Endorphins Rock! Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Exercise
Yesterday I went for a run. In New Orleans it rains pretty much every afternoon in June and July, and this was no exception. As I was rounding a corner into one of the last straightaways on the 2-mile course it started pouring, and I ended the run dripping wet. My muscles were weak and my whole body had that wibbly-wobbly feeling like you get after you've been swimming. It wasn't my fastest run, or my longest. I'm not training for a marathon or obstacle race. It was the first time I had run in over two weeks, and I have no idea when my next run will be after it. Yet as I sat down in my car, closed my eyes, and tried to catch my breath, this thought floated into my brain: I feel so. damn. good.
This wasn't always the case.
I've written before about having a disordered relationship with food and exercise, and I've done a lot of conscious work to repair that relationship in the past few years. I deleted my calorie counting app. I immerse myself in body positive spaces and conversations frequently. I look in the mirror less and wear shorts more. For a while, this also meant stepping away from expectations on myself about working out. And now, with two young kids, a full-time job, and precious little free time, I'm slowly circling back around to what it means to have an active life under these circumstances. And it looks nothing like what I want but exactly like what I need.
Here's what would have been going through my head if yesterday's run had occurred a few years ago: Those 2 miles don't really count as 2 miles because I had to take walking breaks. I had so much more stamina last summer when I was running five days a week. I can never stick with anything. I've got to get back on a routine. Maybe if I start now I could be running 10k's by Thanksgiving...and just more of that on repeat for the entire car ride home. I'm not sure that I would have even registered how great my body felt, much less acknowledged and luxuriated in it, because I would have been too busy berating myself for not doing more, better, stronger, faster. There's a time and a place for setting a goal and charging headfirst towards it. I will always love a challenge, and that can be a great thing. But when you find yourself lost and adrift in the absence of said challenge--when your two polarized modes of fitness are training with Olympic dedication and binge watching Netflix wondering what's the point of it all--then you know something is out of whack. What I've needed, and what I dare to think I may have found, is how to exercise for enjoyment.
A recent turning point in this for me was doing the Tough Mudder event for the first time this past March. I had signed up way back in October along with my cousin, and we both had delusional training montages playing in our heads of all the ways we were going to prepare for this race. The months came and went and pretty soon it was a week away and neither one of us had done any special "training" other than our usual workouts. But we decided to do it anyway. One important thing to note about Tough Mudder specifically, is that unlike some other obstacle races like the Spartan Sprint or Warrior Dash, Tough Mudder values a noncompetitive, cooperative culture. There are no individual race times, and every participant is expected to help others along the course. In fact, there are several obstacles that are impossible to complete alone. I told my cousin later that I was glad I hadn't realized that when we signed up, otherwise my goal-driven, achievement-obsessed ass would have never picked it over the others.
Participating in an incredibly hard, physically exhaustive activity that I hadn't trained for and wasn't getting scored on in any way was one of the best things I could have done for myself. I didn't worry about how fast I was going or how well I was doing, and my brain was freed up to take some goddamn notice of how much fun I was having. How strong I felt. How much more oxygen was flowing through me. How awesome endorphins feel. I finished the race knowing that some important shift had taken place.
Since then, I've tried to carry that spirit of enjoyment through to my normal workouts. I have no set routine right now, because life is too chaotic and I refuse to wake up earlier than 5:30 AM. I have no super defined fitness goals in the immediate future. I just want to feel good in my body, and exercise is an incredibly effective, accessible, and free way to do that. Exercising for enjoyment is a celebration of what your body can do, rather than a longing for what it could potentially do later. And that's the space I need to live in right about now.