The Washington Post recently published an opinion article titled Couch potato athletes: Why it’s hard to stay active after competition ends.

According to a study by researcher Shawn Sorenson, who examined the exercise habits of 500 students and alumni from the University of Southern California, some of whom are current or former student-athletes, former elite athletes were just as likely to be couch potatoes as people who were never athletes to begin with.


A bit of a surprise, if you ask me. I’ve always envisioned those former college basketball or track stars as continuing their athletic dominance well into the late stages of life.

So how is it that people who spent nearly enough hours each week to fill a full-time job, working out and training during their college careers, could go from elite status to couch potato?

According to the article, it’s all about structure and self-discipline.

Or lack thereof.

“From a young age, modern athletes become accustomed to executing a carefully planned training regimen under constant guidance and oversight. They are supported by an ever-growing infrastructure of coaches, trainers and support staff. College athletes might have a head coach, position coach, strength and conditioning coach, athletic trainer, physical therapist, dietician, sports psychologist, and academic counselor assigned to them.”

When they graduate, or quit playing at a professional level, all that structure disappears.

And what happens then?

They are left with nothing but self-motivation to keep them active. Unfortunately, many of those athlete’s self-motivation was tied directly to the structured training and love of competition.

You and I Are Like Elite Athletes

For those of us who have never raced or performed at an elite level, we’ve probably never experienced the same type of structure college athletes experience.

But I’d argue that when your training for a race, the same sense of structure comes from our training plans.

We’re “required” to run certain miles on certain days, for example.

And even though no one is threatening to take away our scholarship money, if we have a long run scheduled on a Saturday, you better believe we’re going to feel pressured to go to bed early on Friday night.

We have a plan and a structure, and we experience the requirements of the training.

Just like the elites.

And what often happens once the race is over and we no longer have a structured training plan?

We fall into that same trap. Our structure and support disappears overnight and we get lazy.

Couch potato lazy.

Thankfully, there are ways out. We don’t have to turn our love of running into a love for Cappuccino flavored chips and Coors Light.

4 Ways to Avoid Dreaded Couch Potato Syndrome

1) Set up a support network

Whether you’re an elite athlete or training for your first marathon, having a support network is a big part of what keeps you motivated and sane through weeks of tough training.

The same type of network should be used for when you’re not officially training:

  • Join a local training group or running club that meets regularly. Even after a race is over.
  • Ask running friends to join you for regular weekday runs.
  • Join social networks like Stava or Daily Mile, with people that will hold you accountable to get out and log miles.

2) Set New Goals

This is one of my favorite techniques.

For many years, I wouldn’t complete a race without having signed up for my next race first. That meant I always had a race scheduled, and knew that after a short break, I’d have to fall back in with a new structured training plan.

I no longer have that rule, but I do follow the same principals. Before running any race I’ll look towards the months ahead. What are my new goals? What challenge do I want to tackle next? I will often even write the answers down to make them more permanent.

After the race, I have those goals already determined so I can start focusing on what needs to happen to do to make them a reality.

I create a need for the structure that keeps me focused and motivated.

3) Experiment and play with new challenges

The end of one challenge is the perfect opportunity to try something new.

Did you just run a road marathon? Start going to trail runs a few times a week.

Did you finish your first ultramarathon? Pick up the pace by adding speed work back into your routine.

Need a total break from running? Don’t use that as an excuse to quit working out altogether:

  • Join an adult soccer, basketball, or flag-football team.
  • Dust off the bike and go for long rides with your family or friends.
  • Sign up for a bike century and raise money for a charity.
  • Jump in the pool for a few laps.

Instead of treating the new freedom as a reason to sit around being lazy, treat it like you just gained the liberty to try something new.

4) Hire a running coach, even if you aren’t training

I’m willing to bet that if you’ve ever worked with a running coach, it was because you wanted help training for a particular race.

But running coaches aren’t just good for new races, they can also help you maintain and continue to build your strength, and put you in the perfect position to start training for the next big challenge once you are ready.

Have a running coach design your running schedule and hold you accountable. It can be just the type of structure needed to keep you focused and off the couch.

Don’t Be A Couch Potato

I’m the first to admit that being a total laze-ball sounds like a lot of fun. And so much less painful than a long run.

But it also doesn’t sound rewarding.

That feeling of relaxation and comfort can only last so long before it starts getting boring and you start getting restless. By then the bad habits have already started forming and strength has already been lost.

Which means coming out of your Frito-Lay coma will be that much harder.

Don’t turn into a couch potato. It isn’t nearly as fun as it sounds.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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