I was talking with a friend the other day about a half marathon I signed up for in October and what my training plan looked like. When she asked how I could run so far, I joked that it’s not so hard when you run as slowly as I do. “You could pretty much walk next to me,” I said. She laughed. “But do you still get a good workout in?” she asked. “Do you still sweat? And….don’t you burn more calories the faster you go?”
Why yes, I do sweat. I don’t know what you would call a “good workout” but I’m plenty sore after my long runs. If I could run faster, I would. It’s not like I’m going slow because I’m tired, or because it’s an “easy run” day and tomorrow is “race pace” or a “tempo run” or a “SPRINT.” These are all in quotes because to me, it’s all the same. I know other people do these things, but for me, my 12 min/mile pace (on a good day) IS my easy run, race pace, and tempo run all in one. It’s the best that I can do, and I’m not interested in pushing myself so hard that I need a breathing treatment every hour just to stop wheezing. I’m proud of my pace, even if it looks pathetic to the rest of the running community.
But that’s not even what gets me about the question.
Calories? What? Does running faster burn more calories? I don’t know. Probably. I mean, the more intense the physical activity, the more calories burned right? Is that how it works?
I don’t even know. Because I do not care.
The last thing on my mind as I’m hitting the pavement is my mileage to calorie to food intake ratio. I have never once thought, “Oh hey girl, you ate that cupcake yesterday, so you need to burn a couple hundred calories.” or “If you want some chips at lunch you better add another mile to your route today!” I did once look up the calories in a small Sonic milkshake (800ish), and think to myself, hmm…I guess that would be about 8 miles, and then promptly continued to sit on my ass, enjoy my shake and not run 8 miles that day or the next day. Because milkshakes are delicious. In fact, it has been a solid 9 months since I have run 8 miles. And I’ve definitely had a Sonic milkshake or two in the last 9 months.
I don’t run to burn calories. I run because of how running makes me feel.
Stress, sleep and endorphins
I am a bit of an anxious person, and I have always had trouble turning off my racing thoughts. Because of my inability to unwind, I often have trouble sleeping. Since I started running, I have found it to be a great outlet and I believe it has helped me develop a slightly better sleep pattern. I’ve always been active — I danced nearly 30 hours a week in high school. It was also a great outlet and I think helped me with sleep as well, but it requires constant concentration. There’s no getting lost in your thoughts in ballet class. One of the things I love most about running is putting on some tunes (which I often create choreography to in my head while I run), and having time to think. It’s precious time to me. I revel in the fact that I’m not sitting at a desk or in a meeting. I also find it hard to stress or get worked up while running. It feels really free. And I’m not sure how or why, but I sleep so much better when I get 3-4 runs in a week.
Before I started running, I never gave much thought to or noticed an endorphin rush after physical activity. I had heard of a “runner’s high,” but I wasn’t sure it was a real thing. Like…you really feel happier after something as awful as running? Yes. Ya do. I feel more optimistic and am more productive when I head into the office after a morning run. My life is more stressful now than it has probably ever been, and I don’t know why but after a run I feel like I can handle it better. I feel ready to face the day. The day truly looks different, and I truly feel happier when I start the day with a run.
My mileage each day depends on what race I am preparing for — what training plan I am working on that month. Not what I eat. I like having goals and races and distances to work toward. I like having a plan and sticking to it. I like seeing hard work pay off. It’s like the next race is a “project,” and every mile is working toward the finished product. There’s nothing like that finish line. And for me, every single finish line — no matter the distance — is like a giant gold medal. Running is never, ever, something I thought would be such an integral part of my life. Every single step, mile and race would make High School Erin or even College Erin freak. Every day I am accomplishing something I always thought was impossible. It’s an incredible feeling. And even though I have not and probably will not ever earn a medal that isn’t a participation medal, I always beat one person in every single race. Myself.
While I don’t necessarily run to burn a certain number of calories, I do run as part of an active lifestyle I hope helps me maintain a healthy weight. Yes, I said it. WEIGHT. I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about it because, ugh, that shit is exhausting, and I don’t want to dive into a full-fledged discussion about body image. But yes. Running, for me, does have something to do with my weight. My weight is always fluctuating and I’ve been struggling for years to maintain a weight I’m comfortable with. Does it consume me? No. Do I think about it daily? Not really. But I do try to run 3-4 times a week, cross train or lift weights 2-3 times a week, and eat 5-7 servings of fruits and veggies a day. (Except for today, which included bagel bites and pizza rolls. WHOOPSIES). In the spirit of full disclosure, I do track calories on My Fitness Pal. I do have a calorie range I try to stay within because I need that accountability. But some days I don’t stay within that range. And I certainly don’t head out for a run at 10 p.m. if I glance at my app and see that I didn’t quite hit the mark for that day.
What is more important to me than how I look, and certainly more important to me than a number on a scale, is how I feel. When I eat well and I am active, I feel good. When I eat large amounts of highly processed food and am not active, I don’t feel good. I feel lethargic, have trouble sleeping and often get headaches. I also think fitness is NOT something that can be assessed by appearance. There have been people of all shapes and sizes who have kicked my ass in races.
I don’t know if I’m fit based on whether or not I have a six-pack or even my BMI (which really isn’t that great of an indicator, but maybe we can chat about that another time). I know I’m fit because I can take several flights of stairs and not feel winded. I know I’m fit because I can (kind of) lift heavy boxes, and can run around in circles in my backyard with my dog. In fact, I actually gained weight last year training for my first half marathon, but I was in the best shape of my life. I know I’m fit because I can run 13.1 miles.
Who gives a shit what size of clothes that body fits into? That body just carried you 13.1 miles. That body is a badass.
Running has been one of the best habits I’ve developed in my twenties. Running challenges me, pushes me and (Good Lord I never thought I would say this) brings me joy. Most days, running is still really hard. Every now and then I stop to walk. But on those rare days when it feels really easy, when out of nowhere your pace is something like 10 min/mile (SPEED DEMON), when just the right songs come on at just the right time, when the weather is cool and the humidity is low, when you see the sunrise and watch the world wake up, it’s the best damn thing.
I run because it makes me happy. Because determination and perseverance are who I am. Because the running community is the perfect blend of enthusiastic encouragement and friendly competition. I run because it’s an absolute privilege. Because my health is important to me — maybe THE most important thing to me. I run because it is a gift.
Hell, maybe I would burn more calories if I picked up the pace.
But I don’t really care.