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TrailRX: Should Runs Be More Focused Or More Fun?

How to balance play and purpose in your training.

I’m training for my first 50k. Should my long runs be fun or should they be more training-focused?

I think the best way to answer this question is to avoid it altogether. At least, the either-or part of it. 

There’s a perception, particularly in the culture of “no pain no gain” endurance sports, that anything that’s fun can’t be productive, and anything that’s productive can’t be fun. 

Succumbing to that dichotomy is one of the biggest mistakes athletes make. Sure, training isn’t going to be a fast-and-easy fun fest 24/7. The kind of deliberate practice required to improve at anything, let alone progress in running, is going to feel like a grind sometimes. But, runners who perform and improve the most consistently over many months and years tend to be those who have the most fun along the way.

Why? Because research shows that we invest more effort into exercise that we actually enjoy, and when things feel fun, it’s generally easier to sustain those efforts over the months and years it takes to chase your potential in running. Fun isn’t the enemy of effective training, it’s the foundation of it.

Fun isn’t the enemy of effective training, it’s the foundation of it.

RELATED: Advice For Workout Anxiety

Why So Serious?

For the athletes I coach, most of the difference between fun runs and focused runs is their mindset and expectations. They’ll go into a fun run with fewer expectations as to their pace and effort level, mostly focused on enjoying being out on the trail. Fun days can be productive days! Longer (within reason) days on feet can be great for honing your aerobic base, practicing fueling, and figuring out gear. Taking time to chat with running buds and snapping a few photos can foster a sense of deep community, ground you in the present moment, and help runners correlate their training to their deeper WHYs. This approach, when balanced with specific long runs and more intentional efforts on race similar terrain can help an athlete stay engaged through a long training block while also hitting specific training goals. Incorporating more opportunities for enjoyment and play, like trying new routes, connecting with friends or even just listening to a fun playlist can help you train more consistently, effectively and prevent burnout.

Likewise, “serious” runs and workouts can, and should be fun too. Experimenting with different effort levels in workouts and getting feisty doing some speedwork can and should be fun! If workouts or long runs with set parameters and intentions don’t feel fun, it might be due to expectations or pressure you’re putting on yourself to perform, rather than using them as an opportunity to celebrate your fitness and get curious about your potential. Playfulness is curiosity about what you’re capable of, without the weight of expectations. Difficult things can also be fun things if you approach them with an open mind and heart.

Difficult things can also be fun things if you approach them with an open mind and heart.

RELATED: How To Find More Joy On The Run

Set Better Goals

If the training frequently feels like a drag, it may be worth revisiting why you set those goals in the first place. The best goals are goals that you enjoy working towards, and that allow you to live the kind of life you want to live. Do you love spending long days in the mountains? Sign up for a steeper ultra. But, if waking up early on the weekends and prepping your hydration vest for a big day doesn’t bring you joy, then it might be because there’s a mismatch in the goals you’ve chosen for yourself.

Does a looming 16-mile long run on the calendar inspire dread? Many folks get bogged down by the perceived “have to” of training. Or, they heap heavy expectations about pace, time and effort on themselves that make it feel like they’re set up to fail from the beginning. Both of those things can make training days feel like a real drag. Try shifting your mindset away from the “have to” to “get to.” Any day you get to wake up and lace-up running shoes is a pretty dang good day. That doesn’t mean that we can’t acknowledge that training is tough and has its low moments, but it’s helpful to come back to the idea that at the end of the day, no one is making you eat cola-flavored goop by yourself in the woods, and by reclaiming some autonomy around your training, you can start to have a little more fun.

Just because something is fun doesn’t mean it shouldn’t work for you. And just because something is work, doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. 

RELATED: To Get Faster, Have More Fun

I think that applying the same mindset you’d use on a fun run, and melding it with the intentionality of a more focused run gets you to a much more productive place in training. If all your training days are fun, that takes the pressure off any one specific day having to be super amazing. After all, the best training is consistently good enough training, not sporadic perfect days. If all your fun days are productive, then you’ll progress faster than you ever imagined. 

By avoiding the black-and-white fun-or-focused question altogether, you’ll move towards a place where your training tends to be more productive and is a lot more fun. 

If you can learn to find fun in the process of improving, every day becomes a bit more like a one-person trail party. Play isn’t the opposite of purpose in training

Got questions for TrailRx? Email us at zrom@outsideinc.com.