Revelation on the Run: Am I Just a Masochist?

Hello, it’s me -sorry to disappoint, I’m not Adele. But I’m temporarily ending my hiatus from blogging. Truthfully, this is the amalgamation of the musings of 3 separate post-runs within 2 weeks. I thought I could publish this after the first time I wrote it, but I didn’t think it was good enough and had more pressing things to do. But alas, third time’s the charm. So here we go.

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Photo Courtesy of Gerry Brady (CC BY-ND 2.0)

MASOCHISM – noun

According to the Oxford dictionary: “(In general use) the enjoyment of an activity that appears to be painful or tedious”

I think the ultimate question that all runners will ask themselves one day is: am I just a masochist? It may be when the alarm goes off in the darkness of the supposed “AM”, first 5 minutes of a freezing/raining/hailing/snowing/etc. run, amidst a long run, last lap of a mile repeat… you name it. At some point, every runner will ask themselves this very question, especially when they secretly take pride in the “my sport is your sport’s punishment” slogan.

I could come at this question from a bunch of different perspectives, but I’ve only got less than 15 minutes. So let’s just get to my endorphin-driven epiphany.

I’m not talking about any specific sort of physical pain. I don’t enjoy the onset of a blister or jolting moment of a muscle strain. As I can finally comfortably call myself a “recreational athlete” in post-competitive life, especially as I’m not committed to any competition this year, the question is, why do I crave being short of breath, doubled over, and questioning life? Is it the endorphins? Feeling of accomplishment after overcoming a physical challenge? Ticking a check in a to do list? Burning calories? Getting some much needed oxygen to my brain after long bouts of studying?  I’m not that familiar with the neuroendocrinology of exercise to know whether there’s a dose response, i.e., more of X produces more of Y, between exercise intensity or duration and all the “feel-good” hormones, e.g., dopamine, serotonin, endorphins. But I’m sure, instead of a puke-worthy 800m repeat workout, anyone could opt for an easy run, let alone an easy walk to reap the same mental benefits.

As human beings, we crave sensory feedback. It connects to the whole debacle of needing to feel sore in order to feel like we’ve achieved something from our workout. And it’s something that is always challenging to explain to clients that don’t understand that feeling “the burn” especially for “core exercises” isn’t always indicative of productivity in strength progress or what have you. I think it highly depends on both your short- and long-term goals, e.g., I’m not going to push it hard in this tempo workout because I need to be ready to actually go “balls out” in tomorrow’s track workout. My short-term goal is to put in quality work without taking away from the more important workout tomorrow, while my long-term goal is to peak for races later in the season.

As athletes, we know the pain cave, the dark place. Some fear it, but inevitably welcome it because it means that we are pushing our body to its limits. A former teammate of mine began to return to running by going at it on the treadmill after school without any specific goal but to run herself to the ground so it felt like she did something.

In this video featuring the 2015 CrossFit Games champions, Katrin Davidsdottir says, “[I try to] maximize the effort that I put into everyday so when I go to bed then I know that that was all that I had.” While Ben Smith, who owns a box and programs his own workouts which entails fitting as many workouts in a day as possible, says, “I just train til I can’t anymore.” (For fun, I think if I did CrossFit, I’d also be a little overdramatic like this.)

My run today (2nd of 3 that led to the completion of this blog post) was an interesting one. I was tired enough overall that for once, my mind was blank and I just cued into my body every once in a while, especially once I picked up the pace. But it was likely one of my best runs in speed and mileage in quite some time. I could attribute it to a number of factors, such as an extra hour of sleep after baselining 4-5 hours of sleep every night the last while, a cold but sunny morning, some optimal combination of coffee and breakfast. But I think a lot had to do with wanting to push hard in order to deal with my stress of late. I felt more drive and vigor to push the pace. It wasn’t like I wanted to outrun all the things on my infinite to do list. It wasn’t like I wanted to make myself hurt on purpose. It wasn’t like I was trying to reach some goal within the run, distance-wise. I just wanted to feel. Something. Feel something purely physically stressful and not mentally stressful.

This isn’t limited to running either though. At the gym, call it a “finisher”, “metcon”, etc., putting some combo of exercises together at the end of my workout in an AMRAP-fashion (as many rounds as possible) allows me to physically give it my all that day. Being an endurance athlete for so long, it’s something familiar to me. Something maybe even that feels within my control. Because I know I can handle it physically when it seems that it’s questionable whether I can handle everything else in my life. But that pain from physical exertion -I know I can handle it because I’ve done it before. Maybe it’s just a safety method to say that if everything else fails today, at least I know that I gave it my all in my workout and can validate my self-worth and efficacy. It sucks in the moment and I may even doubt whether I can do another rep, but it reminds me, both physically and mentally, that I can handle the worst.

So call it my sick, coping method. Call it my own medicine to keep me sane and healthy mentally. Though in my experience with anxiety and depression and hearing from my own friends, if you’ve tread too far into the waters of that realm of mental malaise, then exercise may not even feel the same anymore; the “cure-all, feel-good” hormones either don’t get produced sufficiently or your body can’t respond to them. Think of it as Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in the brain, where receptors don’t seem to respond to the hormones or neurotransmitters. (Though be weary that I have no scientific evidence to back that up, I just made that up on the spot as an analogy.) But luckily, lifting and especially running has been a way for me to cope this semester. People can say, “Oh, well at least it’s a healthy way to cope, it’s not like you’re smoking.” But when individuals appear to eat “healthy” with lots of vegetables and lean protein, or exercise quite devotedly, by no means does it reflect a healthy relationship with their body and that practice.

I run because at its purest roots, the sport never changes; no matter what age, fitness level, stage in life, etc., that you start your running journey on, on any given day in any location in the world, it can take you to new heights that you never would have seen, nor thought possible to accomplish otherwise. And I think in this way, your relationship and reasons for running is dynamic throughout life. True runners may breakup with running for a while, be it of choice or not, and come back to it years down the road to gain different things from the sport.

I wouldn’t call myself a true masochist, but through exercise, I can test my pain tolerance for the day to see if I can come out of the pain cave okay. It’s a reminder to myself that withstanding discomfort and stress in life, I can do this. For once, that is my relationship with running; it’s my form of therapy.