Over the last couple of months, I’ve been dealing with an issue that has tried its best to induce stress and sadness.
Last Thursday, the situation spiked and I felt somewhat miserable. I went to bed that night feeling unfocused and defeated. I slept poorly and the dreams that did come would have been kinder to have stayed away.
I woke Friday exhausted and drained. Unfortunately for me, that morning was scheduled to be my longest training run to date…ten miles. I lollygagged between the sheets, hoping to exaggerate some tiny malady into a full-blown excuse for calling in sick to my run. But since I am my own run boss, the subterfuge failed. My body mutinied the command to invent an ailment and stepped out of bed to face the long road ahead.
Emotionally fragile in the first one-half mile of the run, I felt like crying. Thoughts turned to deeds in the next mile as the tears fell. During the next one-half mile, I was mercifully distracted from my own waterworks when the vest that houses my drinking reservoir needed some fine-tuning.
Then, in the third mile, it happened. Some sort of magic spell was cast or broken and I started to smile. What prompted the shift was my looking up. The blue above was vast and filled with so many types of interwoven, shifting clouds it made me think the sky an aerial kaleidoscope devised to cheer me. My sadness turned to gratitude for all the beauty offered when I simply looked beyond myself.
In mile four I fell in love with the wind as it cooled my cheeks and blew across my body, drying the perspiration that clung there. I envisioned the last drops of unhappiness seeping from my pores and being borne away by the breeze to a place where they could harm no one.
Mile five brought with it one of my favorite topics…thinking through race transitions and equipment preparation to ensure my best possible performance in the upcoming Tango Adventure Race.
Mile six brought the challenge of my first on-the-run fueling (eating sufficient and proper calories to keep going while avoiding an upset stomach).
Mile seven was a true gift. That was when I realized that the self-pity that had begun the day as my running buddy had not been able to keep stride with me and was nowhere to be seen.
The next mile and one-half was a melding of all the good miles and thoughts that had gone before. But the last one-half mile was not so pleasant. My hips had begun to complain loudly from a workout the previous day. Completing the remaining distance at a running pace took all my focus, but the brain versus hip showdown was satisfying in its own way.
I felt a surge of pride upon completing the tenth mile. I had done it! On a supremely difficult day, I had willed myself to achieve my biggest running challenge to date.
Obviously, when you stop exercising – no matter how good you feel – your problems will still be waiting for you. But the distance my run had carried me from my troubles let me see how truly small they were. I also realized that if I wanted to run swiftly, I couldn’t keep toting around stress and sorrow. I would face the hard facts I had been avoiding and take action. That done, my mind and body would be light enough to sprint past this rough patch.
I once read a study positing that when experiencing stress or grief, the human brain floods the body with chemicals that make us want to shut down and stay still. The advantage the study cited for this chemical coping was that a sedentary mourner would be less apt to venture out into the world where their distracted mental state could rapidly transform them from a sad individual into a dead individual.
I like to believe that here and now we are living in a less hostile environment and such evolutionary mechanisms are not as critical to our existence as they once were.
True grief can stop you cold for a bit. But exercise can lift you out of the doldrums, point the way to solutions, give you time to sort feelings, allow you to make plans and provide you with the physical and mental wherewithal to carry out those plans.
Your feet do not have to run ten miles or your workout trigger an endorphin rush to help you gain new insights or blast away the blahs. Getting your heart rate elevated into an aerobic zone for merely 15 minutes, two to three times a week can reduce anxiety significantly. Such cardio workouts elevate serotonin levels. Serotonin helps regulate our moods, along with many other great services. Pump up your serotonin production with some good heart-thumping exercise and you can say bye-bye to the blues.
Can any workout make problems or stress disappear? No, but when you exercise consistently to your full capacity, you become the master of any situation. Working toward and reaching your fitness goals gives you a sense of achievement and increases your confidence of success in all things. When you feel strong, you welcome all comers. When problems knock on your door, you just flash a winning smile and bellow, “Come on troubles, let’s run.”