Running, the Gateway Workout

Updated: May 28, 2020

I often hear that running is a masochistic form of exercise. While there may be some truth to that statement, I view running as an activity which constantly challenges me. It provides a form of stress release, not only due to the actual exercise involved, but also due to the scenery through which I run. The mornings can feel early, the late afternoons can feel hot. Yet the rewards which come from finishing a run are both physical and mental. And best of all, running provides an excellent baseline of conditioning which can be applied to any adventure.

Running is challenging. You can always attempt to run faster and further. I recall the first half marathon I ran in Rexburg, Idaho many years ago. I vividly recall sitting on my bed with my laptop and registering for the race. I was apprehensive, but as I hit the Submit button in the online registration form, I was committed. Part of my apprehension revolved around the elevation gain. At the time, about four miles of the race was a long uphill stretch. Though not steep, the foot of the hill was at around mile marker six, which would interrupt the mental cruise control which normally sets in during a long run. I finished that first race with a decent time, but more importantly, I had accomplished something new. Later, I went on to run that race several more times and it continues to be one of my favorites. If you are on the fence about running a race of any distance, choose to commit. You will not regret it if you put in the needed training. My self-imposed challenges light in me a mental spark which translates well into other aspects of my life.

Life can be stressful, and without a stress release, life becomes unnecessarily burdensome. Luckily, running releases endorphins. Endorphins are the hormones which make you feel good and feel happy. Endorphins can also suppress pain, slow aging and improve your immune system. The “runner’s high” which comes after a nice run is not a joke. First time runners may not feel that high right away, but with conditioning, the high does come and is a great motivator. The mental benefits go beyond just feeling good and happy, though. I have found that a good run clears away the fog which sets in due to work or other challenges. As the fog clears, clarity and focus set in and ideas and tasks which once seemed daunting, no longer feel so.

As I sit writing this article, though, the world is gripped in the global COVID-19 pandemic. However, I see more people out walking, running, and biking than I have ever seen before. Perhaps it is localized to my town in Idaho, but I don’t think so. I believe millions of people around the world are discovering the benefits of walking and running. I anticipate that this will awaken others to opportunities which go beyond a neighborhood jog. I believe the added level of physical and mental endurance will result in greater interest in more challenging and adventurous endeavors.

For example, running is great training for obstacle races, such as Spartan Races and the Tough Mudder, or team events like Ragnar Relays. For those unfamiliar, both Spartan and Tough Mudder races incorporate obstacles across courses which range between 3 miles out to 30 miles and beyond. Some races are individual while others are team focused. Ragnar Relays are 200+ mile relay races for teams of up to 12 people and span multiple days. Runners sleep in vans, tents, hammocks or sometimes just on the ground. Whatever race you choose, they all bring an added level of adventure, accomplishment and fun. It may be masochistic fun, but it is still fun nonetheless. Don’t believe me? Try one. You will likely think the experience sucks at the time, but chances are you will find yourself registering again a year later. The medals and stickers you earn (and yes, they are earned, not given) will always serve as a reminder of what you were able to accomplish.

I run year-round, wherever I may be. I have run in various places around the world, including the Brazilian Amazon and the Great Wall of China. Anchorage, Alaska is one of my favorite places to run. The city is crisscrossed by extensive run/walk/bike trails. However, beware of the wildlife. On one occasion, I drove to a park near the airport for a nice trail run through the forest. As I arrived, I stepped out of my rental car, inhaled the rich earthly scent, and saw a couple talking and pointing towards the dense undergrowth at the edge of the forest. The man looked at me and said a mother black bear and her twin cubs had just crept into the dark woods. I thanked him for the information and drove my car to another park. No need to poke the proverbial bear on that run.

Evening runs are among my favorite. When I travel for work, I always pack running clothes and shoes. Some years ago, I travelled to Arizona frequently and discovered the trail to the top of Camelback Mountain. The trail is easily accessible and always busy, especially at sunrise and sunset. After work, I enjoyed driving over to the parking area, lacing up and running to the top. If I timed it right, I could watch the sun set behind distant mountains while the surrounding rock turned a deep red hue. The dusty haze over the Phoenix valley glowed yellow as I began my descent back to the car. On the rocky return, I never tried to be fast as I didn’t want to sprain an ankle and wanted to savor the moments. I relished the time on the trail and look forward to any chance I have to return.

Lastly, running provides a solid baseline of fitness. Paired with proper rest and nutrition, you can see benefits in nearly every other aspect of life. You will find that you can hike easier, hunt longer, or bike farther. If really want to see even more gains, add weights and swimming to your fitness routine. As you feel stronger and healthier, your motivation and confidence in trying new adventures will increase. Running is the gateway workout to adventure.

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