The Virtues of Casual Running

Me, being not-so-casual.

Perusing women’s running logs, blogs, or social media posts on the internet, one might be left with the impression that constantly training at a high-level is the norm. All of these impressive women with day jobs, blogs, normal lives, and adorable, well-adjusted children somehow manage to fit in 50-plus mile training weeks year-round, while nabbing PR after PR in race after race.

But is that reality? And even if it is reality for some women, does it need to be your reality? And is it the best approach for you? Must we always be in a state of serious training to really be runners, or does running for fun and fitness have its place, too?

When I started running seriously two and a half years ago, I wanted to be one of those women on the internet. I jumped in with enthusiasm, stringing together high-mileage weeks and fast track workouts like a boss. I felt unstoppable, BQing in my first marathon, taking 17 minutes off my PR in the next, and PRing in several shorter distances along the way.

But when it was finally time to start training for the Boston Marathon, I was a shell of my former runner self. Even making it to the starting line wasn’t a sure thing; I was recovering from a torn hamstring. It was like pulling teeth to get out of bed for my workouts in the morning, and every mention of “Boston” filled me with dread rather than excitement.

In retrospect, all of this should have been a sign. After several months of lackluster training and arduous rehab, I did make it to the Boston starting line, but my day ended in disappointment and a brutal 20-mile slog to the finish line after the wheels fell off somewhere around the 10K mark.

So, naturally, I dusted myself off, and after moaning to my long-suffering husband about what a “failure” I was for a week or so, decided the thing to do was to start training harder than ever. Like those women on the internet, I too could power through a bad race. “It was hot!” I kept reminding myself, as I tried to move on with my life of mid-pack domination. Predictably, this was not a fruitful strategy. My should-be easy pace suddenly felt like a tempo pace, and every run seemed worse than the last. I felt totally burned out, and I was flirting with overtraining syndrome. Worst of all, running was no longer fun.

The Casual Running Epiphany

“What you need to do is embrace casual running,” one of my running buddies told me early this summer, after hearing for what was probably the hundredth time how tired I felt and how running had become a chore. Casual running, he explained, is running for running’s sake, as opposed to running to nail a PR or hit a certain time. This concept was foreign to me as I’m not one to do anything “casually,” especially something that culminates in a competition, but I took this advice under consideration. After a couple more weeks of “considering” (read: resisting) this advice, and feeling worse with every run, I saw the writing on the wall: I had to embrace casual running, at least for now, or I would risk digging myself an even bigger hole and possibly jeopardizing my running long term. I canceled my plans for a fall marathon.

The next week, I cut my long run short and went to Starbucks. It was glorious. After all, I wasn’t training for anything, so why did it matter if I ran eight miles instead of 15? For the first time in a long time, I was running without worrying about pace, distance, or an end goal.

As it turns out, “casual running” isn’t just a method of overcoming a dip in your training; it is an indispensable part of a balanced, well-rounded approach to competitive running. This is especially true for mere mortals who also have to worry about full-time employment, paying the mortgage, and not alienating everyone they’ve ever met by behaving as though the world is ending because their tempo pace has slipped from 6:40 to 7:05.

Although I’ve been at this for only a couple of months, I am already reaping the innumerable benefits of running for running’s sake: I’m getting much-needed physical and mental recovery after a brutal couple of years; I’ve been maintaining a decent mileage base despite taking it relatively easy; and I feel like my love of running has been rekindled after teetering on the edge of burnout. This strategy has been working so well that my running friends have taken to calling it “causal running” because it has “caused” me to relax and have fun again.

Casual Running Tips

Casual running sounds simple enough, but if you’re a type-A competitive beast like I am, it might not come so naturally at first. So here are some tips to ease your transition into a more mellow approach to running.

Me, being casual.
Me, being casual.

Slow down. Treat this period as an extended recovery run. It’s no secret that rest days during training and a prolonged period of recovery after a goal race are keys to maintaining running longevity and laying the groundwork for a successful next race. In fact, many elite athletes take two full weeks or more completely off from running after racing a marathon.

Those of us who are not professionals might need even more recovery before launching into another training cycle, and that’s okay. For me, casual running is all about balance: when I feel like running fast, I do, but my focus has been on allowing my body to recover from the almost nonstop intense training that I put it through for the past two and a half years. Everyone is different, and the key to optimal training is figuring out the best way to allow your body to recover fully in between training cycles.

Check your ego, and your watch, at the door. Casual running can also be a good mental break from intense training, but you have to tell your ego to take a hike. I’ve been able to accomplish this (mostly) by purposely not following a training schedule and by trying hard not to look at my watch, and sometimes even leaving the watch at home. This way I don’t worry about pace and run only as far as I want to. If I wake up and don’t feel like running, I don’t. If I want to run with friends who run at a different pace than I normally do, or if I want to stop during my run to check out the scenery, I do. And I try really hard not to race random dudes I see when I’m out running, though this one is admittedly tough.

Be Machiavellian.  Keep reminding yourself that the end justifies the means.  Although you might not be laying down killer track workouts at the moment, backing off for a while will help you run stronger in the future. Just consider casual running as part of an extended training schedule: the casual running you’re doing now will help you nail that huge PR in six months.

* * *

My casual running is still a work in progress.  It’s hard to silence my inner critic and not compare the paces I’m running now to the paces I ran last year. But, slowly but surely, running has become fun again. I’m incorporating it into my life in the way that it fits best right now, and that has made a big difference. That’s the thing about running that I, as a relative newbie, just figured out: running will always be there for me, but not always in the same way. I’ll be ready to race like my old self again soon, but in the meantime, I’m keeping it casual.

Do you feel pressure to maintain a high level of training year round?  How much down time do you normally take between training cycles?

A former field hockey goalkeeper, I discovered a love for marathons in 2014. I’m a three-time Boston qualifier with a 3:18 marathon PR and a 1:30 PR in the half. When I’m not dodging tourists while running on the National Mall, I work as a lawyer in Washington, D.C. I write about training, competition, and everything in between.

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29 comments

  1. This post speaks to me! I began seriously running about 2 years ago. Since then I haven’t looked back and have only increased my mileage and have always been following some sort of plan. Lately I’ve considered taking a break from plans but there is always that lingering, is a PR right around the corner? I’m certainly not getting any younger and I’m worried if I take a break then I’ll miss my prime running time. This is my type A talking ;) Great message! Is really making me think.

  2. After a big race, I see the recovery time as a way of thanking my body for putting up with everything I made it do in racing and in training. Or, if the race didn’t go well, it’s a sign my body needs time to recuperate before trying again. It helps me to have a balance of both in my training partners — sometime I run with people who aren’t training for anything and are just running because they enjoy it, and sometimes I run with people who are training for a race. It helps balance my own perspective.

  3. This is so hard for me!! I’m so all-or-nothing: I’m scared that if I’m not following a training plan to the letter, I’ll just quit running altogether and lose all my fitness and never be able to start again. Especially this time of year, when it’s probably raining and usually dark when I’m not at work. ?

    I managed to chill out for awhile, mostly because an injury forced me to (3 guesses how I got injured in the first place…), but I’m definitely starting to feel that old craziness creeping back in. I ran my first marathon last weekend, and all I’ve been thinking of for the last four days when I can do another one! Only faster this time, obviously.

    Anyway, thanks for the reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way!

    1. Congrats on your first marathon — how exciting!! I love to throw in some trail running after a fall marathon because it’s a) beautiful and b) you have to go slower. The raining and dark thing is the worst.

  4. Sometimes this site is a challenge for me because I am not a competitive runner. Running is my escape from a stressful life of job, kids, and commitments. Running is my sanctuary, my movement solely devoted to me. So some days are hard and fast because I have energy that needs a channel. A lot of days are slow, to the pace of a podcast or just the sounds of birds. I have never and will may never win a running race (although, I am gunning for that 65-70 age bracket one day.) I use running as therapy. I would be miserable without it.

    1. I think a lot of us here feel the same way about running, even if we have expected to win in the past, do expect to win tomorrow, or hope to win a race some day. I think that’s one of the beautiful things about running. I can say I’m glad you’re here and I’m really glad you shared that.

    2. This is exactly the long-term mentality I’m hoping to cultivate! Sometimes I forget what it is to run for the joy and adventure of running. (That’s what I loved about running when I first started as a teenager, not for a school team but just on my own around the neighbourhood…and beyond. Shh! Don’t tell my mother.) I may also never come within sniffing distance of a podium, but often face internal pressure to best my previous times.

      For me, the main source of pressure and competition is internal – it’s not social media or Strava. In a way, that’s even more challenging than peer pressure.

  5. Like so many others here, I, too, am a type-A, crazy competitive runner. I train hard starting in the fall and continue through the winter. Mileage usually peaks at 80 miles. My training cycle ends in the spring after running many short races and a half and full marathon.

    Then my seasonal landscaping business gets insanely busy and dominates my time through the summer. That leaves me with very little time for running.

    It’s always difficult to back off the training and lose my hard-earned fitness. I’ve tried in past years to ‘do it all’, but I just can’t manage it. Something has to give and training always loses out.

    It’s not what I would necessarily chose, but the forced time off does allow me to simply run for fun. I pack away my Garmin and racing flats and count myself lucky if I can get in a couple of short runs every week. I think it’s helped me to avoid burn out and keeps my family life more balanced.

  6. So, so true. I tried to jump back in after getting clearance from major surgery, and sure enough, hit a huge wall 2 months later. I stopped running for 2 weeks, determined to quit altogether. I’m back to running, but I’ve been keeping it short and easy-running with my dog(who has to stop and do his business), has kept me from getting Garmin obsessed. For the first time since I starred running nearly 6 years ago, I will dns a race at the end of the month. And I’m ok with it. Slowly getting back to enjoying running again, and slowly rebuilding my strength and endurance, which had taken a major hit with surgery!
    Since I’m an older adult-onset runner, I think I have felt like my “window” of running is short? Which is ridiculous, but there you go. I may be 80 when I finally manage to BQ, but I’ll get there someday. It just won’t be this year. And I finally figured out that if I didn’t stop, it was never going to happen!

  7. I love this! I have been flirting with the idea of ditching my garmin, or at least changing the display so I don’t get the constant feedback about my pace and distance. I am not training for anything right now, and won’t likely have another training cycle begin till January, so right now I truly am just running for running’s sake and working on rebuilding my base after having my several month injury. I keep getting disappointed when I feel like I’m not hitting the pace I think I *should* be at, but really, what does it matter right now?
    I did manage to not look at my watch during my run this morning and was pleasantly surprised the run went better than I thought! :)

    1. Yes, change the display on your Garmin (and turn off the alert for each mile split so you’re not tempted to look down)! That made a huge difference for me — it’s like running without a watch, so you’re not obsessing over it the whole time, but you can still look at the data after the fact.

  8. I have also hit a point in my training where I feel like I just have no bounce in my step anymore. I have decided for my health’s sake, I’m going to hit up some labwork to see if anything is going on, and have been taking it easy for just under 2 weeks now, running only 3-5 miles a day. I am enjoying fall but not killing myself to get myself out the door!

  9. My natural rhythm seems to be that summer running just doesn’t work well for me – every year after Boston I get really psyched up and I plan to do a fall marathon, either to capitalize on great results/great fitness from the spring, or to redeem myself for a sucky outcome. And every year around July, I realize I just want to spend time at the pool and drink wine. So, May-August tends to be Casual Running season for me, and just about now when the weather starts to cool, I get motivated again. So here I am again, in easy ramp up mode, but this year I’m trying to do what others have said – leave the watch at home, mix in a little quality here and there but don’t stress about it. So far, so good!

  10. Love this post! Ditto to so much of what’s already been said. Sometimes my mind – and my garmin – can be my worst enemy. Just before my injury I started running with my garmin on the time setting only and I loved it so much.

    1. Thanks! I’ve had some great runs lately with my Garmin on the time-only setting. It’s amazing what a difference such a small change can make!

      1. I do a lot of runs with just HR on the screen. I’m still recording and logging the data, but not having it in my face throughout the run seems to help.

  11. This!!! I bailed on my fall marathon b/c i was burned out, or on the cusp of serious burnout. I have Boston 2017 to train for and I didn’t want to hate training for it the way I was hating the training for Akron. I decided that I needed to just enjoy my runs and run at whatever pace I felt like. I also removed myself from certain triggers, like certain running groups where everyone runs a race every week ( and I started wondering if I was a loser b/c I don’t race as much), or people that always had to post group running selfies after “an awesome 20miler” . Prior to all these people, gadgets, and groups I always just ran however I felt and that’s when I was happiest, so that’s what I went back to. On Instagram I just like using MINE as a little log and enjoy looking back at some of my runs. I have noticed that so many of the hobby/ recreational runners always have a track workout and even their “easy” pace is 7:30-7:45 but a few weeks later they are dealing with an injury.
    Last night I went for a very nice evening run and ran 9:00 miles and I enjoyed my run, I just enjoyed getting out the door for running sake. I’ll get “serious ” again in a few months but until then I just run easy and if I don’t feel like running i don’t. I could be wrong but I’m assuming that a lot of recreational runners feel like they have to prove to their peers how awesome they are or how fast they are. I just don’t care about proving anything to anyone.

    1. That sounds so much like me! I somehow got this idea in my head that I should always be training at this high level because that’s what I see “serious” recreational runners on the internet doing. But I know that (1) that’s often a distorted reality, and (2) even if it’s not, it’s not right for me right now, so I should just tune it out! I’m glad you’ve embraced running for running’s sake — it’s helped me a lot, even if it took me a while to get there.

    2. Yes, yes, yes to all things about the online runner groups and running social media. For me, just the absolutely wrong trigger and wrong motivation for my running. Deleted them all!!!

  12. I totally agree with this! Glad you’re taking it easy until you feel ready to get after it again. I always take 2 down weeks after a long cycle where I run whenever I feel like it and at whatever pace I want. Favorite time of the year :) but by then end, I’m always ready to to bring the intensity back.

    1. Thanks, Spearmint! I think if I had been better at taking down time between cycles I might not be in this situation. I just kept worrying that I would lose all of the fitness that I worked so hard for, so I didn’t give myself enough time to recover. Now I understand that there’s a reason that training cycles are called “cycles” — you’re not supposed to maintain that kind of training all the time!

    2. Great point on WANTING to bring the intensity back! My coach describes it as “itching.” This training cycle I’ve run two half marathons as tune-ups and we take 3-5 days after really easy until I’m getting antsy to run fast again. When you’re ready, you’ll know. Until then, lay back.

  13. This was me when I started to train to race competitively. I made it through almost two years and then … whoa. But I would see people racing a marathon and then out running the next week and thought that was normal. I didn’t realize that my lowest weight during marathon training was a bi-product of the training and not some new standard to maintain. Maybe those things are true for some people, but I also had to learn the hard way that they are not true for me. Great post and an important message for all of us!

    1. It’s really hard, and especially if you see success early on, you start assuming that it’s going to be like that always (or at least I did). So it has been a hard adjustment to make, especially during fall race season when I see all my friends out there nabbing big PRs in their goal races. I’ve had to readjust my expectations and my focus, at least for now. I just have to keep reminding myself to listen to how I’m feeling and that I’m playing the long game!

      1. YES! It’s so easy to assume, well this worked before so this is what I shall do forever! That mentality was a factor in my overtraining because I kept thinking that I couldn’t be overtrained because I wasn’t training as much as I did a couple of years before with no issues. I wonder if this is more a problem with us adult-onset runners. Does learning how to train in college when there are training seasons help reinforce healthier understanding of rest and recovery cycles?

        1. That’s a really great question about learning about training seasons. Do all runners struggle with incorporating that kind of off season in their lives?? Personally, I was a casual runner for many many years before having kids and it was mostly lovely and injury free. Since having kids I have pushed for more, which is alternately awesome and a huge disaster. Recognizing that I absolutely need a formal off season has been important, but has taken me way longer than it should to actually understand! I have blamed my slow acceptance of the off season on the fact that, because I was a casual runner for so very long (and, honestly, I was younger), I didn’t used to need a formal off season so I was stupid about it. But, maybe it is just a runner thing in general to resist the off season.

  14. So. Good. I’m right there with you! (minus the competitive beast part) I’ve been a casual runner this whole year, and I’m adjusting to the lack of pressure I normally put on myself, especially this time of year. Thanks to some Garmin issues, I’ve also been using minutes to plan my run instead of pace and miles. I run by feel according to a set amount of time. Back in the summer I slogged through a steamy ten miler for no apparent reason other than to say I ran ten miles. But now, I’m more interested in running 80-90 minutes slowly and *very* comfortably. At first I really didn’t like it, and I felt like I was not being productive. But I’m already seeing myself get stronger with this method. The two whole times my Garmin has cooperated this month, I’ve been surprised at my pace and how easy it feels. I thought the casual approach would hurt me, but I am gaining strength! Yay for progress and casual/causal running!

    1. Thanks, Bergie! It’s definitely a tough adjustment — at first, I kept asking, “what is the point?” But now that I’ve been at it for a while, I am slowly feeling better and stronger.