Running as Therapy by Shannon McGinn

running_cheaper_thanRunning as Therapy
by Shannon McGinn

“Running. Cheaper Than Therapy.” I can’t remember where I first saw that slogan, but it made me laugh. As a runner, I recognize that I run because it makes me happy. I do much of my training alone. My running, sometimes, offers me space to think. I can cover miles while contemplating the mysteries of my life.

As a therapist, I spend countless hours invested in the struggles of others. To de-clutter my mind, I often need peace, quiet, and time for myself. Sometimes I think about nothing at all. Anyone who knows me can attest to how challenging it is for me to quiet my thoughts. Once in a while, on a great run, I can do it. I will look down at my watch and realize a significant amount of time has passed and I can’t remember thinking about a single thing. Those days are amazing!

But most days, my running is simply mathematics in motion. Lots of math. Hours of math. Math relevant to the run that I am doing. Math relevant to the runs I have done. Math relevant to the runs I want to do in the future. I am good at math, but not as good as I should be after the amount of time I spend practicing it.

For me, the days that I think about nothing or distract myself with math are better than those days when my runs are spent processing the stressors of my life. Maybe math is the secret? “Math. Cheaper Than Therapy.” Hmm, I probably wont sell a lot of those T-shirts.

I recognize that there is a difference between “something that is therapeutic” and “therapy”. But first, it is important to note that there has been success with using exercise to manage symptoms of clinical level anxiety, depression or other mood disorders. It is an excellent intervention, used in conjunction with other types of treatment, when the source of the problem is unknown or cannot be remedied and therefore managing symptoms is the ultimate goal.

Many runners, even those without a clinically diagnosable disorder, would likely agree that running is therapeutic because it helps us cope with stress. However, coping with stress or managing symptoms often does not solve underlying problems. In most cases, unless our biggest stressor is not being a good-enough runner, then running, on its own, is really not the solution. Running, whether it be through the woods, on the roads, at some destination race, or even on a treadmill, will always drop us off in the same place we started. The relief of symptoms after a run is real, but it is temporary. Symptoms will likely return until we can run again or resolve a conflict. Longer lasting change does not generally happen unless we are able to implement some of the ideas we spent hours developing while on the run. Therefore, it is often the actions we take (or decide to not take) after the run that resolves our conflicts.

Or is it the act of running that changes us? From a cognitive behavioral perspective, I do believe the act of running, on its own, may have tremendous value as an agent for intrapersonal change.
Not without its critics, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is considered a highly effective evidence-based psychotherapeutic intervention for a wide range of conditions. Under CBT theory, our behavior is shaped by our beliefs (or constructs) about ourselves and the world we live in. When maladaptive beliefs shape our behaviors, they act to perpetuate conflict, stress, and/or dysfunction. Because how we behave impacts how we are received, perceived, and reacted to by others, our beliefs get reinforced as accurate and factual, even if they are simply misperceptions. In other words, we create self-fulfilling prophecies that keep us stuck. By challenging our constructs, maladaptive beliefs are uncovered. Once we realize that what we believe to be truths are actually inaccurate opinions, our behaviors change and our world is experienced differently. As a result, conflicts, distress, and/or dysfunction resolve.

But what does this have to do with running? In actual practice, effective CBT interventions are carefully crafted to address maladaptive beliefs that perpetuate specific disorders. We already discussed that being a successful runner is not a solution to non-running problems. However measurable success as a runner has the power to reshape the beliefs we hold about ourselves as people.

For those who care to track data (and it seems most runners do track the data that is important to them), running offers us clear and concrete measurable goals and results. If it is truly important to us, we will know if we actually ran a mile (or 100 miles) and just how long we took to do it. Even without a watch, we know if we ran “better” than last time. If we run further, faster, more frequently, or cover more challenging terrain with more ease than we ever thought possible, we know it. In time, it becomes clear that running changes our beliefs about how strong we are, how much we can endure, and how much heart we have. This is a significant cognitive shift that not only shapes how we perceive ourselves as runners but also how we perceive ourselves as people.

Running truly has no finish line. Because the experience of completing a challenging run is incredibly rewarding, runners are easily compelled to challenge themselves repeatedly. As a result, it is no surprise that ultrarunning is a fast growing sport. Hundred mile races are now more popular than ever. People who never imagined they could complete a marathon are now daydreaming about multi-day racing.

Beside offering concrete measurable goals and the opportunity to manage stress, running, just like a good therapy session, teaches us how to use metaphors to make sense of our world. We learn how the climbs always seem worse from the bottom. We learn that every great run starts with the courage to take the first step. We learn that if we fall down, we have to get up, dust ourselves off, and get back at it. Running teaches us that if we plan well, work hard, stay focused, fight through challenges, take care of our basic needs, and have gear that works, then we have a good chance at discovering we are capable of amazing things. Running ultimately teaches us that we are only as weak as we believe we are. All these lessons ring true for life as well.

The cognitive shift running creates within us is often life-altering. Our confidence builds. Challenges scare us less. Suddenly ridiculous things become reasonable goals. As a result, people treat us differently because we act differently. We begin to discover “new” opportunities that likely have always been present. Most importantly, if our conflicts or stressors were a product of our own insecurities about ourselves, the increase in self-confidence running brings can result in solutions in our non-running world.

This is all wonderful stuff, but not everyone is good at self-discovery and change. Some people will simply run in circles, never really challenging their constructs, never solving problems, or never breaking old patterns. Some people need more than just a therapeutic activity to help them through their pain. Unfortunately, there is still a great resistance towards asking a therapist for help, even within a group of people who will so proudly declare “Running is my therapy!”

I don’t believe that everyone who finds therapeutic value in running needs to sit down and discuss their experience with a professional. A good test to determine whether you need more than just running to help resolve a conflict is to reflect upon how long you have been stuck on the same problem. Have you been able to significantly change or overcome any part of your struggle on your own? If not, then running may be a wonderful therapeutic activity for coping with stress, but a therapist may be necessary to give you the support and guidance you need while you wrestle with the hard parts of life.

Finally, is running cheaper than therapy? I am sure it used to be back when running around for no reason was considered abnormal. Now the secret is out. People are rapidly discovering the therapeutic life-altering value of distance running. Thanks to supply and demand, running and racing is getting more expensive. It is now becoming a race to secure a bib for ultras. That used to be a marathon problem. As I look at the rising costs of ultras, where my personal therapy most often takes place, I am starting to think that I may need to print up a new T-shirt. “Therapy. Cheaper Than Running.” Hmm, I don’t think that would sell very well either. It is almost as bad at the one about math.

Shannon McGinn is a running coach based in and around Woodbridge, NJ. Checkout Shannon’s blog, Creating Momentum for more ideas and thoughts that inspired “High Mileage And Low Injury Rate”. The home of multiday running news and events.

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