How Brittany Charboneau Keeps Her Running Fun
We all should take a lesson from the “gamifying the run” approach.
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Brittany Charboneau sat downtrodden with her coach, Jenni Nettik, at a coffee shop the day of the 2019 London Marathon. After flying all the way across the pond to her second marathon major as a pro, she dropped out of the race the night before due to an SI joint issue, which links the pelvis to the lower spine.
Feeling dejected, the duo sat down to discuss the latest training cycle. As they reflected, Charboneau spoke candidly. She wasn’t enjoying going “all in” on being a super serious elite runner.
Each run included the same routes, same sights, and same singular goal: hit the prescribed workout. She felt that that, coupled with the pressure of training and racing, was stealing her joy.
“I was only a year into my professional running career,” Charboneau said. “I don’t want to look back on these few sweet years I get as a pro and think I wish I had more fun with it. I’d rather soak up every experience than win every championship. It was a risk I was willing to take. If it doesn’t work, we’ll go back to super serious training.”
Fun seemed to be one of the biggest things missing in Charboneau’s training. Needing a distraction from working toward race day, Charboneau asked Nettik if she could give her themes for each week of her training.
With an art degree from Carnegie Mellon University and 10 years as an pre-school through high school art teacher, Nettik was all about adding creativity to training cycles. However, there was no guidebook for this, no examples to go off of, especially at the pro level. They’d have to pioneer their own plan.
They came up with this: Nettik would supply a surprise theme every week and Charboneau would choose how to implement it into her training. To start, they designed an overall theme for the training cycle with pieces sprinkled in each week leading up to her next race: the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials.
Her first theme was “limitless.”
“Each week, I was given a limitless person,” Charboneau said. “They were examples that constantly reminded me that anything is possible. The first one to kick it off was Julia Childs.”
“Am I not taking running seriously enough?”
With her assignment in hand, it was Charboneau’s turn to get creative. While she wanted her themes to be incorporated into her training runs, she also wanted them to overlap in her non-running life.
For example, in that first week, she started by wearing a pearl necklace on her runs and listening to podcasts about the famous TV chef. Then she watched the movie “Julia & Julia,” and even made dinner using a recipe from one of Childs’s cookbooks.
The playfulness it added to her runs was subtle, but it brought a deeper connection to her training and the individual runs.
“It was scary at first,” Charboneau said. “No one else is doing this. I kept thinking, Am I not taking running seriously enough? Having the support of my coach has been really helpful and we’ve seen it work in seeing me perform at my best. When I most enjoy it, I perform my best. Mentally relaxed equals fast running.”
This was proven right away. Charboneau finished 13th with a time of 2:33:14 at the Trials. And because the Trials rules didn’t allow her to wear big logos on her race gear, she decked out her kit with pearls (Julia Childs) and polka dots and pumpkins—a nod to another limitless figure, artist Yayoi Kusama.
“Doing this makes me feel really excited because I feel it’s a piece I can control on race day,” she said. “We can’t control how we race or how anyone else races or the weather. This lets me control my fun, my attitude, and my positivity and helps me remember that running is supposed to be a fun and joyful experience.”
The Art of “Gamifying” Runs
When the pandemic hit after the Olympic Trials, Charboneau took a break from the themed runs. She found the trails around that time, and she felt like those runs were stimulating enough.
Now, back to road racing in addition to trails, she’s reinstated the themed runs. Nettick is still her coach but no longer assigns themes. This is at Charboneau’s request. While she enjoyed the surprise themes, she has also found gratification in the planning process, which she starts weeks or months out now.
“My coach told me something that has stuck with me, ‘There are no rules when it comes to training like there are no rules for art.’” Charboneau said. “Imagine you have a blank canvas. Even though there are things you have to do for training like certain runs and speed work, you can still have fun doing it. To think like that is so liberating.”
Imagine you have a blank canvas. Even though there are things you have to do for training like certain runs and speed work, you can still have fun doing it. To think like that is so liberating.
That creativity has taken many forms. During one of the coldest weeks this winter, Charboneau channeled her favorite color pink by using her long run to count as many front-yard flamingos. When a run group friend mentioned board games, she ran to every landmark on the Denver edition of Monopoly.
One of her absolute favorites was the Great British Running Week. She drove 15 minutes to complete an out-and-back 24-miler. The halfway point was Union Jack Liquor. She picked up a small bottle of Tanqueray London Dry Gin and ran it back to her car.
“It was pointless but it was fun,” she said. “It was fun telling the liquor store owner what I was doing. With my themes, I’m running somewhere novel and it sparks conversations. I get asked, ‘Why are you in our dog shop’ when my run includes dogs. And then you get to share your journey. You put in so many miles solo, it helps build this tiny community and bring all these people along the journey with me.”
In addition to incorporating the themes into her life and runs, she also closes out every week with a piece of art commemorating the theme.
“I love going hard. I love that feeling when you push your limits,” Charboneau said. “That is still fun even though it’s hard work. I’m still working really hard, but I’m also channeling a pink flamingo.”
Find Your Own Joy
The unique training approach has reinvigorated Charboneau’s passion for pro racing. Most recently, she finished second at the U.S. 50K championships, a run she hopes puts her on the world team. This comes on the heels of a strong 2022 when she won the Lake Sonoma 50, took second at the Pikes Peak Marathon, and took second at the Broken Arrow 46K.
I’m still working really hard, but I’m also channeling a pink flamingo.
With a lot of training back on the roads, she continues to “gamify” her training as much as possible. She does admit there are weeks she has gone without them, most often when she hits her highest mileage.
For Charboneau, that’s totally fine. She says if it’s forced, it takes the fun away. This is something she can control, her fun included.
“Give yourself permission to make training whatever it is for you. I have a couple runners I coach who are very cerebral and science people. They get a lot of joy from making runs scientific, building math into their runs. Whatever brings you joy, give yourself permission to explore it.”