How to Use Running to Unlock Your Kindest Self

Done right, the pastime rewards patience and cultivates perspective

September 12, 2023 6:34 am
A man running through water in a race with his hands stretched in joy.
At the end of every single run, it's the same: pure, unfettered gratitude.
Bromberger Hoover Photography/Getty Images

In the mid-2010s, sports psychologists from California State University outfitted 10 long-distance runners with microphones and asked them to monologue their training sessions.

The idea was to get a sense for how mental toughness impacts success in the sport — but in the process, the researchers got a rare peek into the batty and unpredictable nature of a runner’s brain, how it changes (exhorting itself, questioning itself, cannibalizing itself) from block to block, mile to mile.

The MIT Press Reader sifted through the analysis in 2018 and produced some winning quotes from the near-20 hours of breathless soliloquies. Some were pissed: “Hill, you’re a bitch…it’s long and hot. God damn it…mother eff-er.” Others were cheery: “Is that a rabbit at the end of the road? Oh yeah, how cute.”

As someone who’s run for 15 years, who runs over 1,000 miles a year, this tracks. Running is fuck this hill. Running is also wow, a woodland creature! The best runs feature a whole host of impressions — touching on either polarized end of feeling — within minutes of one another. But no matter how a run felt in any of its individual moments, the ultimate feeling is always the same: gratitude.

Running has a unique ability to cultivate kindness: towards one’s neighborhood, towards one’s planet and especially towards oneself. I was unsurprised when I spotted a study earlier this year which concluded that for those suffering from anxiety or depression, a running habit has “comparable effects on mental health [as antidepressant medication].”

It’s easier to take care of others if you’re taking care of yourself. We delve into why running might be the first lily pad you need towards a more patient, inclusive and considered life — and how to learn to appreciate the inevitable swear words and bunny rabbits alike along the way.

When Does Running Get Easier?
How to de-boogeyman the activity in four to six weeks

Sweet-Talk > Self-Talk

In a recent appearance on The Rich Roll Podcast, professional runner/physiotherapist Tim Tollefson talked about the joys of running unplugged.

“No more stimulus,” he explained. “I’d forgotten what running felt like…I went for a run and I was literally just listening to my breath, to my footfalls, the birds. It like reminded me of running as a kid. That’s what I like about running…just floating…getting rid of analysis by paralysis. You [get] to let go of that control.”

It’s such a good point. Tollefson isn’t saying that running isn’t hard, or that there isn’t a voice in his head sometimes whispering unkind things. He’s saying it’s possible to get used to the voice, or to use it for good, or to drown it out in favor of the birds.

By its very nature, running should be a feast for any anxious brain’s negative feedback loop. You’re in pain, which means it’s a good time to remind yourself that you’re not good enough. But that also makes it the perfect time to appraise how you treat yourself.

Consider: if you go for a run, you’re in the game. You’re trying. It’s wrong to be too unkind to someone who’s trying. Especially if that person is yourself. Whenever I finish a run — assuming my ligaments are intact and electrolytes aren’t too far away — I’m a little giddy. I’m proud of myself. Whatever I have to do for work doesn’t seem so bad. I feel better about things going on with friends, family, etc.

That’s not because I had a sudden epiphany about how great I was. It’s because I had to complete something hard, with only myself for company, and somehow, through thick and thin, we did it.

How often, in the grind of a long workweek, can you schedule a “confrontation” with yourself? How often can you check in on your inner voice’s choice of language and tone? Running is freeing because it’s confronting. I’ve learned more about what I think about myself while out running than during any other activity in my life. Done right, it’s up there with talk therapy, reading and a long shower.

Do you need to run sans stimulus to find this running-kindness-fulcrum? I don’t think so. Most runners run with music. Famously, Haruki Murakami has one of the best running playlists in the game. Music and podcasts are distractive in a positive way, which will help you “habit bundle” running with audio activities you already like and keep your running on track.

Besides, your inner voice is pretty loud. It’ll find a way in over the roar of the music. Hear what it has to say. It’s allowed to voice its displeasure. Then find a way to work with it.

Oh, the Places You’ll Go

There’s something sort of unheralded about long-distance running, especially when you’re training for a half or full marathon — you “visit” a tremendous amount of places or neighborhoods in a single day.

I live in New York City. If I start a 14-mile run in Brooklyn, and intend to finish it a little south of Chelsea Piers along the West Side Highway, via Central Park, I’ll have to pay visits to Greenpoint in Brooklyn, Long Island City in Queens, the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, Hell’s Kitchen and so on in Manhattan. It’s the sort of day you’d have a hard time pitching to a friend or significant other. But in running, this odyssey is a necessity — and it doesn’t occupy an entire day. It burns through itself in a matter of hours.

What the hell does this have to do with kindness? Well, traveling in this way is incredibly humbling. It’s an equalizer. It forces you to pay attention to the world around you, to make way for a pair of elderly knees, bending down to retrieve a paper in a residential area, or to veer clear of a noisy forklift backing out of a factory in an industrial one. It makes you run over bridges — or sometimes wait for them, as either side lifts towards the sky to let a boat through.

The writer Mary Anne Radmacher once said “I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.” Hear, hear. And if you’re lucky enough to run in another corner of the world, you should. But just seeing the sun shine in a different part of your city or county, however far you’re able or willing to run, should be enough to stir something in you.

It won’t happen immediately. This is a slow burn sort of thing. And it may manifest in surprising ways. For instance, I remember the “foreign” bars, coffee shops and restaurants that I zip by on my runs, and make a mental tag to return in the future. In some cases, my pre-baked impression of a neighborhood’s feel has been rightly challenged, simply by running through it. (I fall easy for big sidewalks.)

It also puts you in a direct conversation with the planet. It’s hard to feel careless for public lands that you’ve had the privilege of running through; or to discount greenspace in urban lands when you rely on them for shade; or to ignore summer air so orange with wildfire particulates your pastime must come to a grinding halt. It’s easier to be gentler to the Earth, I think, when your reliance on it is so daily and obvious.

Ultimately, running through communities doesn’t make me a part of those communities. But that’s not what I’m looking for, anyway; this sort of travel, and you can call it that, keeps me fresh and keeps me honest. It reminds me (like Samwise Gamgee taking his first “furthest step” from the Shire), that there’s a lot I haven’t seen and a lot I don’t know.

This spell isn’t consistent — and it isn’t always positive. (Sometimes a car will coast through a stop sign, nearly slicing me at the knees, and in that moment, all vestiges of kindness wash from my heart.) But it’s a cumulative stance, after years of living with running, and one I feel quite confident about. I would be less knowledgeable and more afraid without running. And while I’m no consistent clementine, I’d certainly be less kind.

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