Running Doesn’t Have to Suck

Imagine you are training for a marathon and your plan calls for a 20 miler this weekend. Does that sound fun?

Have you noticed that we speak of playing golf, playing tennis, playing hockey, etc., but we don’t say, “I’m playing marathon training”.

In endurance sports we run, we swim, we cycle, we lift weights. We don’t play.

But we should play!

Play is a strong biological drive that helps us children develop and continues into adulthood.

From an article on The Importance of Play for Adults,

Playing is just as important for adults as it is for children. Among its many benefits, adult play can boost your creativity, sharpen your sense of humor, and help you cope better with stress.

The trick is to look at running as “play”. Here are elements that make running fun:

Seven elements of play to help you focus on the fun in your running

You can hear the podcast version of this on episode 422.

1. Challenge

A game that is not challenging is not fun. Running is challenging and that’s one reason people do it. Paradoxically, the harder it is the more fun you can have (if you survive).

I remember running a trail marathon in Austria that was so cold and wet the organizers made the decision to shut down the course. The weather was so nasty you just had to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. I paid money and traveled overseas to run around in the freezing rain for 5 hours. I had a blast!

I think “fun through self-torture” is the one of the ideas behind Spartan Races and Tough Mudders. People pay money to run the gauntlet of obstacles that will test their mettle.

Spartan Race

Does this look fun? My Spartan Beast in 2017

2. Progress

Games provide feedback loops that titillate reward centers of the brain. When you’re new to running there are many ways to see noticeable progress which adds to the fun. If you’re running races you can build from 5k to 10k to half marathon to marathon to ultra. You will find that it gets easier to breath while running. Your form becomes lighter and smoother. Your mental toughness grows. Your frame of reference expands –running 10 miles once seemed impossible and now it’s not that hard.

Progress and goals go hand in hand. As an experienced runner you often have to be intentional about changing things up to give yourself new goals.

Coach Angie after completing her 50 state goal

You can embed the goal of running marathons inside a bigger goal -like running in all 50 states. With huge goals like this, you may not get faster with each marathon but you are still making progress. Movement play is fun because we find joy in using and mastering complex body dynamics that build coordination and strength. There is a certain coordination needed when you run and so much variety.

3. Mastery

The better you become at a game the more fun you have. Running falls under a category of play called Movement Play. Movement play is fun because we find joy in using and mastering complex body dynamics that build coordination and strength.

There is a certain coordination and efficiency needed when you run. Running on trails is different than running on roads. Speed sessions are different than easy running. There are different elements to master in each type of run.

There are other elements of the endurance game to be mastered like fueling, hydration, nutrition, recovery, and strength training. Working with an expert running coach like those at MTA (shameless plug) can help you achiever mastery and have more fun!

Coach Kris moving efficiently at the Boston Marathon

4. Exploration

This element of play is built into “open world” video games like Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (ask your kids). When it comes to finding a marathon, it is an open world of possibilities.

Lately I’ve been drawn to international trail marathons because I love to explore the Alps. Running a race like the Marathon du Mont Blanc feels like I get to “play in the mountains”.

Marathon du Mont Blanc in France 2022

Exploring may mean exploring new streets in your city. Look for the beautiful or unique. Decide which tree is your favorite on your running route or try to run all the streets in your town. Never stop exploring.

5. Connection

Addictive games have a social aspect. Though running is something that you often do by yourself and for yourself, it allows you to meet follow runners -the coolest people on earth. Come to an MTA meet-up and see what I mean!

With MTA fans Fiona, Ron, and Brummell at the Beer Lovers’s Marathon

I’ve met runners from around the world and we have an instant connection through our shared love of running. Like our Academy members, runners are a tribe of enthusiastic, fun, and goal-driven people . . . the type of people you’d want to go on a run with. And then have a beer.

6. Competition

Competition allows us to see where we stack up in the game. It’s fun to strive for a BQ (Boston qualifier) and/or compete in your AG (age group).

MTA Coach Steven (right) competing for a top 10 spot at the 2023 Gobi March

There are challenges you can do on platforms like Strava where you can get crowns or become a Local Legend. Competition doesn’t have to mean speed. Maybe it sounds fun to do a running streak challenge (Runner’s World does one through the holidays).

Or you can compete with yourself when it comes to keeping your heart rate in the correct zone or staying consistent with your strength training.

7. Reward

There’s a reason why runners love getting medals. Bling is how marathons have “gamified” crossing the finish line. They are a physical representation of all your hard work. And some medals, like the famous Boston Marathon unicorn, are highly prized because they are hard to get.

In 2020 when all races were cancelled, we launched a virtual race called the “Social Distancing Run”. I had an online run tracker built for our runners to log their miles and have fun. We gamified the run tracker by revealing a new motivational (and zany) level every 10 miles.

From our fun online run tracker

Good health and greater mobility is its own reward. As Coach Angie says,

It’s important to view simply moving your body as a reward in and of itself. Running is something that most of us take for granted until we’re injured or reminded that many other people deal with huge physical challenges.

There are times when it’s important to walk, hike, run, or ride simply for the joy of movement. During these times don’t worry about your training stats or posting about it online. Simply try to be present in your body and awake to your surroundings. This can be a form of meditation and immensely rewarding.


It’s all a matter of attitude. Look at running as a form of play and find the fun in it. When I do a trail marathon it feels like I get to “play in the mountains”. If I was running the Chicago Marathon this year, I’d view it as a “fun romp through the city”.

Mundane training runs can be fun when you explore the joy of movement. Even speedwork sessions can be viewed as play. The Swedish word fartlek means “speed play”.

And “fartlek” is fun to say!

2 Responses to Running Doesn’t Have to Suck

  1. Lan Rupf September 10, 2023 at 10:59 pm #

    I haven’t said that I’m so grateful to have found your group during the dreadful pandemic. Your fun challenges made me happy, and I always looked forward to completing the intended miles to earn my cute medals. Thank you Trevor for those fun challenges.

    • Trevor Spencer September 25, 2023 at 6:55 am #

      Thank you Lan. We appreciate you!

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