5 Life Lessons Learned from Being a Runner
Running isn’t just a sport, it’s a lifestyle. One of the toughest, yet most gratifying aspect of being a runner is the life lessons with which we are often faced. Through running we learn to overcome fears, find acceptance of ourselves and others, and accomplish our dreams. Listed here are just five lessons learned from being a runner.
Sometimes You Don’t Get Out What You Put In
Perhaps one of the cruelest lessons running teaches us is that, contrary to popular belief, working as hard as possible doesn’t always pay off. To find the most success in running you must find the fine line between working too hard and not hard enough. In other aspects of our lives, such as our jobs or our relationships, the more hours that we put in and the more dedicated that we are, the better our results. However, running more miles or hammering easy days can often lead to injury and mental burnout.
Overtraining, which occurs when an athlete exercises too much and rests too little, can lead to a compromised immune system, chronic inflammation, and impaired athletic performance. Equally frustrating, we can arrive at the starting line perfectly prepared only to have the race derailed by factors out of our control, such as bad weather.
Overcoming disappointment and developing resiliency while maintaining a positive attitude is crucial to the success of a runner. When it feels as though the definition of success or failure hangs on the athlete’s finishing time or place, truly successful athletes learn to find joy in the journey, not in the outcome.
We also learn not to compare ourselves to one another. As beginner runners (or even as veterans), it can be tempting to compare the time and effort that we dedicate to running to that of another individual. It quickly becomes apparent that two people can run vastly different mileage and still perform at the same level. In addition, the person who doesn’t work seemingly as hard might even be the better runner. Through this lesson, we realize to treat ourselves, as well as one another, as individuals who must find the right formula for his or her own specific needs.
While every runner experiences the disappointment of missing a personal best or a Boston qualifying time despite having put his or her heart and soul into training, it is this disappointment that keeps athletes coming back to running. We seek continual improvement and understand – with running as our guide – that while success is not linear, work is certainly cumulative.
Motivation Can Only Come from Within
As an individual sport, runners learn from the very beginning that motivation is the key to both success and fulfillment. However, this motivation cannot come from coaches, teammates, running partners, nor spouses: it can only come from within. Anyone who has ever woken up early to run because of someone else’s schedule or begrudgingly signed up for a 5k can attest to this fact. However, when a person is truly motivated by a personal goal, heading out for a 20 mile run in the dead of winter or waking up early while the rest of the world is still asleep is a relatively easy task.
It is through running that we learn more about ourselves and our desires. We make the realization about aspects of our lives that we enjoy, and those that are no longer serving us in a positive manner. We realize that we can do hard things when we are highly motivated, but relatively easier tasks can be excruciatingly difficult to perform when we simply do not care as much. Through this realization, runners learn about their true priorities. Setting goals – athletic or otherwise – should always be a personal endeavor, as no one can define for you what sets your soul on fire.
The Human Body Can Handle More Than You Realize
Running is one of the best ways to learn that you are capable of much more than you ever thought possible. Many people can mark the moment they had this realization by the completion of their first 20-mile long run or when they crossed the finish line of their first race.
Day in and day out, runners find the strength to take on remarkable feats, such as completing ultramarathon distances, continuing multi-year run streaks, and running through serious illness, such as cancer. For instance, professional runner Gabe Grunewald has continued to shed light on the strength of the human spirit by continually coming back from cancer to compete at the national level in track and field. Through these examples of grit and determination, we realize that running is less about the physical training and more about the human will to finish a race and overcome setbacks.
In addition, running also helps us work through significant emotional problems. People with depression, anxiety, drug addiction, and victims of assault have all found running to be a cathartic escape. For instance, there are many sobriety programs around the world that teach people to replace getting high from drugs with the ubiquitous runner’s high. Numerous people, including celebrities such as Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, extol running as a way to help overcome unhealthy habits.
Through running we learn the resiliency of the human spirit and realize that there is much more to life than what meets the eye. Only when pushing our bodies to our absolute limits do we experience what it means to be fully human.
Progress is Addictive
As a group, runners come from all walks of life. Perhaps more than any other sport, running boasts the most diversity. From beginner to veteran runners, all body shapes, sizes, disabilities, and backgrounds are represented. However, when a group of runners is together, these differences are rarely, if ever, noted. Instead, the conversation steers towards personal bests, favorite races, origin stories, and lifetime progressions.
Running is a rare sport where progress can always be made, no matter a person’s age. These improvements can be made in the form of a personal best, an age group ranking, the tackling of a new distance, or reaching a new level of training such as a highest-ever weekly mileage. For instance, Carolyn Mather might not be an Olympic gold medalist – or even ever qualified for the Olympic Trials – but she is believed to be the only woman in the world to have completed more than 200,000 miles. Mather, who is 68, continues to run upwards of 20 miles each day to add to her total.
Indeed, the ability to continually improve, set personal bests, and make progress is addictive. According to science, success is actually addictive. The sensation of achieving a difficult feat after the stress of hard work, such as training, can lead to an extreme adrenaline rush. This should come as no surprise, as many runners stick with the sport despite heartbreak or disappointment in order to see what else can be achieved. After all, running is one of few sports where the measuring stick of success can be clearly defined. When you – and you alone – are responsible for your success and you earn a hard-fought personal best, there is no greater feeling.
Therefore, it should be no surprise that the quest for progress can also lead runners down dangerous paths, such as cheating in races, eating disorders, and the development of overtraining syndrome. However, through these negative aspects of the sport, we also come face to face with our inner demons. We recognize how our fears and past traumas hold us back from achieving our greatest success. For many people, running is a metaphor for life, and through running, we are better able to understand this greater meaning.
The Mind-Body Connection is Undeniable
Enhanced understanding about the benefits of yoga in the age of Western medicine has brought words such as “mindfulness” and “mind-body connection” into our lexicon. Running, more so than any other sport or activity, helps us better understand the way in which our bodies work with our minds.
From the way our breath quickens with effort and the conscious act of controlling breathing to reduce fatigue, to the simple way that going for a run releases the tension of our day, it cannot be denied that our physical and mental beings are intertwined. Runners sometimes experience an emotional release, whereby a particularly hard workout can bring up an emotional event from our past.
On the other hand, we can use our brains to control the discomfort that we experience and “trick” ourselves into pushing our bodies harder. Only when running becomes second nature are we rewarded with this unique understanding how the mind and body control one another.
Ultimately, running can teach us many lessons about ourselves, our capabilities, and life in general. Some of running’s harshest lessons are also the best. For instance, despite our greatest efforts, we might not achieve success on the day that we expect, but over time if we keep training consistently we will prevail. Runners learn that the key to being dedicated, disciplined athletes is to seek motivation from internal, not external, sources.
When there is something that a runner wants, nothing will stand in his or her way. Success and progress can also be addicting. However, both can bring out the best and worst in our personalities, leading us to more deeply reflect on all aspects of our lives. Finally, running teaches us that there is no denying the power of the mind-body connection and that we can control much of our physical experience by controlling the brain.