In February of the second year of my Master’s program, I began writing up my thesis. In early April, in between two conferences, I submitted my thesis. By the end of the month, it was defended, revised, and submitted. In just under 2 months, I had written 81 concise pages, including a massive 150 citation lit review, on top of my teaching and research obligations.
How did I do it? In part thanks to a rigid, down-to-the-week writing schedule, regular check-ins with my supervisor, and a lot of time spent in front of a screen. But frankly, the reason I was able to stay on track was what I did in the afternoons or evenings, when I simply couldn’t put ideas into words anymore: endurance running.
You’ve heard that exercise, particularly aerobic exercise, reduces stress. It is also associated with higher resilience, that je-ne-sais-quoi that helps some people deal with setbacks better than others. For me, the biggest surprise was how much running helped me think. Spending an hour or more alone in the woods at a time gave my brain the space it needed to freak out about my workload, calm down, and then start planning how to overcome the problems I faced in my analysis. In a strange way, physical exertion replenished my mental energy.
The incredible ultramarathoner Jared Campbell, 3-time finisher of the infamous Barkley Marathons, reports that running helps him think through problems he faces at work or at home. Over and over, I heard the same thing from the people I ran with: regular running gave the space they needed to process their thoughts, and helped them relax.
So, the benefits seem appealing to you, and you’re willing to try it out, but like most people, running is not something that’s comfortable for you. How can you start running in a way that benefits you both physically and mentally? Here are some tips for starting out on the right foot:
1) Accept that the time you spend exercising is not a luxury, it is a necessity.
If the premise is that exercise is necessary for you to be productive and ready to face your work, then it becomes okay to clear time specifically for your runs. Does that mean avoiding scheduling meetings before 10 am so you can get a morning run in? Fine! Are you frustrated with whatever you’re working on, and you’ve got an hour and a half before your next appointment? Go! Half the point of academia is that it is flexible: use it to your advantage. Time spent running is not wasted if it helps you work more effectively afterwards.
Keep toiletries, a change of clothes, a pair of shoes and a quick dry towel in a drawer at your desk so you can feel completely refreshed after your outing.
2) Set the expectation for your running as a meditative practice.
When I started running, I approached it the way I did everything else in life: I wanted to be good at it, which to me meant fast. Checking my watch became obsessive and ultimately counterproductive. If I didn’t meet my goals, I got discouraged and would skip sessions later in the week. It was self-defeating behaviour. Eventually, I met up with a group of women who set out to run slowly. Their goal wasn’t to break records, it was to spend an hour or two in the forest with a group of friends, catching up and enjoying nature. At first, the pace was infuriating, but then it became liberating. My runs could be enjoyable??
When you step out the door, remind yourself that this is time for you to relax. Forget about the watch, don’t take your phone, and go at your own pace. Focus on breathing deeply and evenly, and if that’s hard, slow your pace down. What’s the rush, you’ve got plenty of time until your next appointment!
3) That said, don’t forget to set goals.
To get the full anti-stress benefits of exercise, it needs to be practiced regularly. To make sure you run regularly, loosely plan your running weeks. You could designate some days as “running days” without specifying the time, and figure out when your run best fits in the day of. You could schedule some recurring runs, for example on Friday afternoons or Saturday morning, when you know you have a little extra time. You could even set a more rigid schedule. Fit it in whatever way works best for you; after all, it’s your time.
My preferred way of planning when I’m not training for a specific event is to tell myself that on a specific week, for example, I have a goal to run one mid-length run, a long run, and a short run. If I wake up one day feeling sore or tired, I will push off the run to the next day. Some weeks I don’t meet my schedule, and that’s fine – I’ve learned that perfection is rarely necessary.
4) Start slow and steady.
The biggest mistake I consistently see from friends and family who start running is that they run too fast, too much, too quick. Your body needs time to adapt to the new demands of running, and so does your mind – suddenly exercising at greater than habitual intensity has been shown to increase injury and worsen mood. You didn’t become a good researcher in a month or even a year, why do you expect to become a track star this week? Build your distances slowly: if you’re just starting out, you could run one 2km session this week, a 3 km session next week, two 2km sessions the following week, etc.
Everyone has a natural pace at which running is relatively effortless and which can be maintained for long periods of time (think on the order of hours). Slow it down to that pace, and instead of working on speed, think about your technique. Are you landing with your foot below your body? Are you breathing deeply and regularly? Are you standing tall and engaging all of the muscle groups in your legs? Are your arms helping propel you forward?
5) Run outdoors
The running world agrees: treadmills are just the worst. There’s a benefit from running outdoors which you don’t get by pounding on a hard rotating surface in a crowded fitness center. In fact, the treadmill was first used as a means of punishment for convicts. I try to run exclusively in the forest, but a park or even your campus could serve the purpose. Remember that running in stressful environments, including ones with lots of car noise, people to avoid, or traffic lights to abide by, raises your heart rate and thus makes your run seem harder to you.
The idea of meditative running is to let your mind wander and enjoy personal time. A crowded gym just isn’t conducive to that
6) Let your inner researcher shine: read online resources
You’ve cultivated your research skills, put them to use in developing a running plan that works for you! As you start running regularly, you might become interested in pushing your distance, working on your technique, or properly nourishing your body. That’s great! There are so many resources online, from Facebook groups such as Run Like A Girl, to training plans lie Couch to 5k, to magazines writing on all things related to running (my personal favorite for beginners and clear information on a new topic is Runners World).
7) Allow yourself the time to grow to enjoy running.
You may not enjoy your first run, or maybe even your first few runs. It will take some practice before running becomes comfortable, and you can run on cruise control, letting your mind think through whatever comes up. That’s normal, your body and mind have to adapt to this new practice. You will learn your optimal pace, where you like to run, when in the day is optimal for physical activity. Eventually you will experience a flow state or even a runner’s high. Give yourself some time to get there!
When I feel stuck in my writing or my research, I go out for an hour or two of exercise. Long distance running, especially once I started treating it as a meditative practice, has allowed me to beat procrastination, learn to set and meet goals, and helped me work out problems in my research and personal life alike. It can do the same for you.
And hey, if your meditative practice helps you get a little fitter, eat a little healthier, or become a little faster, that’s the cherry on top!
If you’d like to read a little academic discourse about exercise, resilience, and mood, here are some review articles:
Salmon P. 2001. Effects of physical exercise on anxiety, depression, and sensitivity to stress: a unifying theory. Clinical Psychology Review. [Pub-Med]
Southwick SM, Charney DS. 2012. The Science of Resilience: Implications for the Prevention and Treatment of Depression. Science. [Pub-Med]
Warburton DER, Nicol CW, Bredin SSD. 2006. Health benefits of physical activity: the evidence. CMAJ. [Pub-Med]