Running Is Like Romance: You Have to Learn How to Keep the Passion Alive

From the honeymoon stage to a settled maturity, this is one ever-evolving relationship. Here’s how to navigate the shifting dynamics—and all the bumps in the road.

The Love of Your Life

Ross MacDonald

When nonrunners ask how long I’ve been running and I say 10 years, I get an expression of amazement, followed by, “You must really love it!” I smile and nod because I really do, except for the days when I really don’t. “It’s complicated,” I tell them.

Like every relationship, a running relationship goes through phases. When I first began, running was all I could think about. A year later, I loved running kind of like I loved my right arm; it was simply a part of me. By year five, I took running for granted. I recklessly increased mileage, got injured, and hated it for that. I considered quitting, looked into other forms of exercise, disliked those, and imagined returning to a sedentary life where I would grow old, fat, and depressed. As that stark potential reality sunk in, I realized running was worth fighting for. I threw on sneakers and clawed my way back, one slow kilometre at a time.

Stay with running, and you will experience your own version of the same. You will lose weight, gain it back, and lose it again. You will make new friends and watch others fade away, grow stronger, become injured, fall horribly out of shape, and build it back better than before. You will run solo and in groups, with or without animals, with or without music, and you will be certain one way is better than the other until the day you decide it isn’t. You will run short and long distances at wildly varying paces that bear little resemblance to stamina or effort—short runs that kill you, long ones that feel like flying. The kilometres will simultaneously fill you with desperation and joy—make you feel like a teenager on a Monday and a tired old professor on Friday. If you run long enough, you will love it, but you will also feel many other things. It will be complicated. And just like the best romances, there are also classic stages of running, and the longer you’re in the game, the more likely it is that you will see (and survive!) them all.

The Honeymoon

You complete your first kilometre without injury or unconsciousness and decide in a blazing stupor that you will run every day for the rest of your life because it is so freaking fantastic. You call friends and ask them why they aren’t freaking running. “It’’s freaking fantastic,” you say. Everyone is happy for you, but you’ve become freaking difficult to hang with. You talk about the marathon you’ll run one day; probably the one in NYC. It’s the most famous. You’re happy all the time. You high-five coworkers at the holiday party and overindulge on desserts because you’re running now and you can eat whatever you want. You wear colorful, metallic running shoes to those parties that somehow scream, Ask me about my mileage!

According to New York City-based biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D., the honeymoon phase of a romantic relationship isn’t just an overwhelming crush of feelings—it has real biochemical underpinnings. During a honeymoon period, there are actual brain chemistry changes happening to dopamine-rich regions associated with reward, motivation, and “wanting.” Hence that starry-eyed look of those in the middle of it.

New runners ride the same dopamine train, but their excitement combined with novel high-impact activity makes the honeymoon phase more likely to produce trouble. In a Danish study of 933 runners, about 25 percent experienced injury in the first 38 kilometres; more injuries piled up with increased mileage. The most common: shin splints (15 percent); “runner’s knee” (10 percent); and medial meniscal injury (9 percent). Almost 5 percent received surgical treatment. The median recovery period for all injuries was 71 days–enough time for many to give up running. The takeaway: Honeymoons burn bright, but can flame out fast if you’re not careful. Slowly build speed and distance, and you’ll coast through the first 23 miles to move with newfound strength and freaking beauty to phase two of your running relationship.

The Return to Reality

This phase in a runner’s life is marked by the realization that you couldn’t keep up for a single lap on the track with four-time Olympian Shalane Flanagan no matter how many of your buddies you beat during Thursday night 800s. Anderson Cooper went through this phase rather publicly when he challenged Flanagan to a 400 metre race around the track at the Nike World HQ training facility near Beaverton, Oregon. Before the “race” he must have thought he had a nonzero chance of keeping up with her, or at least not getting completely destroyed while she giggled to herself, which is exactly what happened. What was Cooper thinking? It could have been a man thing (he did say it was a “real race” when Flanagan asked before they began), but I think the more likely culprit was the waning twilight of a running honeymoon. It wasn’t a track they ran on as much as a quarter-mile welcome mat to the real world. By the end of their “real race,” Flanagan was still laughing and Cooper was hunched over with his hands on his knees, exhausted but also a smarter, better runner than he was before.

In many ways, the Reality phase of running is the best of times. Running is still as new and exciting as ever, only now you get to have your friends and family back. They might even ask how the running is going, and you know enough to give them an answer in under 30 seconds without mentioning your VO2 max, metatarsals, or lactate threshold. You’re getting faster and running longer, but your dreams are private and rooted in the possible. Maybe you’ll run a marathon one day, but you know what it would take to pull it off, and you don’t tell a soul.

Adversity Strikes

My dad once told me the two most dangerous times to ride a motorcycle are when you first start out and after you’ve done it for five years. “I don’t ride a motorcycle, Dad,” I said. He nodded. But I did realize it was a good point to keep in mind about any activity involving risk: At the start you’re not good, and five years in you’re not careful.

It took me about five years to get to drama-free 10-kilometre runs. Then, before I knew it, those same 10-mile runs morphed from drama-free to easy. I added speed and that was fun. I added distance. It felt like an actual superpower—one where I sat comfortably on my legs and rode them effortlessly through cities and over the countryside. An Olympic trainer analyzed my stride and running routine and told me I was ready for a marathon. I chose NYC, because it’s the famous one. Then I hurt my knee, ignored the pain because that’s what we runners sometimes do, and loped on it like a fool. Until I couldn’t. Until soon a mile, much less a marathon, was completely out of the question.

This phase strikes nearly every lover of running. A study by the Sports Medicine Center of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver that followed more than 2,000 runners for two years found that the 10 most common injuries, including plantar fasciitis, tibial stress syndrome, glute injuries, and knee problems like patellar tendinopathy, popped up after the runners had been at the sport more than five years. Though the study doesn’t comment on whether or not carelessness played a factor in experienced runners’ injuries, it does cite, among other things, “extrinsic factors.” The training errors, old shoes, and poor running surfaces—all signs of getting perhaps a little careless.

The Crossroads

The shortest and most deterministic of all the stages of running is the Crossroads. Unlike the Yogi-ism, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” the running Crossroads requires that you choose the left or right path. The Crossroads may follow a serious injury caused by running or by anything else. But it can just as easily follow any life change not immediately compatible with running—a new job, a big move, an illness, a new child, or even just a busy holiday season with several months off that lead to several more. Whatever the cause, the Crossroads is that moment you decide whether your running habit is a life stage, as in, I ran through my twenties, or a never-ending lifestyle, as in, I’ll collapse on the road one day, and they’ll know I died doing what I love.

If you find yourself at the Crossroads, in terms of any personal health issue, only a physician can recommend the right move. For the vast majority of us, the decision to keep running makes sense by almost any measure. Sure, it’s not a risk-free activity, but neither is sitting on the couch slowly gaining close to a kilogram per year. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average woman in her twenties weighs 73 kilograms and will increase that weight to 76 kilograms over the following 10 years. The average man goes from 83 to 90 kilograms. If they maintain a sedentary lifestyle, like pennies in a bank, they’ll amass a fat fortune—both men and women continuing to gain weight have an accompanying higher risk for all manner of related health complications in subsequent decades.

I brought my running habit through the Crossroads by looking ahead and comparing those older than me who had quit running against those who’d kept it going. In the end, there wasn’t really a choice. We can’t decide whether or not we grow older, but we can hedge our chances on how we do so. By the time my knee completely healed, I had fallen completely out of shape. I returned to the road and recommitted myself for good, for always, starting with a single, difficult kilometre.

Mature Love

Certified couples therapist Darren Wilk of Langley, British Columbia, provides sharp insight on the secret sauce of a long-term relationship: “You will always find what you look for—if you look for stuff that your partner is doing wrong, you will find it every day. And if you look for what your partner is doing right, you’ll find it every day.” Reread that statement replacing the word “partner” with “running” and you’ll get a sense of the secret sauce in a long-term running relationship. Instead of focusing on what hurts, or the growing limitations of speed and distance, runners making it to the Mature Love phase focus on the simple fact that after all the ups and downs, they’re still lacing up, heading out, and hitting the road to strengthen and inspire not only themselves, but everyone around them who admires the tenacity of a long-standing good habit that ain’t always easy.

Mature Love runners know how to run, when to run, why to run, and with or without whom. They know when to push it, when to pull back, and what to eat when doing either. They’re secure in their running. Their habit runs deeper than any side-lining injury. They know that bodies heal with rest, and as long as the heart beats, the runner returns to the road, come what may. You know you’ve reached Mature Love when someone asks you why you run and you can only smile and shrug. The real answer is complicated and there are kilometres to cover, so just throw on some shoes and get some. You’ve gone too long to ever question it; you’re in too deep to ever quit; you’ve loved too deeply to ever look away.

Related Articles