Last week I posted about my running journey since last fall, going from a stalwart non-runner — one might even say an anti-runner (both in the sense of being staunchly against the very idea of running, and in the sense of being the inverse of a runner, like the anti-Christ) – to a person who finished the Burlington Butter Tart 5K a few weeks ago by doing intervals of slow-running and walking.
In that post, I noted how much I used to hate running, which makes it extra remarkable that I tried it again at all and that I’ve continued to do it. The funny thing is though, I still kind of hate running. Although I look forward to going out for a run, I feel good after a run, and I like the rituals I’ve built around running, while I am actually doing the running I can hardly wait for it to be OVER.
Even now that I have built a lot more stamina and cardiovascular capacity than I had when I started, the running itself still feels hard. I think I had assumed, or hoped, that at some point it would start to feel easy, and it hasn’t. It still feels hard. But I have figured out some ways that are helpful to me in dealing with that hardness.
Early on when reflecting on my experience of running, I realized there are 3 distinct types of discomfort that make me hate exercise: (1) I hate feeling winded and breathless; (2) I hate feeling hot and sweaty; and (3) I struggle with the sheer physical effort of putting one foot in front of the other. However! The good news is, even though I still hate running, understanding more clearly what exactly it is I hate about running has actually been very useful. It’s helped me figure out how to cope with those things, alleviate or respond to them, motivate myself through them, and in some cases just accept them. Here is what I have been finding helpful so far in dealing with those 3 types of discomfort:
Feeling Winded and Breathless: This might be easiest one. I realized that if I’m breathing so hard that I’m uncomfortable, I can simply slow the fuck down and take a walking break, LOL. And this became a lot easier to do when I let go of any particular expectations of what I think I should be able to do – that I should be able to run without breaks, that I should be running at any particular pace. Since I let go of that kind of achievement-oriented sensibility, it’s a lot easier to just ease up the pace when I need to so that my breathing and heart rate stay in a range that feels okay.
Feeling Hot and Sweaty: I’ve found 3 things that have helped me deal with this:
- I started running last November, and initially I had thought that it was silly to start running just as winter was starting because of the weather. In hindsight I realize that it was probably a smart move. By starting to run during a cooler time of year, external heat and humidity weren’t part of the equation in the earliest days of running. It meant that I was only having to tolerate the heat and dampness generated by my own body, and the colder weather and wintry winds helped to moderate even those sensations. It allowed me to build an initial foundation of improved cardiovascular fitness during cold and cool weather, so that by the time the more oppressive summer conditions arrived the habit of running regularly had already been well established, and I was able to ease into being hot and sweaty. If you already don’t like hot and humid weather, starting out as a beginner runner in the cooler months might be easier.
- I realized that fabrics really matter. Cotton fabrics absorb a lot of sweat and hold it there: gross. I avoid cotton as much as possible in my running clothes, and choose synthetics or lightweight merino wool (particularly in winter).
- I started carrying water, not for hydration per se, but for physical relief and cooling. I don’t run long or hard enough to need to actually re-hydrate during the run, but on a hot day, having a small squeeze bottle of water in my hand is great for shooting a little in my mouth to alleviate the yucky dry lips and mouth from heavier breathing, and squeezing more down my shirt to cool me off (in the summer, that is – I don’t think I’ll be shooting water down my shirt once winter comes!). Far more goes down my shirt than in my mouth.
Sheer Physical Effort: This is the hardest one for me to describe, as well as the one I find most challenging to manage. It’s that sensation of heaviness in my legs (especially my calves) that comes on after running for more than a minute or so. It’s not pain – it’s just my muscles going UGH I DON’T WANNA. It’s just the UGH sensation of WHY exertion itself PLEASE CAN WE JUST WALK. It’s the toughest mind game for me about running, the argument between my legs and my brain about when we can stop, and my legs put up a very convincing argument most of the time. The thing is, running is exertion, I don’t know if there will be any getting around that. At this point, I’ve got a few mental strategies that seem to be at least somewhat helpful once the UGHs start:
- Explicitly reminding myself that what I’m feeling is discomfort but not pain. I don’t like the way it feels, but it doesn’t hurt and it’s not a sign that anything is wrong.
- Being attentive to my form and trying to make sure that I’m keeping my core somewhat engaged but otherwise being as relaxed as possible. Those UGHs are even harder to deal with when my whole body becomes tense or I’m slouching.
- Deliberately evoking positive feelings by smiling or reciting little upbeat mantras to myself. I make myself smile by being proud of myself for getting out there and just doing it, appreciating the view over Hamilton Harbour or the plants and birds along the trail, thinking of my cat wearing a shirt, or any number of other things that bring me a bit of joy. Some of the little mantras I go to most often are things like “I can, I am, I will,” “settle in to it,” “it’s just yes,” and “keep showing up.”
- Remind myself that this discomfort is temporary. I only have to tolerate this for a little while, and then I get to go and have a nice iced coffee and a lovely shower and do whatever else I want to do. Tolerating 20 or 30 or 40 minutes of fairly minor discomfort is very well within my abilities (especially since I usually do run/walk intervals, so I get breaks from the discomfort). I don’t have to do it forever, and soon, I will get to stop. Sometimes I even think of it as asking fierce me to stay in charge for just a few more minutes until we’re done the run and then couch potato me can take the helm again.
- I try to remember to put some kind of easily digestible carbohydrates in my system about 30-60 minutes before I go out for a run so that there is readily available fuel for my muscles. I don’t honestly know if this actually makes a real difference or not, but it seems biologically plausible to me, and whether it’s a real biological effect or a placebo effect probably doesn’t matter…to my way of thinking it’s a can’t-hurt-might-help kind of a situation.
So! That’s how I’ve become a runner who still kind of hates running. I’d love to hear what works for you!
Stacey Ritz is an associate professor at McMaster University, a vegetarian who uses lard to make pie dough because that’s how her grandma did it, and the owner of a bossy cranky cat who is currently wearing a shirt.