Part of my process for healing and eventually returning to running is learning to be mindful. Mindful of my body, my emotions, my physical state. I realized the other day that many of my runs are done on autopilot; they are not products of joy but of habit. And while habit is not the worst motivator for exercise, for me it has become destructive.
I almost never struggle to find the will to put on my shoes and head out the door. Snow, freezing (or sub-freezing) temperatures, ice, rain, wind, suffocating humidity, scorching heat are secondary to my decision to run. I am not deterred often by pain or sickness, stress or lack of sleep. When in full training mode, I take one day off a week (because I’ve been told it’s good for me, not because I especially want to).
Although this unrelenting pattern wins me the admiration of non-runners who cannot fathom that level of commitment to the tiring, sweaty slog that is running, it is not admirable. My unwillingness to rest, even for a moment, is foolhardy. It leads to injury, sickness, exhaustion. It can be linked to other self-destructive patterns in my life. It represents adulation of running above else; it does not represent my values.
Running is important to me, but it is not everything to me. Running cannot replace the love I feel from my friends and family, the creative release I feel while writing, or even the pleasure of a quiet morning spent with my cats and my coffee.
(You have no idea what a relief it is to feel this truth in my soul. I have spent years working to make this distinction between my self and my running; only now do I see it with clarity.)
Because I am able and willing to run in any circumstance, I need mindfulness to help me understand when I want to run to fulfill a habit, and when I want to run to experience joy. I wrote a list of questions to ask myself before I run, to check in with my body and determine the reason for my run. Here is an abbreviated version:
- Am I in pain?
- Was I in pain yesterday?
- Am I afraid the world will end if I don’t run (because it won’t)
- Do I just want fresh air? If so (and there has been recent pain) will a walk or bike ride be better?
- Are family stresses at play?
- Do I smile when I think about the upcoming run? Am I excited?
I used the list this morning, with success, to practice yoga instead of riding my bike trainer. I felt energetic and pain-free when I woke up, and was tempted to ride for the third consecutive day, even though I was in pain yesterday. The wheedling, cardio-obsessed voice in my head had a compelling argument against moderation or listening to my pain. As I contemplated listening to the voice, I remembered my list and I knew, hard as it was to resist, biking was out of the question. And now, I am as close to pain-free as currently possible. Positive reinforcement is good.
The list isn’t there to tell me anything I don’t already know but to help me commit to the healthiest option. I was perfectly aware this morning, as I considered a ride, that I had been in pain yesterday and that anything but the most gentle stretching would be counterproductive, yet it was not until I referred to the list that I yielded. The list provides much-needed boundaries. I grow past it, able to intuitively make the decision to run or not, but right now I am not that strong. So I will review my list, and listen to my answers, and learn to respect my body.
What methods do you use to cultivate mindfulness and keep yourself on track?