Dear Elinor,

I’ve been running for a long time, but recently I lost all motivation. It happened after my first half marathon. The race was fun, and my friends and I stopped at aid stations along the way. But when they started talking about doing another race, I felt pressure to get faster and take the training more seriously. That just killed my desire to run, so I haven’t done it in months. Rather than run to race, I want to run to relieve the stress of my demanding law career. I work 10 hours a day and need a quick and easy way to recharge during the week. Running has been that activity for me, and I miss it . How can I get my motivation back?”
-Kylie in Kansas

Dear Kylie,

What you’re feeling is very common. As soon as running a race becomes something that has to get done, it’s easy to lose the fun, no-pressure aspect of the experience.

This happened to me a few years ago when after signing up for the toughest high-altitude trail 50-miler in the country. The San Juan Solstice 50 in Lake City, Colorado, was the hardest race I’d attempted since finishing the Leadville Trail 100-miler two years earlier. I hadn’t run much since that epic event (which took me almost 29 hours to complete), and had since struggled with a bout of adrenal fatigue.

But thanks to a healthy diet, prioritizing self care and better managing my stress, I thought I was ready to tackle another ultramarathon.

But after a few weeks of consistent running, I felt less and less inclined to do my favorite sport.

As race day approached, the less I ran. Eventually, I ran not a step and distracted myself with a major landscaping project to tame my overgrown yard.

In retrospect, I attribute my rebellion to an overwhelming resistance to doing a really hard race. The thing is, I would have been much fitter that spring if I hadn’t signed up for a race and had just run for fun. So I showed up on race morning with barely enough fitness to get me to the finish line, though hours longer than I could have done had I trained properly.

As I’ve learned since that punishing race, it is possible to regain your motivation now by reframing running as a daily practice that serves you today instead of viewing it as an obligation or overwhelming goal you must achieve. With goals come expectations (from ourselves and others), and those expectations can zap your energy and enthusiasm.

Such external pressure can feel unbearable, especially when staked atop other performance pressures like a demanding career.

To regain a mindset of running as fun and easy, use mindfulness to cultivate more present-moment awareness. Being “in the moment” instead of worrying about the future allows you to physically relax, thereby making running more fluid. And a relaxed body carries less tension, which means less resistance and more enjoyment.

Here’s how to start adding mindful running to your routine:

1. Before stepping out the door, set an intention for your run.

Different from a goal, an intention is about achieving a desired feeling or state of being today. Intentions keep your attention on how you feel right now. This way, instead of running how your training, running partner or ego is telling you to run, you run in whatever way (speed, distance, route, etc) allows you to achieve your desired feeling. With this approach, success is guaranteed when you experience that state of being, regardless of how many minutes you run or intervals you complete.

2. Leave your watch, headphone, GPS, heart-rate monitor and any wearable technology at home.

Since the purpose is to focus on the sensations of running, tools that distract you from that purpose are unnecessary. If you’re accustomed to running with one or more of these things, you may feel “naked” without them at first, but it will soon pass. If you’re concerned about getting bored, don’t be, since you’ll have plenty to think about as you practice mindful running. And for what to record in your training log, most of the time, round estimates are just as good and precisely measured numbers.

3. Find a rhythm that syncs your breath with your feet.

This should occur naturally, without any conscious effort. As long as you are running in a relaxed way, this rhythm comes to you. Pace is less relevant than effort level. Go as slow as you need to find a pace that is comfortable and feels sustainable. If you enjoy trail running, then run on trails, even if they’re challenging. As long as you’re able to focus on rhythm and breath (even when you’re hiking uphill), then you’re going at the right pace for you.

4. Become aware of your running gait.

Can you maintain good form? If you’re straining to run a certain speed or your form is falling apart, then slow down! You’re probably working too hard. As students of the Master Mindful Running program learn, healthy running isn’t about working harder to get faster; rather speed arises from a body that moves efficiently, is balanced and free from tension.

5. Tune in to bodily sensations.

Pleasant or unpleasant, these sensations are all part of the natural biofeedback system, which is designed to protect you over-extending yourself. When those sensations are ignored, you create the circumstances for injury to occur. Make a mental note of the sensations that come up when you run. How many are positive (joy, flow, powerful, motivated)? How many are negative (pain, sluggishness, fatigue, tension)? Whatever is going on, don’t push it out or be tempted to mask it with music, ibuprofen or mental chatter. For the purposes of this run, take it all in as useful biofeedback.

6. Use that biofeedback as a self-coaching tool to run better.

Have you noticed the way kids run? It’s effortless, spontaneous and playful. What if you could apply that approach to your running, even if you’re gunning for a marathon PR? The good news is that you can. Any training plan you’re using right now is meant to be a guideline rather than a prescription. Overlay that training plan with the wisdom you gain through mindfulness to modify the plan on the fly.

By noting daily shifts in your energy, motivation, training quality and other subjective measures along with your workout’s distance and pace, you’re able to able to avoid the common pitfalls that befall so many runners.

In this way, you become your own coach, knowing how much rest, recovery, mileage and racing suits you and your lifestyle, while staying healthy, motivated and energized.