Using Self-Compassion to Crush 5K (in my mid 30s, no less!)

This post is for anyone who might have failed trying to run their first 5K, for those that feel like they will never be a “real” runner, and who are exhausted from beating themselves up about it.

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with running. The love comes from the almost guaranteed high after it’s done – the rush of endorphins, the tremendous feeling of accomplishment, and (I’ll be honest) feeling like I had really earned that candy bar, if I wanted it 😉 The hate part of it came from the pressure of always improving my speed or time, the awful feeling of failure when I wasn’t able to do the former, and the dread that came with continually pushing myself so hard.

Quick recap: I’ve been running on and off for about a decade. I never followed a set training schedule, and would ultimately just run at what felt like a challenging pace until I was tired, and use that as a bench mark. My mindset was that each week I should be progressing with speed and distance, without exception. So, if one week I ran at speed X, for however many minutes, I felt that I absolutely had to beat that the following week.

But even starting with short intervals and what I thought were gradual increases, I found that I would always end up burning out, each time, without ever being able to run the full 5 K non-stop. Towards the end, right before I plateaued/”failed”, it would not be uncommon for me to be cursing under my breath (often at myself), or openly in tears mid run. I would often refuse to let myself slow down, and inside I would be berating myself, calling myself fat, and warning myself that if I didn’t finish, I had to make up for it with eating less for the rest of the day (not fun — see previous post about almost pushing myself towards an eating disorder). By the end of even short runs I felt like a train wreck.

There would always come a time where I just couldn’t hit the next goal and couldn’t seem to progress. Once I hit the plateau, I kind of succumbed to the exhaustion and would give it a rest for an extended period. I would eventually pick it back up again, but all the while believing on the inside that I was just not meant to be a runner.

After my most recent hiatus, I started up again, and sure enough started to feel some of the fatigue and dread that I was feeling years ago. I decided to put a little more thought and research into what I was doing, before I injured myself.

I tried researching “5 K failures” and didn’t come across much. I was a bit disappointed, and wondered whether there were other people who were struggling, who couldn’t hit the milestone? Or maybe there was something wrong with me.

I did a little more research on specific training plans, and found it frustrating not knowing where to start, and finding such drastically different plans for “beginner”. Some plans assume you can already run for 10 minute chunks, and others start you off with as little as 30 second spurts.

I personally believe that some of the beginner training programs out there are actually too ambitious. For example, a common bench mark is working up to 5 K, in 30 minutes, after a few weeks. Don’t get me wrong. This is likely an achievable for some people…But, it wasn’t for me.

I dug a bit further and decided that running 5 K in 30 minutes might actually be an unrealistic goal for others as well. To put it in perspective: hitting 5 K in 30 minutes translates into a running speed of 6.2 MPH. However, according to Healthline (which aligns with other stats I’ve seen), the average speed for a 30-34 year old woman to run 5 K is over 38 minutes! This translates into a speed of under 5 MPH. If you don’t currently run, this might not mean anything to you, but it’s a huge difference, and made me feel a lot better with myself.

It really surprised me, and made me realize that it was ok to scale down. I decided to err on the side of caution, and start with the 30-second stuff. It felt like it was laughably easy at first. And I felt silly stopping after 30 seconds, when I wasn’t tired or sweating. But, I *forced* myself to stick with what felt like painfully slow increases, and held myself back even when I was dying to go faster or longer. I am confident that this is what allowed me to go farther and faster, in the long run.

I started realizing that I was actually being way, way too hard on myself in the earlier years, without even realizing it. For my next several runs, I dropped right down to 5 MPH. Having previously pushed myself much harder than this, it felt almost comical. As an aside, I strongly recommend the movie “Britany Runs A Marathon” – I will always treasure the scene where she realizes that the people around her are walking faster than she is running. That’s exactly what I felt like.

But I stuck with it for a bit. And sure enough, I noticed that every time I made a new goal for myself – whether it be a slight increase in speed, time, or distance, I did. Not. Fail. You have no idea how huge this was for me.

Of course, scaling back physically was only part of my solution. I also made serious adjustments to the way I was talking to myself. Drawing on self-compassion, I started to gradually adjust my attitude. If I was feeling particularly dread-y before a jog, I would actually pause, and give myself permission to fail. I told myself that all I had to do was try. And run for 5 minutes. And that if I wanted to stop afterwards, I could. I actually meant this, but have so far never stopped. You’d think my brain would catch on and that this little trick would lose its effectiveness, but it didn’t. I stopped obsessing about beating my time, my speed, or running for a set time and distance. If I was only out there for 20 minutes, then so be it – it’s better than nothing, and you’re still going to reap a ton of the benefits.

I’ve also tossed the self-defeating talk. It still comes up (it’s just the way I’m wired), but when I notice it creeping in, I shift my focus. I started using some of the techniques I’ve developed in working on mindfulness. I start to focus on my senses, to shift away from my thoughts. I’ll name the sounds I can hear (my breath, my feet hitting the pavement or treadmill, the chatter – the possibilities are endless). I do a “body scan” and check in with myself physically. Am I tensing my shoulders, clenching my jaw? I can actually find peace and comfort in the discomfort. I can acknowledge that my lungs might be burning, that my calves might be aching, and that I’d rather be on the couch eating chips. But so long as I don’t think I’m at risk of injuring myself, I remind myself that it’s temporary, that I’m proud of myself for even starting this workout, and that I’m honouring my body and my mind by challenging it. It sounds cheesy, but it works for me. And it’s sure better than mentally yelling at yourself for being “fat and lazy” (this will burn you out even quicker, trust me).

The bottom line? At 34 years old, after years of trying, I finally hit 5 K. I am confident that I was able to do this by being kinder to myself. That it was by forcing myself to go slower, that allowed me to go farther and faster in the long run. That it was cutting myself some slack, that would allow me to push myself further than I previously thought possible.

If you find yourself struggling with something other people consider an “easy” milestone, you are not alone. I know that there are some people who can hop off the couch and run 5 K without even trying. But I am not one of those people. This accomplishment is huge for me, and I’m so glad I saw it through. I’m not sure what’s next… If I’ll ever run a race, if I’ll aim for 10 K, or start to focus on my speed again. But one thing is certain. I have a better relationship with running and don’t see myself calling it quits any time soon.

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