If anything will interrupt a fitness routine, it’s injuries.
Case in point: I lost my grip in an obstacle course four weeks ago, and I came down hard on the right side of my body. I struggled to catch my breath for a few moments, but with the return of regularity came an intense, growing pain. I finished the race, of course, but as I hung around and volunteered for the rest of the day, even minor tasks like lifting boxes became difficult.
The doctor said I was fine—just rattled and bruised up a bit. But it didn’t change the fact that it hurt too much to run.
So I took a break.
I’ve begun to get back to my routine, but it’s been more difficult than expected. It’s almost like I’ve had to force myself to do it, and I’m not that kind of guy. All those reasons people give for why they run—the mental and physical benefits, the thrill of competition, a general desire to “get healthy”—that’s all beside the point. I run because I like running, and everything else is just icing on the cake.
So why, suddenly, did I find myself coming up with excuses to avoid it?
I said I’d run in the evening because I had things to do during the day, and when evening came around, I said I’d run early in the morning because it was already late and I still had things to do. And when I woke up in the morning…well, you can probably guess what happened.
It was a strange feeling, because running actually is one of my “things to do”. Often times, it’s the most important one.
But it all boiled over one Friday as I paced around my apartment, feeling restless. I had a sort of bottled-up energy about me, and I needed an outlet. Rather than put on my shoes and sprint out the door, however, I conjured up every excuse imaginable—reactivating well-worn neural networks from my late-teens and early-twenties.
Just stay here and do something else, whispered a once-prominent voice in my head.
And I did have things to do. There’s an article I’m writing for a magazine that needed editing, I had work left over from the day job, and I’d rented a Redbox movie that wasn’t just going to watch itself. And the bottles of wine in my kitchen were looking increasingly delicious.
But then I glanced outside the window, and I noticed the bright sunlight, the occasional cyclist, and—sure enough—some folks running down the sidewalk.
That’s when I remembered my own advice. It’s something I frequently tell others but found myself ignoring.
I’ve never regretted going for a run.
Even when I’ve injured myself—when I’ve gone too far, too fast, too soon, or slipped off an obstacle and bruised a rib—that’s been my own fault. I can’t blame Running for that.
Because the truth is that it’s never let me down. Not once have I come back from a run and said gee, that was waste of my time. I’m never doing that again!
Nor have I come back and wished I’d chosen Netflix instead.
Running does something powerful. When I’m out on that trail, falling in sync with the rhythm of my feet pounding against the pavement—listening to what Mark Rowlands refers to as the heartbeat of the run—I feel like I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to do. It’s a primal side that’s not engaged when I’m at work, shopping, clicking away on a keyboard, or sitting on a couch. It’s only through sustained movement and exertion that I gain access to the zone.
We’re born to move. Take a look around, however, and you’ll see that our modern way of life often limits and restricts our ability to do so. In airports, for example, they’ve even installed movable walkways so you don’t have to move. And what about our jobs? How many folks are tethered to a desk at cubicle farms? Or stuck standing behind a counter where there’s a pad on the ground to prevent sore feet from standing in place too long?
Wake up, drive to work, sit at a desk, drive home, and sit on a couch—that’s a standard day for many of us, and it’s definitely the life that I lived for many years. I know it too well.
That’s one reason why running never lets me down. To move, to exert myself, to feel powerful and alive—it’s a necessity. A hunger. I knew it when I was a child, but I slowly forgot as I grew up and was told to be rational and responsible.
Others have expressed similar sentiments, of course. This is hardly an idea unique to me. I particularly like what General Stanley McChrystal said on a recent episode of the Tim Ferriss Show, when describing his commitment to exercise:
“It also puts a discipline in the day. I find that if the day is terrible, or whatever, but I worked out, at the end of the day I can go ‘well, I had a good workout’”.
And Tim brought up something as well:
“It’s a way of diversifying my identity,” he said. A way to keep it all together even if “everything else is suffering—if I’m losing at everything else for factors outside of my control”.
I’ve experienced much the same in my own life. When I have a bad day and I’m grasping for something—anything—to remind me that all is well in the world, a good run, swim, or bike ride is often the glue that keeps me together. It gives me a sense of accomplishment and purpose even if nothing else does.
And to Tim’s point, endurance sports—especially running—have helped establish a solid, foundational identity that can’t be taken away. I’m an athlete. I run, cycle, and do my best to swim. It’s what I do.
The trouble for many folks is that we live in a society where we’re often reduced down to “what we do”—meaning where we work and how we pay the bills. And that can be a good thing. Some folks truly love what they do for work, and others find purpose in playing the game. But let’s be frank here: many jobs aren’t capable of providing meaning and purpose without engaging in some serious mental gymnastics.
But to be a runner, a cyclist, an athlete—even if you’re the slowest and least capable out there—that’s a powerful tool to get you through the day even if you do work a nine-to-five in soulless cubicle farm. It’s a way to remember that you’re more than what the company mission statement says you are. And when your middle-aged coworker cranks up the local “light hits” station and forces you to hear about Anthony and his Cadillac for the hundredth time…well, it may not bother you so much if you had a great run that morning. In fact, you might just smile and move on with your day.
I have a policy of not living in regret. “Let it go” is my mantra, but rarely is it my default, instinctive reaction. It’s a learned interpretation and delayed response. An intelligent path forward.
That’s why—in the immediate moment—I’ve regretted working a job I hated.
I’ve even regretted staying inside and playing video games, eating that entire pizza, shopping when I was bored, having one too many drinks, browsing Netflix for an hour without watching anything, and staying up so late texting a girl that I’m in a zombie-like stupor the next day.
I’ve also regretted spending years doing something I hated just because it looked good on paper, saying “yes” when I should’ve said “no”, passing up opportunities because I was scared or didn’t realize they were there, and spending part of a holiday with so-called family that I don’t particular care for.
But going for a run?
That’s never been a waste of my time.