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In a world where fitness tracking devices and high-tech training plans dominate the running scene, ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter has found success by keeping things simple.
Dauwalter’s love for running started at a young age, with the Presidential Fitness Test in elementary school.
“I started running in elementary school when we had to run the mile for gym class,” she said. “I remember loving it. I really liked how it felt to run, and I really liked how I could push myself as hard as I wanted.”
In 1997, Dauwalter’s passion for running evolved when she joined the cross-country team at her Minnesota high school. “When I joined the cross-country team, a whole social element got added to running that made me fall in love with it even more,” she said.
But as many runners know, it’s easy to lose sight of the joy of running amidst the pressure to achieve personal records and track every metric imaginable. Unlike many in the endurance space, Dauwalter does not use Strava, but she does still think it’s a great tool for others.
Dauwalter, now the top women’s ultrarunner in the world, has found success by sticking to her roots and embracing a simple approach to training. She has not worked with a running coach since she her high school cross-country days. Her strategy includes a flexible training plan that allows for rest days, spontaneous runs, and a mindset that focuses on the joy of the movement. “I think it’s important to stay in touch with why you love running,” Dauwalter said.
Dauwalter’s evergreen approach is atypical. But should it be?
Her process has paid off, with impressive performances in ultra-marathons. But Dauwalter’s success is not just measured in podiums and race times. For her, running is a way to connect with nature and others who share her love for the sport.
As we continue to navigate the complexities of modern fitness culture, perhaps we can learn something from Dauwalter’s approach. By embracing the childlike joy of running and simplifying our approach to training, we may find that the movement becomes more meaningful and enjoyable.
Keeping Things Loose (After Coffee)
Unlike many of her peers, Dauwalter shuns the rigidity of a training regimen and doesn’t obsess over the particulars.
“Every morning after coffee, I’ll decide what my run is for the day based on how my body and brain are feeling,” she said. “Sometimes that’s a long run on some of my favorite trails, or summiting a local peak, or it might feel like a great day for hill repeats or intervals, and some days I won’t really know what I’m doing until I leave the house and let my feet choose the route.”
Her daily runs typically last between two and four hours, and, while she may know when a race is coming up, she decides what her training will look like based on how she feels physically and mentally.
“There are so many ways to train, enjoy, and go after running goals. Having a training plan, using devices and analyzing data, or not doing any of those things, are all great options,” she explained. “I think it depends on the person and how they find joy. But I also think there is no downside to occasionally leaving the watch at home and heading out the door for a run where you just listen to your body and not worry about metrics.”
Her general approach involves listening to her body and not following a predetermined plan, allowing her to focus on the experience rather than the results. For instance, if she’s training for a race with a lot of climbing, she’ll incorporate more mountain runs into her routine.
Over the years, Dauwalter has focused on being more adaptive to her body. She stays in tune with her emotions and doesn’t take things too seriously. She approaches her training with a sense of playfulness, which keeps her motivated and engaged.
Dauwalter’s cheerfully unconcerned approach to training is the exact opposite of what you might expect from a world-class athlete. Rather than obsessing over sleep metrics and biomarkers, she keeps her routine flexible and listens to her body. She doesn’t overthink her diet, instead opting to eat what looks good, sounds good, or is most convenient. Some of her favorites include nachos, pancakes, gummy bears, Snickers, root beer, etc.
“I almost always just go running without a structured plan. I am usually wearing a watch that can tell me data, but I am not looking at this during my run,” said Dauwalter. “I find the most joy when I leave my house and let my feet be the tour guides.”
Without a predetermined plan, she’s learned to tune in to her body and react accordingly. Her approach permits her to pay close attention to what her body tells her and avoid disregarding symptoms or signs that she should change course.
The basics of enjoying the processes are essential for Dauwalter. She does better when she’s not holding too tightly to any piece of running. The flexibility of her training keeps things fresh and fun
Take a Break from the Gadgets
“Sometimes our gadgets can get in the way of our enjoyment of the run,” said Dauwalter. “The gadgets are cool, but so is the simplicity of running.”
Her primary approach helps in races when things inevitably get challenging. She speaks about turning to her mental “filing cabinet” and “telling herself jokes” to overcome the obstacles of the mind and body she’s trained in.
Moreover, her decluttered training style extends to the simplicity of using breathing and mindfulness exercises to focus on the calm of the trails. Keeping it simple helps push through demanding times. Focusing on her breathing or looking at the trail where she’s headed can bring peace in trying moments.
Dauwalter’s intuitive running style may not be for everyone, but the approach can provide a refreshing change of pace. Dauwalter’s lower-intensity mindset offers a powerful reminder that running can be as simple as putting on our shoes and heading out the door.
“It really can be just you out in nature with the sound of your breathing and footsteps, rolling with the terrain at whatever pace feels good that day,” she said. “I try to run like this as much as possible.”
Ben Pryor (Choctaw) is a contributing writer for several national and regional publications, including Native News Online and Indian Country Today. He has graduate degrees in Political Science (American Politics) and Philosophy (Philosophy of Language). His writing interests include running, politics, and the environment.