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.
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.
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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?