The runners are back from break! While this is partly cause for celebration, it also involves comments like, "I needed a break from running" or "I only ran one day over break" or "It was really snowy and there is nowhere to run where I live". Great, take three weeks off so that you are really ready to start racing most weekends for the next four months.
First of all, to develop long term as a runner, one needs to run often. I'm talking 40+ weeks a year, preferably 45+ weeks a year. Running, once past the 2000-3000 mile break in, is fun and you feel good afterward. That alone is enough to keep me motivated most days. One must run to get better at running. Strange, I know.
That being said, sometimes people need a break longer than two or three weeks at the end of a season. I have a feeling that younger people need longer breaks from organized training. In other words, elementary middle schoolers might benefit most by doing six sports over a year for 6-10 weeks at a time, while high schoolers 1-4 sports in 8-16 week blocks. By college most have found a single sport. However, the college aged person is often still not ready for the 45-48 weeks of sometime monotonous and repetitive training that must occur to excel in a single sport. I get that, I've been there, and I have two examples.
Senior year of high school we ran our legs off in cross country. I ran 191 miles in September 2003. Since I didn't run on Sundays that's just over 7 miles per day. At the time it was way too much. I set a personal record of 18:26 at the state meet that year, and our team finished 7th the highest finish for our school at the time. The women's team won state by the way. Kind of a big deal. So the miles made us do so well, but I lost much motivation. Sophomore and junior year I trained for and ran a half marathon between cross country and track. Senior year I had no motivation for it. My senior year of track I did not PR. That summer I decided to take six months off, July 4th to January 4th. I did not run a step, not even to catch up to my friends when I was late. I also gained five pounds the first three weeks of college.
When January 5th, 2005 came around I went for a run. I was itching to get back out by that time. January and February I ran by myself at like 8 in the morning listening to Frou Frou and Coldplay as I slowly trotted around the street of Worcester. It was slow and I didn't do any workouts, and I probably way over estimated my mileage, but I was rediscovering running. The joy of going for a run on a bright crisp winter morning is something akin to getting a good grade in a hard class or coming out of treeline on a mountain or a really good cup of coffee combined with a good view. In March I joined the track team and proceeded to run 19:07 sort of 5ks around the track. Not pretty, but I was back on a team working toward a goal. Three years later I set a school record in the 10,000 at the conference meet. Things worth having take time and effort to acquire.
A second example, my friend L in college came in as the best freshman of his class. He ran cross country his freshman year and did fairly well, but then he needed to take some time away from the team. A family member died and he needed some time to think on his own without the pressure of a weekly race or conversation with obstinate teammates. I would often ask him, because we saw him all the time, "are you planning to run on the team at any point in the future?" He typically responded, "Probably." That was all I needed to hear. He went and ran a 2:54 marathon or something that year and after missing a full year from the team, came back and contributed in a number of ways.
The point of both of these stories is that running, and a team environment, can become a mandatory chore and that attitude is not sustainable. I have a feeling that is why so many D1 athletes burn out. They work so hard for scholarship reward, and can't quit for fear of losing the scholarship, until finally, they really quit. Given the mix of adrenaline, testosterone, and cortisol that accompanies difficult team training it is no wonder that people want a break. Extrapolating farther I think that is also why people retire. Physical, or chemical, stress is simply easier to recognize in athletics than in intellectual pursuits.
How do we, or how do I, go about managing a positive mental attitude full of motivation over the long term? Well, I did take a six month break once. I didn't run with a team in 2010 or the first half of 2011. I bicycle and take days off. Plus, I have written concrete goals (such as a 2:17:39 marathon which is 5:15 pace) that I know require total commitment even on days when sleeping in or not running in the afternoon would be easier. Same for my career, not every day is exciting, but every day is an experience that will help me in the future. Also, it is realistic to admit that some days are bad days. Some days are no fun. For me though, I feel that the hard times make the good times so much better. Knowing that helps me lean into the difficult things. Yesterday, at practice I talked about how nice it was outside. The wind was not blowing. The temperature was in the 20s, not below 0. The sidewalks were mostly clear. It was not snowing or raining. There was more light out at 4:30 PM than two weeks ago. I feel one has to look for the positive things because life is hard enough on it's own. Sometimes you might be unemployed for 57 weeks despite a pair of engineering degrees from a respected engineering school.
Development is non-linear. Sometimes long term progression involves short or even medium term regression.