It’s a particularly unnerving aspect of the human condition that we’re longing the most for the things we don’t—or can’t—have at the moment. As of this writing, I’m sitting comfortably in a warm house, wearing decent clothes, am well fed and somewhat relaxed. Still I get the feeling that I’d enjoy nothing more than being outside in the blistering cold of this foggy December morning, pushing my body to physical exhaustion by running for an hour or two, only to arrive at where I started. What’s wrong with me?
I was never much interested in physical exercise to be honest. As a child I was clumsy and awkward during the ball games my friends enjoyed, and later I never found much motivation to pick up an exhausting activity to add to my already busy schedule of work and study. Frankly, I didn’t see the point in doing so.
By 2015 though, some things had changed. I had given up smoking the year before, feeling a lot healthier already. But on top of that, I saw that a lot of the colleagues at my then almost-new job would go out of their way to be physically active. They’d run to work, take bike-rides or play badminton in the afternoons, and even sacrifice their lunch breaks for aerobic sessions.
What fascinated me was that those colleagues who engaged in physical activity didn’t seem more exhausted than the rest of us—much to the contrary, they seemed to have more energy and concentration to invest in work-related activities. On top of that, they seemed a lot happier with their lives in general.
Run like hell
I wanted to reap some of those benefits for myself as well, so I started an experiment early 2015: I bought good running shoes, a GPS watch to track my progress, a few quick-drying t-shirts, and set out to become a long distance runner.
Needless to say, the first weeks were painful and humiliating: I wasn’t able to run for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time before I had to resort to walking—or crawling, in some cases. Huffing and puffing, coughing and sneezing, I’d stumble back home in my new, expensive gear, cursing the universe for having punished me with such weak flesh.
As time went on, I got a tiny bit better at it though: By late spring of 2015 I could run for an hour, which at my pace would amount to about 8 or 9km at the time. While I still wouldn’t say I enjoyed running during that period, at least I got some satisfaction out of watching my progress. Then something unexpected happened: Summer arrived. And with that unforeseeable turn of the seasons, temperatures outside my comfort zone became the norm, even in rural Austria.
Suddenly I saw all the progress I had made melting away again: With every additional degree of warmth, my pulse during my runs would rise as well. After a couple of minutes I would be sweating all over. That made me frustrated and angry—mostly with myself of course, and a bit with the weather. Hence, my first running streak was brought to a grinding halt in the summer’s heat of 2015.
Time and time again…
As it turns out, quitting an exercise habit is a lot easier than picking it up again. I was a bit frustrated that I had spent so much money on the gear though, so occasionally I would give running another try. It’s almost funny how sunk cost can serve as a motivating factor. So every year around February or March I would set out again, run a couple of kilometers, only to collapse into a sweating, cursing, exhausted bundle of shame. Frustrated I’d pack the gear away for another year or so, never being able to enjoy the benefits of what felt like strenuous effort at the time.
So, what changed when I picked up running again in April 2019? Only a tiny thing, but it would turn out to have huge impact: In the years before, I tried to fit running into my schedule whenever it felt like a good idea. Sometimes I would run after coming home from work, sometimes in the morning, sometimes during the day. Every time I thought I should run to arrive at my weakly goal I had to invest mental effort to “make the time” to actually do it.
Building a habit
In 2019 though, I decided to turn running into a habit: I wanted to stick to three runs per week in the beginning, but I would fit them into my existing schedule, making them just another thing I’d do regularly—like showering, eating, or sleeping. As I’m a morning person, I decided to fit running in as early as possible, so on the days I would run it would be the first thing I did after getting up at 5am.
That approach had two significant advantages, one physical and one mental. The physical one is easiest to explain: As in the years before the rising temperatures during spring and summer had killed my performance and thus my motivation, the habit of running early in the morning helped to counteract that climatic inevitability. By July, when the sun turned into a vicious ball of fire as soon as it rose at 5:30am or so, I already had built up enough stamina to push through a couple of “heat runs” without throwing away my nerves.
The mental advantage is a lot bigger though, and the lesson it taught me extends much farther: Once you make something a habit, you have to invest very little mental effort to remind yourself to actually do it again and again. In the previous years, every run was preceded by actual mental deliberation: Do I really want to go for a run right now? Is this a good time? Maybe it’s better an hour from now? Or tomorrow? These ruminations made it very easy to decide that “now is not the time”, and go on with some other activity.
So, what about those benefits?
As my running streak lasted longer than ever this year, I finally saw some of its alleged perks materialize.
(1) Altered physique
I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but my body changed drastically over the past eight months. I didn’t lose any weight, but I feel that much of the fat that had accumulated in places like my thighs went away—to be replaced by much denser, more muscular fabric. I wouldn’t give all off the credit to running though, as I had experimented with a changed diet and intermittent fasting as well during that period, but regular exercise certainly played its part.
I was surprised how much easier it now is for me to stand upright for prolonged periods of time without exhausting my legs or my back starting to ache. That simple ability makes concerts and other events a lot more enjoyful!
(2) More stamina
In addition to the visible changes to my body, I also feel that my stamina and endurance have drastically improved. This was made obvious on a recent hike up Blassenstein, an 850m tall hill towering over my home town of Scheibbs. The walk up is quite short, only about 4.5km, but one has to cover 500m in altitude difference which can get quite exhausting. While I had always enjoyed that hike, I usually had to stop a few times on the way up and take it slowly towards the end so as to not overly drain myself. Now, I find it quite easy to walk up there without having to take a break, allowing me to enjoy the beauty of the route even more.
(3) Concentration & Energy
People claim again and again that physical exercise improves mental health and intellectual ability as well. Alex Soojun-Kim Pang for example collected tons of evidence that many successful leaders with exercise habits aren’t successful despite their workouts, but because of them. His 2016 book Rest goes beyond that argument to examine what else one can learn from how outstanding personalities like Winston Churchill balanced hobbies, professional, and private lives to be both happier and more productive.
For me, it’s fascinating how different my mind operates on a day that I started with an early morning run: I’m sharper, more alert, more creative, and even funnier on those days. Also, my energy level throughout the day is more constant and doesn’t fluctuate as much. I even go so far now as to rearrange my schedule so that I can fit a run in on days where I know I have an important meeting to make sure that I’m the best version of myself at the most critical times.
Summing up the benefits, it’s easy to conclude that my life got better because of running. Both mentally and physically I’m more capable than before, and I’m very likely a lot healthier. I’m also more relaxed and satisfied, and watching my progress on apps like Strava and Garmin Connect still delights me a lot.
November 2019 was my most active running month so far. I covered a total of 184km, spread out over 16 runs. I’ve been running every second day, sometimes two days in a row. My average pace increased and I felt ready to take on longer distances, maybe even start adding some uphill sections to my usual rounds.
As I said in the introduction, I’m desperate to go for a run again at the earliest possibility, the reasons for that should now be clear. Why don’t I do it right now? Well, because I’m an idiot. Here’s what happened.
Two weeks ago I bought a new pair of running shoes, especially geared towards cold and wet Austrian winters with their gore-tex material and special cushioning. Naturally I wanted to try them as soon as possible so I set out for a 12km run the morning after I got them.
During the run my left heel started to hurt slightly, but I didn’t pay much attention to it. The fact that it had started to pour halfway through my lap had taken my mind elsewhere, and I was more happy about the waterproofing of the shoes than worried about the pain. Walking was painful for the rest of the day as well though, but again I chose to ignore that rather than worry. Over the next three days I’d run another 22km in my new shoes, the pain fading in and out.
The agony would return when walking in my normal shoes as well so that I’d stumble around like having a limp most of the time. Describing my symptoms to Dr. Google quickly made my condition obvious though: Achilles tendinitis was the most likely cause. My stubbornness in ignoring the first symptoms definitely made it a lot worse than it would have needed to be.
So it looks like I’ll not be running for the next couple of weeks, and once I start again I’ll have to slowly build up to my usual distances. As I said in the introduction, it’s peculiar how we always long for the things we can’t have, or do, right now. Looking at the bright side, I hope that now that I know what missing running feels like I can appreciate it more when I finally am allowed to get back to it.