Bartlett, back in 1859, thought that the American phrase “to run into the ground” probably came from hunting, “to express the earthing of a fox or other game.”
But because the sense has always been to overdo (a matter), to carry (something) to extremes, Bartlett’s explanation fails to satisfy.
In our opinion, the phrase was probably of nautical origin.
It may have been said of an eager youngster learning to sail, or even of an experienced helmsman who, upon reaching his home port after a long voyage, had so strong a desire to see his family as to overshoot the landing.
Thus, in an excess of zeal, one might literally run (a vessel) into the ground.