Earlier this month, I hit the 4-year running mark—a quest I began on May 10th, 2017. I’ve written about the inception of this journey many times, but for new readers, a Cole’s Notes version goes a little something like this: I set a goal to run 70 consecutive half marathon distances (the world record for females at the time was 60). I ended up running a total of 74 half marathons in a row and since the end of the challenge, well, I just kept on running every day.
Over the last 4 years, I’ve run a grand total of 14,378 kilometres / 8,934 miles—averaging ~10 kilometres per day. Each year I discover new things about myself, but this past year has been the most transformative for me—mentally speaking.
With organized races being halted due to COVID, I felt a bit stifled when it came to the meaning behind my training. I no longer felt like I was working towards an external reward, personal best or accolade when there was no competitive measure for this. I struggled with finding that oomph in my training. Races gave me something to look forward to and strive towards.
I tried crafting mini challenges for myself (ie. running a full marathon distance on the treadmill and going for a personal best in my 8k and 10k times), and while I’d be on a high for about a day or so, the feelings fleeted quickly and I felt a bit empty inside—wondering what’s next?
The past year, I’ve felt longer bouts of procrastination, bad days, low moods, low energy, and shit workouts. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this, as this has probably been quite a few people’s experience over the past year. I lacked the motivation and zest my training had offered in the past.
With the external rewards and motivation being stripped away, I was forced to look inwards; to find more intrinsic motivation for my training. This inward shift wasn’t an epiphany—I didn’t just wake up one day and discover all this newfound motivation. It was a slow, forced transition into myself. I had to discover new ways to keep myself motivated to train and upkeep my running routine. I slowly began to dig deep into re-shifting my mindset—uncovering some keys to sustaining my fitness journey along the way.
In this post, I’m not going to reiterate what I’ve learned in previous years. Instead, I’ll be focusing more on my shift from external/extrinsic motivation to intrinsic. Intrinsic motivation, I found out with more research, is a key determinant in not only sustaining an exercise regime, but is also the primary catalyst in yielding consistent energy in all our endeavours.
If we only train to chase social recognition, we’ll soon realize that the accomplishments are ephemeral. Soon after, we’ll be chasing the next thing—then the next, then the next. This was 2017 me. I had just ran the Boston Marathon—a goal I had been working towards for years—which gave me a high that lasted for about a week. Not even a month later, I started the #RUN70 Challenge. In 2019, I finished my first 100 mile marathon, took a week to chill a bit, but then started intensive training for the upcoming NYC marathon in November. But of course, I had to run and push for a personal best at the ScotiaBank Half Marathon in October right before. Push, push, push. More, more, more. While these highs and intense training gave me things to work towards and gave my training more meaning, I relied heavily on these races to provide fulfillment.
And guess what? It didn’t at all.
I was never satisfied. I was burnt out and at times, my life and daily actions felt meaningless—unless I had another big race coming up to train for. Always pushing to challenge myself in pace, distance, terrain, and time. If I wasn’t growing and getting better, then I was stagnant, right? Complacent in my life. I didn’t want that. I always wanted to keep growing—which meant ongoing challenges. Every day.
This mental framing of only chasing external rewards is miserable. While they can be used as short-term sprints of motivation, I really don’t believe they’re a sustainable way to train at all. Emphasis on the word only. I think it’s great to work towards a big goal—running your first marathon or 5k race. But it’s important to also allow yourself to sit back, let the accomplishment soak in, and enjoy it.
So what’s the alternative then? Why train hard? Why train at all? At one point throughout the last few years, I wanted to train hard enough to get to an elite level. I felt that I had the focus and the discipline. It was pouring rain when I showed up to a group training session to run 16 kilometers. No one else was there. I was alone. Yet, I did the workout anyways and pushed myself without anyone else watching. Isn’t that necessary to be successful in the world of sport? Hard work? Showing up? Continuously pushing, pushing, pushing for better.
It turns out, it isn’t. In a podcast in the Growth Performance titled Skill Vs. Luck Vs. Hard Work, co-hosts Steve and Brad discuss that while hard work is important and plays a role, a big factor in elite level sports is genetics and luck. Even though I was training hard, multiple times a day even, and doing everything right (I thought), it still wasn’t enough. I’m not enough was the single lyric in the melodramatic song that played in my head on repeat. Not just in running, but in other areas of my life too.
In 2020, I had planned to run the Toronto Marathon, the Niagara Ultra 100k, and the Javelina Jundred 100-mile. Those race plans, now down the tube thanks to COVID.
I relied so heavily on this unsustainable external form of motivation and validation that I was completely crushed. I felt lost. Who was I without my organized races? How can I prove to myself and to others that I’m worthy? I have nothing now. I’m a no one. I’m not kidding you—these were the recurring thoughts in my mind.
So, I present to you this alternative: go inwards.
But, what does that mean exactly?
It’s quite simply this: re-framing exercise and finding the real joy that the activity brings. It meant letting go of the metrics from time to time. Stop chasing the stats and always striving for better.
Consistency Trumps Intensity
Over the last few years, I’ve always tried to better myself—to keep improving time and pace. I associated running with hard work. If I wasn’t dripping with sweat after my workout, was it really a workout? By pushing too hard, I experienced an overuse injury in 2019 which led to a third-grade hip flexor strain where I could barely even walk. The pain lasted for days. Luckily, I was still able to recover while continuing to run every day, but I learned a few important lessons here. If I wanted to continue running every day—staying consistent with the practice over the long term—I needed to listen to my body and scale back my efforts. I was forced to bring down my mileage and pace and break out my streak runs into two (or even three) throughout the day to give my body the adequate rest it needed to recover.
This last year, my runs have mostly been low intensity steady-state. I’ve found it to be a much more enjoyable and sustainable way to run every day and maintain motivation.
I still find it fun to incorporate some interval training or tempo runs once a week (maybe twice on a good week), but no more than that. Mixing up the type of workout has kept things fresh and exciting.
However, in order to stay consistent with exercise, it should feel easy most of the time. Intensity conflicts with consistency if repeated too often. Easy workouts can also make it easier to start: reducing procrastination and the accompanying dread. If we know we’re going into a workout and working our asses off, it might up what Steven Pressfield calls The Resistance; our brain will start making up excuses and justifications to avoid stepping into that gym.
I’ve been there too, countless times.
Those that know me know that I’m a pretty extreme person—a real “all-or-nothing” or “go big or go home” kind of gal. I’m running at least 5-miles today or the workout is a write-off. I’m eating all the cake vs. a piece of the cake. I need to write an entire blog post every day or no writing at all. It goes on…for everything.
This has been the worst mentality I’ve had and has limited my ability to make progress in other areas of my life. Over the last year, I’ve made an important mindset shift to everything counts which helped me make progress in my other pursuits outside of running.
Anything worthwhile takes time and patience…it’s the little actions each day that compound and materialize into significant changes over long periods of time. Running for 5 or 10 minutes is better than no minutes. “[human beings are] hardwired to choose immediate gratification over long-term benefits”, writes Michelle Segar in No Sweat. If we don’t see any palpable results right away, we have the tendency to throw in the towel early. Often that time comes right before significant changes take place.
James Clear calls the breakthrough the “plateau of latent potential”. Once we see the years of effort crystallize into success—whatever that might look like, people will say that we’ve achieved “overnight success.” Seth Godin calls this period the Dip. It often surfaces when we’re not seeing any visible progress over long periods of small efforts, but what this means is that we’re on the brink of making a major breakthrough.
No one sees the behind-the-scenes work and that’s the problem. Over the past 4 years of my running journey, here is the most important takeaway: the backstage work is what brings the most enjoyment and fulfillment in my life (AKA non-performative running). I do get a hit of dopamine from sharing my run stats and performance on social media—the accolades and cheers are nice in the short term—but ultimately, just leave me with a void that needs to be filled with more likes. I learned over the years that the run itself is the real enjoyment.
The activity makes me feel good—I don’t run to impress others, I run because I truly appreciate the inner rewards running brings to my life: the high of endorphins, being immersed in nature, the calming and centering effect, reducing my anxiety, providing me with the space to think through challenges and come up with solutions or discover new ideas to fuel creativity.
This is the key to consistency and why I’ve been able to run every day for 4 years.
The Body’s Ability to Adapt
A lot of people ask me, how do you do it? How can you run every day without resting? Scott, a 65-year old man who has been on a streak of his own lately, wrote me something that really inspired me. I love it so much that I need to share it with you all:
I’m 65, was told not to run by doctors/orthopedists/podiatrists. I stopped for 30 years. Now, I run at least 5 miles avg daily, every single day, up and down hills. People think I am crazy and beg me to stop. When they ask if I take a day off, I tell them, yes, every day after my run, I rest for 23 hours.
There’s your daily running fuel, compliments of your fellow runner, Scott. I too give myself that 23-hour period for rest and recovery, an important window of time to upkeep your running routine.
I learned this in both my first 10k per day challenge and the #RUN70 challenge: the body’s extraordinary ability to adapt to distance. Research shows that the likelihood of injury goes up if you’re a novice or inconsistent runner vs. an experienced and consistent runner.
While I do experience soreness or slight (and weird) injuries from time to time, they are usually quite minor. My most recent injury was likely cuboid syndrome, which my physiotherapist identified as being a result of a) dropping a book on the top of my foot or b) doing jumping squats with weights (something I don’t normally do). It’s when you start throwing new things into the mix that you’re likely to sustain a random injury vs. engaging in an activity on a regular basis. Mind you, some are more prone to shin splints, knee pain, or the dreaded plantar fasciitis, but a lot of that comes down to genetics OR old running shoes / the wrong shoes for your foot type and stride.
Our bodies are so miraculous in their ability to adapt to stress, however this shouldn’t be taken for granted. We need to learn to listen to what our bodies are telling us and not continue to push when they are screaming for us to stop. Our bodies are usually quite vocal and like to communicate in the style of pain, soreness, or mental fatigue/exhaustion. An important skill to learn is to listen to your body’s requests, even if that means scaling back our efforts significantly for a period of time. For me, that means bringing down my daily mileage, bringing down my pace, and getting more sleep (a magic pill when it comes to recovery).
The Dark Side of the Streak
While running every day has brought me more fulfillment in my life than I could possibly imagine, I would be remiss without mentioning the dark side of the streak. No matter what way you put it, if you commit to running every day, there’s rigidity which can cause some issues and conflict in your personal life. I’ll highlight a few examples to better extrapolate what I mean.
Last summer, my good friend asked if I’d like to join her and a group of other ladies on a fun cottage trip to an island. I immediately said yes, but then thought uh oh…an island? How am I going to run on an island? I had to be that annoying person to ask if there was a place I could run? Of course, there wasn’t—I would have to canoe my way to shore each morning (a 45-minute ride each way). I couldn’t just relax, go swimming, and chat with the ladies since 3 hours of my day would be committed to trekking back to land, running, and canoeing my way back to the island. Not to mention the inconvenience of it all. My good friend Margaret so graciously said she would bring me to the mainland each day and wait while I ran (she’s such a gem of a human, love ya, Margey), but I felt so bad and also anxious about the whole ordeal. I ended up going out west to Alberta for a few weeks instead (to capitalize on the inexpensive flights at the time) but couldn’t help feeling a bit discouraged by the situation; discouraged that I couldn’t pursue my other interests and relationships due to maintaining my streak.
I also get anxious thinking about all the other experiences I want to enjoy in my lifetime: going on a meditation retreat, portaging, camping in the backcountry. These experiences can’t just be a “spur of the moment” type deal. I need to meticulously plan how I’m going to run and when I’m going to run. I’ll admit, it’s a bit of a restrictive way to live.
Holding a streak can cause some stress in life—it hinders the ability to go with the flow. Over the 4 years, I have been able to figure out tough situations, but I’m not going to lie, I have inconvenienced my friends, family, and previous partners who’ve had to deal with my regimented ways. Luckily, I have really supportive people in my life who’ve adjusted their lives and put themselves out to accommodate me (which they shouldn’t have to do). I don’t want to be this person forever though—it makes me feel selfish to a degree.
Running and Identity
I had a conversation about this with my cousin Sara a few months back. We were talking about the dangers of tying your identity to your work or activity you do. If you tie your identity to one thing, what happens if it gets striped away (which it will with time). Nothing is permanent and attachment causes suffering—this holds true for our mind-made identities as well.
“Reflect on this”, writes Sogyal Rinpoche in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, “the realization of impermanence is paradoxically the only thing we can hold onto, perhaps our only lasting possession.”
If my identity or my self-worth is all wrapped up in this running persona I’ve created for myself, or more specifically, this “consecutive running persona”, what happens if it’s taken away? What happens if I fall ill, get injured, a random life incident occurs like being stuck in an airport during a trip and I miss a day? These things can happen and if my identity relies solely on my streak, I’d be crushed if it were to crumble. 4 years is a long time. Starting a streak up from scratch again is daunting.
I told myself this: if it gets to a point where I would risk my ability to be able to run in the long term or this streak is causing me to miss out an important experience in my life, then it’s time to toss in the towel. Just to keep up a number isn’t worth it to me. This has been a more recent thought and I’m slowly becoming more open minded to letting go.
I have been contemplating a comedown plan which involves journaling questions such as “what will I do the days following the end of the streak?” or “how will my new training regimen change after I let go of running every day?”
There’s a bit of reassurance in the sense that I could now focus more on performance (ie. striving for the sub 3-hour marathon time now that I can let my body rest). I could focus more on strength training and building muscle. I could do more volume in the gym and finally focus on building strength in my lower body—something I’ve neglected since I didn’t want to hinder my daily runs. I think the biggest plus for me is the flexibility that letting go provides—not having to feel anxious if I want to travel or welcome more spontaneity in my life.
Overall, this streak has been a rewarding process and although I don’t know when it’s going to end (I’m not ready to pull the plug quite yet), I’m starting to map out the mental prep work for when I do feel ready to move onto new things.
The key for my consistent streak has been reminding myself why I love to run and how it makes me feel each day. It’s that space I carve out in the day for me time and it provides me with energy to pursue other important activities in my life—like deepening my relationships with people I care about most and my creative endeavors (like writing this blog post).
Taking it easy most of the time is how I’ve been able to run every day and allow my body enough rest and recovery to continue. While running is a solid habit I’ve formed this doesn’t make it easy. Running is still hard and takes work—even after 14 years.
Lastly, I wouldn’t have been able to upkeep a streak like this without the support of this amazing community of runners—who engage with me through my blog or on Instagram. Sharing my journey has been a privilege so if you’ve been a supporter, I genuinely want to thank you.
With the vaccine rollout, I’m hopeful that this upcoming year will be the best one yet and how long am I going to continue this streak for? Well, you’ll have to wait and see 🙂