Fight the Funk: Bust those Running Slumps!

If only getting through a running slump were as simple as drinking an energy drink. Image from

Slumps. We’ve all been there. Mentally. Physically. Slumps at work. Slumps in relationships. Slumps in mood. Why would running be any different. It is no fun being in a running slump. Whether it is a mental running slump or a plateau in performance, running slumps can be grueling. Running slumps can come in all shapes and sizes. Mini and mega.

I’ve started to notice a trend in my mega-running slumps, of which I’ve really only had two in my 15 years of running. The onset? Best year ever + layoff due to injury + attempting to comeback. I’ve heard a lot of fellow runners say things like “I had my best season ever after my injury!” Nope. That’s not me. But two mega-slumps in 15 years of running really isn’t too bad, right?

Running through the slump in college.

The first mega-slump came during my junior year of college. During my sophomore year, I was gunning for a NCAA Division III provisional qualifying mark in the 10,000 meter of 37:50. I was fit and could run 90 second quarters all day long. The only problem was, I kept entering the wrong meets. I ended up running about four 10,000 meter races all alone and never hitting the time. I beat myself up about it for the whole summer between my sophomore and junior years, trained myself into the ground and ended up in a dismal place of overtraining and sciatica. I’d like to say that running through overtraining and injury didn’t ruin the rest of my college career, but truth be told, it did. I still loved practice and long runs. I even loved watching my teammates compete and nail workouts.  I just didn’t really care about my own racing, workouts or mileage. I went through the motions of a competitive runner for the next 2 years and contemplated quitting the sport competitively at least once a month but stuck it out because of my friends and teammates. I still loved running in and of itself, but it took me another 2 years to get back to a place where I wanted to try to be competitive again.

My last running hurrah? My last race of 2011 before my injury lay-off. Photo by Michael Scott.

2011 was my best running year ever. I ran huge breakthroughs from my 2:53 marathon to finally gettting that sub-18 5k monkey off my back. And then the plantar fasciitis crept in and I was down for the count for 3 loooong months. Right now, I’m about 5 months into my post-injury comeback. When I was injured I couldn’t wait to start training again! But that I am and after 5 months of no change in my mental state, I’m done denying it: I am in a mega-slump.

Don’t get me wrong, I am loving my 5:30 AM 5-10 mile plods at 9-10 min/mile. I’m learning to trust my body/foot and read the difference between normal running twinges and red-flag pains. But when I think about workouts, racing, and competition, I want to crawl into a hole and hide. Thoughts of team time standards, goal races, and marathon training are enough to make me want to join a meditative center or become a full-time yogi. On one hand, I feel this need to run a year-salvaging race before the end of 2012. But on the other hand, I think, I’d be content with transitioning to a race runner instead of a race racer. What lies at the heart of the issue? Getting back into shape stinks! It stresses me out and makes me doubt my potential. Bottom line? It takes the fun out of running.

So how to we get the fun back? Here are a few strategies I’m employing to minimize slumptime.

1. Recognize the problem: Just like any other bad habit or maladaptive behavior, you have to recognize you have a “problem.” Once you stop denying it, you can start to fix it. Good news here? I’m about 2 years ahead of schedule in comparison to my last slump. Hurray!

2. Back to Basics. I don’t have a desire to run fast or race, but I still genuinely enjoy running. This is great! But what is it about running that I love? How do I do more of what I love in running and less of what I hate? Why did I start running in the first place? Why do I want to make a “comeback” at all? These are all questions you need to ask as you try to get back to basics. For me, I started running because I like to be active. If I sit still too long, I get bored and antsy. From day one, I loved “perimeters” (2/3 mile loops around the school) while most of my teammates prefered to hide in the woods. I loved courses with turn-arounds to see and cheer on my teammates (ahead and behind me) and I cherished the 2-3 meets a year with a 4 x 1600 meter relays.  And I love the feeling of starting the day with a run instead of coffee and a donut. So what are my running basics? I love moderately paced, long easy runs.  I love comraderie and sharing running with others. What is my ticket out of this slump? Easy morning runs, with friends when possible and supporting my teammates in their competitive endeavors. Afterall, I’m still a sucker for competition, just not my own, in this moment.

It doesn’t get much more basic than this. Image from

3. Take your time. This is incredibly hard for me. It seems unnatural. My whole running career, I’ve chased time-sensitive time goals. Run xxx in the 5k before this date to qualify for this meet. Meet xx goal before the end of the season or wait until next year. Hit the BQ during this qualifying window to register before it sells out. Ahhhh! How am I supposed to take my time with this comeback when deadlines are everywhere? It’s a decision. Just like I decide to get out of bed for a run each morning, I must decide to throw deadlines out the window. It may mean I miss out on team member perks and qualifying marks, but if it keeps me in the sport, then it’s worth the sacrifice. Annd, we’re about to have a moment… Inside, I know I’ll get back to racing races, someday.  And who knows. Maybe I’ll wake up one Saturday morning and feel like jumping in a 5k. But I’m not puting anything on the calendar until I want to because racing half-heartedly not only isn’t worth the entry fee, it isn’t worth the mental blow.

Take your time (above) and don’t stress about “times” (below). Think of time as fluid. Image from

4. No judgment.  One of my teammies uses this phrase when she gets a little to tipsy, so it always makes me giggle. But how does it apply to my slumpbusting? Well, while I fill my week with mostly easy, slow morning runs with friends (I think I need an acronym for that phrase…), easy running isn’t going to get be back to competition shape, which is the ultimate goal. I need to stop judging my performance. Many runners do this by going watchless. I’m a geek for feedback and data, so while I’m not about to sell my Garmin on ebay, I am making an effort to track performance objectively. One way I do this is by running taking interval/rep splits but refusing to look at them until the workout is over. That way, the data is there for me when I get home to my training log, but in the middle of the run, I run on effort. This is also a good strategy for overcoming self-imposed “limits” on performance or other workout anxiety. Try it. You’ll like it.

Through my 3 month cross-training-through-injury extravaganza, I delusionally thought that once I could run again, the hard part would be over. While I’m incredibly thankful to be logging miles on the roads instead of in the pool, I think the hardest part is yet to come!

Have you encountered a mega-slump in your running? What advice do you have for busting through a running slump?


I'm a pediatric physical therapist by day. Running mostly early am miles as I balance life as the mom of a toddler. With PR days in the past, my primary running goal is to be a lifelong runner. With 20+ years behind me, I still love the sport and I am truly grateful for every day I get to run.

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  1. Love this post! You’ll get there! When I wear my Garmin, I don’t have instant pace, just what that mile is going to be. When I want to increase effort, I tell myself, let’s drop 5 seconds. If the mile time drops, then I know I’m working harder, and vice versa. When I download the data, I’m usually pleasantly surprised! This has really helped me not stress out! See you in October!!!

  2. I think you are in the right frame of mind. When you are race ready I have a feeling your slump will get busted. No need to force it. I think you will have a couple of runs in the near future where all of a sudden you feel feisty again and then you will know it’s time to put back on the racing and training hat.

    I do wonder if having the ultimate short term goal off the table right now (OTQ) is adding time to both of our “slumps”. I think you are doing a much better job of processing everything than I have so far though!

  3. Thanks for writing this! I’m a junior in high-school, and I’ve done all three seasons of track every year. But, this 2012-2013 winter track season was by far my worst! I am in probably the worst slump I’ve ever had, the past 7 meets I have only ran 1 good race! It got so bad, I was even bumped down from varsity, and my season ended early. I was training just as hard as my other teammates, but doing so much worse! I think it is pretty much a mental thing..but I’m definitely stuck! Any other tips for someone not so experienced?

  4. Hi Grace! I am sad to hear you are in a slump. I’ve had slumps go two ways: 1. I’m out of shape and getting back into shape stinks (see above article!). 2. I’m overtrained and need a break. Do either of these sounds like you? I feel the runner’s path to getting her legs back underneath her is different, depending on the cause of the slump. In the first case, I recommend emphasizing the parts of running you enjoy, which is different for everyone. Many of my approaches are listed above. If it is overtraining or injury, the best thing to do is back off the miles and intensity for 4-6 weeks and see if you get your mojo back. You won’t lose as much fitness as you think and may even surprise yourself 6 months down the road with a revived love for running and a shiny new PR. Best of luck!

  5. Just a thanks for this article. I’m not so much in a slump as I am injured – plantar like you only mine’s torn. I am assured it’s not career-ending but I’ll miss my big thing – Dipsea – and surely XC this fall is not going to be quite a fast as I’d like. I’m in the pool, on the bike, logging time in the weight room and doing things like schlepping my friends around for mountain training runs in order to stay connected, somehow, to the running community, wherein all my friends reside. I miss running but I REALLY miss my social life, which is 100% invested in running. Of course my kids think this is great, Mom’s around a lot more, although they are both really concerned about my foot! Anyhow, thanks for your article and for sharing your own struggles with this stuff.

    1. Hi Patti! Thanks for sharing. I didn’t write this, but I’ve been there. I can identify a little even now. I’m just getting back into the swing of things after having a baby, but still struggle to feel connected to my teammates who are still much faster than me! I try to run with as many friends as I can, but it’s not always easy to get out to group runs or meet up with the three little ones at home. But it will pass for you and for me. The friends will be there for us when we’re ready to come back. Good luck, take care of that foot and keep us posted on your recovery and epic comeback!!!