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Sustaining Running for the Long Haul: How to Keep Your Tank Full

Avoiding running burnout requires paying attention to how you spend your energy.

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Right before toeing the line for my first cross-country state meet, my coach brought our team into a huddle and pulled out a black marker. He told us that today our only task that day was to “empty the tank.”

“Don’t leave one ounce of energy in your being when you cross that finish line,” he said.

He squiggled two little letters onto the backs of our hands—“ET”—and we strode back to the line. At the starting gun, I was out like a rabbit. But 800 meters in, I could feel the adrenaline taper. I kept up with the leaders of the pack, willing myself to complete the task at hand.

I made it to the finishing stretch before my legs started to buckle. I swayed, stumbled, and fell. I summoned every bit of energy I could to crawl across that finish line. I got the job done, but geez, did it have to hurt so bad? Could I have placed better if I paced myself differently? Less riveting (but more successful) letters may have been “RS,” for Run Smart: manage your energy levels out there.

For most runners, we’re in this thing for the long haul. There’s a certain lifestyle, healthfulness, competitiveness, and joy that putting one foot in front of the other brings to our lives. If we took an “ET” approach to our daily training, we’d crawl to the finish line a few times, hit burnout, and then throw running right out the window.

The key to sustaining running as a lifelong sport is to properly manage your expectations and keep your energy burning strong for the long run. Keep these three tips in mind when approaching training:

Consider Your Priorities

Maybe you experienced a time in your life when running was your No. 1 priority, when you fit everything else around your training. In the natural evolution of life, other things become top priority. For those of us who aren’t professional runners, career, family, or a variety of other factors will likely take a front seat at some point. Have you considered adjusting your training to work with these?

All too often, we forget to have this simple check-in, and we keep doing what we’ve always done, ramping up mileage, hitting hard workouts, and getting in long runs. When our lifestyle outside of running doesn’t give us enough time to sleep, recover, and reset, we get injured, hit burnout, or simply empty the tank too soon.

Illustration of a fuel gauge at half full
Photo: Getty Images

Create a Training Plan That Works for You Right Now

If you’ve found yourself hanging up your trainers at some point and quitting the sport, you’re not alone. We runners torment ourselves with being all-in or all-out. Imagine the freedom we would have if we gave ourselves some grace, evaluated why we run, and adjusted our expectations and training plans accordingly.

Keep it real: Consider what your specific running goals are right now, and what your life outside of running looks like. Say, for example, your goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon. You know that your job, your kids, and your partner demand a certain amount of time from you, so decide that you can dedicate five days of training per week with one workout a week and one long run. When mapping training, resist the urge to overextend yourself.

If you’re injury-prone, map out a strength and recovery plan, and sub aerobic cross-training for one to two days of easy runs.

Your excitement is at its peak when you start a new training plan and taper off two weeks in. Tame your enthusiasm early on, and you’ll be more likely to stay healthy, see the plan all the way through, and achieve your goal.

Pay Attention to Your Internal Compass

Regularly log your training by ranking your motivation, recovery, and overall energy on a scale of 1-10. The key is to watch for disruptions from your normal rankings and use these disruptions as an indicator to back off your training intensity. If your average ranking is an 8 and you’ve had one or two days as a 5 or below, take a day off. If one day doesn’t do the trick, try a few consecutive days of low-intensity easy runs. Powering through might make you feel tough, but overpowering your body is rarely a winning tactic.

Logging your training will help you pay attention to your internal compass and develop more confidence in tweaking your training. Most fatigue can be remedied by sprinkling in a touch of extra recovery.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that change is inevitable and the future is, for the most part, outside of our control. If you can become a master of embracing change and lean into the feedback your internal compass is giving you, you’ll give yourself a shot at a fueled energy tank and a long-term love for running.

Heather Stephens competed for Syracuse University and began her coaching career at Georgetown University. She’s now a private coach for Rad Running, based in Seattle.