The Comeback Series Part III: Overcoming Hopelessness

Go ahead and call it what it
Call it whatever the heck you want to.

Imagine attempting to climb Mount Everest. Imagine the effort it takes to climb 20 feet, 50 feet, 100 feet. Imagine what it must be like to dodge falling rocks and nearly careen off the side. Imagine making it half-way to your goal, the summit, only to fall off. You take a rest, get yourself together and start back up. On one hand, you’re happy to be back on the mountainside. Other the other, that summit suddenly feels higher than ever. Hopelessness is a natural emotion in this circumstance.

Of course, this is a metaphor for a running comeback and the hopelessness that often sets in early in the process. And believe me. I know how it feels.


A week ago, I ran my first real race since having my third kid. I’ve run countless 50+ mile weeks and just started doing formal workouts and training this past month. I resolved to stay open-minded about the whole thing. Even so, after running my butt off and running, not only 1 minute slower than my previous course best in the 5 mile race, but 15 seconds per mile slower than I want to eventually run 26.2, I couldn’t help but wonder how the heck am I ever going to reach that goal. Hopeless. Right?


Coming down the homestretch sandwiched between my teammates. We all have the same ultimate goal and I don't think it's hopeless for them, so why would it be hopeless for me to achieve it?
Coming down the homestretch sandwiched between my teammates. We all have the same ultimate goal and I don’t think it’s hopeless for them to achieve it, so why would it be hopeless for me?

Bad News: We comebackers lost fitness during our lay-off and it will take time to get back to where we left off.  Comebacks take time. It takes time to reach where you left off with your fitness. It can take weeks and weeks of consistent training just to run the times you did when you left off. The longer the lay-off, the longer it will take.

Good News: It’s not actually hopeless. It’s normal and many many fantastic runners have experienced this same hopelessness and despair only to overcome it and achieve greatness. Like Paula and Kara and Lauren Fleshman know that you will get back to that point and it will happen much quicker than it did when you started from scratch way back when. What took you years to originally achieve will take weeks. And once you get back to where you left off, you can improve from there and start logging PRs again!

Bad News: Hopelessness happens. Even though we rationally know it will take time and that coming back can be a long process, we still might feel hopeless at times.

There will always be bad days during training; they are not reserved for those on the comeback trail. They might be bad physical days where we can’t hit our target training or race paces. They might be bad mental days when we really wonder if all of the sacrifices and blood, sweat and tears are worth shedding to reach our goals. There will be days when we feel like reaching our goals is an impossible task and these feelings are magnified when we not only feel like we can’t improve, but we feel like we can’t even run as fast as we could last year. But these are just feelings in the moment. Tomorrow is a new day.

Good News: There is a lot we can do to rediscover the hope that we had when we made our big dream goals.

What YOU Can Do to Overcome Hopelessness

1. Expect Hopelessness and Accept It. Sure, you can fight it, but more than likely there will be days that you just can’t shake those hopeless feelings. Expect those days and accept them. In fact welcome them and have a little pity party. Explore the feelings. Why do you feel hopeless? Is it rational? Does it matter? Need to cry? Let the tears flow and then wipe off your face and hit the road knowing tomorrow is a new day and those hopeless feelings will pass.

2. Focus on the Bigger Picture. Remember the comeback trail is a trail. There will be ups and downs and bumps along the way. But the ultimate trajectory of a comeback well executed is up.

3. Nurture the Comeback. Know that the comeback period is a particularly sensitive time. We comebackers are much more likely to overreact to minor setbacks for fear of having to take more time off or for it to take even longer to reach our goals. We must be extra kind to ourselves during this time. Positive self-talk is important and sometimes a little fake-it-until-you-make-it is in order: “this comeback is going great!” Maybe it doesn’t feel that way, but by replacing your pessismism with even phony optimism can help.

4. Insert Fun. Make dates with your favorite running friends. If your old pals are too fast, try to schedule a harder effort on your part with an easier effort on theirs. Run with slower friends. Try out some new running groups. Hit up that trail you always wanted to try. Whatever it takes to make things fun and a little more interesting to take your mind off the long climb back to fitness and then up to your goals ahead.

5. Reflect on the Positive. This is what really helps me the most. After that race I was tempted to bemoan it. The time stunk. But I ran just 1:00 (12 seconds per mile) off my best and I just had my third kid in 4 years. That’s not an excuse, but it’s a good reason for not quite being ready to knock one out of the park. I finished just 4 seconds behind one teammate and 6 seconds ahead of the other. We pushed each other to run a little faster than we probably would have without each other. I’m right there with my teammates and pushed myself really hard. I executed a great race regardless of the finish time. I committed to racing and I raced. That’s a big deal for me, particularly when the end result isn’t “awesome.” When you feel hopeless, similarly think about what is going right with your training. What amazing things have you achieved in your short time back? Revel in these!

Have you ever felt hopeless when it comes to achieving your running goals? What helps you cope with hopelessness during a comeback or at any point in training?

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Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. A great article and timely for me. I’ve got frozen shoulder and have had to shelf training for my first marathon AGAIN! It’s typically a long recovery for this condition (months or even a year!) So yes, keeping an eye on the big picture and trying to find creative ways to stay strong over this next year are certainly key. And realizing that overall I am still healthy and fit. I also find that when I’m injured, volunteering at running events is really helpful for still feeling like I’m ‘in it.’

    1. Thanks, Terry!

      Yikes! Frozen shoulder sounds like no fun. I hope the recovery is relatively quick and easy and that you’re back at it soon so you can FINALLY cross that finish line! Keep us posted.

  2. I feel that everyone should print out what you put on “The Comeback Series I” and tape it to their bathroom mirror so it can be seen every day.

    Hardwork + Patience + Consistency => Faster Running

    Hardwork – Ensure that you are running paces and mileage that are appropriate for your current level of fitness and not to goal. Start out with less quality and focus on base mileage. Increase quality sparingly over time.

    Patience – Let the fitness come to you and don’t try and force it. The fitness will come, you just can’t put it on a rigid timetable.

    Consistency – If you say you are going to run 4 days a week the run 4 days a week unless you are sick and/or injured. Consistency over the long term is rewarded.

  3. Timely article for me. 13 weeks ago I strained my adductor. 2 weeks after that I got a positive pregnancy test. I’m 40. Surprise! Spent the last three months recovering and puking. Just started trying to run again. I’m heavy, slow, and have residual pain. Did I mention I gained 10 pounds? Blech! Was feeling the hopeless! Thanks for the perspective!

    1. You are me 17 months ago! Congrats on the pregnancy! I have lots of post about running through pregnancy to help you stay in shape for your 2014 comeback. Keep the faith (and keep us posted how things go)!