Let me begin by first stating a huge disclaimer: I am not a long-distance runner. I am part of the masses: the large population of people in this world that purposely skipped the days when gym class forced kids to run a mile, the community of non-runners who look at the lone soldiers of the pavement and ask them, “why?” I used a lot of excuses to spend a good portion of my life shying away from long-distance running, mainly because “I didn’t have that type of body,” or I “simply wasn’t built that way.” And when I saw the typical fleet of dedicated runners pass by me, with their long limbs and stern faces of determination, I knew my reasoning was justified.
It wasn’t until a couple of months ago when I actually considered running for fun. As an ex-soccer player, regular gym-goer and recent transplant to New York City, I was surprised by two things: how quickly I gained weight in the city and how expensive gym memberships are. Signing up for a half-marathon was a decision I made out of desperation, something new to try that would keep me on a strict workout routine while costing me a simple $60 race fee (compared to the hundreds of dollars I would have spent on a gym membership). It would be me, my running shoes, and the elements for the next eight weeks, battling it out. What I learned, surprisingly, wasn’t anything to do with how to beat your fastest mile time or what foods increase running performance. What I learned, instead, had a lot to do with life:
1. The body is highly adaptable. We are creatures of habit — that’s why our grocery bills tend to ring up at the same amount every week, and why college students still gravitate towards their “designated” seat in a room with no formal seating assignment. Before I started running, I naively believed that I couldn’t run anything longer than two miles because I wasn’t built for that kind of running. But the truth is, it’s not a born skill: it’s practice. If you repeat the same action enough, if you devote time each day, if you willingly try at it, you’ll eventually get better. Soon enough, that two-mile run that was so impossible to finish a couple of months ago may morph into a light ten-mile jog where you barely break a sweat. The body can adapt; you can learn to change your brain’s motor plan and silence those C-fibers. Test yourself — you don’t know what you’re capable of unless you try.
2. The hardest part is starting. There are mornings when I spend an extra ten minutes lying in bed, dreading all the things I have to do in the coming hours. There are times when I sit at my desk, staring at my laptop, wallowing in agony about how long it’s going to take to complete my work. There are days when I lace up my shoes, look in the mirror, and think to tired myself, “how the hell am I going to run X-amount of miles today?” But in all those scenarios, I’ve learned that the worst part is thinking about doing it — actually carrying out the task is never as daunting as you imagine it to be. Even if you can’t quite comprehend what you’re doing, just begin: take your first step, write that first sentence, get out of bed and pour that first cup of coffee. Once you get going, all those negative thoughts and doubts you had before you started clear away. It just takes a little push to get your brain thinking and your feet moving, but starting is already half of the battle.
3. Before you quit, change something. It’s easy to think about quitting something uncomfortable, especially when it’s running. You justify to yourself that you’ve already gone so far, done so much for the day, that you actually talk yourself out of the bigger goal in mind. And sometimes, quitting is the best option. But most of the time, a simple adjustment in the way you’re doing things is all it takes to re-spark that drive to reach your goal. Feeling tired? Sip a cup of green tea. Bored of staring at a computer screen? Light some candles, turn on some music: make things more enjoyable. Tired of running the same route? Take a turn, find a new path to venture on that day. Before you think about quitting, just remember that there is an infinite number of options that you can choose to do instead. Going slower or taking a break is completely different than quitting. Sometimes, adjusting the little things are enough to get you back on track.
4. Make the ride as comfortable as possible. I’ve always been a big believer in atmosphere, and running has proved to me that your environment is just as important as your mindset. It’s easy to feel uninspired or unmotivated in a dreary, energy-sucking space. But the good news is that ambiance is easily changed. Blast your favorite playlist through your headphones when you’re working on a proposal. Bring snacks from home if you know you’re planning to stay later. Wear your favorite hat on a long run. Find little things that you can do to make the process more enjoyable. There are plenty of gritty and unpleasing activities that are an inescapable part of daily life, but just because you have to endure them doesn’t mean you have to suffer through them.
5. Plan your day around your most taxing activity. It’s a situation we’re all to familiar with: 9:00 PM, and there’s still that big, fat task on your “to-do” list which is going to take up the rest of your night, maybe even into tomorrow morning. Whether it’s a presentation, a paper, or a 10-mile run, no one ever wants to be in the position when the last thing left to do that day is also the hardest. By then, you’ve spent most of the day’s energy on the day itself. To avoid this scenario, I’ve learned to practice the “boulder, pebble, sand” theory from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Start planning your day around the “boulders,” the things that are the most important, or that take the most time and energy. Make sure you can find a good window of time in your day when it’s easiest to complete those tasks. After you’ve established that, fill in your schedule with other (less taxing) important things: the “pebbles.” And that leaves you with all the rest of the day’s chores that aren’t so crucial, the “sand,” which you can fill in when you have left over time. By prioritizing your day, you can create an effective schedule that works in sync with your own energy levels.
6. Even “self-motivation” needs a motivator. Even those self-claimed “self-motivated” people falter every now and then; it is human nature. Those who experience what seems like limitless energy and dedication one day can wake up the next day feeling unconfident and defeated — especially when you rely on yourself to motivate you. Just as quickly as you can convince yourself to do something, you can convince yourself out of it. That’s why it’s extremely important to have a community or program that keeps you on track, even when you don’t feel like doing so. Lots of people work out in pairs or groups to stay committed. I use Nike’s Running app — even just seeing that my run will put another green “check” by today’s task has been enough to keep me going on the days when I don’t feel like it. If you only rely on yourself, you may tend to become lenient and make excuses. Have something to hold you accountable: future you will be glad you did.
7. Take things one step at a time. The reason I always steered clear of long-distance running was because of how incredibly daunting it all seemed. A 13.1-mile run? No, thanks. However, in actually training for a half-marathon, I realized that when you’re actually running a long distance, your thought process is rarely: just eight more miles until I reach my goal of twelve! It goes more like this: just a half-mile more until I reach three miles, which is one-fourth of today’s run. So technically, in double the time I’ve been running, I’ll have reached my half-way point. When you know you have to endure something, your own mind breaks it down for you, willing you to see it as a series of small victories, instead of one, long taxing event. Rather than thinking about the finish, think about the journey. Enjoy every step of the way, and you’ll be there before you know it.
8. Goals are good, but forgiveness is key. This is the most important thing I’ve learned: forgiveness. It’s great to set goals and push yourself, but don’t be quick to reprimand yourself when you don’t achieve them. Life is about trying new things and discovering what makes you happy. Goals can be a piece in that process, but they are not the end-all-be-all of your self-worth. Even if you didn’t have it in you that day to go that last mile or ace that test, it’s important to accept yourself — your whole self — for who you are, flaws and failures included. Saying, “it’s okay, there’s always tomorrow,” instead of spinning yourself into a web of self-doubt and insecurity is always the better route, but it takes a level of acceptance and optimism. Practicing forgiving yourself when you don’t reach your goals is just as important as celebrating them when you do.