Four Shoes, One Love: How Training Changes Runners’ Relationships

I am no expert in relationships, but I am a competition-oriented runner in a relationship with another runner, and as the years go by and my husband and I go in and out of training cycles, I’ve noticed a few patterns.

The way I see it, the relationship dynamic between pair of runners depends greatly on where each runner is in her/his training.  It’s sort of like the states of matter: as the molecules of an object react to different temperatures, the object passes through the various states of matter (solid, liquid, gas, etc.).  Similarly, as the training of two runners increases and decreases in intensity, so will their relationship fluctuate through different states.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll presume that you Salty Readers are like me and most often the competitive runner in each scenario.

If  we reduce our partners to their “runner-ness,” a competitive runner can pair up with 1) one who runs competitively, 2) one who runs solely for fun or exercise 3) one who doesn’t run.  Types of runners are really more like states of matter (solid, liquid, gas) than absolute genres in that most of us fluctuate between the different states. And I propose that if you or your runner/mate changes state, so too will the relationship.

My husband (heretofore known as “the Tuna”) and I both started running before we starting driving and met through overlapping circles of runners.  Running is embedded in our souls. I prefer to be in the competitive state of running. My husband, on the other hand, can cycle through the states three times a year. As his state fluctuates, the state of our relationship transitions from one state to another.

One of our first post-collegiate races together in 2008. He’s happy, I’m tired.

Competitive Duo

In the competitive duo, both members are competitive runners. This means both members are running to get faster, and each is focused on his/her individual goals. Pro-runner Lauren Fleshman and her pro-triathlete husband Jesse Thomas are an example of a competitive duo.

The great thing about a relationship in this state is that both members get it. He gets why you wake up at 5 AM on a Saturday. You get why he spent $120 on new running shoes. And he gets why you fall asleep at the dinner table at least once a week. Because he’s right there with you. You are both often exhausted, hangry (when hunger turns to anger), and a wee bit selfish.

The Tuna and I function pretty well when we’re both on the same page. Stories of epic tempos and effortless intervals fill our conversation as we eat french bread pizza for dinner. Again. At 8:30 PM. From opposite sides of the coffee table.  In the midst of a hamstring-stretch. It is crazy-town at our house when we are both training competitively, but we love it.

The key to our success in this state of the running relationship is turn-taking. When the Tuna and I are both training for PR’s or standards (qualifying for another race), we run different races. I’ll run Chicago, and a week later, he’ll run Columbus. We haven’t ever both raced the same (big) race, because after gritting through a PR (or an implosion) at any distance, in any relationship state, the first thing we want at the finish line is to see the other person. And after tracking and chasing and cheering galore, the spectator-half wants the same thing; to celebrate or to pick up the pieces. One of us has been known to sneak into “restricted” finishing areas and sneak out of medical tents because it is just that important.

Competitive + Recreational Pair

The relationship morphs into the state of the competitive + recreational pair when one runner is running competitively and the other is running recreationally. In our case, this occurs when the Tuna enters one of his Brett Favre-esque “retirements.” At these times, I like to pretend we can relate to Kara and Adam Goucher.

This state is all about balance and sharing in the competitive runner’s goal. The recreational runner understands the runner’s high. He/she supports the competitive runner at races or easy days, even on warm ups and cool downs. But while the competitive runner is out logging miles, the recreational runner has to pick up some of the relationship slack. And the chores. And the childcare. And the post-workout blow-up counseling sessions.

The Tuna and I function well, maybe even the best, in this state. We can go for easy runs together and he will pace me in a workout without too much effort, all while taking care of housekeeping and making sure we only eat french-bread pizza once a week.

I must admit, I love the recreational runs together.

Competitive + Non-Runner Twosome

In the competitive + non-runner twosome, one member is running competitively and the other is not a runner. Famous Competitive+ Non-Runner Twosomes include Bernard Lagat and wife Gladys Tom or Fawn Dorr and her partner.

In this relationship state, the non-runner might not understand the kooky runner obsessions but they know 5AM runs are part of the routine and $100 shoes are part of the budget. The competitive runner is spending a lot of his/her free time pounding pavement which means a lot of time without the non-runner.

The Tuna and I are most challenged in this state. This state really comes down to sacrifice. When we’re both training for competition, we are both goal-oriented. When I’m training competitively and the Tuna’s running recreationally, he is active in the process of helping me reach my goal. So when one of us is training competitively and the other is not running, the non-runner becomes the number one fan. From dinner to dry cleaning. From road-trips for races to personal baggage claim/drop off, to scenarios like this:

What’s that? Your hands are cold? You didn’t pack gloves? Well, let me give you mine. My hands? Don’t be silly. I won’t be cold. I’ll keep my hands in my pockets as I chase you around the course.  You need warm hands more than I do.

That scenario pretty much sums up the sacrifices of the non-runner when in this relationship state. Since the state is so one-sided, the Tuna and I really do best by remembering that this state is only temporary and we’ll be back to our goal-oriented, goal-sharing state in no time.

Shortly after my first OTQ attempt in Chicago in 2011, I was exchanging emails with a teammate about speculation regarding the 2016 standard. As I consulted the Tuna about another four years of chasing standards, this is what he had to say:

How does your training affect your relationship with your significant other (or friends, household, etc.)? What state do you prefer to be in?


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. I am married to a non-runner. He is a non-runner 100% of the time. We have two young children (2,4). We have a great relationship. However, he pointed out the only time we fight is about running. I’m gone for races, training, run club events, expo’s, etc. to say he doesn’t get it, is putting it lightly.

    1. Running can be a source of frustration with my marriage, too. He’s not a runner and has never understood my need to get up early on weekends to run. With two small kids (1.5 and 4), his cooperation is now essential for me being able to run. I try not to get annoyed that he gets annoyed about having to be up “early” so that I can get out the door. I do make some concessions – I’m doing my long runs from our house rather than on the bike paths/trail system that I love, so that I’m not gone as long.

      We’ve always had a deal when it comes to races that I tell him when it’s important and am honest if it’s okay for him to skip watching. I don’t pull the passive-aggressive “it’s okay” when it’s not move, so he knows if I say I want him there that it’s really important to me. I would have loved for the kids to have come watch the finish at the 1/2 I ran recently, but the practical side of me knew that trying to contain the two of them in a crowd is too tough of a job for one person.

      He does try to understand some things. When I was training for my first sub-4 marathon attempt, I was super excited to have finished a 20 mile run around 3 hours. I was starting to explain why that was significant, and he was able to fill in the blanks that I would be able to break 4 even if I’d run the next 10K slower.

  2. My husband used to be a competitive runner, but isn’t right now. He still runs a bit, but nothing too serious. He’s decided to allocate his precious free time to other hobbies. Sometimes it’s hard because he misses running and gets a bit jealous that I “magically” have enough time to train. It’s hard with small children because there never seems to be enough time for ANYTHING! But overall, because he’s been there before, he really is super supportive and it’s so nice to be able to run training ideas, race strategies and stuff like that by him and have a great conversation about it. Even though he sometimes misses running and it’s hard to see me pursuing it, he really is amazingly supportive helping me scrape together time to get in my runs and supporting me when I can’t. I’m lucky!

  3. I’m a recreational runner with a tendency to make everything into a competition, even if it’s just against myself. 🙂 My husband was a collegiate athlete (soccer), so he’s super competitive and driven and “gets it”. But (as much he would like to), he has neither the time nor the knees to make a go at distance running. I know it’s hard for him to be primarily on the sidelines, holding down the fort with the kids while I race or go for a long run on the weekends, but he’s by far my biggest fan. He told me yesterday after a 5 minute PR in the HM: “You haven’t peaked yet. I guarantee if you keep training hard, you’re going to keep getting faster.” Yup, he’s a keeper!

  4. Nice write-up! I have to venture to say that the Abbott household falls under the competitive duo category. I think when it all comes down to it, support is the key ingredient to any one of these categories. No matter where each person in the relationship falls, one has to support the other. We are very lucky gals!

  5. Love this! My husband and I are both runners – we met running, he proposed running. We call running together our free marital counseling. Since we’ve had our son, we’ve gone from “Competitive duo” to “Competitive + Recreational Pair.” It’s too hard for us to both log the miles for long races, so while he gears up for the Houston marathon in January, I’m prepping for my first 10k in November. We can still train together sometimes and those are definitely my favorite runs!

  6. My husband and I are usually in the same state, and it’s usually competetive. I started running 5+ years before him, but within a year he was smokin’ me at 5 and 10ks. Once I realized it didn’t do any good to get upset (or try and beat him) I was fine – we just each ran our own race. Then we started half and full marathon training. Revenge of the wifey! Turns out I’m willing to suffer way longer than he is! Four months of marathon training was definitely a test of how much we like (not love) each other, and luckily we’re still speaking 2 weeks post-marathon. He hasn’t committed to run my next marathon with me but has promised to run me in the last few miles, and I’ll be at the finish line cheering him in at his 5k in two weeks. Guess that’s a happy compromise.

  7. My husband is a non-runner, but he still gets it, being a cyclist. Really, between his bike and computer stuff, my hobby is the least expensive in the equation! The only thing that is an issue for us sometimes is the early wake-ups, especially on the weekends. But he is super supportive and has learned all kinds of stuff about splits and tapers!

    Like MG, we have a deal about races where he often doesn’t attend. It’s definitely not the most spectator friendly of sports, and I’ll tell him if it’s a really, really important race. And I do love my race road trips with my girlfriends!

  8. My husband is a 100% non-runner and I am a 100% competitive runner. Our relationship works well. We have four kids (6, almost 5, and twins that are 2 1/2). I have been a runner since high school, so my husband knew this going into our relationship. He does think I am crazy most of the time (yes, I am one of those early morning risers, 4 am most days), but he is my #1 fan. As much as he doesn’t enjoy me being gone for 3-4 hours on either a Saturday or Sunday to get in my long run and then go out for coffee with my soul sisters, he does see how running is one of my biggest passions in life. He knows that running with my girlfriends and running in races, marathons, etc., completes me. He has seen a side of me when I had an injury for 8 weeks and he has readily admitted he will take the runner over the non-runner any day of the week. My husband always says that he will “never understand you crazy runners”, but he is very excited to come watch and cheer for me in any of my races.