Work or exert oneself without noticeable change or progress. For example, I've worked on this project for months but feel I'm running in place. This idiom employs in place in the sense of “on one spot,” a usage dating from the late 1200s.
The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.