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Is Your Training Unproductive?

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After registering for his first trail ultramarathon, a 100K in Northern California, Ron Nowland, a consistent runner with several marathons under his belt, began tacking more miles onto his Saturday long runs. His usual 10-mile Saturdays became 13, 15, 17 miles long.

After two months, however, rather than feeling fitter, Nowland struggled to get through his long runs and experienced achy knees for days afterwards. Soon, even his short recovery runs felt like a chore that left him snoozing on his desk by mid-afternoon.

Even though Nowland’s training approach had been by the book, his body wasn’t able to handle the increasing load. What he needed was to step back to assess his Running Readiness.

Are You Ready for More?

Your Running Readiness isn’t a static state …

Running Readiness is the degree to which your body is able to assimilate the stress of training. A high degree of Running Readiness means you’re ready for more miles, harder races or tougher workouts. It means that your body is primed to make fitness gains in response to those workouts, which is considered productive training.

A low degree of Running Readiness, on the other hand, means your body’s already so overloaded with stress—from running and/or life in general—that it lacks the energy to build strength or endurance. In this state, each run could potentially make you more fatigued and susceptible to injury or burnout, known as unproductive training.

Your Running Readiness isn’t a static state, but rather, is always fluctuating in response to the various stressors you encounter daily, weekly and monthly. Gauging your Running Readiness is an ongoing practice, one you can learn to perform by running mindfully.

What Is Mindful Running?

This practice trains your “muscle” of attention.

Mindful running is a way to tune in to your body’s feedback and then understand how to interpret that feedback to determine your Running Readiness. Mindful running is sometimes characterized as “zoning out” while you run—or disassociating from your body or emptying your mind—when in fact, it’s just the opposite.

This practice trains your “muscle” of attention. Before your daily, conduct a brief body scan. Are you feeling fresh and springy or slow and sluggish? Where do you feel tightness or pain? Are you motivated to run today or is it taking a monumental effort to get out the door? Do you feel excited and confident about this run or do you dread or resent it?

Everything you notice during this body scan is information you can use to regulate your run’s pace, intensity, duration and purpose that day.

For example, in the second article of this series, you learned how the degree to which you enjoy a run directly impacts its efficacy in building fitness (meaning that the more you enjoy working out, the better you build fitness). If your body scan reveals a heavy body and unmotivated mind, then these may be signs you’re under-recovering. Rather than doing the hard hill repeats you’d planned, perhaps you should adapt today’s run to be playful and unstructured instead.

Why Trust and Compassion Matter

Making training decisions based on your Running Readiness requires you to trust your body to help you determine what is working and what isn’t.

It also requires a great deal of self-compassion, a key component to any mindfulness practice. And self-compassion really comes in handy when your experiences don’t align with your expectations. Frustration and disappointment are common responses to training setbacks like injuries or persistent fatigue. But those emotions only make it harder to move through the setback and do what’s really necessary to heal or restore your energy, like take time off.

Dr. Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas, conducted research revealing that when we change our response to setbacks through self-compassion, we not only greatly reduce our own suffering, but also feel more agency of the situation and our ability to overcome it.

One way you can apply this to your running is to expect setbacks like injuries, energy slumps or a too-packed schedule. Be flexible with running, knowing that there will be periods when your Running Readiness is low. This puts your body and mind in a much better position to deal with training interruptions when they occur. Self-compassion helps you stay positive and focused on your goals despite the ups and downs on your journey to achieve them.

By employing these principles, Nowland prioritized productivity over consistency in his running. On days he felt under-recovered, he modified or skipped workouts without feeling guilty or lazy. Becoming mindful of his Running Readiness was the missing piece he needed to adapt his training plan to align with his specific rate of recovery and lifestyle.

Like with Nowland, combining your training plan with mindful running will allow you to easily gauge the efficacy of your running routine. It will help you reach your goals, whether it’s to lose weight, manage stress or train for a 5K or 100 miles, while preserving your health and happiness.

Elinor Fish is creator of the Mindful Running Training System and leads women’s mindful-running retreats around the world through her company, Run Wild Retreats + Wellness (