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I used to be a person trained to race. For most of my adult life, August was full of tempo, long runs, speed training, lots of snacks, and Sunday naps. It was a time when I was motivated by specific goals like the fall PR marathon and age group awards.

I’m not that person anymore. Or, at least, I’m not that person now.

One thing eventually leads to something else for most runners, whether that performance goal stops being an inspiration or life just guides us in a different direction or we discover how much more time and energy we have for other things literally when we don’t run 20 miles. 6 a.m. every Saturday. Then, after a while, we may struggle to get back into a routine or we come to the sad realization that we will never perform at the level we once did. (Calm down, runner, it happens to all of us.)

I admit, I have experienced all of this and more over the last few years. The part that I have the most difficulty reconciling is that running doesn’t have to be tied to exercise. It could also be just by exercising. Imagine the epiphany: I don’t have to race to keep running. I don’t have to stick to a 12-week schedule or log a specific number of miles every seven days. I can just choose a comfortable distance and pace, a few days a week, and enjoy the scenery and a decent level of fitness. Who knows?

Gradually, running was no longer part of my identity and more an aspect of my overall health and well-being. I still love running—for good sweat, endorphins, community, and time outside in the fresh air—but I also love liberation from watches, races, and (self-created) hope.

Steve Magness, human health and performance coach, and author Do Hard Thingsrecently write about this concept too, and how he devised a plan to stay fit without the high level of training he once did. So I called him to discuss and, maybe, sympathize a little too. How did I, as a recreational runner, change this mind after years of specialized training?

“It’s almost like developing a hobby… the real goal is to find something that pleases and satisfies you to some degree in the long run,” he says. “Fitness is the level at which I enjoy running and that allows me to keep doing it. Getting fit is when I feel good and able to do the things I want to do in life—like, if I wanted to, I could run longer or hike and be fine.”

So how do we do it? Magness sums it up to:

  • Lots of easy moves;
  • Sometimes the effort is quite difficult;
  • lifting heavy objects or doing things that make you feel fast or strong (such as repetitions on hills and short sprints, for example);
  • Work on balance and coordination.

Being in that central space, where we’re active and pushing ourselves, but not to a certain point of training exhaustion, requires a bit of experimentation. I went from 70 miles a week with all the grueling workouts and added resistance training to doing almost nothing for a while because I couldn’t find the point in moderation. I soon discovered that doing nothing because a woman in her 40s is definitely not okay-this is the point in life where women really benefit mentally and physically from the movement. I’ve also found, thankfully, that it doesn’t take much to get back in shape either.

I started with a promise to only move my body in certain ways for a minimum of 30 minutes each day, knowing that consistency was key. It could be light running, brisk walking, mountain climbing, or a strength training class. (I’ve given up on the Peloton app — I’m addicted to the good ones Jess Sims full body sessions.) Once I’ve established that routine, I’ve been increasing my activity level little by little as I regain my footing and desire, doing activities for five to six days per week ranging from 30 to 90 minutes. Most of it is easy running or aggressive hiking; one day per week it’s a little longer and more hilly, and I do at least three 30 to 45 minute full body strength classes there. (Again, women of a certain age need to lift heavy objects to maintain deteriorating muscle mass.) In addition, dogs also go for daily walks.

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Magness fitness activities are similar: six days of 30-50 minutes of leisurely running; one dog walks every day; one moderately hard exercise such as 2 x 10 minutes at a steady pace or 8 x 1 minute moderately hard with 1 minute jogging; once every two weeks he runs up the hill 6-8 times for 10 seconds; and twice a year he does something “very hard”.

“It’s a combination of what research and science think is important plus the kind of minimum dose I can take that makes me feel healthy,” she says. “You know, without pushing me down the road to competition. The research is pretty clear, especially with age, that maintaining the aerobic system is very important.”

Since I switched to this routine, I’ve seen all the benefits you’d expect: I sleep more often than not, I’m more creative and clear-headed when I’m working, and I’m definitely not as moody as I was during brief periods of inactivity. The bonus? I still have the time and capacity to socialize and be present with friends and family, which I haven’t always been able to claim during my years of pursuing a PR marathon.

Now when I am asked, “What do you train for?” I replied, “I practiced my whole life.”

Our running will always go through the seasons—its role in our lives is constantly changing. Maybe I haven’t finished pursuing a certain goal, but I’m done for now. Fitness is a lifelong process that requires special dedication. The payoff is different for everyone. But for runners? You never know when it will come in handy.

“What if for whatever reason you hit 50 and you really wanted to compete and run a marathon?” Magness said. “Well, you have the capacity to make those decisions and relatively quickly, get back into practice mode if you want.”

Maybe it will seem tempting again someday, but for now you can find me relaxing, enjoying the view.

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By Blanca

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