Friday, February 14, 2014

How Running Looks When You're Not Running

This past weekend, I found myself in a strange situation: I wanted to run. Fidgeting in my girlfriend’s car as she drove me to the park, I more than resembled an overexcited puppy—I pawed at the windows, whimpered incessantly, and drooled everywhere. She tried to calm me down, but I couldn’t be calmed.

We were going to Foster Beach, and I was going to run the lakefront trail alongside Lake Michigan.

Imagine my excitement
The strange was, of course, that I was excited about running. Not excited in a general “I’m being healthy” or “I finished my run!” kind of way, but instead I was specifically excited to beat feet along a new (to me) trail. This kind of anticipatory excitement is hard to come by in the life of a regular runner. If you commit yourself to this hobby, then it eventually becomes routine. While you kind of want it to become a routine, getting to this level has its own problem: routine has a way of taking the joy out of any activity.

Pictured: adulthood. Sorry, kids.
This new trail would have new sights. It would have other runners. It would be clear of snow, since it’s so popular. Now I love my regular trail, but let me introduce today’s awkward metaphor to explain the difference.

My relationship with my regular trail is like an old marriage: I bicker with her (“Oh, I see we’re having ice for running today. Again.”), our physical relationship has no surprises left, and she sometimes tries to break my legs. While she’s gotten me through a lot, I’m bored with the relationship. This new trail? It’s like an adulterous fling: new and exciting. I’m going to stop unwrapping this metaphor before it gets gross.

Here’s the point: flings don’t last. Runners cannot find brand new trails regularly, and if you want to run every day, you will hit this routine-fatigue. Simply put, you won’t be as excited about your runs any more. But I ran the Lakefront Trail, I loved it, and I thought of this topic:

How do you anticipate your runs in a positive way? 

I want to address this because, unless you run daily ultra-marathons, you spend most of your time not running. That means that most of your relationship with the sport happens not while you run, but as you anticipate the next run. This is important. We rarely decide not to run when we’re running, we decide during that pre-run anticipation.

There are two methods I use to deal with this. As I said in Informed Stupidity, one is being deliberately obstinate. Don’t consider your running a hobby, consider it an obligation. How you feel about your life that day, or the weather, or how much you will run tomorrow or ran yesterday doesn’t matter. Just run. I’m going to run. It’s not a hobby, it’s an inevitability. Nike knew what it was talking about when it said, “Just Do It.” That’s what it comes down to most of the time. And unlike most obligations, you KNOW you’re going to feel better after exercising.

But you’re smart, and I’m smart, so we know it can be hard to make yourself stupid. It’s like telling someone not to think of alligators. What are they going to think of? What are YOU thinking of right now?

Probably this. Really, Russia?
The brain wants what it wants, and sometimes it wants to be negative. We’ve all been there.

Today should be good. I’m happy with how things are going and have reason to be optimistic about the future. Oh, what’s that, brain? I did something stupid in 8th grade? Sure, go ahead and remember that in excruciating detail.

So here’s my other method for correcting the negative kind of anticipation: know your enemy. When you don’t want to run, your brain is trying to trick you, and it uses the same methods every time. Learn its strategy, and you can beat it. This is how it works. Your brain has two parts.

Okay, maybe it has a million parts. I'm a writer, not a neuroscientist.
So the first part of your brain tells you to run. I call this the positive part. The other part is telling you not to run. This is the negative part. If that bit of creativity just floored you, hold on, because I’m only getting started.

One day, you don’t want to run. This happens. Negative is screaming while positive seems to be silent. If you feel this way, don’t worry; while it feels like the positive group is silent, it’s not. The negative group only does anything when the positive group is at work. Just by having this internal debate, you can be assured that there’s some obstinate part of your brain that is dedicated to keeping this hobby going. People who don’t start new hobbies never debate doing it; the first step is always to not want to do it.

So we know the negative group is louder, but it’s also more creative. It’s easy for it to be more creative. The positive group only has one candidate to back, while the negative group has unlimited possibilities.

“If you don’t run,” it says, “the world will be your oyster. That grass over there? Demonstrably greener. I’ll show you, just don’t run. Plus, running sucks. Remember breathing hard? Why would you do that? Plus, you look ridiculous.”

It might play images like this in your mind.
“If you run,” says the positive group, “you…will have run. That run you’re planning? It will have been accomplished.”

So many times this internal debate causes people not to run, but I always solve it by observing one thing: what happens to the negative group after you don’t run? It shuts down. It stops working faster than a political candidate who got elected on empty promises. It stops because the positive group stops, and the positive group stops because the event has passed, you made your choice. You’ll just be left to regret missing a run that you had no good reason to miss. (Sometimes there are good reasons to miss a workout, though!)

So the next time you don’t want to run, remember the whole process. Remember what happens after you make the choice to do nothing. And don’t forget: not wanting to run is the natural first step to anticipating a run. You wouldn’t debate doing it unless some part of you, however buried and silent, was totally dedicated to its achievement. Not wanting to run, as much as running itself, makes you a runner. It’s practically our communion. 

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