How does running help with the most important process of life?
Change is an inevitable part of life, whether it’s change we seek and direct, or change that comes to us unasked for. The only constant is change, a never ending process. So what does running have to do with change? A LOT. I’ve become a change agent in my own life, in various ways within my circles and community, and with my clients. It can somehow always feel like a new and foreign task, but elements of transition are similar whether you’re overhauling your diet or exercise routine, moving to a new city, making a career leap, going back to school, cleaning up your finances, or starting a family. And running teaches us how to initiate and manage change as well as provides a healthy way to process the changes that surround us.
The first advantage that running brings is intrinsic: runners have an innate desire to change, it’s one of the common threads that binds the running community, this shared drive to improve ourselves, to set long-term goals like a first marathon or a BQ, and relentlessly pursue them. It’s a kind of chicken-or-egg question - are people who already have this drive the people that decide to become runners, or does running instill this quality in everyone who takes it up? I’m not sure, although I believe all people, running or not, have the desire to improve themselves in some way, and running enhances this. Some other lessons of running that lend themselves perfectly to change are:
Overcoming the fear of change and taking the first step - no matter where we are on our running journey, at some point we went out for that first run, signed up for our first race and bought our first pair of running shoes… and just went for it. Perhaps not believing we could, perhaps flailing and panting and hoping nobody could see us, perhaps suffering through it while our fitness lagged behind our motivation, but we did it, and we kept doing it. We decided not to be too scared to try something new and hard and we proved to ourselves that we were tough. If you want to make a change in your life, this step is critical and you’ve already proven that you have the courage to take it.
Getting in touch with who we really are - there’s probably no other time that I’m more myself, just me, not trying to be anything or anyone else, than when I’m running. There’s a development in self-awareness as we run, we become familiar with our inner monologues, our inner critic, and our inner truths and wishes. We share these things more openly with our running buddies too, than we probably do with other friends or family, because it just comes out naturally when we’re running, it feels like a safe space to just be who you are. Knowing yourself is a key component to making lasting change, because a forced change that’s not in alignment with who you really are is not a change that will last or bring fulfillment.
Evidence of turning something impossible to possible through a series of very small steps. Obviously running a marathon is not impossible, because hundreds of thousands of people have done it, but there was a time when it seemed impossible for me. Or a half marathon, which started out as an impossible distance too, as did 5 miles earlier on, and 1 mile at the very beginning. But what does it take to do any of these distances? Putting in the work, which amounts to whatever small run is on the training schedule for that day, and those consistent small runs have a much larger cumulative effect. In practicality, the distance of the goal run isn’t something you even need to think about much, it only happens on one day in a bigger picture period of your life, for example four months of training. You don’t have to think a lot about the impossible end result in order to get there, and it might be a lot easier to get there if you don’t think about it a lot - another lesson we can apply to our big scary life goals.
Resilience (aka sometimes it hurts and it’s really shitty) - every run is not that perfect weather, energized and everything is turning smoothly, runner’s high euphoria experience - in fact, those runs are extremely rare. Most are on the spectrum between pretty good to okay to downright drudgery. There’s heat, humidity, freezing temps, rain, injuries, upset stomachs, muscle cramps, bad moods, etc. Lots of reasons things don’t go well or aren’t enjoyable, yet we persevere and still feel like we’re on the right path, and hope for a better run tomorrow. This is one we forget easily in the face of change, for example not seeing a change on the scale towards our weight loss goal or having a stack of bills disrupt our fight out of debt… and we decide what we’re doing isn’t working or it’s hopeless and we falter or give up. Yet we know with running, that we benefited from the run, or from continuing even if we were in a rut for weeks. We don’t let the bad days knock us from our path.
It’s a self-directed and chosen lifestyle - we may look for guidance or coaching to help direct us, but nobody is making us run, we decide we want to do it and we do it. We decide how and when we’ll adjust our running, what races we’ll sign up for, where we run and who we run with. We don’t always get this type of freedom with life changes, but we do have quite a bit of agency over the direction our life goes, and it’s good to remind ourselves of that sometimes. We are allowed to change anything; at times we may feel trapped in an old story, old job, old relationship… but we really do have the freedom to choose something different and go for it. When it comes to changes that are not desired and that are thrust upon us, remember this principle - we are more likely to successfully (sustainably) make changes that we want - when you need to get yourself on board with a change in your life that you’re not especially excited about, it will help a lot to commit to looking for the silver linings, the opportunities for gratitude, the new possibilities that might open up.
Getting into a routine and changing our habits to match our goal - running can be considered a habit itself, and requires some supporting habits and usually some adjustments to accommodate it. Routine is key, as runners know, and our daily habits either make it easier to stay on track or harder. Maybe we need to get in the habit of waking up earlier to get our run in, or packing lunch and eating it quickly after a lunchtime run at work. Figuring out which habits support your goal, whatever it is, will help you get there. Once you are in routine of doing something, it is much easier to maintain it. When I decided to leave the corporate world and become an entrepreneur, this is one big area that was an unknown to me - what is the routine of an entrepreneur? The daily habits? A big part of making change is trying new routines on, even if they feel awkward and ill-fitting at first, and giving them enough time to see if they work for you or not.
Planning and logistics - being able to vision out the calendar and when and how races fit into your life, and then working backwards from that to when and how the training runs will fit in, requires a lot of forethought. Work, family, childcare, social or community obligations, everything is juggled carefully. Then there’s the training plan itself - how far, what paces, etc do you need to get to your goal - whether you get this from a book, a group program, a coach, or make it up yourself, there’s a lot of planner-mind activity going on and this is a particular strength of runners that carries over into any personal change they are wanting to make in their lives.
Having a goal - this ties into the last point about planning and logistics, but it’s an important point all on its own. In order to get somewhere, we need to have an idea of where that somewhere is, what it looks like. Most runners I know have some idea of what’s next, race-wise, or what they’re presently running for; a goal serves a few purposes - it keeps us motivated, it gives us something to structure our running around, and gives us an opportunity to set a benchmark for ourselves. Goals are highly personal and don’t necessarily have to do with distance or time or pace. My goal for my first half-marathon was to finish; I didn’t care about the time at all. Then my goal was to finish a full marathon, again, no time pressure. Then I had a goal to get faster and come in under 4 hours, then I had a goal to get even faster and BQ. Currently, I’m pregnant and my goal is simply to run for a healthy pregnancy, slow and steady and just for fitness.
Patience and commitment - even with rapid gains, progress can look and feel really slow from the inside, from the day-to-day perspective. For months and months, you can run and hit the same paces and not feel like you’re getting any stronger, but that’s because it’s hard to compare how we feel in this moment to how we felt in some other moment weeks or months ago, and when we get caught up on our data, we can really start to doubt ourselves. But there’s a golden rule, “Trust the Training,” and it works for a reason - it’s not possible for us to see the muscular adaptations taking place on a cellular level, we can’t feel it when our VO2Max increases, or our running economy improves, but these things are happening, our fitness is increasing. If we want to learn how all of this works physiologically, we can certainly find all of the books and scientific research out there, but for most of us, trusting is what makes us feel good, and learning to Trust the Process in other areas of life brings a great sense of peace to change and allows us to stay committed to our vision even when it feels as if we’re not making progress.
The importance of community is huge - I don’t think I need to say much about how amazing the running community is, if you’re reading this, you probably already know; if not, try out a running club and/or join online runners’ groups (I’m part of an amazingly supportive MRTT/SRTT group) and start soaking up and sharing the love. This applies to almost any change you want to make in life though - there are support groups for everything. Maybe you don’t know anyone doing what you want to do, don’t make the mistake of thinking that means there aren’t people out there somewhere doing it; this happened to me when I decided to quit drinking, I didn’t have any sober friends or role models, however, I quickly found out that the recovery community is vast, inclusive, supportive, friendly, etc (kind of like the running community) - find the people who have answers and support for your questions and join them, even if it means being the newbie for a bit! Don’t exclude yourself with a belief that you don’t belong, just claim it and jump in.
Accountability is huge - having a plan is one thing, sticking to it is another thing entirely. It’s 100 times easier to skip out on a run you planned to do solo than it is to stand up running friends you agreed to meet at 6am. Group challenges or connecting with friends on Strava can keep us going because we feel the support (and maybe competition and pride) to keep logging the miles. Having a coach or training partner to share workout details and “report to” can absolutely prevent a skipped or postponed run. Same goes for other changes in life; when I was trying to dig out of the credit card debt from my 20’s, my sister and I were Financial Accountability Buddies, we shared ideas about how to reduce spending, smart ways to consolidate debt, and ways to track and organize finances, then we told each other our weekly money goals and came back and reported how we did on those goals; we got on the phone for a money meeting every Friday. Setting yourself up with accountability is a really helpful way to make consistent progress towards your goals, whatever they are.
Prioritization - I won’t dare suggest that runners are the only people with too much to do and too little time, that’s the culture we live in and time management and life balance are topics of importance for everyone. Maintaining a running routine along with regular work, life, family, and social functions provides runners with excellent practice at this juggling act; there’s a refinement in efficiency and stripping the clutter of the day down to the essentials, and a discipline to not waste time on the rest. When you decide to make a big change in your life, or when one drops in your lap unexpectedly, usually one early step in the process is re-prioritization, which takes some honest self-reflection and then follow-through with new habit building (both runner strengths).
An understanding that progress doesn’t just happen - we know we have to work for it. It’s fairly easy to appreciate this in terms of running or something measurable like our grade point average, but a little trickier to remember when we’re trying to improve something less definable, like repairing a relationship that has been stressed and needs a lot of tough conversation to become happy again. But as runners, we subject ourselves to discomfort all the time in pursuit of a higher purpose, and we know that the end goal doesn’t magically come to us without this willingness. Coach Jack Daniels says in his book Daniels’ Running Formula that a good race is never a fluke. We don’t succeed on accident, we earn our accomplishments, and this is true no matter what accomplishment we’re after.
I’m constantly inspired by friends and strangers in the running community and what they’re capable of, and it’s because of all of the attributes above, and many more I didn’t mention. I know running has been instrumental in my life and the changes I’ve made over the years, and regardless of how those changes have in turn changed ME, running itself has made me a much better person and closer to the person I want to be, and really am inside. Being able to change is one of the most important skills in life you can develop; what has running taught you about life and change, and about who you are and what you’re capable of?