I’ve done it. I’ve run every day for a week now. It sucked. And it’s been the best week of 2018.
That’s because pushing myself to run- one of the things I’ve flat out refused and avoided doing for seven years now has taught me a lot of things about myself, my limits and challenging them, and discomfort. Plus, like. Lots of endorphins. Those things are great.
Let’s get something straight first: I’m not a fan of the actual physical experience of running the way most people enjoy the experience of watching a good movie or other physical exercises like dancing or swimming. Running hurts. It’s very uncomfortable. Your legs and heart and lungs and throat burn. Sometimes you get a stitch in your side. You’re a sweaty, sticky mess by the end. I think people who look attractive while running are mythological creatures…
But running is important for exactly those things.
The uncomfortable slog that is running has a host of side effects and requires certain mindsets that enable you to have a much more enjoyable time when you’re not running.
You see, I’ve spent a lot of my life avoiding uncomfortable things. I found a nice, neat little bubble of things I knew I could do, and do well, and I stuck to it. I thought I knew what felt good, and what didn’t. I had the idea that things that felt good immediately equaled things that I should keep doing and things that didn’t were firmly on a list of Do Not.
What I didn’t know then and what I’m learning now is that there is a difference between pain and discomfort, and the reasons for both existing.
Growth is uncomfortable, and a little bit painful. Remember your growing pains during puberty? Can we all just thank god we don’t remember teething or the rapid growing we experienced during our toddler years? (No wonder they’re such grouchy yet cute monsters.) Discomfort shows you your limits- the upper reaches of what you can accomplish comfortably. What you can actually do is a whole different story. Discomfort is the physical and mental dividing line between what you’ve always done and what your potential is. It signals if you’re aiming for growth, this is the right direction.
Pain, on the other hand, means you’re probably doing something wrong, and you need to revise. Pain is what you feel when you touch the hot stove (don’t touch hot stoves, pain says.), or when you’ve had a rough break up (find a more suitable life partner, friend.) Or when someone very central to your life dies. (Time to reevaluate just about everything you do, dear one.) Pain happens when you push too hard too fast (Hello, muscle strain.) Pain is the signal that either you were going in the wrong direction, to begin with, or something changed and this is no longer correct.
Sometimes pain starts off as a discomfort. It can be a warning sign… But in my personal experience, this is a different kind of discomfort. This warning discomfort is tied with fear. It comes tied with things like noradrenaline and cortisol. The discomfort you feel with healthy growth is tied to a feeling of success and accomplishment. It comes with a flood of feel-good neurotransmitters like dopamine and endorphins. Whether you feel the warning discomfort or growth discomfort also may depend on what your psychological orientation is. What are you looking for? (It’s complicated, ya know? We misread internal and external signals all the time. But it can be learned and alleviated.)
So, knowing that the burning in my muscles is the myosin heads ripping off the myofibril that forces it to grow more, that even though I’m tired now, pushing myself like this has induced mitochondrial biogenesis, (which you want for much health) and that engaging in such a hard aerobic workout is dampening my immune system’s ability to rob me of serotonin. (tryptophan gets converted into either serotonin and melatonin or into nasty stuff like kynurenine and quinolinic acid (implicated in a lot of mental disorders). Stress enough to activate the immune system triggers the kynurenine pathway. ((this is the theory of why supplements of 5-HTP might help depression because it doesn’t allow for the robbing of tryptophan, therefore, more serotonin.))
Its less of “no pain no gain” and more of “no discomfort no progress”.
Which leads me to goals. SMART goals. Goals within goals. Goal-ception. When I decided to start running I had a few goals in mind, reasons why I wanted to do it in the first place. I wanted to increase my endurance and my cardiovascular fitness. I’ve been getting sick of needing an inhaler anytime something stresses my body out. I wanted to decrease my stress- give my stress chemicals somewhere to actually go, and also get into a routine. Something worth getting up to do in the morning. (Side effect of adding a morning run to your day: you get excited during bedtime to go to sleep so you can wake up and run. Yeah. It’s weird.)
So you make a big goal. And that’s great! Goals help give you somewhere to look, so you know where you’re going in life and you can then use that goal as an orienting tool to make choices to get you there. Sweet. But when you’re doing something as difficult as running, you need to have micro goals to get you through.
Like saying to yourself, “I’ll start running at that mailbox and I won’t stop until I reach the end of that fence.” If you just said, “I’m going to run until I just can’t anymore,” you usually end up stopping way before you actually can’t. Setting the micro goal of going until a certain point turns on a mental switch that allows you to push past where you think you can, and opens up a hidden reserve of potential. One of my coaches used to tell us when we thought we hit our limit to run just five more steps, and then see how you feel. Usually, you realize that those five steps were actually fairly easy and holy shit you could go at least 100 more steps, if not more.
You don’t take a run the whole x miles at a time. You take it little landmarks at a time. You chop hard things up into little bits so it’s easier to conceptualize. A whole 5k is overwhelming to think about. The next two blocks are easy. You do the same for your rests. You pick a point in the distance and tell yourself that you’re only going to walk until that point. Then you run again. That way you don’t stagnate while resting. Because it’s so easy to relax and never get moving again. If you never specified, do you really have a reason to do anything? It gears you up and makes sure that the momentum from running doesn’t disappear.
And it transfers to real life. Like when shit hits the fan, you take it a little bit at a time. You can’t clean your whole house at the same time. But you can wash a single dish at a time. You can’t find a new job and reorganize your finances all in one hour. But you can spend that one hour going over your resume. Then another hour looking at jobs online. Then another hour scheduling meetings. Little bits. One step at a time. (Step one should probably be figuring out what the necessary steps even should be.)
Running has taught me a lot about self-coaching. How to motivate myself to keep going in spite of it all. How to keep that big goal fixed in my mind, how to remember all the rewards I’ll get in exchange for doing this one hard thing, and how to talk to myself in a motivating and positive way.
Self-directed speech is crazy helpful. This is like saying out loud, “Just keep breathing. That’s the key.” or, “You’re going to make it until that light pole,” or, “start running again once you hit the end of this wall.” (The talking in the third person is way more useful than talking in the first person. It’s a helpful psychological glitch.)
I also like visualizing motivational stuff in my head. Like the training montage from the first Rocky Movie. (Yeah. I went there.) Or asking, “What would *motivational character* do?” Other people like visualizing themselves once they’ve accomplished their goals, but that’s not my favorite. (for self-defeating, over-idealizing, making your goal harder to accomplish reasons.)
I’ve also realized that keeping your eyes ahead- fixed on whatever landmark you’re aiming for is way helpful. When I start to look down or all over the place, everything becomes a lot harder to do and I notice how much things hurt a lot more. Humans need meaning in their life. Having something to aim at makes all the really shitty stuff just a little less shitty.
Again, quite easy to implement in everyday life.
And back to the discomfort thing… After this experience I’ve come to think of long-term comfort- choosing to be comfortable all the time over short-term discomfort (that produces long-term gains) is kind of like… drinking antifreeze. Antifreeze tastes sweet. Yummy to the unsuspecting tongue. Buuuut eventually it’s going to make you sick as hell and eventually shut down your major organs and kill you. Living a comfy lifestyle, like eating processed foods engineered to taste as damn good as possible, sleeping in, watching hours of entertaining tv to “unwind” and only going to that restorative yoga class once a week/ month/ year is a recipe for any number of mental and physical health problems. This is science people. This is even just anecdotal-damn-evidence. More and more studies show that pushing yourself to get up, suit up, and move is how to keep healthy. We’re built that way. Our ancestors didn’t evolve in suburbs with grocery stores and manicured lawns. We need to move. We need to eat a certain way. Our body plan doesn’t give us an option. At least, options that result unanimously in staying healthy.
But more than all of that, I’ve learned my limits and felt that limiter move. I started off only being able to run 6 out of 30 minutes, to being able to run 13 out of 30 minutes in a week! I spent years thinking that running, doing really uncomfortable things, would only be a detriment to me, but I’ve learned that’s just not true. I’ve faced a fear and come off the stronger for it. I’ve given myself something constructive to do and done it. I’ve taken literal steps towards a healthier body, and a better life as an effect.
I’ve learned that I don’t have to be content with what I have and that I have the ability to move myself forward. I have potential within me.
When you’re depressed and anxious, it’s so difficult to even conceptualize these things, much less experience them. I love the feeling of accomplishment I’ve had all week. It’s been a fantastic way to break up old conceptions and lay the groundwork for better things. A better me.
Yeah. Running is a mixed bag. On the face of it, it’s a lot of unpleasant, nasty things, but its effect on the immediate and long-term are profound enough for me that I at least, will keep running.
“What do you mean?” he said. “Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?”
“All of them at once,” said Bilbo.
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Again, this blog is for informational purposes. I am not a professional. It should not be an exclusive source to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease.