I started running regularly four years ago when I was in the worst shape of my life. I had recently gotten sober, after a decade of heavy drinking. All of those years of alcoholism had left me overweight and lethargic.
To make matters even worse, I was still a pack-a-day smoker (a habit that I’ve thankfully given up since). I’d sometimes get back from a run and suck down a cigarette before I’d even caught my breath.
Needless to say, I was not very fast in those days. In fact, initially, I couldn’t run for more than a minute at a time.
I stuck with it, though, and gradually improved. My first big milestone was running 5 kilometers without stopping. The next one was to run the same distance in under half an hour.
Beating the thirty-minute mark in the 5k was one of the best feelings I’d experienced in years. I still remember getting home that day and being filled with sheer joy. Although a thirty-minute 5k is what many people would consider a “beginner” time, it represented a real turning point in my life.
As an alcoholic, I had tried to take up hobbies like running countless times, but always let my addiction get in the way. I could never stick with anything back then. Even after getting sober, I worried I’d still be unable to ever commit to further self-improvement.
Running a 5k in under half an hour required me to stick with a consistent running schedule for several months — something I’d never done before. It was proof that quitting alcohol had only been the first step towards transforming my life into something better.
Since then, running has been an integral part of my life, and I’ve pushed myself hard to improve my speed. For my first three years of running, my main goal was to run as fast as I could.
Of course, I didn’t push myself on literally every run — I knew enough about exercise to understand the importance of easy days and slow runs. However, even when I was running slowly, I was doing it with the goal of eventually setting faster personal bests.
I set new 5k bests quite a few times over the past few years. My best was last spring when I reached 22:26. Running times are all relative, and I understand that to many serious runners, this time might still look abysmal. However, I was absolutely ecstatic.
Back when I was struggling to run for more than a minute at a time, I never expected I’d ever string together back-to-back miles at a 7:13/mile pace. My speeds at other distances had all improved as well, from the 400-meter to the half-marathon.
From there, my goal was to keep getting even faster. Long-term, I wanted to crack twenty minutes in the 5k — a goal that seemed far away, but eventually achievable.
But then, about half a year ago, my progress stalled.
There were a few factors contributing to my trouble: The ongoing pandemic and rolling lockdowns had worn me out. Getting laid off from my job added another heaping pile of stress. I was also lifting weights more regularly, and the added muscle mass wasn’t doing my running speed any favors.
Initially, I pushed myself even harder to get through the slump, but then I realized that running had started to feel more like a chore than a hobby. So, for the first time since I started running, I stopped trying to run faster. In fact, I stopped trying to run fast at all.
I dropped the speed workouts from my week, reduced the length of my runs, and did my best not to think twice about how fast I was going.
I worried these changes might be the first step toward giving up running entirely, but instead, they reinvigorated my love for it.
So, what happened when I stopped pushing myself to run fast? I’ll get the bad news out of the way first: I got much slower.
This isn’t one of those counter-intuitive stories about how by focusing less on speed, I actually got faster. No, I slowed down, exactly like anyone would expect.
My top speeds and my everyday running speeds have all slowed significantly. I haven’t run an all-out 5k in months, but according to the prediction feature on Runalyze, I’d probably clock in around 25 minutes if I did. That’s still much better than when I started running, but nowhere near my personal best.
None of this has been a surprise, though. When I decided to stop pushing myself to run fast, I expected to slow down.
And the good news is that the trade-off has been absolutely worth it. Although I’m running slower, I’m enjoying it more than I had in months.
There’s something extremely freeing about just running for the sake of running. So much of my life feels wrapped up in tracking stats; I worry about how much money I have, how much weight I can lift, and how many readers my writing gets. It’s nice to have a major hobby that I’m no longer tracking at all.
How far did I run in the past week? How fast did I go? I honestly have no idea, and it feels great.
Although getting faster was absolutely fun, I don’t think I had realized how much stress it was adding to the hobby. Whenever I went a few months without improving, I’d start feeling bad about myself, even if I was still running regularly. I’d even get disappointed over individual runs that had gone badly.
Now, there really is no such thing as a bad run for me. It doesn’t matter if I slow way down on the hills, stop to catch my breath, or even bail out of a run early. All the unnecessary pressure that I was putting on myself is gone.
Since getting sober, I’ve tried hard to pursue self-improvement, but I think it has biased me toward measurable results. I enjoyed tracking my running speed, for example, because I was able to prove to myself I was improving.
However, measurable improvements aren’t the only improvements that matter. The intangibles, like stress levels and happiness, are even more important.
When I stopped trying to run fast, my stats went down, but I took another step in my self-improvement journey: I’ve learned to love running for the sake of running.