Endurance running is not an easy sport. Running for multiple hours pushes your body and your mind in ways that can’t be adequately described. There has come a point in every single race that I have run where each step forward is a mental battle between my mind and my body screaming at me to stop, and my heart willing me to continue moving forward. Finishing a race, and sometimes even a hard workout, forces you to learn how to keep running when you want to quit.
And trust me, even runners who have incredible endurance and speed reach that place where all they want to do is sit down and eat a bacon cheeseburger (maybe after their stomach stops turning). So how can mortals and beginning runners avoid giving up? Is there a secret to being able to keep running when you want to quit? No. But there are some things I have found that help me keep moving when I really don’t want to anymore.
How to Keep Running When You Want to Quit
Write Out Big Goals
I’m not a person who can willingly wake up at 5am and spend a couple of hours sweating, burping, breathing hard, dealing with stomach and leg cramps, and all the other glamorous things that come along with running if I don’t have a solid goal to chase. Would I still wake up and run a few miles every morning? Absolutely. I love running.
Running keeps me from starting fires and throwing major temper tantrums. But I don’t need to run 10 miles just to stay sane, contrary to popular belief. I also don’t need to run 50+ miles a week just to stay healthy. I could do all of that with a few 4-5 mile runs per week. So, if I am going to keep running long past the point of wanting to stop, it’s because there is a goal that is meaningful enough to me that I am willing to sacrifice my short-term comfort.
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I’ve found that in order for my goal to actually motivate me to go to uncomfortable places, it has to be big. And it has to be in the front of my mind. What’s worked for me is to set big, scary goals that I know are an absolute stretch of my physical abilities. And then I write them down, and I look at them.
I remind myself before every single track and tempo run that I am running that day to try and Boston Qualify. Sometimes I write the letters “BQ” or the numbers 3:25 on my hand to serve as a physical reminder of why I am pushing my body beyond its limits. And sometimes the reminder of what I am working so hard for has kept me from picking up all my running gear and walking off the track half way through an ass-kicking work out.
Deploy Some Entertainment
Sometimes, though, I don’t have the mental strength to really keep reminding myself of my goal. In these times, I’ve found it really helpful to have some sort of entertainment to occupy and distract my mind from the repetitive thoughts of, “only an idiot would think running 16 miles is an appropriate weekend activity.”
I don’t generally recommend methods of distraction during speed workouts, where you need to stay focused on things like running fast and not tripping. But mental distraction can be a wonderful tool for long runs where you almost need to hide your phone to keep you from arranging an Uber back to get back to your car.
Having a running buddy who will tell you fun stories about the ridiculous news stories they reported on this week, or the horrific date they went on can easily get you through the last 5k of a long run. And while I think I’m my best self when I have to interact with fewer than 5 people per day, there have been a few times where running groups have saved my sanity, and helped me laugh at the insanity of marathon training.
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If however, you are all people’d out, like I often am, running in beautiful locations can completely shift the energy of a run. Finding new routes and scenery has often kept me from hitting the snooze button for a fourth time on a Saturday morning. If all else fails, you can rely on the tried and true forms of distraction and entertainment; podcasts, music, and Netflex/Hulu/Disney+.
Obviously, I would discourage you from queueing up the latest serial killer documentary if you are running on the road or trail. But if you’re stuck on a treadmill, there isn’t too much you can know about the Zodiac killer. Consider it a lesson in self-defense while you’re working out. If you’re looking for a few suggestions on great podcasts to listen to during a run, please check out my 15 Best Podcasts for Running & Working Out post.
Contrary to what the diet industry would have you believe, carbs are not from the pit of hell. In fact, I firmly believe they were sent straight from God to bring us happiness, fulfillment, and energy. Nothing can suck the wind out of your running sails faster than being energy deficient. Sure, there is an argument for some focused training that includes fasted runs (there is some compelling evidence against fasted runs as well), but for the most part you have got to fuel for hard and long runs. Marathon training is not the time to start a diet (there really isn’t a good time, but still).
And it’s not just a matter of fueling well during the run, which is still important. But, honestly, most people cannot tolerate more than about 3 gels, gu’s, bags of gummy bears, or whatever per run. This generally equates to about 300 calories. Which is nothing. My husband burns 300 calories unloading the groceries. Yes, it’s infuriating, but that’s not the point.
So how do you make sure that you are appropriately fueling? Well, it’s something of art. But generally speaking, if you’ve got a tough run coming up, it’s a good idea to eat a few more carbs than normal during lunch and dinner the day before. This is also a really great opportunity to practice a few pre-marathon meals to see what sits well the next day. Everyone is different, but I generally shoot for an extra 30 grams of carbs for about every 5 miles over 10 miles. So, if I’m running 15 miles on Saturday, I will try to eat about 30 additional grams of carbs.
I also recommend that runners experiment with the use of caffeine. I understand that there are some truly confusing individuals who do not utilize caffeine, so if you are one of them, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. For the rest of us mortals, caffeine can be a great supplement. Before and during a run. There are so many solid fueling options that include caffeine on the market, but I tend to prefer Honey Stinger gels and their cherry cola chews that are caffeinated.
Caffeine can give you a nice boost of energy, but it can also irritate your stomach. This is why you have got to experiment with caffeine before you use it on race day. There is NOTHING worse than desperately trying to find a porta-potty at mile 18. I don’t recommend more than one caffeinated fuel source per run (outside of ultra-marathon distances), because, well, poop.
Regroup If You Need to
I have had so many clients ask me if it’s ok for them to stop during a long run. The answer is a resounding yes. You don’t want to stop every quarter mile (because your run will take all damn day to finish), but taking a quick break to breath and get your life together will not destroy your endurance. The marathon police won’t magically appear, either. And taking a quick break might keep you from throwing in the towel all together.
So, feel free to pull on over to the side of the road or trail, eat a gel, and take a breather. Heck, stretch your calves and refill your water bottle if you need to. Just make sure you don’t spend too much not running, because you’re more likely to feel like crap the longer you wait to restart. I also recommend using this time as an opportunity to revisit and remind yourself of your big goal.
Once your breathing has come back down to normal-ish and you’re properly fueled, find a great podcast to binge and get moving.
Do What You Can to be comfortable
It’s not easy to find motivation to keep running when you’re tired. It’s even more difficult to find that motivation if you’re becoming more and more aware that the back of your shoe is rubbing an actual hole into your ankle. Running is hard; there’s no reason to make it harder by being uncomfortable.
So here are some pointers that I recommend for all of my clients to feel less uncomfortable during a run. First and foremost, invest the money in good clothes and shoes that don’t cause blisters. About a year ago, I discovered XO Skin toe socks, and they keep my toes from attacking one another in my shoe. I will be singing about these socks from the heavens after death.
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Similarly, it’s important to find a carrier that works well for you for things like your keys, fuel, and your cell phone. The wrong fitting carrier can make a run harder, so again, this may be something you have to experiment with, but I recommend going as minimal as you can get away with. Since you’ll be carrying and taking fuel, I also recommend taking a chewable pepto tab with you. These tabs have saved me on countless runs when my stomach has suddenly turned. I can’t emphasize this enough; there nothing worse than trying to avoid a bathroom emergency mid-run.
In terms of carrier recommendations, I’ve had good experiences with my Flipbelt for carrying my phone, keys, and fuel without driving me nuts. I also love my Nathan SpeedDraw and Nathan Vaporhowe vest for longer efforts that require water in addition to all the other things I need to carry.
My final recommendation for staying somewhat comfortable during long runs is to run a reasonable pace. The purpose of a long run, generally, is to help your body get used to being on your feet and moving for a prolonged period of time. There isn’t much, if any, benefit to running your long runs at anything other than an easy pace unless you are a very advanced marathoner. And nothing will drain you of energy faster than running a pace you are not ready to run. So embrace the miles, and don’t rush them.
Have Something to Look Forward to
My last tried and true piece of advice is to have something to look forward to at the end of a run. Humans are simple creatures, and we usually respond well to bribery. I usually have a full post-run meal planned out that I tell myself I can’t eat until I finish the actual run. It has nothing to do with calories or “earning” my food, and everything to do with the fact that I know I am incredibly motivated by food.
I also tend to save music and my favorite flavored gel for the end of my run. I love listening to podcasts up until about the last 5k of a run. Saving music for the end of my run helps motivate me to get to the last 5k, and gives me something different to listen to when I’m starting to get mentally fatigued. It also puts a little pep in those final steps. Sometimes. If not, it at least helps me drag myself to the finish.
Remember – one shitty run doesn’t mean anything
This final point is one that I want everyone to understand. Even the hardest, most difficult, and frustrating run is better than not running at all. And there is zero reason to begin to panic if one of your runs goes south and you find yourself desperately searching through your bag of tricks to try and survive. Running and training is designed to be hard. And one or two crappy runs only means one thing – you’re a runner. Embrace the discomfort, and know that it is making you relentlessly strong.
Sometimes it really helps to have someone to talk to after a particularly hard or crappy run. This is where finding a great coach can really be a value-add to your marathon or half-marathon training. A coach can help you stay calm and not panic after a hard run, help you remember your motivation when you’re struggling, or adjust your training plan when things just don’t seem to be working well. If you’d like to talk about coaching, or have questions about how a coaching relationship might be helpful for you, please reach out to me, through my Contact Me page.