Alexi Pappas: Nothing routine about summer training

My college coach once told me that a solid fall season is made in the summer. At the time, this didn’t make sense to me, but now I understand that summer is the time to rejuvenate, prepare, and grow in a different way than is possible during the school year. Over the summer, we grow on our own terms.

So what does it actually look like to transition from the team season and school year to the summer time when we must fend for ourselves? The biggest change is in the routine. Routine is very important for a runner. Whether it’s daily team practice, adult running groups, or even just a morning run, committing to a routine is key to achieving athletic goals. So, as we enter summertime, when our established routines are put on hold – school is out, work gives way to vacation – it’s more important than ever to keep long-term goals in mind and proactively create new routines to stay on track.

Of course, it’s not always possible or even ideal to maintain the exact same routine in the summer as you did all year – but it is important to create a new routine that will work for your changing schedule. If your team does not meet for practice in the summer, or if you’re traveling and physically not in your usual place, you’ll have to plan ahead. Rather than suddenly find yourself off-balance in a new situation, it’s so important to expect and embrace this time and create a new routine. What I find is that if I don’t plan ahead and find myself in a new place or situation without a routine, it takes extra willpower to adjust and create a new routine on the fly, and my training takes a hit as a result.

The summer after my freshman year at Dartmouth I had my first full-time real job at a green start-up in Oakland, and I needed to learn how to train at a time other than my usual Dartmouth team schedule of early afternoon. I tried training in the morning but found that my sleep was too precious, so I adjusted to evening runs. I also found that I needed to run a few less miles to account for all the energy I put into that job. I always like to think about how my cells don’t know mileage, they know energy output—and I needed to adjust accordingly.

So, in order to proactively create your new routine, the first and most important step to a great summer is to determine what your goals are. It’s always important to know what your goals are, running or otherwise, so that you know what you’re working towards. Goals give us something to wake up for. Your goal could be preparing for a specific race, it could be to stay consistent and healthy, or you could be looking to build a strong base for a successful cross country season in the fall. Write your goals down so that no matter where summer brings you, you always know what your athletic trajectory will ideally be.

The second step is to anticipate the changes that you’ll be facing this summer and how that might impact the pursuit of your goals. Will your team stop meeting regularly? Do you have a vacation booked? Will you work full time? And so on.

The third step is to determine what new routines you’d like to establish to best achieve your summer goal. It’s also good to take a look inward and decide what you will need to thrive. If you love the regularity and accountability of team runs but your team is off for the summer, then communicate with like-minded runners and form your own group schedule together. If you know you’ll be in a new place, do the research ahead of time and locate the best running trails near where you’ll be staying. You could even reach out to local running groups and ask to temporarily fold in with them. Overall, the more you can plan ahead of time the easier it will be to get out the door each morning – you’re “checking a box” every day rather than reinventing the wheel each morning.

As you embark on your new routine, it’s very helpful to keep in touch with your teammates or running partners throughout the summer to remind you of your goals and to encourage you to be accountable. I never pushed to be in touch as much as I would during the school year, but it’s always great to have someone to check in with and feel a sense of satellite support. My class of girls on the Dartmouth cross country team had an email chain we used to keep in touch and share photos from our very different summers. I liked knowing that even though we were all somewhere different, we were also all preparing to reunite again.

I also find that it’s very helpful to continue calling training “practice,” even if you’re meeting just yourself and the birds! I set a specific time to get out the door each morning (or evening) so that I made sure I do it, just like I would if I had my coach waiting for me. This is also the advice I share with someone who is not on a team but who has a goal – anyone with a running goal might call their daily trainings their “practice.”

Also, remember to sleep! The school and work year can make it tough to find time to nap or get nine hours of sleep each night. The summer is a perfect time to sleep diligently, recharge, and convert all the hard work you did over the past year into growth. 

The last thought I’d like to leave you with is to embrace the change that summer brings and enjoy it! Yes, we runners are creatures of habit, but shaking up our normal routines can be incredibly positive for our long-term growth. It can be sad to leave the teammates you love, but take advantage of the opportunity to explore running on your own or with new people.

One summer when I was away from Dartmouth, I met and trained with a group of women who changed my running life. I was living in Los Angeles and I reached out to an all-adult-working-women group of runners called the “Janes,” and they showed me that running truly is a choice and our time training is meant to be relished. These women helped push me way out of my routine in a good way, as I’d wake up at 5:30 a.m. to meet them at some far away pier and chase the sun up into the sky as I listened to stories so different than those I’d hear from my college teammates.

So, if you’re traveling somewhere new, embrace the change. Running is the best way to discover a new place. Find new trails! Get lost! Make new running friends! Make this summer an adventure! Some of my favorite running memories are from when I’m exploring a new place and falling in love with new trails.

One summer, my teammate Greta Feldman and I decided last minute to go train in Park City, Utah, together, and every day felt like a new adventure as we discovered trails we never knew existed. When I went on family vacation to Paris in high school, I saw more of the city than anyone in my family because I ran outside every morning before our tourist activities began.

So just remember: as you identify your goals, anticipate the changes to your normal routine, and proactively prepare your new routines, remember to have fun and embrace this summer as an opportunity to grow.