I’ve been a runner for almost as long as I can remember. When an over-use injury cut short my marathon training last fall, I got serious about exploring other options to stay strong and fit without running almost every day. I’ve been working with a trainer for the past three years, and this spring I added swimming and cycling into the mix (triathlon anyone?). I do these things because it’s important to me that I’m strong, and because I want to stay healthy, and I love the sense of accomplishment that comes from making progress and achieving goals.
I knew that cross-training would be good for me physically. What has surprised me, though, is how each of these activities provides a unique mental release for me.
One of the things I particularly enjoy about running is that the wide-open spaces give my mind a chance to roam, to gather my thoughts, and to sort through things. My weekly distance is usually a good barometer of what’s going on in the rest of my life. Peak mileage is typically associated with peak stress; I find I’m best able to work through my problems one mile at a time.
Thinking through things works well for me a lot of the time, but sometimes I simply need to turn my brain off – which is not something at which I particularly excel. It wasn’t long after I picked up my first road bike this spring that I realized that’s exactly what happened when I clipped into my pedals and took off for a ride. Unlike running, cycling requires that I focus almost exclusively on what I’m doing. Even now, I’m mindful of the potential for bodily injury: minor scrapes when I don’t manage to unclip in time for a sudden stop, and the potential for greater injury from cars, animals, children, potholes, and other hazards along my route. I’m almost constantly on the look-out for hazards. It’s stressful at times, but also a nice release: when I’m focused so much on what’s going on around me, I’m finally able to let go of my day-to-day stress.
I do almost all of my swimming in a pool (open-water swimming is another issue entirely). As a child, I got into running in large part because I was such a hopeless swimmer, so in many ways my sense of accomplishment is greatest from swimming. At the start of the year, I had to rest and catch my breath every 25 yards. I learned by studying other swimmers, talking with one of the life guards, and by watching videos of good swimmers. I’d study what they were doing, then try to replicate it, seeing what worked and what didn’t. I’m still doing that – it satisfies my inclination to analyze and experiment, changing one thing at a time and try out new combinations. It also reminds me a little of my long runs, where I have to fully tune-in to my body; I’m aware of my position in the water, how far I’m turning my head to breath, where my hand enters the water, how many strokes it takes to get to the end of the pool. It feels almost decadent.
Of all of my activities, strength training may be the hardest and most fun. I love the moves that I can muscle through (squats, bench press and the like), and dread the ones that require finesse and balance (pretty much anything I do on one leg). I like putting on my compression shorts or a running skirt, then picking up good weight and doing a power weight-lifting move with good form. I’ve lost track of how much time I spend in the weight room laughing. My trainer has finally gotten used to the fact that I inevitably start to laugh mid-way through a tough set of bench press. I think the laughter stems from my pleasure in what I’m doing and just how far removed the weight room is from the rest of my life. It’s where I most feel like a bad-ass. No – it’s where I’ve discovered that I am a bad-ass.
When push comes to shove, I still think of myself as a runner. It’s where I go for my energy, focus, and stress release. It’s also something that I’m pretty good at doing. But my other activities have provided me with balance, and unexpected rewards that I’ve grown to appreciate.