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Running and Recovery: Learning to Listen to My Body & Enjoy Exercise

Posted Jan 07 2013 7:38pm

Confession: I bought the Couch to 5k app back in October and didn’t use it until December.

I had this great idea that when I went to London , I’d get up early and go running in Kensington Gardens, which is a few blocks away from where my best friend lives.  Then I had my appendix out and the last thing I felt like doing was taking up running.

Somewhere around Thanksgiving I got really tired of the way I was feeling physically, but I didn’t want to go back to my eating disorder because that didn’t exactly make me feel great either.  No matter how much weight I lost during my ED, I never felt strong, confident, and healthy.  Instead, I felt sick, ugly, and pathetic.

Still, exercise and I had a dysfunctional relationship that I wasn’t sure could ever be repaired.

I’ve gone through a lot of phases with exercise, from over-doing it and not fueling properly to not exercising at all because my self-esteem was in the garbage.  I used to get obsessive about exercising and if I skipped a day at the gym I made myself pay for it with a barrage of criticism, and later, physical forms of deprivation.  Then once I wore my body out, I got obsessive about avoiding exercise because I didn’t want to experience the feeling of being in my body.

Something had to change.  I had to find a way to break this cycle and develop a healthy relationship with fitness, one that worked for me and not against me.

What had to change was my perspective, my motivations, and the way I talked to myself during exercise.

(image source)  -Fun Fact: Heraclitus is my favorite ancient philosopher.

Changes in Perspective 

This at first the most difficult challenge.  Any time I set out to exercise, I hear the voices of my parents in the back of my head and what they used to tell me as a kid about my body, my level of fitness, and the messages they gave me (intentional and unintentional) about health. I also used to have flashbacks of the family I lived with in Australia, the ones who hid food from me, wouldn’t let me eat dinner on more than one occasion, and the mother who called me fat and out of shape repeatedly.

I had a lot of negative associations with exercise that plagued me for years, and I knew I had to find a way to overcome them or change them into something more positive.

In order to do this, I repeatedly told myself that I was exercising to be healthy, to keep my organs functioning properly, and to clear my brain of all that old garbage that had been accumulated over the years.

“Everyone has to start somewhere,” I told myself the first few times I laced up my sneakers.

I also used to be very paranoid that the entire world could see through my very thin layer of confidence straight to my insecure core. Again, I had to shift my perspective.

No one knows that I’m not a runner or that I’m just starting to get fit again.

“Fake it ’till you make it” was the underlying message I kept playing in my head.

Changes in Motivation: Developing Healthy Motivation 

Instead of using weight loss as my incentive to get fit, I made a conscious and genuine shift in what I used as my motivation.

I wanted to feel strong, healthy, and powerful, both mentally and physically.

I wanted to be able to go for a run.

I wanted to play tennis and not get out of breath.

I wanted to be able to lift heavy things and have some muscle tone.

This time, I didn’t have a goal weight or clothing size that I wanted to reach. I just wanted to feel good about myself on the inside and the outside. I want to love my body and be proud of what it can do. I want to treat it right and make up for the years where I did terrible things to it.  

If I want my body to work for me, I have to work for it. I can’t expect my body to be my ally if I use my eating disorder, engage in self-harm, and treat myself like dirt.  Which brings me to…

Positive Self-Talk During Exercise 

The other two changes are more conceptual, and I could intellectually understand them.  Putting them into practice is something different altogether.

When I hit the pavement that first time, I took Angie with me because she is fast and built for speed.  We used to run together in Philly and she was a great running dog, until she’d want to stop suddenly to smell the flowers, or a tree, or a lamp post, or piece of dirt.  As soon as I got some momentum, she’d stop without warning.  I took her home.

At that point my emotions were running high.  I was pissed off, actually.

I was out of breath, my chest was tightening, and I felt like crap.  It wasn’t Angie’s fault, let me make that clear.

A part of me wanted to give up and just say, “F*ck running. I’m not cut out for it.” But another part really didn’t want to give up, so I got up and hit the pavement again.

I told myself that the physical sensations I was feeling would eventually go away.  I told myself to keep going, that everyone had to start somewhere, that marathoners aren’t created out of thin air, that it takes practice and that it would get easier.

And it did.

Each time I went out running, I told myself that the negative thoughts and feelings would go away, as would the physical sensations.

A crucial point to make here: I started listening to my body’s physical cues.

When it said to stop running and start walking, I listened.  When it said to run a little further, I obeyed. When it said to stop and pause the C25k app because I was out of breath and needed a minute, I did.

This has made all the difference.

It’s the single biggest change I made, because I used to a) push myself too hard when I shouldn’t have or b) give up entirely.

Finding that sweet spot between effort and ease has made exercise enjoyable for me, and that’s a really great feeling.  Now, I try to be more compassionate towards my body instead of getting angry with it for not doing what I want, when I want it.

Today is a great example of that. I took advantage of the nice weather and did a longer loop around where my parents live.  The first 2/3 of it involves a huge, steep hill and one gradual hill that is like a wind tunnel.  I had to walk more than I wanted to, and at first I resented my body for that. Then I decided to just accept that I’m still not at 100% since I got out of the hospital a few weeks ago, and pushing myself would only increase chances of injury and make me give up on exercise again.

Instead I listened to my body and walked until my body felt better and I could run again.

The result was very surprising.  Turns out I ran my best distance and pace since I started training! And that made me smile, because I did it by listening to my body and respecting the messages I got from it.  That was the biggest accomplishment for me, considering that I used to ignore that voice that said, “I need a break.”

Let me be clear, I don’t expect this to happen every time I go for a run.  It’s just nice to have a time to look back at and say, “It will pay off for me to listen to what my body needs instead of forcing it and burning out.”

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