Are You Too Strict About Your Running?

Many runners have Type A personalities who can be very rigid with their training. Being strict with run training can help you become a better runner, but it becomes a problem if you aren’t able to adapt, make poor choices, or can’t recover emotionally from missed runs. These expert tips may help you adapt better to unforeseen circumstances, and make you a better athlete. Seek professional help if you think you think you could have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) tendencies.

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I have to try REALLY hard to be flexible & adapt to changes in my training.

Reviewed by running coach Laura Norris, running coach Neely Gracey, and sports psychologist Dr. Haley Perlus: I’m sharing an unpopular opinion here—there are many accomplishments by runners that are celebrated as “badass” or strong by the running community that I think are unhealthy and mask mental health issues. Often accomplishments like run streaking, running in treacherous weather, running back-to-back marathons, not taking breaks from running—while admirable for those who lack running motivation—for many, it is a sign of being too rigid in their training, and possibly having mental health issues.

I know this because I have battled these oft-too strict tendencies when it comes to running.

My Story: 2019

I am way more flexible than I used to be—but it’s hard for me.

I am the runner who has a hard time not sticking to my run schedule, who can’t cut a run short, who runs until the Garmin beeps for the final mile split, who gets annoyed if a run doesn’t get recorded, and yes, the runner who has run while injured, really sick, or in dangerous weather.

I’ve written a lot about the runner I became in 2019 when I attempted to qualify for the Olympic Trials Marathon. It was a last-minute decision based off a last-minute marathon performance I ran in the spring. It went so well, my running coach at the time said “let’s go for it.” So, we did. We doubled my mileage, and I went all in.

Then I tore my hamstring—three months away from the marathon.

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Pin these tips to be less strict in your running for later.

Instead of hanging up my running shoes, or even taking a day off, I continued to run high volume. I didn’t know it was torn at the time—it was probably strained, and my running ended up tearing it. But had adapted and taken a few days off to let it heal, perhaps I would be an OTQ marathoner, today.

Related: Lessons Learned from My Running Injury

But I was afraid to deviate from the schedule, to take time off, in fear I would lose momentum, that less miles ran meant less of a chance to get my goal.

That’s not how running works. While many of us runners are Type A and want to control everything we can, what makes running very challenging is that there are too many variables to control. So, we have to adapt and do the best we can.

I know this—and I coach this way.

Each injury or time away I’ve had from running, the less rigid about running and running stats I have become—and the more joyful, healthy, and, ironically, in control I feel.

But it’s still a battle.

Related: How to Adjust Your Training for a Missed Workout

Now: 2024

Last week, I had just started my run when I got a notification that school was getting dismissed early in 28 minutes! No way I was going to get 6 miles in in 28 minutes! So, I ran what I could, and then I had Eleanor finish the run with me. (Well, she did cartwheels alongside me for about 2 miles).

I could have let those 2 miles go, but it was going to drive me crazy.

And it made me realize that even though I’ve been away from running for almost half a year with an injury, those demons still live inside, and come out sometimes. I recognize it in myself, and I recognize it in many of the athletes I coach, too.

And I try very hard to coach them away from it—use the logic and tactics I use on myself, to help them too.

I got with some other experts to share their techniques in helping runners with potentially too rigid training or OCD tendencies practice healthy habits. My hope is that if you tend to be OCD about running, these tips will help you not let the little things steal joy, derail your training, or lead to injury.

Note: I am not a doctor or a clinical psychologist. This information is not meant to diagnose or treat OCD. If you think you struggle with OCD, anxiety, or exercise addiction, please see a licensed mental health professional. This article is meant to help those who have potentially too strict routines around exercise or obsessive-compulsive tendencies with running.

I spoke with esteemed running coach (and my coaching mentor) Laura Norris, multiple-time OT qualifier and esteemed running coach Neely Gracey, sports psychologist Dr. Haley Perlus, and mental performance coach Carrie Eichmann to collect tips on how to not let rigidity or OCD tendencies in your training steal your joy from running.

Related: Can Running Help Stress & Anxiety?

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Pin these tips to be less rigid in your training for later.

When does being rigid about your running become a problem?

With a sport that’s built on consistency, it’s important to be strict about your training. Going after your goals in running requires doing what you can to get your training in. If you are training for a race, you can’t run just run. when you feel like it, or it’s easy to fit it in.

You must think ahead, adapt, and make arrangements, as necessary—especially as a mom!

In fact, creating routines around your training can be a good thing, says Dr. Perlus. “We use these things like routines, data, and schedules to feel in control and confident in a world when there are many things that are out of control.”

Related: Can Running Make My Anxiety Worse?

When being strict about your training is a problem, or even detrimental, however, is when things don’t go according to plan, and it makes you distraught, angry or anxious, she says.

Eichmann says the to be look out for the below symptoms which can signal your rigidity could be crossing over to an unhealthy pattern:

  • Behavioral Symptoms:
    • obsessing over the behavior
    • engaging in the behavior even though it’s causing physical harm
    • engaging in the behavior despite wanting to stop
    • engaging in the behavior in secret.
    • experiencing an inability to stick with a reduced exercise routine
  • Physical Symptoms:
    • Being unable to perform at the same level
    • Needing longer periods of rest
    • Feeling tired
    • Being depressed
    • Having mood swings or irritability
    • Having trouble sleeping
    • Feeling sore muscles or heavy limbs for multiple days at a time
    • Getting overuse injuries

When schedules get thrown off, it won’t impact your performance. The only impact is on your emotions, says Dr. Perlus. And if you can’t be flexible and recover, then you’re hurting your running—more than those missed miles would.

“The best athlete isn’t the one who is perfect,” says Dr. Perlus. “It’s the one who recovers the best.”

Losing your confidence because you couldn’t allow your emotions to rebound from the wrench thrown into your plans is going to hurt you more than anything else.

Practicing “going with the flow” and adapting, can you help you better prepare for race day.

Related: Running & Depression: Can Running Make You Happy?

There are changes you can make in your training to become a more flexible runner–and better athlete!

12 Ways to Battle Rigidity & OCD Tendencies in Running

So, how do you unwind your thoughts and allow yourself to recover in situations where your running gets thrown off? Norris, Gracey, Eichmann, and I have some strategies.

(Some of these strategies come from me, knowing these situations have driven me crazy in the past!). I recommend trying one of these once a week.

  1. Run uneven. Run “uneven” numbers, even if it makes you feel initially uncomfortable. Stop at 7.04 or 6.98 instead of 7.00, for example. 
  2. Don’t look at the watch. Cover your watch during workouts so you can’t see your paces, says Norris, who will have her athletes do this to let go of the numbers.
  3. Go off-track. Take workouts off the track and onto varying terrain, so that you can’t over-analyze and compare paces. Or run by effort over paces, advises Norris.
  4. Ditch data. Turn off your watch’s performance status and race predictor.
  5. Go watchless. Run without your watch. Try just one run. See how it feels.
  6. Ignore your heart. If you track heart rate, run occasionally without a heart rate monitor.
  7. Visualize things going awry. Picture how you would adapt to things not going your way, like getting sick peak week of marathon training, racing in bad weather, or forgetting your Garmin on race day.
  8. Put on your mother runner hat. Handle problems like you do with your kids: address it in the moment, and move on. Don’t waste energy and ruminate!
  9. Think of Plan Bs. if you can’t run at your normal time, think of contingency plans just in case.
  10. Focus on controlling what you can control. Do what is most necessary to help you towards your goal. If you can’t run that day because you’re stuck at home with the kids, could you do some extra mobility instead?
  11. Give yourself grace. Set mantras and self-compassion statements for when training gets disrupted, advises Eichmann. Ex: “Training is a multi-year, multi-month practice. My sleep (or children or whatever else needs the time) is just as important in my overall health as 30 minutes of strength training. Missing this one session will not sway my commitment to running”
  12. Remember progress not perfection. A perfect training cycle does not equal a perfect race, and vice versa. Eichmann advises resetting training plan expectations to “be met at 90 percent (instead of 100) because it gives more acknowledgment of grace and respect for the body to respond as well as give signals as to how it’s doing.” Indeed, as part of my return to running, I made “setbacks” part of the process and that made them easier to embrace and move past.

The hallmarks of a good athlete (and smart mother runner) are being in tune with your body and doing what’s best in a given situation. Oftentimes, running can help those who struggle with OCD and anxiety, and other times these tendencies can manifest themselves in our sport.

If you have a hard time adapting to situations that don’t go according to plan, think about seeking professional help.

If you need help with adapting your training for when schedules go awry, check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans:


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