I’m broken. I can’t be running this slow. I’m a better athlete than this. What’s wrong with me?

I’m running harder and harder but I’m getting slower and slower. How can this be? Maybe it’s my running watch; maybe it’s not working. Maybe it’s me; maybe I am really broken.

My coach said I should be tired and this is normal. He says I’m being negative and that I just need to get the workout done. All right, I need to run harder. I must not be tough enough so I need to make myself better and then I can push harder.

I was training for the 2012 Boston marathon and my goal was to break 3:30, which was realistic since my time the year before at Boston was 3:38; an eight minute improvement was not out of reach, so I thought. The workout was 12x 800. This was training I always did pre-marathon and one I really enjoyed mostly because I’d done it so successfully. My goal for the 800 repeats was to hit 3:30 each; in the past this drill was extremely easy for me but on this particular day, those times felt unattainable.

The wind was howling on the track. It was freezing, and I was all alone. I ran 3:30 on my first repeat but it felt hard. The second even harder at 3:38. Tears rolled down my face as I hit my third repeat at barely 3:45 and I was struggling.

My body hurt. You’re not tough enough to do this Maria, I said, get your head back in the game. The fourth 800—3:47; the fifth, running as hard as I could, 3:52 and then another at 4:00.

My body wasn’t right. Maybe it was what the coach said; I was being negative; get back to the line, try again. Maybe I didn’t eat enough; maybe not enough sleep; maybe I pushed my easy run too hard the day before. Maybe I just didn’t have it anymore.

I was freezing. My hands hurt; I sat on the track and cried. How was I going to run a marathon at 8:00 pace if I couldn’t do the simple workout designed to get me there like I’d done dozens of times before?

I had lost my joy. Running was no longer fun and my life was a mess. The one sport that made me believe I was invincible was now destroying me. I cried in the car for an hour, not knowing what to do.

The marathon was in two weeks and I knew I wasn’t ready. A doctor suggested by a friend diagnosed me with anemia; I began to be more careful about eating enough and eating the right things.

But that wasn’t the only reason I was in trouble. I was alone; people were disappearing. I didn’t run with anyone slower than me anymore. I’d lost interest in my family, my friends, my life, anything not connected to running; it was all I talked about, morning to night.

On the day of the 2012 Boston Marathon, it was 91 degrees. I’d started treatments for anemia but by mile 13, exhaustion from lack of oxygen in the red cells of my body, along with other stress—the absence of joy in my running, although I didn’t know it then—caused me to walk off the course and for the first time in 12 years of running, I was officially DNF, Did Not Finish.

It was the last time I’ve been able to be at the starting line of the Boston Marathon as a qualified runner. It is also the day I took my life back.

I let my coach go. I stopped running with a runner’s watch and started measuring my workouts only by minutes, not by miles. And I ran a lot less.

I stopped letting running be the center of my universe and I started searching for the joy I once felt in the sport I used to love.

The biggest thing I did was to begin running slower, much slower, with zero strain. The first few months were frustrating, but after awhile I found myself looking forward to my runs because they no longer hurt. Instead of dreading being out there, it became the most relaxing part of my day. Because I ran slower, my husband came with me and we began running together. We had about an hour to talk uninterrupted by children or work emails or texts. Our relationship became stronger. My kids even joined the bandwagon and now that “no slow was too slow”, it opened my world to so many friends who loved to run as well and who wanted to run with me!

The joy began to return.

Since I was no longer running hard everyday, hormones in my body started to regulate themselves; my cortisol levels began to drop as did my stress. My weight regulated and my body let go of fatigue. If I didn’t get enough sleep at night I skipped my run. If I was sick I skipped my run as well and didn’t feel guilty about it.

I stopped doing hard workouts all the time and I often jumped into races for fun. Even though my times were still nowhere near where they were when I was at my peak, I was enjoying running again. My body felt better because I was taking better care of it; for some reason, I’d forgotten that even endurance athletes are supposed to feel good most of the time.

I’d almost forgotten that running brought so much joy in my life. I abandoned trying to be perfect so that I could savor just being good. The result felt so right that I began coaching my clients that way.

Here are 10 changes I made in my own running and what I recommend, even insist upon, for clients who come to me for training. And it goes for all my runners, from beginners to world class. This is how to make sure the joy is there when we run:

1). Stay consistent and don’t train alone. Most people do better when they get with someone, a friend, a coach, a partner who believes and supports what they’re doing, someone who will gently encourage them to stay committed and follow a schedule in their training. If not one individual, a running club will fill the bill. Consistency over long periods of time without burnout or injury is the most important part of being a successful runner.

2). Go slow, which is hard for many people at first, but if you’re huffing and puffing you’re running too fast, period. You should be able to sing the ABC’s most of the time while you’re running. There is no such thing as ‘too slow’ so stop thinking that you’re not doing it right and just keep it easy.

3). Get the right shoes, fitted by an expert, at a store that specializes in running gear. Find a store—there are several—where they videotape you on a treadmill to properly assess what kind of shoe you need. Don’t buy footwear online. Improper running shoes can be a disaster.

4). Measure how much you run in minutes instead of miles. You will naturally, slow down when you realize that 50 minutes is 50 minutes and that’s how long you need to keep going! Running this way removes the inclination to hit a certain mileage within a certain time; it will help slow you down.

5.) Run without technology on your arm, hip or chest for at least one or two runs a week. Just run and be okay with it, like the good old days before satellite GPS and heart monitors tracked our every step.

6.) Don’t compare yourself to other runners. There will always be those who are better than you and those who are worse, too. Comparisons suck the joy from running faster than anything else and rushing the journey will only make it harder. We all have to let time take time. Be consistent and fitness will come without being chased.

7.) Look around you when you run. Watch other people. Enjoy the view. Be in the moment; this is time for you and your health. This is you doing what’s needed to make running fun.

8.) Listen to your body. Don’t push through pain; pain is the bodies way of saying that you need a break so don’t ignore it. Be okay with taking a couple days to cross train or rest and then return to your running when the discomfort eases up. If that doesn’t help, see a doctor quickly to avoid a serious injury that can lead to long-term time off from training.

9.) Set small attainable goals every few months. Don’t be afraid to tell yourself you did a great job and to be proud of the progress you’ve made. Reward yourself with a new running shirt or sign up for a race. Look for the upside, which is always there, rather than rushing to find what’s wrong with what you’ve done in your training.

10.) Find a network and use it. New runners have lots of questions, which is really great so long as they find a reliable source to answer them. A good running store, run group or qualified coach is a great place to start.

This whole concept doesn’t come easy for most of us in this fast pace, driven world where faster, harder and more have become favorite words, where common phrases like ‘no pain, no gain’ and ‘get tough; go hard’ fill our daily news feed.

Are my running times back? Almost. But what’s more important is that I’m just fine with where they’re are. What I’ve found and what the research shows is that getting faster doesn’t need to be painful and working extremely hard all the time will accomplish just the opposite. Sure, getting stronger—and therefore faster—requires discipline and some days are easier than others, but out of desperation I found a way to achieve that in a way just the opposite how I trained before my last Boston Marathon.

And I’ve not regretted it one bit. Because the joy has returned to my running, I am able to go places and see things I never would have otherwise. It’s taught me to embrace challenge and given me courage to stand up for what I believe. Running has enabled me to meet and spend time with so many people I never would have met otherwise. It’s made me a better coach, a better wife, and a better friend. Running joyfully teaches you what your body and mind are capable of achieving—routinely! And even better, it teaches you patience and persistence and helps stay goal—oriented without a thought of quitting.

At the end of the day, the time on the clock doesn’t matter. At some point, we all slow down whether we like it or not. I’ve learned to run for one reason and one alone: the simple joy I feel in being out there….running!

About the Author: Maria Savchick Williams is RRCA/USATF certified running coach. Visit her wesbite to learn more.

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