Running to run

I am learning to run again like I have learned how to eat again.

If you're like I am, you may have spent too many years on the treadmill or on the roads, in the pool or in the weight room, trying to shape your body into something different from what it is. In high school I was a runner, a swimmer, a lacrosse player, and a skier; exercise started out as an excuse to spend time with friends and compete with other teams, but became a full-blown obsession once I entered college. I kept an exercise log during my freshman year, where I wrote down every minute that I spent in exercise, chiding myself if I missed a day. I rarely did. Thirty-day streaks of exercise were the rule rather than the exception, and if I felt tired or injured, well, I just ran right through it.

About four years ago, when I was midway through my recovery, I came down with a case of mononucleosis that had me out of commission for months. No more "I'm training for a marathon," no more gym workouts at 10 p.m., no more books read on the elliptical machine. Just rest, and more rest, and some yoga now and then.

It took me about two years of recovery -- from both mono and my eating disorder -- before I began to consider running again. I was living in Brazil, and found that I was spending far too much of my time indoors. Running gave me an excuse to get out and see the city and its parks, and it put an order to my week and structure to my time. But since I returned from the U.S. in 2006, I haven't pursued running seriously. Part of me knows how easy it is for me to go overboard when it comes to exercise: a few workouts a week easily turns into a mandatory schedule of one a day, plus stretching, plus cool-downs. I can't afford to follow this kind of regimen right now, what with my studies and my job, and so I mostly don't. Besides, there is little joy in such practice, and these days I try to fill my free time with things that I like to do.

But this laissez-faire attitude towards running (or other forms of hard exercise) doesn't suit me, either. I like routine, but not obsession. I like seeing myself improve over time, something that doesn't happen if I just run "when I feel like it." And there's much to be said about mood and exercise: I just feel better, all around, when I get some exercise. Tentatively, I have created a schedule for myself: three brief runs (or rides) during the week, and one or two longer runs on the weekends, depending on how I feel. I love rising early to exercise, and find that it makes the rest of the day feel so much better, knowing that I have already seen some beauty in the world, used my body to creative ends, and have given myself time that is all mine.

Strangely, this must be the first time that I am running without the expectation of perfecting my body from exercise. In fact, I seem to finally accept that fact that my body, when it changes, rarely follows the rules that I would expect it to. So this time, I am running for other things. I am running to feel the cold air in my chest; running to see the sun rise; running to keep up with my husband; running to remind myself that I am fast, strong, and resilient; running because I don't need to, but I can.

Why are you running (or not)? Why or why not do you exercise, and what does exercise mean for you these days?


Emily Jolie said...

Beautiful, Ai Lu! I discovered the joy of running 4 1/2 years ago and have kept it up ever since. Running clears my head, gets me in my body, gets me out in nature, breathing fresh air, enjoying the scenery... I pass people I greet on my route who make me smile (like the old guy who's always outside his garage, smoking his cigar, and the mail carrier who gives me the warmest smile, and an older couple who I sometimes stop and talk to...). I listen to my favorite tunes or audio books while I run. My runs make me feel connected. To myself, the Earth, the Universe... And I get a lot of great ideas, inspiration, revelations, and experience breakthroughs while I'm out running!

Enjoy your runs - and enjoy not running when you choose not to! :)

with love,


Tiptoe said...

Ai Lu, it is wonderful that you are learning to run again for the pure enjoyment of it. Running, then becomes so meaningful, simply as a reminder of your abilities.

For me, exercise is an important part of my life. And I once had a very healthy idea of exercise. Right now, my relationship with exercise is not the greatest, and it's being used as a way of coping rather than for other deep, meaningful ways. However, it is my hope to get back to that place where it all feels about enjoyment. I get glimpses of it every now and then and am reminded of it's "natural high."

Alissa said...

Thanks for this post. I am an avid runner and also recovered from anorexia. I used to struggle with whether I could call myself recovered if I continue to run. I know some people will disagree with me but I think I can run and maintain recovery. Your post helps confirm that. I took about a year off completely from running initially when I began recovery. I regained the weight and today I continue to maintain my healthy size by eating much more than I ever did before. I know that my motivation to run has changed completely. I run because I enjoy the challenge, love to race, and enjoy spending time with my friends who also run. It's funny, in my eating disorder, running was the epitome of isolation. I ran to get away from from people. Now 90% of my runs are done with friends. I run 3-5 days a week. Rest days do not make me feel guilty at all. I consider rest days part of the training. You can't be come a better runner if your muscles never get a chance to recover and rebuild.

Ai Lu said...

EJ: It's lovely that you are a late convert to running; a good reminder for me that one doesn't have to have practiced a sport her entire life to enjoy picking up a new one.

Tiptoe: From some of your posts, I had gathered that you are a runner too, and I can understand your need to use running to help you cope right now. There's a time for that, and it's great that you can recognize that someday you will want to have a different relationship with running.

Alissa: I checked out your blog -- a running site through and through! -- though you are more honest than most athletes are about the perils of exercising obsessively. I came away feeling that you were an example to ME, too -- another woman who has recovered from an ED and found a way to keep running....I love your blog title, too.