I have been running outside for the past couple of months — three to four miles, three to four days a week — on a trail that passes close to where I live. Although I have run at previous times in my life, including as a member of a cross-country team in high school, more than ten years have passed since I ran as much, and as consistently, as I have lately. Even the last time that I was running on a regular basis, I don’t think that I ever ran more than three miles at once, and I always did so inside, on a treadmill at the gym. For whatever reason, running outside has always been more of a challenge for me, at least since those days on the cross-country team — twenty-five years ago.
The other day, when I got home from my run, I kicked off my shoes at the door, and as one of them tumbled into a position with the sole facing up, I noticed that the deep grooves in the tread had caught and held pieces of gravel, bits of twigs, and even some dead, dry moss from all my runs in the recent weeks. I was struck by the visual interest that the red rubber nubs, the contrasting grey gravel, and the textural interplay between the two had for me in that moment, and — as I stared, and contemplated taking a picture of the bottom of my shoes, of all things — I got lost in my thoughts. I found myself thinking about what else I could say I had “picked up” in my experiences of developing this new habit of running. What had I learned about the thoughts, affirmations, that helped me in this process — to the point that I was now thinking about myself as someone who runs outside.
“I can do it (even when I don’t want to do it).”
I cringed a little when I realized one of the first thoughts that had helped me; articulating it explicitly would likely spoil my future ability to use a whole genre of my favorite excuses without a second-thought, without knowing that I was lying to myself if I tried. The thought that had made such a difference in the past two months was this one: I can do what I want to do even when I don’t feel like doing it. There were plenty of days over the past two months, after all, when I would have preferred to have stayed in bed, and not gotten myself up, dressed, and out the door into an already hot and humid morning to exert myself in a way that felt so strenuous. I did not feel like running on those days, but I did. “Yay!” for me, and “Ugh!” How could I ever again use, “I don’t feel like it!” as a reason to claim I couldn’t do anything that I said I wanted (and really did want) to do?
“I’m going to set myself up for success.”
A second learning that I had picked up was the value of setting my intentions. I had set myself up for the success that I experienced. I realized that, where running was concerned, I had, in fact, developed these intentions into a plan. I had thought in terms of starting with running two miles at a stretch and working myself up to three miles and then to four, beginning with running two days a week and working my way up to three and then to four – all in a given amount of time. Now, I had a goal of running five miles four days a week by the end of October, at which point I thought that I would likely focus my efforts on increasing my pace (though I couldn’t help but notice that I ran a personal best today!). Being clear with myself about my intentions, developing a plan in which my goals were specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound, had supported me in doing what I set out to do.
“I will support myself in this process.”
I was also aware that I had incorporated ways to take care of myself, help myself stay accountable to what I said I was going to do, and get emotional support as I began to develop what I wanted and intended to be a new, healthy, personally fulfilling, and sustained habit of running outside. First, I took time to stretch before each run, warm up, and do a cool down afterwards; in my cross-country days, twenty-five years ago, I remember being plagued by shin-splints – I wanted to do what I thought I might help me avoid that trouble now. Second, I downloaded a free app, MapMyRun, to help me track my workouts. Third, I had someone in my life who knew what I was doing, who supported me in doing it, and to whom I sent a quick text after almost every run; this person would reply with a text of “Congratulations!,” “Great job!,” or some other celebratory response that never failed to bring a smile to my face.
“I choose to think about what I’m doing in ways that fuel my motivation.”
The fourth thought that had helped me over the past couple of months concerned the reasons that I was giving myself for running. Rather than thinking in the anxious terms of what I could say I was running from — “middle-age midsection spread,” for example — I made a conscious choice to concentrate on what I was running toward, and what I felt I got out of running outside. What I was after, and what I got, was a sense of being in better cardiovascular health; time in beautiful natural surroundings, under the trees and with views of the river on the trail that I use; my experience of running as a kind of “moving meditation” — feeling relaxed, centered, grounded, as a result; and — last, but not least — the great satisfaction that I was able to enjoy after running outside when I could say to myself, “I did it!” Thinking in these ways gave me a very different energy about running outside than I would have otherwise, since I wasn’t running out of fear, and helped support me in doing what I said I wanted to do, and enjoying it.
For me, all four of these thoughts, taken together, created a “thought tonic” – a mix of ideas that invigorated my thinking, influenced my emotional experience and my behavior accordingly, and – in this case — helped me to start a new, healthy habit that I’m relishing. What are some of the perspectives that fuel you with positive, anabolic energy, and support you in habits that you find helpful, and love having?
“Our life is what our thoughts make it.” — Marcus Aurelius
Scott is a psychotherapist, personal development coach, and the founder of Thought Tonic. He dedicates his work to those who identify themselves as struggling with anxious thinking, and often their self-esteem, to help them experience their lives with greater calm and confidence.