How to Keep Running (Even When You Want to Quit)
Some days, you just don’t feel like running.
That’s when it helps to hear a little motivation.
Of course, there are also those times when you probably shouldn’t go for a run. It’s okay to take a day off and let yourself recharge.
But it’s a different story when you’ve already begun running. Unless you’re facing an injury, you’ll usually regret it if you give in and stop.
So, the bad news is that you feel like quitting.
The good news is that I have 12 tips that will help you overcome that temptation and keep running.
How to Keep Running: 12 Tips When the Going Gets Tough
To be clear, I’m not advocating that you try to run through an injury, much less begin a run if you’re already hurt.
“But I can still jog, right?” – Typical Runner
What I am saying is that we all hit those walls every now and then.
When you first start running, you’ll probably hit them all the time.
But even those of us who have been running for years and years sometimes hear the siren call to slow down, stop, and call it a day.
Whether it happens during your next jog or in the middle of a marathon, here's how to keep running even when you really don’t want to.
1. Resist the Temptation to Walk
Before you get the inescapable urge to completely give up, you usually face the temptation to “just walk for a little while.” That voice in your head tells you it’s only a temporary measure. You’ll walk for a bit, maybe get your breath back or wait for the pain to subside, and then you’ll definitely start running again.
Unfortunately, this isn’t what usually happens.
The first reason is that switching to walking can be demoralizing. Even if you are able to start running again, you might still look back on your run as a failure. You didn’t run the entire thing. It didn’t count. Whether or not that’s fair, that feeling can lead to quitting. Why keep going after you’ve given up? Just accept the L and prepare for a W another day.
The second reason is that running gives your body a nice dose of all-natural painkillers:
“When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain.
Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine.”
Walkers don’t get those.
So, when you decelerate from running to walking, don’t be surprised if those feelings of pain accelerate now that there are fewer endorphins to contend with.
Therefore, the worst thing you can do when you’re tempted to quit running is to actually give in and walk. In fact, I recommend that you make it a habit to regularly ignore that initial impulse. The first time it shows up, dismiss it outright, and keep running.
If you’ve strategically planned walking breaks into your run, that’s completely different, but you still need to fight any temptation to start them early. I’ll talk about this kind of interval training later on.
Once you give in and start walking, it’s going to be difficult to pick up the pace again. Keep running and utilize these other strategies if the temptation returns.
2. Start with Good Form and Posture
Before you even so much as slow down, I want you to check yourself to make sure you’re practicing good running posture.
While many people love to run because it’s such a natural exercise, the best runners know that the best times belong to those who have the best form. As Meb Keflezighi once said about his winning performance in the Boston Marathon:
“If it wasn’t for form, I don’t think I would have won. I think about my feet, where they’re going to land. My hips, knees, legs, arms, neck. Where my head should be positioned. Where my chin should be going uphill, downhill.”
Even if you don’t have ambitions to someday win a major marathon, form is still important for making the best use of your energy and fighting off pain.
The next time you feel the temptation to quit running, run through this checklist first to make sure your posture is correct:
- Look Ahead – It can be tempting to look down when you’re getting tired, but that’s bad form (also, it’s, you know, dangerous). Always look at the ground ahead about 10 to 20 feet in front of yourself. Don’t push your head forward, either, as many runners often do. That puts a lot of stress on your neck and shoulders, which will build up tension and make it harder to run fluidly. Your ears should always be above the middle of your shoulders when you’re running.
- Keep Your Hands Low – I’ll grant you that it looks much cooler to pump your arms like the T 1000 when you run, but most of us wouldn’t be able to run for very long if we ran like that. Nonetheless, many runners still hold their arms up by their chests, which isn’t a good idea, either. This can lead to muscle tension and tire you out early. Instead, keep your hands down by your waist and bend your arms at 90-degree angles. This posture may look casual, but it will actually support much longer runs.
- Relax Your Arms and Hands – Clenching your firsts too tightly will spread tension that gets all the way up your arms and into your shoulders and neck. Pretend you’re holding a baby bird in each hand when you run to keep them – and the rest of your body – relaxed.
- Run with a Straight Back – Your upper body should remain straight throughout your run. As I mentioned, your head should rest back so that your ears are over your shoulders. This will naturally make it easier to keep your back straight and your pelvis neutral. Run through your posture regularly throughout your run, especially as you begin getting tired. That’s when it’s comfortable to start leaning forward.
- Relax Your Shoulders – When tension builds in your body, your shoulders are often left absorbing most of it. So, keeping them relaxed during your run is a good way to keep that tension from building up in the first place. This will also make it easier to take nice, deep breaths as you run. If you can’t breathe easily, it’s going to be difficult to keep running. Periodically, check your shoulders. Are they up near your ears? If so, force them down and back by squeezing your shoulder blades together. This will open them up and help them to relax.
- Avoid Swinging Your Arms Side-to-Side – This is another common running motion that many of us simply adopted at some point and never questioned. The problem with swinging your arms across your chest when you run is that it will constrict your breathing. If you notice this happening, force your hands back down by your waist and shake them out. Bring your arms back to 90 degrees, relax your shoulders, and keep running.
- Don’t Swing with Your Elbows – Many runners do mini-bicep curls when they run, swinging at their elbows with every step. As a result, it quickly starts to feel like they’re doing bicep curls. Their arms ache, but they still try to maintain this “form”, which only makes matters worse. Tension spreads up their shoulders, to their neck, and, well, you know the drill. When you run, move your arms at your shoulders and drive your elbows back before letting them naturally swing forward.
- Avoid Vertical Oscillation – Alright, that’s just a fancy way of saying “bouncing.” Don’t bounce when you run. It wastes energy going up and down like that and forces your body to absorb greater amounts of shock, which will lead to fatigue.
Half the battle for runners is to keep your breath in check, so you don’t tire out or cause yourself the infamous side stitch. While picking the right cadence is important – more on that in a moment – the best you can do to keep your body relaxed and breathing easily is to maintain good posture. It will be much easier to keep running if you do.
3. Control Your Breathing
You may have noticed that I mentioned breathing six times in that last section, even though it was about form.
That’s because the better you’re able to manage your breath, the better able you’ll be to manage pain when you’re running.
And while good posture will definitely help with your breathing, you can do even more to ensure your body is getting plenty of oxygen while you run.
Simply put, always breathe through your nose and out your mouth.
I know it’s easy to rely solely on breathing through your mouth, especially as you begin to tire, but it will actually do more harm than good and virtually guarantees you’ll struggle:
“Hyperventilation through the mouth, i.e. the quick and hard breaths through the mouth that so many of us take when exercising at high intensity or feeling stressed, causes the body to offload more CO2, making it harder to oxygenate our cells.”
At first, it can be difficult to never breathe in through your mouth when you run, but it’s worth practicing. If you have to slow down your pace to do so, it’s worth it. You can work your way back to your normal cadence (the Run/Walk Method in section 9 will also help with this).
Within just a few weeks of consistently practicing like this, your lungs will actually expand your blood vessels, which increase your ventilatory threshold.
Ideally, you want to work up to the point that you can breathe in for two steps and then breathe out for two (the “2:2 pattern”). This will give your muscles plenty of oxygen and it’s an easy way to keep your breathing on pace.
Just like with form, if you find yourself aching while you run, check your breathing. Chances are you’re not practicing the 2:2 pattern. Slow down a bit, get your breath back on track, and then keep running.
4. Distract Yourself
I think distractions get a bad name.
Sure, they’re not all great. I’ve definitely spent more time than I’d like to admit watching documentaries on Netflix (the titles of which I’ll never admit).
But distractions can be fantastic when you start rethinking whether or not you want to keep running.
That’s when it helps to focus on something other than that growing urge to call it quits.
For many people, the simplest way to do this is by drawing attention to the song playing through their earbuds. You might even mix it up with a new song you haven’t heard in a while, as that might have an easier time winning over your focus.
Audiobooks can be great for this, too. Unless you’re listening to the same one for the second time, you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. So, pick an interesting book and you’ll always have a distraction ready when the going gets tough. If you don’t already have an Audible account, I highly recommend it.
Podcasts are great for the same reason. Start an episode you haven’t heard before and direct your attention there.
Another simple distraction is using a metronome for your runs. Not only will it give you something to focus on, but it will put that focus on your actual steps. This will make it easier to maintain your running cadence, so you don’t just keep running, you keep running at your ideal pace.
Before your next run, think of some distractions you can turn to if you think about ending things early. Whether it’s a different type of song, a book, a podcast, or just turning a metronome, have those distractions ready for when you need them.
5. Or Just Bribe Yourself
I think bribes get a bad name, too.
Okay, no. Bribes are bad, but if there was one time when it was maybe okay to use a little bit of a bribe, I’d say it’s when that voice in your head tells it’s time to quit running early.
For example, I know some runners who will give themselves a cheat meal or allow themselves dessert if they push through the discomfort and keep on running. Maybe for you, it would be an extra episode of that show you like or sleeping in a bit the next morning. Maybe it would be a guiltless happy hour or brunch with friends.
Some runners prefer to reward themselves but only after they’ve reached a certain milestone. Maybe it’s running a certain number of miles a day for five days. It could be running a total of 100 miles in a month without any walking.
Whatever the case, the outcome is the same. When the temptation to throw in the towel shows up, it helps to have another, bigger, better temptation to keep you running.
6. Focus on the Reason You're Running
Hopefully, you’re not just running to make room for dessert or justify another glass of cabernet.
Don’t get me wrong.
Those things are great.
But is there a greater purpose that gets you to put your running shoes on?
Is there a goal you’re chasing whenever you run?
I know many of you are running to train for a 5k, half-marathon, marathon, or some other event. Even if it’s not your first, those are still impressive goals. Think about how important it is to keep running so you show up ready on race day capable of recording your best time.
Many people take up running for health reasons. Maybe you’re trying to lose weight or want to improve your cardio so you can take on other activities.
If you’re a parent, a big part of running might be setting a good example for your kids. It could just be so you’re able to keep up with them.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with running simply because you like it. If it makes you happy, that’s reason enough. But if you’re noticing that your fun is being cut short because you’re unable to push through discomfort, it will help if you can think of a bigger goal.
Is this the year you finally decide to sign up for a race?
Is there a number you’d love to see from your scale?
Brainstorm some ideas and come up with a goal that can pull you away from the temptation to quit running.
7. Give Yourself a Target Destination
It turns out that there’s a really simple trick you can play on your mind that will help you keep running even if you feel like you’re about to give up.
This cool trick is known as “attention narrowing” and is extremely helpful for runners, as The Atlantic pointed out in an article titled, Running Faster by Focusing on the Finish Line:
“But new research suggests that taking the "eyes on the prize" mantra literally can help with performance. A study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion found that focusing on a stopping point in the distance, like a building or tree, can cause distances to appear shorter. This, in turn, encourages exercisers to move more quickly and reduces the feeling of exertion.”
This is pretty amazing when you think about it.
Attention narrowing won’t just help you get through a rough spot by making it feel like time is passing faster. It will actually help you run faster, too.
The next time you feel like stopping, keep calm. Find an object out ahead of you and focus on trying to get there. By using an actual destination as your distraction, you’ll realize two benefits and avoid the ultimate negative: giving up.
8. Compete Against Another Runner
Obviously, this works best when you’re running in an actual race. While I suppose you could do it on your local running trail, trying to race unsuspecting runners will probably earn you a bad reputation.
If you’ve ever run a race before, you know that one of the most important steps – at least, figuratively – is maintaining your cadence. It’s easy to get excited and let your adrenaline take over. Unfortunately, that’s how you end up gassing out before you’re even halfway done.
As we just learned, focus can also be a powerful weapon against fatigue. You can use it to distract yourself or to pick physical landmarks to focus your mind on while your body keeps pushing forward.
Another option that’s a bit more exciting is to find a fellow runner to compete against.
While most marathon runners compete against their own best times, it can help to find a runner up ahead whom you can catch up to and overtake.
Now, you have to be careful with this strategy.
It’s only supposed to be a temporary solution for overcoming aches, pains, and exhaustion. If you just keep trying to race people for an entire marathon, you’re either going to win (great!) or struggle to finish (not great).
Wait until you need some extra motivation and you have a better idea of the field of runners around you. Focus on one who’s been keeping about the same pace and then take your attention off discomfort and put it on overtaking them.
Once you do, slow back down to your normal cadence and collect yourself. Repeat as necessary.
9. Give Yourself a "Walking Budget"
Look, we all have bad running days.
Whether you get a side stitch, pull a muscle, struggle with tension in your upper body, or are just running low on motivation, it’s okay to admit – every now and then – that you’re not going to finish your run without some walking.
In that case, one idea is to give yourself a “walking budget.”
As I mentioned earlier, once you quit running to start walking, it’s hard to reverse course. Your body will naturally prefer to stick with the more relaxed, less-demanding pace of walking.
One way to get over this is to give yourself a “walking budget” of only a certain number of steps. It could be 50 or even 100.
The point is that you tell yourself, “Alright, I’m going to walk for 100 steps, but then I have to start running again.”
Keep in mind, you can take as long as you want to walk your allotment. You might decide to slow your cadence considerably to help catch your breath, get over your side stitch, etc..
You just can’t go over budget.
Once you’re out of walking steps, it’s time to switch back to running steps.
A similar idea is to give yourself a timed break. You might tell yourself you’ll rest for a minute before running again.
I prefer the walking budget, though, as it keeps you moving. This makes it easier for your heart and lungs to ramp back up again, but it’s especially beneficial if your muscles are likely to cramp up once their demanding work is over.
Start with a walking budget of 100 steps the next time you feel like quitting and see if that quick break doesn’t help you get back to running.
10. Switch to Intervals of Running and Walking
If you find yourself regularly depending on your walking budget to get through your runs, it might be that your endurance isn’t quite where it needs to be – yet – to tackle the kinds of mileage you want to cover.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
We have all been there.
Some of us, multiple times.
One easy way to address this challenge is through the Run/Walk Method. This is when you switch between intervals of walking and running at preplanned times in order to finish.
For example, you might run for five minutes and then walk for five minutes. If that becomes manageable for you, you could switch to running for five minutes and then walking for only four. In this way, you’ll build up your endurance without having to fight through the kinds of physical discomfort that would come from trying to run 100% of the time.
I like this approach because it gives you the rest you need to continue running, but it’s preplanned when you’ll downshift into walking. You’re not just doing it on a whim and building the bad habit of giving in when it gets tough.
Also, many experienced runners still occasionally use the Run/Walk Method to help boost their times. They’ll push themselves past their normal speed before switching to walking to rest a bit before doing it again.
So, how you keep running through the pain may eventually be how you beat times you never thought possible.
11. Come Up with an If/Then Plan
Once you’ve been running long enough, you start to get very familiar with the kinds of aches, pains, and even thoughts that can show up to slow you down.
Again, there are those absolutely awful side stitches.
You might have an old sports injury that nags you.
Most of us eventually have the thought, “I just can’t do this.”
Whatever your specific physical and mental obstacles may look like, I recommend that you write them down now or at least before your next run.
If you don’t already have one, I’d also recommend you try a runner’s journal for jotting down these kinds of important notes.
Write them down as an If-Then Plan before you go out on your next run. Put a plan together for how you’ll address each one if they happen.
For example, yours might look like this:
- If I feel any minor aches and pains, then I’ll check my posture for any issues
- If I get a side stitch, then I will check my breathing and slow down until it’s back to 2:2
- If the side stitch continues, then I will walk 100 steps or until it disappears
- If I’m just having a bad running day, then I’ll switch to some light interval training
I think one of the biggest challenges for most runners when they start noticing those initial aches and pains is that they don’t have one of these plans in place. They know they don’t want to stop, but they have to consider their options while they’re still running and still feeling that pain.
Knowing you have a plan in place for your most common obstacles will give you peace-of-mind and make it much easier to adjust on the fly and salvage your run.
12. Change Your Plans (But Don’t Quit)
Finally, it’s okay if you realize that your normal run was actually a bit ambitious.
It could just be temporary.
If you’re coming off an injury, haven’t run for a while, or aren’t getting enough rest, it might be a while until you’re able to run as long as you want without having to stop along the way.
While I know the other 11 strategies on this list will help you power through the pain and keep running when you think you want to stop, sometimes, the best thing you can do is step back and reconsider your normal runs.
Either reevaluate what kind of time you’re shooting for or cut back on the distance a bit. Get back to runs you can enjoy and build from there using the other strategies you’ve learned.
But don’t quit.
How to Keep Running: Get Ready for Your Next Run Now
Marcus Aurelius said, “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
Now, I have no idea if Mr. Aurelius was a good runner or not.
But I think his advice certainly applies to anyone who needs help learning how to keep running when they regularly don't want to.
If it happens again and again, use it as an opportunity to become a stronger runner.
Fix your posture.
Learn to breathe better.
Find a destination to run toward.
Whatever you need to do, start planning to do it now. Put together your If-Then strategy, find your running shoes (or try barefoot running), and, most importantly, enjoy yourself.