How to Nurture Your Relationship With Exercise, So You Don’t Overload Yourself

Experts offer tips on how to strike a healthy balance between setting big goals and being kind to yourself.


As many runners know, it’s motivating to set goals and create a plan to reach them, and then thrilling when you sprint past them—even in your everyday training, not just when you’re gearing up for a race.

However, it’s also easy to become too fixated on your exercise routine. When that happens, you can feel guilty over skipped workouts, have anxiety when your schedule changes, and, perhaps the biggest ripple effect, suffer overuse injuries.

At what point does your desire to exercise start hurting you?

The answer is different for everyone, of course. Whether you’re past that line or not, taking a moment to consider your approach can be helpful. Here are some insights on what to consider when it comes to nurturing your relationship with exercise.

Rediscover Your Why

You run because it’s good for you—a statement backed up by plenty of research—and you cross-train for the same reason. But what does that really mean?

“This is always and forever going to come down to understanding your relationship with exercise in the first place,” running coach Kourtney Thomas, C.S.C.S., told Runner’s World. “Know yourself deeply, peel back the layers, get a firm idea of your ‘why’ for exercise. That means your reason, not anyone else’s, including society or even your doctor.”

Set aside time to ponder why you run, she suggests, thinking beyond vague, external, or clinical “health goals.” One trick is a management technique called the “five whys,” which means you might start with an overarching statement like, “I run to challenge myself.” Then you keep digging: Why is it important to you to do that? With every answer, go one level deeper with another “why” until you’re five layers down.

“Your motivation and ‘why’ should come from a place of autonomy,” Thomas said. “Get at the root of why you exercise, and you’re likely to feel connected to it in a fresh, meaningful way.”

“Get at the root of why you exercise, and you’re likely to feel connected to it in a fresh, meaningful way.”

Redefine Your Minimum

Keeping your why in mind, you should then define what your exercise “minimum” really means to you, while also being realistic and compassionate with yourself, Thomas suggested.

Maybe ideally, you plan to take at least a 5km run daily, but then there’s a day it doesn’t happen because your boss hits you with last-minute work. What’s your reaction? If you had made that run your absolute minimum, most likely you’re going to be more than frustrated, and that will probably spill over into other interactions. (A tip: Don’t email your boss at that moment!)

But if your minimum is going for a 5km run a few times a week, then you’re likely to be much less bothered by the shift in your schedule. In other words, lower your bar. You can always do more than your minimum, and keeping it realistic means accommodating changes to your schedule.                                       

Also, if you have a very high minimum, you’re likely to feel guilty about skipping a run on the days when you just don’t feel like getting out there, said Thomas. That can get complicated quickly. Perhaps instead of seeing guilt as a sign you’re not doing what you “should,” think of it as a cue to change your definition of what’s healthy for you.

“The guilt response comes from feeling like you’re doing something wrong, but you’re the one defining that,” she said. “Guilt is just not productive and it’s often irrational and overwhelming.”

“lower your bar. You can always do more than your minimum.”

Rethink What Constitutes Exercise

One day, you didn’t have time for a proper workout because you were running errands all day, and then you did yard work and tidied up the house. Although you might not have gone for a run, that doesn’t mean all that activity doesn’t add up to similar benefits of a workout.

Called “movement snacks” or high-intensity physical activity (HIIPA), these sporadic bursts of exercise—like sprinting up a flight of stairs, scrubbing dirty pots vigorously, or crawling around with your kid—can be more meaningful than you think.

“Benefits vary by age and fitness level, but in general, doing HIIPA three or four times per day can give you a surprising amount of improvement in cardiorespiratory fitness,” Emmanuel Stamatakis, Ph.D., professor of physical activity, lifestyle, and population health at the University of Sydney, told Runner’s World.

A study he led showed that doing only one minute total of HIIPA per day, broken up into these movement snacks, had measurable increases of 5 percent in fitness over six weeks. Again, that’s just one minute every day. That means it may be much easier to keep up your level of fitness than you might think.

Revisit the Concept of Rest

Rest is crucial for any athlete, and not just as a day built into a larger training plan. It’s normal to take weeks or months off from exercise, in order to give yourself a complete mental and physical break.

And even if you take rest days, you might still be suffering from some degree of exercise burnout, according to Joe Holder, C.P.T., Nike master trainer and run coach, who just launched a fitness and wellness fundamentals program on MasterClass.

“Our body needs an off-season, especially if we perform races,” he told Runner’s World. “We might think we have to hit every workout or be perfect on our diet, but it can be too much if our stress loads are out of whack. Don’t be afraid to reduce your exercise load and just focus on other wellness strategies if you feel like you need a moment.”

Not sure if you need that break? Holder suggested thinking about whether you consider exercise a form of punishment, or at least something you’re forcing yourself to do. If you’re dreading a run and finding ways to procrastinate it, that should be a huge sign that you might need an off-season.

Consider other self-care tactics for a couple weeks or even months, such as focusing on your sleep quality, stress management, relationship dynamics, gut health, or work scheduling. Taking a break can not only help you come back to exercise stronger physically, Holder said, but you’ll also have healthier perspective when you return.