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Whenever somebody tells me they can no longer run, my own eyes usually well up listening to them. Even though it’s been over three years since my last run, the conversation elicits a taste of that cocktail of emotions—anger, uncertainty, sadness, resentment—that shook me up for years, and I just have to release.
I also release some advice. It’s typically solicited, but sometimes people are frozen when they realize they can’t run. I gently mention a few of the pointers below. After all, there are plenty of coaches who can pace you to a half marathon PR, but those of us who intimately understand the process of losing running are much fewer.
When you get hit with a medical mandate—or self-realization—that your body would be better off not running anymore, it’s debilitating.
You’ve lost your morning anchor of miles and your evening nudge into a good night’s sleep. You’ve lost the flowing chatter on an easy run with friends and the distant finish lines that keep you grinding on tempo runs. You’ve (temporarily) lost the glow and power that comes from self-propelled movement, and you’re not sure how to move forward anymore.
These seven keys can help you take the next step—and the one after that too.
1) Don’t minimize your grief.
When the world is full of trauma and tragedy, your inability to run may seem like a #firstworld problem.
Just because something isn’t a problem on the scale of global climate change doesn’t make it unimportant. Important to you is important. As you begin the process of hanging up your running shoes forever—it’s often a slow, painful crawl from lingering injury to final decision to be done—lean into the loss. Allow yourself to cry, be angry, wallow, and otherwise digest your emotions. If this feels too overwhelming to do on your own, I highly recommend talking to a therapist who can help you unpack your experience and find next steps.
To me, losing running was like losing a best friend, albeit a silent, imaginary one. She always showed up. She reminded me my quads were admirable, even if the skinny jean trend didn’t agree. She prodded me out the door after a tough phone call with my mom, an unexpected email, a rough night’s sleep. She always knew what was best for me: a few miles with her.
Would you mourn a friendship like that? I certainly did—and still do.
2) Really. Don’t minimize your grief.
Maybe running isn’t your best friend. Maybe you classify running as sport or hobby. In Maslov’s renowned Hierarchy of Needs, those pursuits don’t factor into the physiological basic needs of shelter, food, water, and clothing. You’ve got those covered, so no need to go deeper, right?
But wait. Running shows up in the pyramid’s second level (safety) as health; in the third level (love and belonging) under community; and the fourth level (esteem) with strength, confidence, and freedom; and is basically the definition of the fifth level of self-actualization: Desire to be the most that one can be.
In other words, you’ve lost something that fulfilled four levels of your needs as a human being. Give the loss the space—and significance—it deserves. Journaling is a helpful way to think about how you’d like to continue to meet those needs. Where can you apply the Write down most to running, and then consider other ways you could find those
3) Try not to isolate yourself.
As you wean yourself off running, the urge to go dark, both IRL and on social media, is real. Taking a break from scrolling through PRs is certainly healthy, as is avoiding your typical long club run route as you drive to Target on a Saturday morning. (I closed many Facebook windows when I couldn’t take another red-cheeked runner and found an alternate route to my kid’s middle school. I didn’t want to only drive the challenging hills I loved to run.)
Human connection—beyond your family, who might be a bit sick of hearing about your running woes—is so important. Plus, having solid plans and a different focus helps stop dwelling on what you can’t do. How does a Wednesday night pickleball league or a Sunday morning yoga class sound? Probably not as juicy as a half marathon, but at least it gets you out of the house and moving.
And those running friends you love? They miss you too. Drop out of the group text for scheduling runs, but invite one for a walk, hike or even a puzzle night. I promise: you won’t regret it.
4) Hold running loosely.
There is a trail in Fraser, Colorado that haunts me. With a gushing river, short and steep hills, plenty of shade and very few humans, it was my pinnacle trail. “I want my very last run to be on this trail,” I thought regularly as I cruised over its roots and kicked its pinecones.
When I’m cycling on a narrow shoulder and cars are whizzing by, I think of that trail. When I’m flailing on Bulgarian split squats and feeling judged by fellow gym-goers, I think of that trail. By, “I think of that trail,” I mean, I become bitter. I hate that I will never have those five miles of flow again.
We’ve all got our own version of my trail. I advise you to hold it, and your beloved running, loosely as you poke around to find your new athletic identity. Meaning: Try not to play the comparison game. Nearly every other activity, minus walking, requires something more—extra gear, a commute, a membership, a reservation— than running. It’s easy, especially when you’re feeling awkward in something new, to immediately default to a comparison to running.
When that happens—and if you’re like me, it’ll happen regularly—acknowledge the thought. When I am on my game, I’ll tell myself compassionately, “Yep, this isn’t running. This isn’t your trail. You’re cycling now. And sweetie, you’re not running anymore.”
5) Invest in yourself.
Once your new athletic pursuit has piqued, ask yourself: What do I need to feel confident? It could be a ten-pack of personal training sessions so don’t have to slink around the squat rack anymore. Or a Peloton so you can stoke your competitive side as you drip sweat on the basement floor. Or a patient babysitter so you can join your friends for a day-long hike. Or all the swim accessories, including a cute new suit, so you feel legit at lap swim.
To be clear, I’m not condoning retail therapy to charge your way out of feeling blue. I am saying, if you have the means, make an investment to solidify your commitment to this new pursuit—and to the mindset that you’re not just killing time until you can run again. Remember, sweetie, you’re not running anymore.
When my running finally ceased, I already owned a bike and swim equipment, but I bought a smart trainer and Zwift subscription so I could stay consistent and entertained. Recently, I invested a six-month membership to a local gym for group strength classes; I realized that my DIY routines at the rec center could use an overhaul.
6) Keep your story simple.
Most of us don’t lose running quickly via an accident, illness, or injury. Instead, it’s a long, tangled process that requires at least five minutes—and the attention of the listener. So when somebody asks me about running, I have a stock answer: “My body doesn’t respond to it positively anymore.”
I recommend you find your own easy-to-access answer. Write down a few variations in a journal or have a friend or therapist brainstorm with you. That way, you’re not retelling your emotional story to a potentially uninterested person, which can make things feel even more raw. If the conversation and company feel right, you can, of course, go into more details.
7) Remember you’re still an athlete.
Just because you’re not running doesn’t mean you still don’t have other finish lines to cross. You can still get your heart rate into Zone 5 on days you’re feeling like a badass. You can still engage your glutes and use that power for good. You can still set goals that scare you and slowly chip away at them, piece by piece. You still have great friends to make in the gym, in the pool, on the trail.
Honor all the miles you covered as a runner by continuing your athletic path, wherever it may lead.