. Another option is to find a running club in your city or town and join them for weekly workouts or runs. There’s power in numbers, even the smaller, distanced numbers allowed now.
Know When to Shut Down Your Season
Sometimes it’s okay to face the facts and realize that you may need to end your racing season early if you are emotionally drained. Hartmann, who was self-coached going into last year’s canceled New York City Marathon, uses himself as an example.
“A lot of onlookers questioned why I didn’t race a fall or winter marathon after the cancellation,” he says. “I made the decision to cut my season short, and not race a winter marathon after New York was canceled because emotionally I was defeated.”
He goes on to point out that there is no sense in having an athlete toe the line if they have already shut it down mentally, or if they have talked themselves out of what they can physiologically accomplish. In other words, know your limits. Hartmann says he decided to put his efforts elsewhere for a few weeks—friends, family, and the community—and when he returned to training, he felt refreshed and ready to go. Hudson contends that you have to afford yourself breaks throughout the year.
“I have a lot of athletes that I train who don’t take a lot of long breaks, but they take some short time off. A week or five days seems to work well for them. They find that when it’s so hot, they are hitting their heads against the wall.”
Don’t Worry About Pace and Time
Watches and other gadgets are important for all runners, but there are times when they should be ignored. One of the first things an athlete struggling with motivation should do is relax on all pacing and timing requirements.
“I often tell my runners to leave your watch at home and do your run or workout based on effort,” Honerkamp says. “The runner will get a good workout in without knowing what pace they’re running. If a runner is tired, they won’t know that they’re running 10 seconds slower per mile on their tempo run. They won’t be bummed out and they also are less likely to over-train.”
Along the same lines, Hartmann calls this “letting go of the time component.” Hartmann says that sometimes the pressure athletes put on themselves to hit intervals in a specific time, or to finish a tempo run at a certain pace can overwhelm or frustrate them. “They can end up running ‘stressed’ or ‘mechanical’ versus with a relaxed stride, and the pressure to hit that specific time can sometimes yield a negative training environment if the athlete constantly feels like they are ‘not hitting the times,’ perhaps because of tiredness, perhaps because a coach gave them unrealistic times to hit, or perhaps because they are reaching to hit their end-of-season goal times now versus at the end of their season when they should hit those time goals,” he says.
“Ultimately, this can decrease motivation if an athlete feels like they are not en route to achieving their end-of-season goal, or if they feel like they have lost fitness after being ill, or if they think they are ‘slow.’”
Speed Things Up
Your late-summer slump may require a shock to the system, especially if you’ve got a long race such as a half-marathon or marathon on the horizon. Honerkamp suggests seeking out a flat 5K race or a self-conducted time trial of 2 to 4 miles in order to speed things up. Going all-out for a short period of time can definitely blow the cobwebs out and the excitement of race pace can inspire you anew. Hudson agrees.
“Go find something faster and shorter so that you are mixing up pace and not having to face all long runs,” he says. “If you are a marathoner, you still want to stick with those kinds of workouts, but it’s OK to take a down week to race.”
Hartmann is of a similar mindset. “So many athletes chase fitness versus letting it develop at a natural pace,” he says.
Analyze Your Routine and Your Environment
“Set up your schedule and keep the same schedule each week,” Honerkamp says. “This allows you to get into a nice routine and takes out all the decision-making throughout the week. I’ve heard that former President Obama doesn’t choose his outfits each day, because it takes away one more decision he will have to make that day. He has many big decisions to make each day, so this way he is not wasting any energy on figuring out if his tie matches his shirt.”
Honerkamp says the same goes for running. If your long run is always on Sunday, you are more likely to get it in, and consequently you are doing less deal-making with yourself during the week.
Conversely, Hartmann says it’s important to change up your routine from time to time in order to add excitement and variety into your running. That might mean running a new trail, sprinkling in some cross-training or just running a different route around your neighborhood. Running trails and getting away from the gridlock of urban or suburban life, even for a moment, can change your entire frame of mind and have long-lasting effects.
“That way your motivation increases and also, new training stimuli can catalyze improved performance,” he says. “Even changes in training environment can spark new motivation, such as running a new trail, or finding a new training partner, or trying a new workout where there is no pressure going into it.”
Do an “Easy Win” Workout
Rather than challenge yourself with an impossible workout, do something you know you can complete and give your confidence a boost. “Often times marathon training entails doing longer intervals and runs,” Honerkamp says. One example of an “easy win” workout is switching the mile repeats to 200m repeats (or 30–second pickups during an easy run). If a runner is tired or in a funk, longer reps such as miles can be daunting. Doing shorter intervals will often be a lot easier to face mentally and the runner is more likely to enjoy it.
For example, 10 x 200 meters on the track at a quick pace can be a great confidence-booster, whereas trying to churn through mile repeats under the hot sun can crush your confidence and compromise enjoyment. “It’s fun to run fast and runners training for a marathon often don’t ever run ‘fast,’” Honerkamp says.
Keep an Eye on Your Sleep and Your Diet
Overtraining and insomnia are closely related. If you’re slumping toward the end of summer, you may be experiencing irregular patterns with your sleep cycles, which can get worse as you advance through to your fall training program. Set a designated bedtime every night. Establish a sleeping routine such as reading in bed or practicing meditation before retiring for the evening.
Hartmann says another thing to look at is your nutrition and hydration. If your region has been especially hot for weeks, it’s possible you haven’t been optimally hydrated for weeks. Poor diet choices and the timing of your meals may only magnify your slump. Plan your meals as carefully as your workouts and be ever mindful of your hydration levels.
Remember Why You’re a Runner
Bob Hodge, a former 2:10 marathoner, shares a great story about finding a happy place to run when you are mentally and physically exhausted at the end of summer.
“The best thing would be easy runs on the beach or in the forest,” he says. “Maybe just go for a hike in the mountains. It seems like when most people are struggling with fatigue [not actual injury], they need to back off the intensity, go back to the roots and remember why they love to run.”
Hodge recalls a story in New Zealander Murray Halberg’s book, Clean Pair of Heels, in which Halberg writes about how he, Bill Baillie, and Gordon Pirie were in South Africa for a series of races many years ago. “While Pirie continued to run intervals on the track day after day, Halberg and Baillie went out for long runs in the countryside,” Hodge says. “While Pirie became more stale, Halberg and Baillie were rejuvenating. The hard intensity, and racing especially, are like cash withdrawals from your hard-earned fitness savings.”