My perfect morning goes like this: I’m awake at least two hours before any commitment, class or meeting. I pour myself a glass of water and make a cup of coffee. I drink my coffee while snacking on almond-stuffed dates for energy. I change into my running clothes, slip on my shoes and make sure I use the bathroom. I stretch, put in my Airpods, hit play on my Spotify playlist and take off to the “start workout” command from my MapMyRun App. With my back straight, my shoulders pinched back and my elbows bent and stationary at my side, I start running. My feet hit the pavement one after the other, while my shoulders move in synchrony with my legs. Right shoulder with left leg. Left shoulder with right leg. My breathing soon follows as I get into a pattern matching my strides. Just like that, I enter a meditative state. With drum beats blasting through my ears, my feet against the pavement and my breathing steady, my mind is at peace. I feel gratitude in running, pride that I am a runner and dedication to make this run a meaningful one. I am interrupted only by my phone announcing the distance and speed at which I am running. It’s one of my favorite feelings in the world. Back at home, I quickly get myself into the shower hearing my brother’s “Leen you smell so bad” and my sister’s slightly kinder “Were you running?” with a hand over her nose. For the rest of the day, I carry a certain openness in my chest and lightness in my step.
I absolutely love running. Yes, I am one of those people. I’m not very good at it, but I love it. Running has been an integral part of my life for the greater part of three years. Anyone who only knew me before that would be astonished that I am a runner. I tried running track in high school and quit after two weeks thinking that running was not for me. But during the winter semester of my sophomore year of college, I came across a video of a woman challenging herself to train for a marathon in 10 weeks. There was something very inspiring about the mental strength needed to train for and run a marathon. The runner in the video had trained her mind as much as her body to fully prepare herself. I remember texting my friend “I want to do that,” and with that text, my running journey started.
For the past two and a half years, I have continuously fallen further in love with running. It got me through quarantining, MCAT studying, family arguing and countless other challenges. Having made it through those challenges and reflected on those experiences, I have learned a lot about myself through running. Here, I wish to share some of those lessons:
Lesson number 1: You don’t have to be the best at something to claim it as yours.
I became a runner the moment I decided to put on my shoes and leave the house. I have come across many runners who don’t claim this status until they’ve reached a certain mileage or pace. To me, it does not matter how fast you are running or how far you go. If you run, you’re a runner. It was important to rid myself of expectations that force me to reject activities I deem myself not good enough at. Because of this lesson, running has opened many doors for me. Picking up running as a hobby has allowed me to pick up painting as a hobby as well. Nothing I paint could sell at a museum but that has never stopped me from picking up my brush. This brings me to my next lesson.
Lesson number 2: Anyone can run, All you need are running shoes.
There are countless guides on the internet discussing which running shoes to buy. For me, I bought my first pair off the clearance rack at Marshall’s. Only after getting to long distances did I start using orthotic inserts from my doctor. Those same shoes stayed with me until my 18-mile run before I finally switched them out.
Lesson number 3: Caffeine and good music can help
Part of the reason that running is fun for me is the music I listen to. Research has shown that music can boost preparation for, performance during and recovery after a run. Multiple studies have found that listening to music can ease the effort exerted during running. When it comes to caffeine’s effect — both physically and cognitively — on athletes, the scientific community is in overwhelming agreement that it can improve performance and speed during runs as well as help recover muscles and enhance circulation after runs.
Lesson number 4: You are a lot stronger than you think
During periods of intense physical activity, our bodies resort to anaerobic respiration, or the production of energy without the use of oxygen, to generate the energy we need. During anaerobic respiration, a mixture of compounds builds up in the muscles exerting activity. In 2014, researchers at the University of Utah injected that same mixture into human subjects’ resting thumbs. Without exerting any effort, their thumbs started to feel tired, achy and even shake. The researchers found that these metabolites activate neurons that give our muscles the sensation of pain and fatigue even when they are in perfect condition to keep exerting.
I think about that study every time I am struggling to push myself, whether it’s on a run or off. Without fail, I have always gained the reward of achieving a task I didn’t think I could do. When training for a marathon, after completing my 6-mile run, I knew that I could hit any distance I set my mind to. Every time I thought to stop, I reminded myself that I had completed a 6-mile run so I could do anything. If I am strong enough to run all this mileage, then I am strong enough to finish this homework assignment, have that dreadful conversation or ask for help.
Lesson number 5: Running is not pretty
On any given run, I have sweat, mucus, spit and sometimes dead bugs on my face. If I have a nose bleed on a run, there is blood. If it’s a particularly emotional or difficult run, there are tears. My face gets red and my frown lines begin to show. I am in fight mode. Pushing yourself past what you think you can do is never pretty. It is exhausting, ugly and uncomfortable. But when I make it to the other side, the reward and the confidence gained from my accomplishment makes all the trouble worth it.
Lesson number 6: No one can take that strength away from you
Once you realize lessons 4 and 5, you possess something that is yours and yours only. No matter what is happening in my life, when I put on my shoes and get out the door, I can block all of it out even if for just the duration of my run. The strength that allows me to run beyond my comfort is the same strength I carry with me in every challenge and that is something nobody else has access to but me.
Lesson number 7: Every uphill is followed by a downhill
I think every runner develops an intuition to detect uphills. No matter how fit I am, uphill running is a lot more difficult and to be avoided at all costs. However, what gets me through each uphill jog is my certainty that a downhill will emerge. It gives me comfort that my agony will end, no matter how long it lasts and a well-earned downhill will follow. I hold on to this principle whenever I am experiencing adversity — it is only a matter of time until it is over and I get to enjoy the ride down.
Lesson number 8: Your mental health is intrinsically linked to your physical health
Many studies I have mentioned explore the differences in performance when we trick our brains to work harder and run further demonstrating the great impact our minds have on our bodies.
Though people generally associate runner’s high with the rush of euphoria following activity, recent research has found that runner’s high is caused by receptors in the endocannabinoid system. These receptors are present in the lungs, kidneys and bone marrow and affect your immune response, reproductive health and pain modulation. Not only does runner’s high affect our mind and feelings, but it is intrinsically connected to our physical health. In my experience, running helps my mental health in the same way that meditation does and I feel much better after my runs. However, there have been days when I have had to skip a run because I was losing confidence in my ability to perform. Which brings me to my next lesson.
Lesson number 9: Knowing and listening to your body is key to successful running
I cannot emphasize this point enough. Learning when to test your limits and when to rest is one of the most fundamental skills to build as a runner. It is absolutely necessary to continuously acknowledge cues from your body and mind as to how you are doing and trusting the messages they are sending. Research can guide us in learning what our bodies are doing at different points during our training but establishing that knowledge needs to happen on an individual level. Learning about and trusting my body allows me to put up boundaries and set goals better suited to my abilities.
Lesson number 10: The most important part of a fitness journey is finding a workout you enjoy
If you have been on TikTok or Instagram reels recently, you have seen videos that preach discipline over motivation. I agree with the sentiment — discipline establishes a regimen that takes the thinking out of making choices. Discipline allows me to run the number of times a week that I do; however, it makes a very big difference when I wake up excited to run and give it my all. It’s not to say that I have never dreaded a run and in those moments when motivation is lost, discipline keeps me running. On and off the running course, a balance of discipline and motivation is essential for growth.
***At the end of this article, I would like to acknowledge the privilege allowed to me as a white-passing woman of color that allows me to pursue running as a hobby. I want to remember and honor Ahmaud Arbery, Mollie Tibbetts, Karina Vetrano and the countless other people who have been killed while running due to racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry.
MiC Columnist Leen Sharba can be reached at email@example.com.