On Being a Re-beginning Runner: Ghost of a Former Self?

There’s a gap between 2009 and 2011 in my past race results, and it’s because I took that time off. First I was burnt out. Then, when I was ready to come back, I got injured. To top it off, I’d been doing structured training programs for only 3 years. Then again, maybe 3 years is the shelf life of structured training programs for those of us who are merely type A-minus – rather than type A – personalities.

Anyway, this fall, I returned to running. The Army 10-Miler was my target race. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: returning to running after a multi-year layoff isn’t easy, especially when your (and by “your,” I mean “my”) cardio training for 2 years consisted solely of intermittent hiking and commuting to work. Yeah….

Hiking in the North Cascades gets you rad views like this.

And depending on your constitution, it may be more difficult to return than it was to start in the first place. On the bright side, just as it was possible to start in initially, it’s possible to restart.

I always hear about elite runners who take a hiatus to have a child (actually, more often than not, they’re running through pregnancy) or who take a break from running due to injury, and then they come back in a short period of time to win a marathon. But what about the rest of us, who weren’t that honed to begin with?

Here are five things I learned about being a re-beginning runner (or anything else, really, as I’ve given some of this advice to yoga students).

  • Start with a clean slate.

During my hiatus, I downhill skied a bunch and practiced even more yoga asana. I didn’t do a ton of cardio, unless you count the ski conditioning class I did in Seattle last year (and the hiking and work commute). When I came back to running in April 2011, I was a ghost of my former running self, and it was frustrating.

Seasoned yogis may be familiar with the phrase “beginner’s mind.” Sometimes when you’ve been doing something for a while, it’s easy to forget how difficult it can be for a newbie. When re-starting, have a beginner’s mind, rather than an attitude of “pick up where you left off.” Remember how fantastic it was the first time you hit what seemed to be dauntingly long run? Embrace that mentality. Sure, you once ran that distance with ease. With training, you can do it again. And it’ll feel awesome.

  • Set attainable goals.

Manage expectations by setting attainable goals based on where you are now. This is probably standard whether one is beginning, re-beginning, or seasoned, but I think it’s harder to stick to for a re-beginner because having a clean slate is difficult to maintain, and you so badly want to return to where you were.

  • Be patient.

Maybe starting in the first place was easy. Maybe you have great genes and can pick things up again quickly. Lucky you. But for me a lot of my frustration was due to things like a two-mile run taking forever and a lifetime to feel somewhat easy. I mean, they used to be easy, right? Why aren’t they easy now?

I had to learn to give myself a break when running didn’t return to being “easy” overnight. The reality is, two miles at a fast clip wasn’t easy the first time I laced up my shoes over a decade ago. Plus, I was younger then, and as far as finding time for training goes, I had way fewer obligations then, too. I had to give myself time to fall back into the habit of executing a structured training program. It’ll happen with diligence.

  • Be kind to yourself.

The first mile of a 9-mile run this summer – my longest run to date – felt crummy. When the run still felt like crap after 3 miles, I shelved the remainder of the run until the afternoon. I had a lot of down days like this when training for the Army 10-Miler this year. I fretted, for sure, and even beat myself up about it, but in the end, I’m doing this for fun.

Running is supposed to be fun.

  • Remember why you are re-beginning.

When the going gets tough, remember why you decided to pick up running again. To finish unfinished business? To get in shape so you can be there for those you love? You didn’t need to re-start running, so what brought you here?

Finally, as I end many of my yoga classes, thank yourself for coming to the mat lacing up the shoes. I know I did.