I remember sitting in my 5th period class, stomach churning over track practice after school. It didn’t matter the day, I was always nervous. There were so many times in high school where I would “go to the bathroom”, conveniently right before the other girls started the workout so that I could do the workout by myself. If I couldn’t keep up with them I would wheeze with anxiety, and I learned how to avoid situations where I could compare myself to others.
Knowing all of this, it’s probably hard to believe that I still run. I’ve run and trained through college, grad school, and early career, only taking breaks for injuries (of which there have been many).
My early relationship with running was quite tumultuous, and frankly misguided. I gravitated toward running because it was a sport where hard work paid off. That wasn’t my experience as a soccer player, where no matter how much effort I put in, I still didn’t start or play as much as I wanted to. I also loved the feeling of accomplishment any time you ran further, faster, or better than before. It was clear validation, an indication that the hard work was enough.
As a beginner, the improvements are frequent and noticeable. In running this means PR’s, crushing workouts, and that coveted “runner’s high”. The longer you’re in the sport, the more the PR’s space out, the smaller the margin of positive change, and the more seasons of sloggy running you endure.
My love for running has always been multifaceted– it was how I met my best friends, enjoyed the outdoors, and managed stress. But an early emphasis on the numbers misguided and stifled not only my relationship with sport, but also with my body. I’m embarrassed to admit that it’s only been in the past few years where I’ve come to realize that the numbers count, but don’t matter. Only when I let go of the numbers did the things that I really wanted enter my life: resilience to stress, learning, growing, and progress. Sweet, sweet progress.
Joy is truly a superpower. If we approach the sport with joy, we can be successful (and have fun!) no matter what. If we prioritize health and happiness, the performance will follow. I’ve seen more and more professional athletes talk about how being happy has helped them run their best– not the number of miles they’ve run, the harder workouts, new supplements, technology, or discipline. These other pieces of the puzzle only become useful upon a solid base of purpose. Over emphasizing training hard and undermining the role of health in performance is like trying to put together a puzzle on sand instead of a table.
What exactly does it mean to run with joy? I know that if someone told me to do so in high school I would not have understood the assignment. This looks different for everyone, but I think the root of joyful running is not only in the process but also in mindset. Sometimes this looks like stopping to take pictures of the sunrise, and other times it’s running with friends or meeting new people on the run. Some days it’s pushing the limits of speed and distance, and other times it’s skipping a workout. It could be hitting the splits or leaving the watch at home.
The athletic mindset of getting things done at all cost and pushing our limits hamstrings our progress as an athlete. Furthermore, being an athlete isn’t all about progress. What if being an athlete was really all about pursuing joy?
Just some food for thought.
Keep going, you got this!
Kacy Seynders, PT, DPT