In February 2019, I had one of the best racing performances of my life. My finishing time was just shy of the personal record that I set 12 years earlier, and had I better understood the course, I think I could have beaten it. Despite my age and three surgeries in the preceding five years, I was still running close to my best. Then, for reasons that I still cannot completely identify, my running ability abruptly fell off a cliff.
Sometimes I have dreams in which I struggle to run, like I am knee-deep in molasses, and this struggle became real in the summer of 2019. My legs were not tired, nor were they sore, but they just would not go. It was the oddest feeling, and the best way I can describe it is to compare it to having a limb that has fallen asleep: There is nothing structurally wrong with it, but it just does not work as it should. One morning, Joanne watched from the front door as I slowly jogged down to the end of the block, stopped, threw my hands up in exasperation and frustration, and walked back home.
From the summer of 2019 to early 2023, my running rebounded to a small extent. My endurance returned but my speed did not when I ran another marathon in 2022. In fact, my speed continued to worsen over those years at a pace that getting older alone does not explain. Each time I had an inexplicably slow run, each one seemingly slower than the preceding outing, my confusion and frustration grew and began to morph into disgust. In the midst of these runs, sometimes I thought about stopping – not just that day’s workout, but giving up running entirely.
After hearing of my frustration, a generous friend gifted me three months with a running coach who works remotely with distance runners all around the world. During our first conversation, the coach offered his opinion that I was running too fast during most of my training runs. Running slower in order to run faster sounded counterintuitive, but I was willing to try his approach for a few reasons. One, the training approach I had been taking clearly was no longer working for me. Two, he had helped numerous runners – including my friend – dramatically improve their running, which gave me hope that he could do the same with me. Three, in my line of work, I am used to offering suggestions that seem counterproductive at first glance, such as stocking, so I know to keep an open mind.
The coach used the workout pattern that I was already following as a starting point, but he made some significant changes. He added an additional day of running per week, increased my mileage, and significantly slowed my pace. Even during my interval workouts, he wanted me to refrain from running as hard as I could.
He gave me a training plan to follow, and while the specifics varied from week to week, the overall pattern was the same. Tuesdays were interval workouts at the track, Thursdays were recovery runs, and Saturdays were long and slow jogs. At first, the workout’s distances and paces were easy for me to achieve, which gave me confidence that I would be able to keep up with the coach’s training plan, and I felt optimistic.
Then problems arose. While I never got injured under the coach’s watch, I began getting sick more often than I ever had in adulthood. The frequent illnesses were more correlation than causation, as I suspect they were mostly due to exposure to the germs that our daughter brings home from kindergarten. However, I was pushing myself too hard. Sure, my speeds were slower than what I would have run on my own, but I also pushed myself to achieve the workout goals even when I was overtired or otherwise not feeling up to it because skipping or modifying a prescribed workout felt like failure. Instead of sleeping relatively late on Saturday mornings, I was waking up and starting my runs in the dark in order to fit in the mileage before beginning daddy duty. Between the decreased sleep and pushing myself too hard in my training, I was wearing myself out.
Still, I kept going, as I was clinging to the hope that following the coach’s training plan would make me a better runner, just like he had done for others. A few months into our training plan, coach began to prescribe faster workouts. After running so slowly for so long though, the goal paces felt lightning quick, and I failed to achieve them. At the beginning of our work, I routinely returned home from my training runs feeling optimistic, happy, and proud that I was able to achieve the goals that coach set out for me, but soon failure became the norm. Before leaving my house for a training run, I looked at the prescribed workout knowing I would need a miracle to achieve the day’s goals. Instead of feeling positive, I felt guilty and ashamed, and I wondered what was wrong with me.
Coach and I ended up working together for somewhere around six or seven months before I called it quits. He is a super nice guy, an elite runner himself, and he has vast coaching experience, loads of knowledge, and a long list of runners he had helped, but I seemed to be some sort of outlier in that my body was not responding positively to his training plan. We seemed to be bumping up against whatever mysterious factors had eroded my running abilities in the first place.
As you have read through my story, I wonder if you have picked up on the common themes between my work with the running coach and diet culture: turning to someone who “looks the part” for guidance, optimism based on testimonials that may or may not be indicative of typical results, reliance on external prescriptions rather than internal cues, and self-blame in the face of failure. Ultimately, realizing these commonalities is why I stopped.
Now I take a similar approach to running that diet survivors do to eating. My body’s internal cues are the primary factors in the decisions I make regarding when, how far, and how fast to run. Instead of focusing on my slow speed and feeling frustrated about it, I am working on accepting that all bodies change over time and the amount of control that I have over mine is limited. These days, I try to approach my running with a spirit of enjoyment and adventure, a fun and relaxing way to be outside, and feeling proud about covering ground on my own two feet – even if they do move much slower than they once did.