Lance Armstrong, Dara Torres, Brett Favre: They've all been in the news lately for their remarkable athletic comebacks. (And I've written before about how to return to a sport you love, not that those three need my help.) But what if you suspect you need not a comeback but a break—maybe even a permanent one—from your chosen activity?
The notion that you and your running shoes might be well served by some time apart might be a result of chronic injuries or just a general feeling of having been there, done that. Before throwing in the towel, diagnose the problem. If you are constantly battling a string of injuries, it's probably a good idea to try something else for a few weeks or months. Overuse injuries like tennis elbow, runner's knee, swimmer's shoulder, and Little League elbow are so named because they're associated with repetitive motion involved in those sports. Switching to some other activity that uses different muscle groups can give you a chance to recover without losing your aerobic fitness. When you return, you'll probably want to reassess your technique and the intensity with which you've been training. "If you're 45 and playing with college students, maybe it's time to play with 45-year-olds," says William Roberts, past president of the American College of Sports Medicine and a professor of family medicine at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.
If you're still getting hurt playing with the 45- or 60-year-olds, it might be time to hang it up. You may have a chronic injury that is aggravated by your sport, as knee and hip arthritis can be by running, for example. Roberts himself gave up ice hockey after getting two concussions in one season. (He switched to cross-country skiing.)
A less obvious sign that you need time off is the mental staleness that makes your favorite game or sport not so fun anymore. If you're just bored, try mixing it up: Change your biking route, try a new class at the gym, train for an event, start running with a buddy or a group rather than solo. But sometimes the problem is deeper than that. "As with any other thing we do voluntarily, it's important to step back and say, 'Why am I doing this? What's my purpose? What am I getting out of it?' " says Jack Lesyk, director of the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology and a spokesperson for the Association for Applied Sports Psychology.
Sometimes the answers are revealing. If your primary reason for running has always been to improve your 10K time, that might not be realistic because of your age or other circumstances. Lesyk says some of his clients have been able to reframe their relationship with their favorite sport; golfers, for example, might not be able to get the same score at 70 as they did at 50, but maybe they can learn to appreciate the fresh air and camaraderie instead. That might not be possible for the most competitive among us. If it really kills you that you can't perform as well as you once did, well, it might be better for your mental health (and that of your loved ones) to step away from it for good, or at least for a long time. Take up a new sport, where you can set new personal bests and get the competitive thrill again. (Armstrong took up marathon running during his hiatus from professional cycling.)