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How To Know When It’s Time To Quit Running

We all hope that we'll be able to run forever. But in some cases, it really is time to hang up your shoes for good.

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Stepping away from running, either for a few months or forever, is not a simple yes-or-no decision. “It’s such an emotional whirlwind,” says Erin Ayala, a sport psychologist at Premier Sport Psychology in Edina, Minnesota. “So much of your identity and community can be tied up in sports.” Here, some experts help you try to make the process (slightly) easier.

Find yourself waffling? Take these steps to help make that decision.

Find the right teammate.

“Track down the best running-focused therapist in your area,” says Jay Dicharry, physical therapist and author of Running Rewired. “Then go to them and tell them you don’t just want appointments, but you want a long-term plan.” Depending on the situation, your plan may be six weeks or six months, but it’s, “not going to happen in five days.”

Commit to the process.

A few days of rest brings down inflammation, but after that, you’ve got to dig in, hit the floor, and get to work. “Watching videos or posting about your injury on Instagram isn’t constructive,” says Dicharry. Put on your blinders and concentrate on how your body is moving. “Your goal isn’t to get better at one exercise,” he says, “Your goal is to learn a better movement strategy to help you run.” Again, consistent conversations and check-ins with your therapist are key here.

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Lose the GPS.

As you come back from injury and slowly start to run again, realize that obsessing over numbers isn’t going to be helpful. To make permanent changes, your focus needs to be on how you’re running and feeling, not how fast or far you’re going.

Ask others for advice.

Checking in with trusted friends and family members might make you feel vulnerable, but Ayala isn’t as concerned with their advice as your reaction to it. “If somebody tells you to give it up, and you feel relief, that’s good information,” she explains, “Your heart knows before your mind does.”

Define your warning track.

Softball players know they’re about to hit a wall when they’re chasing a fly ball and the grass turns to gravel. Ayala recommends figuring out what your gravel looks like. “Is it a certain amount of money spent on medical bills? How you show up to relationships? Your day-to-day mood?” Then tell somebody about it and, more importantly, give them permission to let you know if they see you hit it.

Make a risk/benefit analysis.

While it might sound clinical, the practice of writing down the benefits and risks of continuing and stopping is very helpful says Jamie Shapiro, associate professor and co-director of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver. You may also want to have a conversation with a physical therapist or doctor about the pros and cons. “Seeing it on paper can give you more clarity and space to see it all,” she says.

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Own your autonomy.

Literature on retirement, says Ayala, indicates that when an athlete feels like she has a choice about stepping back, the situation doesn’t feel as negative as when she feels like she doesn’t. If you’re on the brink of breaking, you might want to consider making the decision yourself instead of having it done by your body.

If you’ve decided to step away:

Done with the back-and-forth? Some things to make the loss easier.

Give yourself grace.

You’ll likely be a tornado of emotions as you navigate things without your regular runs. Sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, relief: give yourself permission to feel it all and don’t try to minimize it, says Shapiro.

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Figure out what you miss.

Yes, of course you miss running. But narrow it down: Do you miss the Jello legs after a track workout? The friendships from a Saturday morning long run? The sense of purpose? What other ways could you fill those holes? Brainstorm with your journal, a therapist, a good friend.

Stay connected.

While grabbing coffee with your run group right after they finish a long run might be a bit too intense initially, be open to the idea of staying involved in the running community. You can volunteer at races, coach kids, join a non-profit that involves running, create a local race. Speaking from personal experience, once the sting of stepping away fades, being part of the running scene is much more enjoyable than you’d think.

Mimic the process.

If you love the structure and schedule (and endorphins!) running provides, investigate other options like hiking and cycling. I’ve hiked the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim and Yosemite Half Dome, and have done a variety of bike events. Ready to get back into competition, I even hired a coaching team so I could compete in the Aquabike National Championships, a swim/bike combo. The training was so fulfilling and consuming, I hardly missed running.

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