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When athletes treat their bodies with the proper respect, there’s no telling how much they can handle.
Smashed course records by both male and female winners at the Hardrock 100 two weeks ago show that we still aren’t anywhere close to hitting the ceiling on accomplishments in running. But a few missteps, even with the best of intentions, can cause those same hardworking bodies to grind to an early halt.
According to Dr. Megan Roche, professional runner and clinical researcher for the Female Athlete Science and Translational Research program at Stanford University, runners risk depleting their bodies of the energy they need to perform their best, as athletes and function optimally in the everyday moments in between. In the most basic sense, we’re not all that different from cars on the street. We need fuel — plenty and often — to keep chugging along. An empty tank translates to a much shorter trip than you could manage on a full one.
The issue is that a lot of popular nutrition recommendations pave the way to low energy availability. “Common things associated with low energy availability are low carbohydrate diets, within-day energy deficits, heavy training without increased intake, lack of fueling on long runs, and disordered eating or eating disorders,” Roche says.
You might even think that you are getting enough intake to fuel up for your runs and recover well, based on how often your growling stomach sends you to the fridge during high-mileage weeks. But even the strongest “runger” might not be enough to match your actual energy needs. “Low energy availability can easily happen unintentionally,” explains Roche. That’s especially true when you factor in the amount of energy that athletes expend on a day to day basis.
Coming Up Short
Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) sets in when the body spends too long in that state of low energy availability, undergoing training stress without enough fuel, rest, or both to balance out the load. It can’t continue to push at the same level, so it begins to shut down everything that it doesn’t deem absolutely necessary for survival. Like a weary runner shuffling in the last mile, sure you can keep moving, but at a cost to your performance and your overall health.
“RED-S can cause endocrine disruption, suppression of the reproductive hormones, thyroid abnormalities, immune dysfunction, and changes in metabolism,” Roche warns. “All of these factors can impact performance over the long-term, making it harder and harder to gain consistency in training.”
The only way out is through, which requires minimizing all sources of stress until the body feels safe enough to turn the extra sources back on. It requires building up out of the debt the body is already in, both in terms of energy and rest. And since exercise exerts its own stress, that takes running off the table, too. “Reduced exercise and weight gain can be the most effective recovery tools in restoring the energy balance,” Roche agrees. It’s a temporary break, but a murky one.
“RED-S recovery is a complicated process with a unique roadmap for each athlete that is trying to heal,” adds endurance sports dietitian Kylee Van Horn. “The physical and mental stresses must fully be addressed, which can involve a complex recovery process. This also leads to an unpredictable timeline for recovery, and begs patience and dedication to the process to fully recover.”
Even if it’s not forever, shelving your shoes can still feel like tearing out half your heart. But in the wake of diet and hustle cultures, more runners than ever are finding themselves facing the tough reality that their bodies can’t keep up the pace anymore. Running well in the future means not running right now. “Recovery will be a journey,” Roche sympathizes, “but one that will support all the adventures and performances to come.”
The Hardest Race
Whether you’re resting to repay an energy debt or to manage another setback, not running might hurt more than the toughest training block. After all, you’re cut off from an integral piece of who you are.
Wile it’s important to round out your personality with other interests besides running, there’s no denying that most of us feel a deep connection to our sport – that’s why we do it! It’s our strongest connection to the world around us and the people exploring it with us. But when the sport that charges your mental and spiritual batteries is also what drains your physical battery, it turns into a painful situation.
So when you’re on pause, how do you find the drive to move forward?
Cutting all ties presents one option. Seeing reminders of running at every corner can feel like pressing on a bruise when you’re not actively running yourself. It’s tempting to turn your back on the whole thing so that you don’t have to face what you’re missing.
But taking that route writes off the fact that running involves far more than just pumping your legs back and forth. Recovery is often the part of training that takes the most discipline, and is frequently overlooked or swept aside by athletes who think of it as optional. There are improvements to be made and experiences to be had as a runner without taking a single step. Here are three:
Tactic #1: Cultivate a Super Fan Mindset
Staying connected to the running community is critical. Ambitious runners so often get wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of competition when deep in race mode, and lose sight of community because their own goals hog the stage. When those all-consuming goals take a backseat, you finally have the chance to remove your blinders.
“I think there is immense power in shifting from a super-athlete mindset to a super-fan mindset,” says David Roche, coach with Some Work All Play. “A health-related reset is a wonderful time to view competition through the lens of love, to try to see others as teammates, even if you’ve never met them. That loving, fan mindset can give an athlete superpowers when they return, changing a narrative of conditional self-acceptance to one that is uplifting and joyous in all contexts, since there are always teammates to cheer on.”
Coach T.J. David with Microcosm Coaching agrees. “Staying engaged with other runners during long periods of time off can be one of the best ways for athletes to work through the challenges of not being able to train and compete in sport, because those community activities often connect with the reasons the athlete got involved in the activity in the first place.”
Without the pressures of performance narrowing your scope, there’s room for the simple joys of running to shine brighter, like scenery, discovery, and good company. When you’re on your feet again, you’ll bring those highlights back with you to reframe your perspective for the future.
Tactic #2: Talk It Out
There’s a huge emotional component to taking time away from running. To work through the internal conflict, you’ll need friends to hold your hand.
“Taking the time and space to talk through the recovery process and address any feelings that might be arising is super important for athletes,” David Roche confirms. “Social recovery is one of the most important tools in an athlete’s toolbox for coping with the challenges that long-term setbacks present. Just talking about what you’re going through, either with a coach or friends who get it can help lower the stigma and reduce stress around the recovery process.” Microcosm Coaching actually hosts weekly Community Calls with their athlete team for this very reason, to establish a strong sense of camaraderie so that their runners always know who to turn to, in sickness and in health.
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Tactic #3: Remember That Mood Follows Action
It might feel difficult to keep up with those connections at first. Losing running, even temporarily, comes with its own grieving process, and jealousy can rear up quickly.
“A sick or injured runner managing complicated emotions like envy, loss, and vulnerability may feel comfort in the short term by isolating,” acknowledges Sarah Strong, LCSW with Fireweed Counseling. “But isolation exacerbates stress. Community, on the other hand, buffers stress, supplies a sense of belonging, and provides emotional and practical support.”
You don’t have to wait until you feel ready to connect with others, either. You might never feel ready beforehand. “Mood follows action,” Strong clarifies, “so injured runners should intentionally create opportunities for social connection before waiting to feel motivated to do so.”
Strong offers a roadmap to going from nursing your wounds alone to leaning on your peers. “Brainstorm ways to connect with the running community that don’t involve running – from more passive engagement like listening to podcasts or reading books, to more active engagement like volunteering at a race or serving as an aid station for a friend’s training run.” Then, rank those ideas based on how realistic they seem right now.
If you can see yourself reintroducing your favorite running podcast, but can’t begin to imagine cheering on runners from the sidelines of the race you had to drop out of, start with the easiest option and work your way up. You don’t have to do it all at once, and you’re allowed to take it slow.
“Initially all activities will involve at least some level of distress,” Strong cautions. “The pain will begin to ease as the runner experiences the positive benefits of social connection in these new and different ways. Choosing how and when to connect with their community gives injured runners a sense of control during a period of disempowerment.”
Through it all, Strong suggests that there’s no such thing as too much self-compassion. “Give yourself the time and space to feel and express anything that you are experiencing, without judgment. Put thoughts and feelings into words to make them tangible and manageable. Get them out of our head by physically writing it down or saying it out loud. Repeat as often as necessary.”
The Bottom Line?
Running’s only an individual sport if we let it be. Use your time off to build a stronger foundation for your running rooted in community. Not only will you find more peace in pressing pause now, but you’ll come back stronger with support by your side.