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The biggest enemy of most long distance runners is not the physical challenges of training, but the mental ones. Before my body gets to a point of physical pain or strain during a long run, my mind has long been fighting its own battle against distractions and anxieties. Will I make it to the end of the run? Will someone send me a really important email while my smartphone is back at home? Should I turn back and clean up the dishes?
The catalyst in all these mental meanderings, I’m starting to realize, is boredom and the emptiness that comes with it. The first few minutes of a run often feel like the first few hours or days of a vacation—there is a sort of restlessness, the unnerving sense of needing to do or check or work on something. Within that restlessness, my lurking fears and petty anxieties wreak havoc.
It’s taken me years to realize that this unnerving boredom is my personal running demon—some people have weak knees, others get shin splints. I just get really, really bored. I get so bored that if I don’t keep my thoughts in checkduring the first five minutes of my run, I won’t finish the run—I’ll literally just stop and walk home.
Luckily, I’ve found a few strategies to combat this demon—some of which work better than others, depending on the day.
1) Distraction: Sometimes, conquering the boredom is as easy as finding a really good podcast to listen to. Music, unforunately, only works if I’m having a really good day. I need a story or someone talking to me to pay attention and get out of the boredom that’s in my head. My favourites are: freakonomics, Serial and radiolab. What do you listen to while running?
2) Lack of Distraction: Strangely, even the best podcasts can sometimes intensify my brain’s ability to grow unutterably bored with the world in general. If I’m flipping back and forth between podcasts, if I can’t decide on much of anything, I know it’s time to take off the earbuds and listen to the wind—or traffic.
3) Altering my environment: I sometimes get out of my unappealing suburban neighborhood and drive to a place that excites me—a trail, park, or waterfront area for example. Running somewhere that relaxes or inspires me gives relaxes my mind and makes me excited to keep running. What types of scenery appeals to you?
4) Breathing: Focusing on my breath is probably the biggest game changer when I’m faced with running boredom. Depending on my pace, I find a breathing rhythm that works and stick with it for five or ten minutes, focusing on strong, audible inhales and exhales. Unfortunately, my mind is often so frazzled that I have to work up to this technique by one of the above methods.
5) Making friends with boredom: If I’ve made it through some intentional breathing, I can usually get to a point where I stop trying to get away from the boredom demon. Instead, I can run along side it, like a friend or running companion. It’s there, but it doesn’t have to stop me in my tracks.