Group of people doing an endurance sports event.

Transitioning from Team Sports to Endurance Events

For those of us that had spent a large percentage of time playing team sports, the sense of loss that accompanies the ending of that career can be overwhelming and confusing. Not only are you losing an activity that took up many of your free hours and free mental space, but often you are also left without structure, without a training plan, and without at least a couple of guaranteed training buddies.

In the blink of an eye it is all over, and suddenly you are free to enjoy your mornings, afternoons, and weekends however you please. For some, this may sound like a dream come true, but for those who thrive in a team environment and who love their sport dearly, it can be an uncomfortable reality to face.

Like me, many former team athletes look to running as their new athletic pursuit – as a sporting transition it initially seems fairly logical; after all, in sports like rugby or field hockey the average player will run between 5km – 7.5km if they play a full match. Elite teams are chock full of dizzyingly fast and talented athletes – USA Rugby 7s star Carlin Isles has a 20.90s 200m time.

However, there are two major bumps in the road for any team sport athlete branching out into endurance sports: your engine, and your pride. 

A woman with light blonde hair is playing Field Hockey for Harvard on an artificial pitch. She is wearing a crimson shirt and socks, and a black skirt. Her stick is black.
Hockey players, who are good at short sharp bursts of speed and direction changes, may find getting to grips with tempo-running a challenge

One of the biggest challenges is returning to a ‘beginner’ level of skill, especially if you’re transitioning from a high standard; the temptation to run before you can walk is enormous. Switching from relatively soft surfaces of grass fields or artificial 3G and 4G pitches to immediately pounding on pavement can wreak havoc on your body, and is almost a surefire way to end up miserable with shin splints. 

As frustrating as it seems, start out by keeping the mileage relatively low and only increasing it by around 10% per week. If you absolutely have to push yourself, consider cycling as a way to cross-train for running – it’ll force you to improve your steady-state aerobic endurance and minimises the risk of an overuse injury.

The other major issue is often your engine. Coming from sports with a heavy focus on anaerobic fitness, or short bursts of high speed, there is a strong temptation to absolutely ruin yourself straight out of the gate – and it is tempting as you’ll likely feel pretty great initially and record a blistering mile time.

However, the likelihood of you burning out after that first mile is pretty high as your body can only tolerate running above your lactate threshold for so long. You forget that when you were playing games you had plenty of periods for recovery in between the moments of extreme exertion. There’s little point constantly training way above your lactate threshold when you’re looking to complete a half marathon. Instead focus on tempo runs, sticking at around 70% of your max heart rate and utilise the grit and self discipline hours worth of training in adverse conditions has given you. Consistently training at tempo raises your anaerobic threshold (which is a touch lower than your lactate threshold), eventually allowing you to run both further and faster. Whilst it may seem frustrating initially to run at what feels like a relatively slow pace, the benefits consistent tempo runs will have on overall performance in endurance events is remarkable. 

Two teams of women's rugby players are scrummaging against each other - Blackheath and Cranbrook. A Blackheath player is about to feed the ball into the scrum.
Rugby players might have above-average levels of grit, but they often find making the transition from turf to tarmac tough on their shins.

While that is all quite technical, the bottom line is that it will take time to make the transition, and it might not always be enjoyable. However, there are a few top tips to make those initial miles fly by: 

  1. Find a training buddy – making the transition to running with someone to keep you motivated and accountable can make a world of difference as you adapt to the monotony of running. 
  2. Start slow – as mentioned earlier, flying out of the gate leads to a higher chance of injury and burnout. While going slow may seem boring compared to the intensity and excitement of games and training, you will reap the benefits in the long run. 
  3. Smile – remember why you are running and be proud and thankful that your body is able to make the transition. 
  4. Give yourself something to work towards – this might be an event or a certain distance or time milestone you are looking to hit, but setting achievable goals for yourself is a great way to keep you motivated and your training on track.
  5. Get a coach or spend time creating a solid training plan – the right training plan will make sure you stay injury free and help you ease your body into this new way of exercising.

Given the current climate, many of us who previously played on teams are increasingly turning to solo endurance sports to stay fit and motivated. Whilst this might initially seem like an impossible challenge, with the right mindset, training, and goals you can turn your hand to any endurance discipline you choose.

Let’s Do This, Together.

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