At the end of the week, I’ll be starting yet another running challenge.
This time, I’ve combined 3 all at once. This should make it easier or less stressful. In theory. As I sit down for breakfast, after an easy run to be followed by 2 days rest, I wonder why. Why do I keep on signing myself up for silly challenges? You’d think it’s a consequence of lockdown + being unemployed.
In a sense, it is. The numerous challenges give me something to aim for. They strangely give a rhythm to my seemingly constraint-free time.
When entering the whirl of never ending virtual challenges, I’ve learned to dance with the side effects of overtraining, lack of proper rest or fuelling. I’ve been soothed by the reassuring numbers on my watch as I got faster or further. I’ve also wrestled with the urge to move when leaving the house was out of bounds. And I somehow still struggle to find a balance that works for both my body, my mind and my other needs in life.
So why do I do it?
1. It’s a Welcome Distraction
While I’m out there, running, cycling, swimming, doing pilates, HIIT, strength, etc., I’m not thinking about anything else I could be doing. Should be doing. I feel good because I’m being active, sometimes pushing myself and improving, sometimes simply enjoying the fresh air and the sunshine. Everyone keeps telling you to get healthy and fit. So I am.
But it’s a distraction sometimes. An ‘away move’. Rather than sit down and do the hard work of digging deeper into what I want to do, committing to trying out scary new things, learning useful skills for when I get back into employment, I pick up the bike and go for an all-day ride instead.
It’s easier to keep pedalling than to stop to think and face the dissonance between what I want and what I’m doing.
2. It Keeps Me Sane
Whenever I go a few days without doing any form of exercise, I become grouchy, irritable, essentially not a really nice person to be around. Particularly if it isn’t by choice. But even when it is self-imposed for recovery or because I’m travelling (ha the good old days when you could do this without thinking too hard about it…), I can feel my mood lower and a general tension build in my body.
I know I’m not the only one experiencing this. It’s as if we were going through exercise withdrawal. As if we were addicted to exercise.
In some way maybe we are. Addicted to the release of endorphins, dopamine and other chemical reactions that happen within our body when you exercise. It’s no surprise to me that studies have shown exercise can help with depression, stress, anxiety.
I know some people who use running to manage their anxiety, and to a certain extent I do too. When I go running regularly, I’m better at managing my mood. As long as I don’t push it too far, get overtired and consequently over irritable obviously. Everything in moderation they say.
After running (but also any other form of exercise that gets my heart rate up), I usually feel better, better than when I started. My shoulders stop tensing up, I’m calmer and more focused.
If I’ve done a long or hard session, I also feel suitably tired. The good tired, not the nervous tired after a day in front of screens. Not the one where you’re exhausted but your mind is wide awake but the one where you fall asleep like a baby, knowing you’ll get a good night sleep. I also know that I’m doing something good for my health.
In short, getting myself out of the house to sweat on a hard run or ride usually calms the hell out of me when I’m the most grouchy. It works better than a nap, and I do love naps.
3. It Gives Me Structure
When the carpet was pulled from under my feet and I was left without a job, a sabbatical abroad or family to visit, with all the free time, I decided to go running and cycling more. Sign up for silly challenges so I was doing something productive. It felt worthwhile at the time.
Every day for the first few months, I was either running, cycling or doing some other form of exercises. I fitted everything else around that schedule.
If I’m honest, running has been a refuge for a few years now. When I felt I wasn’t in charge of what was happening in my career anymore, it’s been the one thing I kept constant. As a way to distract myself, sure, to ease the stress building up from other areas of my life, yes, but also to prove to myself that I can achieve the goals I set. I go from one training cycle to another, structuring my weeks around them, my years around the events I want to race.
It’s a routine and it’s reassuring.
4. It’s Part of My Identity
Mainly though, it is now part of my identity. I run 3 times a week throughout the year, come rain or shine. I don’t go on holiday without a pair of trainers as there are always roads and trails to explore. I introduce myself as a runner, or get introduced by friends as a runner.
Many conversations with friends start with questions about the latest running challenge I’ve done. I’m even looking at ways to introduce more of this side of me in my paid work in the future. In short, I’m a runner.
Although I’m probably getting a bit boring to be around if you’re not a runner, it has made me a better person. I’m much calmer than I used to be.
I would throw tantrums after stressful days at work. Now I go for a run.
I’m learning to persevere when things get hard. It started with running marathons and ultra-marathons, now it’s flowing through all aspects of my life.
With each challenge, I’ve learned that I’m capable of more than I think. That the first steps are always uncomfortable but it doesn’t make the journey less worthwhile.
As unlikely as it sounds, I’m also learning to rest. Trainings follow a cycle of pushing hard and resting. I’m starting to apply this more to my life outside of running. Leaning in guilt-free in the rest. The stillness.
I’m also aware that I may not be a runner for life. It’s unlikely. As human beings, we evolve and change. Something else will come along, circumstances will change, I’ll get injured or I’ll lose the motivation.
I’ve experienced it with other passions, in a previous life. As a teenager, I’d never thought I’d stop horse-riding. But one day I did. It was temporary until it wasn’t anymore. I went 10 years without it, came back to it for a year or so before it fizzled out again.
The same thing might happen with running. And I’m ok with that. I’m enjoying it while it lasts. I am looking at diversifying my interests and topics of conversation a bit this year though, so not to lose all my friends!