Why Sometimes Running Without Racing is the Best Thing You Can Do

This guest post was written by Allie Burdick

Some runners choose to never pin on a bib while others engage in a never ending cycle of races year after year.

Both types of runners can be highly motivated but, if there is essentially no goal race, how do you stay motivated, and are their any benefits of having a raceless calendar?

Let’s find out.

If you asked any number of elite runners, fitness professionals or sports psychologists how to regain running motivation after a slump in training they will all most likely tell you to sign up for a race!

However, if you don’t enjoy the process or environment of organized races and it is stressing you out more than it is helping, what then?

Why Sometimes Running Without Racing is the Best Thing You Can Do

How Does Intrinsic Motivation Help Runners?

For some, running in and of itself is it’s own reward.

In his bestselling book Drive, author Dan Pink writes,

“On the cover of this book is a runner – and that’s no accident. Running can have all the elements of Type I behavior. It’s autonomous. It allows you to seek mastery. And the people who keep at it, and enjoy it most, often run toward a greater purpose – testing their limits or staying healthy and vital.”

The “Type I” behavior Pink references is what people who are intrinsically motivated exhibit.

What does that mean?

They don’t require external factors (money, power, fame, races, etc.) to motivate them.

Runners who are intrinsically motivated, are instead inspired from within and satisfied with testing their limits only with themselves.

Laura Norris, distance runner and RRCA certified running coach didn’t sign up for a race until six years after she ran her first mile.

“I stayed motivated by focusing on the rewards of running, particularly the stress relief and cognitive boost,” she said “running was (and still is) both my quiet time and my creative, problem-solving time.”

It’s that sense of accomplishment and completion a lot of runners seek though finishing a race.

However, runners like Norris have proven you can get that same satisfaction in your everyday training runs, without the added stress of a race.

Finding Purpose in Running

If you have no real purpose for running itself, you may eventually lose motivation to do it.

Even if you think your main reason for continuing to train and run is to race, think back to when you first started running or to a race that didn’t go as planned, and you may find a different answer.

According to Cindra Kamphoff, Ph.D., director of the Center for Sport and Performance Psychology at Minnesota State University, for running to have real staying power, it’s important to pinpoint what you truly value about running–beyond the bling and bragging rights.

Is it stress relief, weight management, physical fitness, time alone, time with others, an opportunity to soak up nature?

Identifying what motivates you can help you recognize the importance of running and the value it brings to your life, which is what will keep you running regardless of a race date.

After being pulled off the course at mile 21 during the 2016 Vermont City Marathon because of dangerously high temperatures. Carly Pizzani, mother of two and ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, decided to stop racing all together.

Prior to that race, Pizzani had averaged six races per year and the Vermont City Marathon was meant to be a kick off race to get her back into running after having her second son.

Instead, it had the opposite effect:

“When I stopped racing after that disaster in Vermont, something that helped me was not thinking about pace or time or mileage,” Pizzani recalled “my focus instead was, ‘where is the most beautiful place to run right now?’ Sometimes I wanted the lake, or the river, sometimes I felt like being on the trails. I started connecting with what running did for me mentally and spiritually. While I will start racing again, I’m so thankful I had this time period of just enjoying the act of running.”

Had Pizzani not already had a deep love for running, based on her love for the outdoors, she may have never run again.

In our podcast interview with Jason Karp, exercise physiologist and lifelong runner, he suggested that running cannot be about finish lines and fast times, if you intend to do it for very long.

“I came to realize pretty early that this sport is about much more than running faster. None of the people who I ran with in high school are still running because they didn’t have that different mindset.”

Karp explained that when he started running cross country he appreciated his surroundings and the simplicity of being outside where, most of teammates were focused solely on competition and getting faster.

Karp also talked about how a lot of non-runners cannot appreciate why we do what we do since running over long periods of time actually changes your brain chemistry. “Running is not about outcomes, it’s this journey we all take and it’s a process and that process actually changes your brain chemistry.”

Other runners started running for reasons that never had anything to do with pace or time goals, but something much more important.

Christine Yu, writer and mother of two young boys, is motivated to stay healthy for far more important reasons than a finisher’s medal. “The main reason I run is for health, since my father died of a heart attack when I was only eight years-old,” Yu reflected, “running also gives me time to clear my head and the only time I’m generally really present in the moment.”

It’s concrete, emotional reasons like these that can make the difference between a runner for a short time and a runner for a lifetime.

In fact, it’s a pattern that has been repeated by elite runners more often than not.

Since arguably no runner is more intensely focused on racing (and winning) than an elite, they experience burnout more often and sometimes have to dig deep or completely turn away from the sport, in order to make a comeback.

Consider Megan Hogan who won the women’s division of the Brooklyn Half Marathon in 2015, with a time of 1:13:33, three years after she thought she was done with running for good.

After a brief but promising college running career, Hogan tried full-time professional running in Minnesota, but a series of misfortunes led her to return home, injured and burnt out.

After that, Hogan put her career as an interior designer first, and lo and behold, her running started to thrive again.

How about Ryan Hall?

After battling chronic fatigue for the final four years of his professional running career, Hall, 33, retired in 2015 and started to rebuild his body through consistent weight training and an increase in daily protein intake.

Most of the professional running world had counted him out long ago and didn’t take his new muscular physique seriously.

Lately, he has gone back to trail running, something he had regularly noted as a favorite of his, and even participated in the 140K six-person relay race around the mountains of Mount Blanc in France, Italy and Switzerland.

He was recently quoted in compeitor.com saying:

“I took several months off from running and didn’t run at all, but now I’m lacing up my shoes and going out and doing runs that I want to do,” he said while in Chamonix, where the relay race began and ended. “Trail running and being in the mountains is fun, and I’m to a point where I’m pushing myself out there because I want to push myself. It’s been a long time since I felt like that. It’s definitely rekindled my passion for running.”

It will be interesting to see where he takes his running in the future.

In fact, it’s already interesting that his running has a future since it’s quite a leap to go from winning marathons to “happy to participate,” further proving the foundation needed outside of racing accomplishments to be a lifelong runner.

How Does Burnout and Injury Affect Dedication?

Runners who race or have lofty goals tend to follow a strict training plan and can get a tad overzealous, and have laser like focus, on a time or distance goal.

Since a race date forces them into a time constriction they may be more likely not to take rest days when needed or to force a workout when their mind and body are unwilling.

On the contrary, runners without an agenda may be more willing to listen to their bodies and take an organic approach to running and therefore, stave off overuse injuries and avoid burnout.

“My motivation is health and fun,” said Bridget Sutherland, mom of three and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), “I just don’t have the time and the money and the child care help to do organized races. My motivation to run or exercise is my health and because it just feels good to go for a run! I’m so grateful to have a body that can run – – slow or fast, it can move and I never want to take that for granted!”

Although running for fun is fantastic, it doesn’t hurt to play around with pace and distance, and keep a loosely structured training regimen.

The experts agree that running with some structure but, not necessarily a race goal, is a great way to keep running, continue making fitness gains and to generally see improvement in your physical and mental health.

Duncan Simpson, Ph.D., assistant professor of sport, exercise, and performance psychology at the School of Human Performance and Leisure Sciences at Barry University in Miami suggested giving each run a dedicated purpose:

One day could be a slow-paced long run, where you work on going a mile farther than you did the previous week.

Another day could be hill repeats, where you aim to maintain form and finish the final repeat in a time that’s as close as possible to the first one.

Another day could be a casual run with friends, where the purpose is socialization, fun, and recovery.

Non-racing runners have the luxury of thinking in short-term, daily goals and small increases in time or distance.

A simple way for runners to maintain a modicum training schedule and, therefore continue to see health and fitness results from their favorite pastime, is to incorporate traditional “offseason” training plans.

An article by Mackenzie Lobby about “unique” approaches to offseason running is the perfect outline for non-racing runners to base their everyday training around:

  1. Cut mileage and intensity but keep consistency by taking shorter and more frequent easy runs.
  2. Work on skills and technique by doing dynamic drills or making the four simple tweaks from our own Coach Jeff that will make you a better runner immediately.
  3. Concentrate on core and flexibility work after listening to our podcast interview with Phil Warton, who pioneered a standard known as Active Isolated Flexibility, or AIF, that delivers the benefits of stretching without the muscle damage.

Jason Karp also talked about the importance of having a purpose to the majority of your runs saying, “There is a way to do intervals correctly not just because it’s the way to become a better runner but, living with intention, knowing this is what I’m going to do today because it’s going to help make me successful next week or next year, is living with purpose.”

He went on to say that training with intention not only makes a better runner but a better person.

He never mentioned racing.

Non-racing runners can certainly enjoy setting time and pace goals only they will see and celebrate. Just because you’re not lining up to race doesn’t mean you can’t relish in the perks.

In fact, you may keep running longer than your regular racing counterparts.

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Allie is a freelance writer, athlete and mom, but not in that order. Her work has appeared in Runner’s WorldWomen’s Running and ESPNW. On her blog – VITA Train for Life she chronicles her life as a runner and triathlete and hopes her successes and failures help to motivate and inspire others, even the over 40 crowd she somehow found herself in! The rest of her time is spent raising her twin boys with her husband in the northeast where they live life as an adventure!
You can find Allie on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram


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One Response on “Why Sometimes Running Without Racing is the Best Thing You Can Do

  1. I enjoyed this article very much, especially after my long run for a marathon coming up in June. I love being out of doors, listening to nature, the solitary peace and time to think. I also love keeping fit. These are the reasons I love to run. However, as I ran my long run on an access road near a highway today, it sucked the fun out of running. Most of the run, I questioned why I was out there at all. For me, the moral of the story is that running needs to be fun/uplifting/inspiring or motivating. Race times come second to peace of mind and enjoyment. Next week, I am running up the mountain to see the new leaves on the aspen trees.

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