3 ways to make the most of running without entering a race

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Ask a coach or a sports psychologist for help climbing out of a motivational slump and they’ll probably offer the same advice: sign up for a race. It’s a good solution for many; putting an event in your diary can give your running a sense of purpose and ensure you think twice before skipping a training session.

But what if you just don’t enjoy racing? What if you don’t like competition, race entry fees or the logistics of fitting a structured training plan into an already over-scheduled life? Don’t worry. Plenty of runners find all the inspiration they need without ever pinning on a race bib. ‘A competitive training programme definitely gives us a reason to run even when we’re tempted to take a day off,’ says Dr Duncan Simpson, an assistant professor of sport, exercise and performance psychology. ‘But there are those who say they’re running just for running’s sake and their motivation may be different.’ And the secrets of staying motivated to run with no finish line in sight can help all runners – racers and non-racers alike – to enjoy the journey.

1. Do it for yourself

Cathy Kim, 46, ran a half marathon in her 20s. She finished and thought: never again. ‘It was awful,’ she says. ‘Focusing on time and speed turned running into a completely different experience for me.’ Her racing career was over, but her running career has lasted two decades. ‘Running began as a way for me to relieve stress and get outside,’ she says. ‘It’s evolved to being a time when I can think.’

What drives Cathy is ‘intrinsic motivation’, says Dr Cindra Kamphoff, director of the Center for Sport and Performance Psychology at Minnesota State University, US. ‘People motivated in this way are running for themselves and driven by the enjoyment of the task.’ Chasing race medals and PBs can give your running a short-term purpose, but for it to have staying power, Simpson says it’s important to pinpoint what you truly value about running. Is it stress relief, weight management, fitness, ‘you time’ or a chance to socialise? Identifying what motivates you can help you recognise the value running brings to your life.

2. Make a plan

Contrary to popular opinion, snubbing the race scene doesn’t make you an aimless plodder. You can still pit yourself against the greatest competitor any runner has: yourself. Matthew Voss, a 51-year-old chef, challenges himself out on the road with weekly speed workouts and long runs, even though it’s never for the sake of a race. ‘The cost of races has outgrown my budget and feels like a waste of money, since I can run for free,’ he says. ‘I can stretch my limits and see myself improve without racing.’ And if you like the structure, direction and progression offered by a training plan, there’s no reason you can’t follow one just because you won’t be racing at the end of the final week.

Even if there’s no race on your horizon, Simpson suggests giving every run a dedicated purpose. One day could be a slow-paced long run, where you work on adding a mile each week. Another could be hill repeats, where you aim to maintain form and finish the final repeat as fast as the first. Another could be a casual run with friends, where the purpose is socialising, fun and recovery. ‘The idea is to recognise the benefits you are going to get from each run, so you are motivated not to miss out on those benefits,’ says Simpson. He also recommends setting goals. These could be classic ambitions, such as building endurance or speed, but you can also be creative and set goals such as maintaining a running streak, in which you run at least a mile a day for a month, or longer. Or see if you can log more miles in May than you did in April. ‘Reaching a finish line in a specific time isn’t the only goal that can motivate you to run,’ says Simpson.

3. Ease it off

Burnout and injury can plague runners who are constantly competing. When you have a race on the horizon it’s hard to take an extra rest day or scale back your pace, even when your muscles are begging for a break, says Kamphoff. But this all-out approach to training can leave you injured and forced into taking time off to recover. In contrast, says Kamphoff, non-racers seem more willing to make adjustments to their running routines, because they’re focused on their long-term enjoyment of the sport. ‘I used to race every weekend,’ says 65-year-old Kathleen Gina, who’s been running for over 35 years. ‘My goal was to place in my age group and for 10 years I did, but I was injured – a lot.’ Twelve years ago, Gina left the racing circuit. She gave her body a much needed rest and joined a group of runners who couldn’t care less about being at the back of the pack, or even being in a pack at all. She’s now injury-free and loving her running.

‘Aim to be the best runner you can be, but not at the expense of hurting yourself,’ says Kamphoff. ‘Recognise when it’s time to back off, even if you have a race coming up.’ Keeping a running diary can help. ‘But don’t just chart your mileage,’ says Kamphoff. ‘Write down how you feel – both physically and mentally – after each run. Then use your notes to help you spot what may be a budding injury or burnout.’ Paying attention to danger signs and slowing down accordingly can help you avoid bigger issues down the line.