I’m training for my first half-marathon that takes place in a few weeks, and one of the things that running longer distances offers is plenty of time to think. So I spend a lot of time thinking about why on earth I am running in the first place.
You should know that I am a glacially slow runner. Most people would call it jogging, but I really hate that word because I am working so fucking hard out there, and jogging just doesn’t feel like an appropriate description for all that energy expenditure. And because I am a slow runner, I have hours and hours each week to process ideas, solve puzzles, daydream, argue with myself, brainstorm, draft blog posts...
I recently wrote about positive affirmations and their affects on the physical body. Some friends told me they couldn’t figure out a time or a place or a method for trying this out. My cousin lives in New York City, where you can run down the street and shout “I AM A MAGICAL PURPLE ELEPHANT!” without attracting any attention. She made me laugh hysterically when she told me that she shouted affirmations while running through Central Park. It got me thinking, and I murmured some to myself last week (Pittsburgh is a bit more conservative, so I went for low-volume affirming.) Doing that made me realize that every time I say “I can’t imagine actually running 13 miles,” I am literally telling body to give up. After that minor epiphany, I began instead to visualize completing the next mile. And then I would do it.
When my parents were getting divorced in 1990, my dad ran the Big Sur Marathon. Twice. Back then, I couldn’t imagine how a person could run for 4 straight hours. But I see now that he had a lot of shit to figure out. Running was truly his best therapy. I wish he were still running, because when he stopped, it seemed like he got lost all over again.
An article from Runner’s World confirmed my beliefs about this. Tad Kostrubala, M.D., coined the term "running therapist" in his 1976 book “The Joy of Running.” Therapists who run with you and talk things through? Therapist trainers? Brilliant! Dr. Kostrubala's research showed that as therapists and patients moved together, anxiety and blocked thoughts came tumbling forth.
I enjoyed this excerpt:
"I would learn more about a person walking or running with him than I would sitting in a chair across from him," says Keith Johnsgard, Ph.D., professor emeritus at San Jose State University, who before his retirement often took counseling sessions on the road. While having exercise partners is helpful, it's not essential. The uplifting power of running is at work even when you're out solo. "For every bout of exercise you engage in, you get some relief and distraction from your troubles," says Johnsgard, who wrote ‘Conquering Depression and Anxiety Through Exercise.’ "With just 20 to 30 minutes of vigorous exercise you get five or six hours of lasting effects — reducing anxiety, anger, fatigue, and other negative emotions."
I’ve been reading a lot about our busy lifestyles lately, and how as a people we don’t really give ourselves much time to relax and process events, ideas and emotions. We watch television, play video games, obsess over Facebook and Pinterest, read articles... but when do we stop distracting our brains? At night? No wonder sleep disorders are so pervasive. I love Facebook; I’m completely guilty of whiling away hours reading linked articles, laughing at photoshopped pictures that exaggerate already ludicrous politicians, ogling photos of people’s adorable children. I have wasted entire days on Pinterest, too. But I am grateful for the time I am not glued to my laptop while I am out running. I am grateful to see the sky, the angry homeless man at the gas station, progress on the construction site nearby, congregations of busy people at bus stops. And I am most grateful for the time alone in my head.
Running is therapy. I know in my yoga class, we talk a lot about getting back into our bodies. Why is there such a disconnect between our minds and our bodies? They are the SAME THING. In school, we repeatedly discussed the correlation between mental and physical health. If you have a cold, there’s an emotional issue connected to it, and your body is telling you that you need rest and release. If you have chronic fatigue, you’re not really going to get better until you address your trouble setting boundaries. I’m not making this up. Google “emotional colds.” You might be surprised how many studies there are about this.
Even though I know that exercise is crucial for the health of my entire being, I generally have a lazy streak that is 8 miles wide. Many days of the year you will find me on the couch watching “When Harry Met Sally” while eating butter. Once in a while, I have to throw down an outrageous dare in order to break up the inertia. And if I tell people about my personal dare, so much the better. Accountability is key. Set a goal, make it known, and I will try twice as hard. It’s just easier for me to bust my butt if I know someone is watching. (Take it away, armchair psychologists! I'll ponder that on my next two-hour run!)
It doesn’t have to be running for you. It could be spinning, hiking, rock climbing, hot yoga, non-hot yoga, belly dancing, tango, hooping, Zumba, boxing, kung fu, pogo-sticking, speed walking, well, you get the idea. Get back into your body one way or the other and see how many other areas of your life fall into place. I triple dog dare you.