Why Is It So Hard to Get Back Into Running?

Why Is It So Hard to Get Back Into Running?

You may think once you've acquired the running bug, you're set for life. Once a runner, always a runner - right?

If you're reading this as a former runner unable to regain your stride, you'll know it's not quite as simple as strapping on your trainers and hitting the pavement. But just why is it so hard to get back into running after a break?

"Normally, naturally born runners have no issue with returning to running after a gap," says Dr Solomon Abrahams. "There may be mitigating reasons such as medical or weight problems, but the most common factor is a lack of willpower." Non-natural runners may not intrinsically enjoy running but push harder to create a regular routine - so may find it more challenging to return to the habit.

But if that implies willpower and genetics are all that stands between you and the open road, it's not that simple. So says Dr Rhonda Cohen, a sports psychologist at Middlesex University. "A big part of our motivation and commitment can be due to how we attribute our progress so far," says Cohen, "and whether we feel we have control or not over our behaviour. If we attribute our running to ability, and injury is what's stopping us, we can work on ability through rehabilitation and training. If we attribute not running to fate or luck, then we won't feel any control about returning to running either."

When injury strikes

Your relationship to running may dictate the pattern of your recovery after injury, and how soon/whether you return to running. Excessive exercisers share traits with elite athletes when it comes to dealing with injury, for instance, both refusing to acknowledge the need for rest or the attendant psychological issues in not doing so. According to a study by Johnston and Carroll, the more exercise you do before injury, the more the potential for psychological impact, which in turn affects your rate of recovery, with "lowered self-esteem and increased depression after injury".

It's as important to set goals during rehab as it is throughout your running career: a date to return to the gym; trying a non-running activity; the number of rehabilitation sessions; or specific exercises to increase range of motion, strength or endurance.

Regaining form

However it's come about, a break needn't be disastrous to your running regime. "[V]irtually all elite sports men and women will have a brief period of recovery (two to four weeks) at the end of each competitive year in order to recharge their batteries (physically, mentally and emotionally)", writes Tony Lycholat. While you may be contemplating a return after a considerably longer rest, fitness levels can improve within a few weeks - although he adds, "if you have been physically inactive for six months or more, then you are effectively starting from scratch." If it's been much longer than that, you may also have to contend with physiological changes due to ageing or weight gain, in which case you may need a more holistic training programme including diet and cross-training.

There are benefits to 'starting from scratch' if dwelling on past performance is a hurdle to your current running. "It is possible to return to running and improve performance," comments Abrahams, but "this depends on level of experience, age and other health-related issues. Speed can be increased with specific training but not significantly as this is mostly genetic." Training for the runner you are now will be more useful to you than beating yourself up over former PBs.

If your running days are a long distant memory, you may find it harder to jump back into your previous running routine due to new family, job or hobby commitments. Be realistic about your schedule and where you could conceivably make time for running. If running in a group might help - find one (or, if you can't find one, start your own: www.runengland.org).

If you're really struggling to reignite the passion for running, the bigger question is why it's so important to get back into something you don't really enjoy any more. Exercise professional and counsellor Debbie Lawrence notes, "I would be inclined to listen to the part that doesn't want to run anymore ... a large part of me wants to say it's OK to drop out." If that doesn't apply to you, though, look back at your beginner's and/or run-walk programmes - these tend to be graded in intensity so are more likely to be sustainable as well as boosting confidence. And for a different approach to interval training, try www.zombiesrungame.com (IOS, Android), an app which simulates zombie armageddon to get you running - mostly away from the undead. Now's also the time to re-read your training diaries and rediscover patterns of success: running routes that you enjoyed, time of day, weather, whether it made you feel good. As well as practical insight, it's the proof that you can run regularly and consistently.