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The Break-Up: Coping With Your Separation From Running

Dimity McDowell had built her life around running. But to stay pain-free, she had to accept that it was time to put the running shoes away—for good.

Photo: Cathy Engstrom & Britt Parker

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

This article part of our ongoing series at Women’s Running, offering support to runners who can no longer run. 

The Not-Running-Anymore Support Group

When you first started running, stopping was the last thing on your mind. Check that: if you’re like me, you regularly contemplated stopping in the middle of a steep hill or on the painful edge of a PR, but thinking about ending the whole pursuit? Never.

You’re not alone. “We rarely plan for the exit,” says Kimberly Dawson, PhD, a professor in Sport and Exercise Psychology and owner of Mind2Achieve based in Waterloo,Canada. “Even though every journey, including careers, childhood, and relationships, is certain to end, we as a society don’t put a lot of thought or effort into the conclusion.”

You get caught up in a blur of effort, endorphins, and the sense of continual astonishment when you run a mile, then two. Could you go four? Yes, indeed. Keep the challenges—and fulfillment—coming. When your post-run GPS scroll session becomes more routine, it still lights you up, as does the buzz of a full corral, the 13-mile marker in a half-marathon, a parking lot run recap with sweaty friends, climbing a flight of stairs on tired legs. Running is a river that keeps filling your cup, and you can’t imagine it ever drying up.

Compounding the lack of exit strategy planning is that, for most of us, the last day isn’t clear. You don’t give your two-weeks’ notice to running or divorce running with a signature. Save for traumatic accidents and disease diagnosis, the slow descent happens step by step, from joint overuse by hip instability or stress fracture by torn labrum. Sometimes you surge forward with miles of fluid runs, sometimes you’re stopped in your tracks by pain. While the needle eventually tips towards the end, it’s a long, wavering process.

RELATED: When You Can No Longer Run, Welcome To The ‘Not Running Anymore’ Support Group

Medical experts who regularly see runners are loath to give a blanket stop-running-now directive. “No runner I’ve ever met would respond well to that kind of advice,” says Dr. Steve Brown, DC, MS, CCSP of Boulder Sports Chiropractic in Boulder, Colorado. Dr. Dan Myer, an orthopedic surgeon at Crystal Clinic Orthopedic Center in Akron, Ohio, agrees. “I want my patients to be able to continue to do what they want,” he says, “But it’s also my job to be honest. If you’re hoping to keep up 50 miles a week on compromised knees, I’m going to suggest adjusting that.”

In my case, my orthopedic doctor gently mentioned to me in 2018 that I “might want to consider running less.”

Here’s the truth: I knew well before he said it out loud that I should consider running less. My hamstring, knees, and melancholy mental state as I dwelled on my chronic pain made that perfectly clear. And still, it took me over two years to finally come to peace with it. Far from a clean break.

Coping With Breaking Up With Running

Cathy Engstrom
(Photo: Cathy Engstrom)

When Cathy Engstrom was 13, she was hanging something on a bulletin board in school, and a classmate pulled the chair out from under her, and she severely dislocated her kneecap. The knee held up through nearly three decades of running, including five ultras—her sweet spot is climbing and descending mountain trails—but when she visited her doctor in May of 2022 to go over an MRI, he, “made it clear the type of running I like to do was not going to do me any favors,” the 51-year-old says, “And I decided not go to a bunch of doctors to find what I wanted to hear.”

Engstrom knew her post-run pain needed to be the guidepost for her decision. “I could barely walk, even if I taped my knee for the run to the nines,” she says, “The joy was gone.” A year later, she’s still finding a balance of what her body can handle but walks or hikes 4 to 6 miles six days a week. “Mileage is still important to me,” she says.

Britt Parker
(Photo: Britt Parker)

Britt Parker’s story is a variation on that theme. After running her first 50-miler in 2019 (“a race where everything went right”) she was ready to continue to challenge herself. Then the pandemic hit, and she just felt burnt out. “I got back on track in 2021 and made some big plans,” she says. On tap: the Collegiate Peaks 25 and Dirty Thirty in 2021, followed by the 2022 Trans Rockies and in 2023, her first attempt at 100 miles. Unfortunately, those plans didn’t include two severe falls while ramping up training. One fall bruised her chin and tweaked her high hamstring; the other, a superman-style spill, tore her rotator cuff and exposed a lower back issue. She started but DNF’ed both the 25- and 30-miler. Still, in a tale we (stubborn, strong) runners know well, “I kept pushing and pushing,” she says, “I fell again hiking in June of 2022, and my body was just finally like, ‘no more.’” A year and regular appointments with a variety of expert help later, she has found her groove in thrice-weekly strength classes and rucking. “I had been fighting my body and running since mid-2020,” she says, “That’s a long time to be in conflict.”

No matter how you arrive at your break-up with running, one thing is certain: if you haven’t picked it willingly—and I can’t name one runner who has—the sting is going to be more intense and last longer than you anticipated. “None of this is easy or fair,” says Dr. Haley Perlus, a sport and performance psychology expert based in Grand Junction, Colorado. “None of this is what we want.”

Coming Up Next: In the next column, get ready to dive deep; Dr. Perlus and others help sort through the emotional wreckage of the break-up. 

Dimity McDowell is currently working on her next book, Running to Stand Still. Follow her at DimityOnTheRun

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