Stuck in a Rut: Successful runners reveal secrets to breaking free of slumping results

Whizzing across the finish line can leave runners with a burning smile across their faces or with a stinging feeling of a “fail” or an oncoming rut.

“Rut.” It sounds exactly like its meaning, like a downfall that lasts forever. A rut is a habit or pattern of behavior that has become dull and unproductive but is hard to change. For runners, a rut can be detrimental, especially when it takes place during competition season, or when the slump lasts for multiple days or weeks.

Most runners experience a rut sometime throughout their career, whether it be a mental or physical one. A rut can be caused by a goal not being met; a slow time or lack of a PR; a tragic event that causes a running style to change; not running for a while and then starting again or sometimes for unknown reasons.

A “runner’s rut” can be felt like a time when runners can’t see the end of the trail, and they feel like all of the hard work they are doing is not really amounting to much or when they have no energy or drive to go out and run experienced as a loss of passion.

There are things one can do to step out of the hole, to get back in the groove and to start feeling happy about running again. www. suggests the first step is always recovery. Take some time to clear one’s mind and rest. The second step is to vary one’s training and try something new for one’s legs. Other tips for getting out of the rut can include running without a watch. If time was taking over runs, try changing up the scenery or including a few easy runs in the week.

Women’s track coach Chris Wood said he believes in taking the time off to listen to one’s body. “I think when addressing and working with the athlete on their ‘rut,’ you have to determine whether it is a mental or physical issue. We know we can’t compete at a high level if we are hurt, so if the issue is physical, we may need some time to rest and recover. If the rut is coming from the mental side of competition, we simply need to address the issue head on, and the athlete and coach have to be open and honest with one another. In order to get through a rut, you can’t ignore the problem or issues. You have to accept them, address them and move on from them,” Wood said.

For junior Madison Larsen, running has been playing a big role in her life for a long time. She has been running track and cross country all throughout junior high and high school.

This year has been her hardest year. Experiencing overheating and a second trip to the ER during the cross country season led her to a physical and mental rut.

My body was physically just fine after some recovery, but mentally this brought on lots of overwhelming anxiety. It’s difficult to explain, but I was terrified to race and often resented the idea of doing so. It was really hard for me to hate the thing I had once loved so much. This period definitely took a huge hit on my self confidence and worth, but I’m very thankful to have gone through this because it has taught me so much more than I would have learned, had this season been one filled with PRs,” Larsen said.

Madison has been struggling with her runner’s rut for the past year, and it has continued during her track season, but she has chosen to spin it into a positive situation rather than negative.

“Looking back, I know that God allowed me to struggle in this way for many reasons. I learned that my identity does not lie solely in my performance on the course or track, and I definitely learned how to put my teammates first. I learned to be genuinely happy for teammates, even when they were performing the way I knew I should’ve been. This rut lasted for a long time, longer than I would prefer, but there are definitely benefits. I had to learn and teach myself to love running again, why I love it and why I love to compete so much,” Larsen said.

The dedicated athlete found ways to try to rid of her rut by talking to friends and confiding with them.

“A lot of my teammates helped me through this as well, which has brought me much closer to them and taught me more about my community of runners as a whole. I have come back mentally stronger and am able to appreciate my body day in and day out,” Larsen said.

Ruts can be a downfall on a runner’s season, and after having experienced them during both during cross country and track, Larsen knows that her seasons weren’t her best, but she chose to accept her body and her season and learn from it.

“Running is such a mentally and physically demanding sport, a statement any runner could vouch for, and I can’t begin to express how important it was for me to learn to appreciate and love my body and all that it does for me. Overall, I am happy to say I went through this. I’d be lying if I said I was over it. I often still face pockets of fear and anxiety when it comes to racing or even running with other people, but I have learned to calm myself, pray it out and recite what I know is true,” Larsen said.

Wood stressed letting go of bad races to get over the rut. “I quickly realized in college that if I focused on a negative performance where I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped, it would almost always affect the future. One of my favorite quotes has always helped me put this philosophy into an athletic perspective: “The past is an experience, the present is an experiment and the future is an expectation. Use your experience in your experiments to achieve your expectations,” Wood said.

The attitude of coach Wood has helped athletes like Larsen who are stuck in a rut and can’t get out of it. Wood’s positive and supportive attitude helps them move ahead. “There are certainly a lot of athletes who struggle with mental ruts and not being able to push through the barrier. When we find ourselves in a rut, especially in athletics, it’s hard to have a short memory. One of the best coaches I had was during high school baseball, and his message was always consistent, ‘The best athletes have a short term memory and a bullet proof confidence.’ Track is very similar. There are too many races to dwell on one bad race. We have to focus on taking away a positive and something we can work on from each race, think about it, then move on,” Wood said.

Like Larsen, Wood said he values teammates and team culture to help push through setbacks and mental blocks. “I think one of the most important aspects of athletes and their respective team is the culture, which you create. We must strive to be goal-oriented and compete each and every day but also remember why we’re here, to have fun, compete and share the memories and experiences with the people who mean the most: our teammates, coaches and fans,” Wood said.

Communicating to a coach and teammates about one’s feelings can be very beneficial, but one wants to make sure the coach is boosting them up and helping them get over the slump. Luckily for CFHS track women, Wood knows exactly what to do. “I always like to go back to asking athletes to reflect on their race, whether it was what they hoped for or not. If it wasn’t what they had hoped for, we need to do something different, but we always try to focus on the positive. If you can take a learning experience from every race, whether it was the worst race of your career or the best, you will be better in the end,” Wood said.

Senior Cassidy Christopher is another runner who experienced a rut from an injury. “I have had many ruts, varying in size and strength, but the worst of them all was my sophomore year when I got injured during cross country. After multiple weeks of trying and failing to run at my former capabilities, I was dropped for the season. It was heart wrenching leaving the track that day, and I fell into a level of hopelessness that I never wish to relive again. That next season during track I found myself dreading the first practice, afraid that those that I’d let down wouldn’t forgive me for my faults. Instead, what I came to find was an open and understanding group of girls who were merely glad to see that I had come back healthy again. It was their kindness and generosity that pulled me out of my rut. While I am still affected by the injury I obtained that fall, I have grown that much stronger in myself and my teammates because of it, and I wouldn’t give that up for anything,” Christopher said.

Lack of self confidence is another source Christopher can attribute her ruts too. “Primarily my athletic ruts come from my lack of confidence in myself — either from my own skill sets or my relationships with teammates. While I can say I’ve grown, I am still hit head-on with ruts often. Usually I can resolve them easily enough, but they still affect me, and it reflects in my behaviors quite often,” Christopher said.

When Cassidy is in a rut, she relies on communication to get out her negative feelings and anxiousness. She also uses her family and track community as a backbone for support. “With a rut, support is crucial, I could have never gotten where I am without support from my teammates, friends and family. They have kept me going through all my problems, no matter how small,” she said. “Also, for me, I’ve found it’s best to let out your emotions, though it doesn’t have to be to another human being. Running for me has been a way to fume and let out my emotions in a more effective manner than just letting them out on a person, but also, sometimes a good conversation is needed. Very recently I talked to our coach about something that had put me into a rut, and not only was he understanding, but he had seen my distress already when it was occurring. After the conversation I felt tons better and was actually feeling good about the situation and what it had opened not only my eyes to but my coaches as well.”

Even pro-runners like Sarah Gall, who has multiple Drake Relays and state championships and is still a competitive runner today, has had her fair share of ruts. What sets her apart is that she knows her body and knows how to deal with them.

“Hardly any race goes perfectly. Usually, I allow myself two days to be frustrated, depressed, angry or even doubtful. After that, I’ve rested and recovered and usually find that my motivation has increased enough to get back in the game with a positive mindset,” Gall said. She also said she knows that it is just one race, and stressing about races isn’t what life is about. “I’m pretty good about shaking off poor results. Life isn’t truly about races and training. It’s about enjoying a balance of healthy happiness. I remind myself of all of God’s blessings like family and friends, healthy living and the privilege most of us enjoy as Americans,” Gall said.

Like other smart runners, Sarah said talking to others about negative feelings and getting rest for your body are helpful to getting back in one’s normal running mode. “Rest up, recharge and get motivated. If finding the motivation is hard, make it a point to hang out with others that are self-motivated and will encourage and challenge you to get motivated too,” Gall said.

She also chooses to look on the positive side of things and doesn’t lose weeks or even months of her training to stressing over one bad race.

“Coming out of ruts seems to increase your staying power for future endeavors. Knowing that you’ve done something before allows you to have a better perspective,” Gall said.

However deep the rut, these coaches and runners believe one can always grab onto a branch or a hand and pull oneself out with support, self appreciation and respect. “Remember those who got you there, the hours you put into achieve it and what it took to do so. With these factors, you not only can grow in your skills but reach new goals and achievements with even more zeal,” Christopher said.

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