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How To Break Out Of Your Running Rut

If you find yourself in a running slump, use these three tips to get yourself back on track.

Finding yourself stuck in a slump happens to every athlete at least once in their career, even top pros. It doesn’t matter if your slump is physical or mental, climbing your way out of a rough patch in training or racing can feel like beating your head against a wall. After many years helping runners break out of their racing funks—along with plenty of time spent digging my way out of my own periods of stagnation—here are my top three fail-proof ways to break free of your running slump.

1. Focus On Rest & Recovery

Yup, I said the evil word. Rest. Even writing it was hard for a Type-A personality such as myself. However, the most common reason runners struggle to get themselves out of their slump is lack of proper recovery. Usually, it’s lack of proper recovery that started them on a downward spiral in the first place. Naturally, when runners start to have a bad bout of training or suffer through a series of races, they begin to train harder believing that it is a lack of fitness holding them back. Unfortunately, this solution is like putting yourself in a hole and then digging faster and faster in an attempt to get out.

To help illustrate this point, I’ll use an analogy. I like to visualize the body like a sponge, and training like the water coming from a faucet. At the start of training, the body is like a dry sponge ready to absorb all the training (water) that it can handle. So, you open up the faucet and let the training flow into the sponge. Over time, if you keep filling up the sponge with water, it won’t be able to absorb any more. This saturation point is often the start of a running slump.

What you can do:

Take a few extra rest days, maybe even schedule an entire down week, and focus on recovery. Going back to the sponge analogy; a few rest days or a down week is like squeezing the sponge into a bucket. The bucket in this case represents the store of fitness you want to have available on race day to throw at your competition. After ringing out the sponge you can get back to training fresh. Yes, it seems backward that taking a few extra days rest or adding a few super easy training days could actually make you fitter, but it’s true.

2. Vary Your Racing

Another frequent reason runners find themselves stuck in a slump is that they are always training for the same race distance. I see it often with runners I first start working with, especially those that run marathons. The conversation usually goes something like this:

Jill Runner: “I’m in a running funk and haven’t PR’d in my last three races. I need some help.”

Me: “Tell me about your last three races, maybe we can spot a trend?”

Jill Runner: “Well, I ran the NYC Marathon in November, then I ran Boston in April, and I just finished Chicago last week. Each marathon went a little worse than the one before.”

It may sound a little comical, but if we were having the same conversation, it would probably sound very similar.

Each race distance has its own specific demands for optimal performance. Training for the same distance over and over again, whether it’s the 5K or the marathon, means neglecting important physiological systems. For example, running well in the marathon requires an intense focus on mileage, aerobic threshold, and long runs. Certainly, these are very important systems to be developing; however, in the process of training for marathon after marathon, VO2max, speed workouts, and high-end anaerobic threshold becomes neglected. The longer a runner stays in this cycle of running marathon after marathon, the further diminished their VO2 max, speed, and anaerobic threshold become. Eventually the inability to improve the entire range of physiological systems prevents a runner from making long-term progress and taking their training to the next level.

What you can do:

Vary up your target race distances and spend at least one training segment per year working on your “off” distance. For marathoners, this might mean doing a 5K training segment in the winter or summer. If you prefer the shorter distances, perhaps you can train for a fall half marathon or a winter marathon to help boost your mileage and aerobic development.

3. Press The Mental Reset Button

Sometimes, being in a slump with your running is as much mental as it is physical. I work with a lot of runners who, for one reason or another—family, work, general bad luck or stress, feel like they are stuck in the mud just spinning their wheels. After a series of bad races or a bout of failed workouts they lose confidence and instead of heading into each workout with a positive mental approach, they begin to focus on the negative. Once the negative thoughts creep in, it’s a vicious cycle that begins to affect the physical preparation.

Finding the drive to get back in gear and start seeing progress takes a lot of work. I liken the struggle to gaining the necessary momentum to push a boulder down a hill. It requires a lot energy, time and rocking back and forth to get the boulder rolling in the right direction. Sometimes, it can even feel impossible, especially when the mind focuses on how hard it is just to get everything started in the right direction. However, once the boulder starts moving and gains momentum, it can be an unstoppable force. This is why you’ll often see elite runners go on a tear and win every race in sight once they have that first good performance.

What you can do:

Press the reset button on the last few weeks of bad training or unimpressive race results. As Forrest Gump’s mother said: “You’ve got to put the past behind you before you can move on.”

Pressing the reset button clears your mind of all the difficult workouts or bad races and begins to turn your thoughts to the future. Instead of focusing on the negative, start each training day anew and with a positive mindset.

Likewise, focus on taking each training session one day at a time. Don’t worry about your previous workouts and don’t fret over the training or racing to come. Concentrate on what you need to do in the moment and how you need to execute for that one workout or race.

Any runner that has been in a slump knows it can be a real grind to get yourself out. If you’re currently in a rut, incorporate one (or all) of these strategies into your training and get ready to start fighting out it.