This article written by Jennifer Samson Acker is such a beautiful testament to running, friendship, navigating the ups & downs of adult life….& the bond that comes from a shared history. I am so thankful to be included in her life “story”
Last school year, my son came home with this assignment. Typically, I'll give my kids' homework a quick read over, or maybe if it's something really special, I'll stick it up on the fridge for a week or two, but this one gave me pause. What he wrote sounded so simple, but as I reflected on my own experiences - both in the position of "coach" and "student" - it brought a lot to mind.
Coach, mentor, teacher, leader.... there are many words to describe this role and, like we are told about the Eskimos having many words for "snowflake," perhaps this signifies its importance in our society. Even still, it's also a role we at times can take for granted, save for really special, epic moments - like graduating high school, winning a championship, or walking your first born down the isle. We simply expect this position to be fulfilled and things to run relatively smoothly...until, at times, they don't. And we have had a lot of experiences over the past few years where...they haven't. We have expected the leaders of our country to run things safely and responsibly and then to have a smooth transfer of power every 4-8 years like clockwork; we expected there to be new teachers in our kids' classrooms every semester to provide them the education they need; we expected there to be coaches to train, motivate, and protect the health of our athletes...and maybe even win a championship or two along the way; and, if we have children of our own, we have expected ourselves to naturally take on all the responsibilities & duties of keeping these small creatures alive and safe until they become independent, functional members of society. But as we've seen in recent years, sometimes these things don't happen smoothly...or at all. And hopefully, when this occurs, rather than burying our heads in the sand or responding only with anger, we can take it has an opportunity to reflect upon our own experiences as both leaders and students, mentors and mentees, and examine what it actually means and feels like to lead, guide, learn from and bring out the best in others. As I re-read my son's essay, it motivated me to do this very thing. I reflected upon the qualities he pointed out: Respect, Safety, Making Changes for ALL, Love. These might not be the usual signs of strength that come to mind when we think about those who are "in charge," but to me - and according to much of the research out there - they are profoundly important not just in raising/coaching/teaching successful kids/athletes/students, but also in imparting skills and qualities that have ripple effects on society and the world at large.
Respect: Can you appreciate and honor what each individual brings to the "team" - even, or especially if, they have different viewpoints, backgrounds, skills, strengths, and weaknesses than you. Can we find a place for everyone?
Safety: As Maslow's hierarchy of needs clearly depicts, we can't expect people to reach the upper-level goal of self-actualization if they don't, at the very least, feel safe. Are we pushing our kids, athletes, employees to the point of burnout? Are we "coaching" them through force, threats, and control? Or are we ensuring they feel mentally and physically safe enough to fully thrive and reach their potential?
Doing good for all: Sometimes, when we are so focused on winning, on one singular goal, or on our own individual needs, we lose track of the greater good. Putting our egos aside and reflecting on the greater good - whether that's the whole family, classroom, team, or country - may not always give us that instantaneous gratification we were looking for, but it will pay dividends in the long run for society as a whole.
Loving: The Golden Rule. So basic, it feels like it almost doesn't need to be said, but sometimes the simplest things can also be the hardest. And empathy can feel hard. We don't always have to agree, but allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, putting aside our own needs at times and putting ourselves in others' shoes, and making a point of fostering strong connections are worth their weight in gold. At times, this can feel harder than the most grueling workout, toughest exam, or humbling parenting experience - but, I believe it is also how we truly succeed in life - both individually and collectively.
Overall, what I think struck me most about these qualities of leadership was that none of them were really the stereotypical descriptions of strength, such as "power" or "stoicism," that may come to mind when we think of a natural born leader. Instead, they were all about a certain level of vulnerability. It seems leadership, to my son...and, as it turns out, to me...goes beyond teaching concrete skills and techniques, and challenges us to dig deep inside ourselves, to allow ourselves to become raw and vulnerable, meeting our players, students, children, where they are at with each new season, semester or even moment. Luckily, in the midst of some of the chaos over the past few years, we have found ourselves some amazing leaders in our own lives - a soccer coach whose enthusiasm never wanes for any of the children around him, rain or shine; a music teacher who is more of a mentor; and, a swim instructor who doubles as a friend/colleague/cheerleader, I hope you find yours out there too...or try to become one for those around you. It's no small feat....but it also has no small effect either.
We've all heard people who say they "don’t believe in therapy” or that “therapy doesn’t work” for them. I've also heard people say they think therapy is "just about focusing on the past” or "just sitting & complaining for an hour" or who question how "just talking is going to fix anything." I've heard things like this both before and since becoming a therapist myself, and both before and since being in therapy myself. And through my experiences as both a practitioner and a patient, through years of both clinical work and research, I have definitely learned and experienced these statements not to be true...and thank God for that. The truth is there are SO many different forms of therapy out there & SO many different types of therapists with a range of styles & personalities that I do believe - much like finding a relationship that clicks - we can all find a therapist or mode of therapy that fits for us. Therapy isn’t just focusing on the past - sure that is woven in there - but it’s also about being totally & completely in the present moment. Therapy doesn't just involve talking - sometimes it’s mostly about feeling, or even just being…in silence with another human being. Therapy can involve music or art or physical movement and body work, with minimal talking at all. Therapy is about compassion, understanding, changing behaviors or owning & loving the behaviors we have. It’s about knowing yourself & learning to be wholly & completely connected to the person you are (flaws & all)...which I also think helps us to be more wholly & completely connected to others. But no matter what the form, it is true that therapy will not "fix" everything - nothing in our lives can do that. But it can be another resource we use to get through and learn from the rocky times that we will all experience in life. And it can incorporate some of the things we love most, some of what is out there and available to us every day, as part of our healing journey. To me, music is and always has been one of these things.
"One of the most poignant early images of the coronavirus pandemic was of Italians playing music and singing from their balconies even as the virus ravaged their cities." Music has the ability to connect, to unify, and to heal; to spread joy and to help us share in pain. It has also been found to activate neural pathways in the brain that, not only help with emotional healing, but cognitive processes and physical ailments as well. If that is not therapeutic, then I'm not sure what is. Music can be a specific form of therapy, or it can be incorporated into therapy, or it can be used as just a helpful outlet or adjunct therapy.
These past few months, I've revisited a lot of these areas - past/present, thinking/feeling, cherishing/letting go. I've re-engaged with therapy again to address some old, resurfaced wounds as well as some new bumps int he road. And I realized that one of the most therapeutic things for me during this time, and one of the most consistent outlets throughout my life, has been music, especially live music. As a specific form of therapy, or in addition to more formal therapy, music can have the power to heal unlike anything else. There is nothing that helps me feel, connect, let go & be totally present than music. This summer we saw everything from John Williams to Axle Rose & I loved every minute of it. For a few hours - or even just one song - troubles vanish.
"Music is a fundamental part of our evolution, allowing for unique expressions of social ties." During a time when we might feel more fractured, internally or societally, music can serve as a unifying factor. So next time you hear someone say or you think to yourself that "therapy doesn't work" I hope you take note of ALL the different forms of therapy out there that are available to you, and all the different ways in which you might incorporate or already be incorporating therapeutic outlets into your life. Music, other forms of art, nature... are all available to us every day and always have been. If we take time to notice them and experience them more mindfully, if we look for a therapist that incorporates them or we choose to incorporate them on our own, they can really work wonders.
*"When life gets hard you have to change..." Back when I thought of myself as “just a runner” I would turn down doing so many fun, new activities because I was afraid of getting injured…skiing, snowboarding, even hiking took a back seat for many years. The irony is, not once did I get injured doing any of these other activities. The wear & tear from doing one form of repetitive exercise over & over for years (as so many kids are doing at younger ages now, specializing in one year-round competitive sport) might actually make us more prone to injury than anything else. And this can also be said for the "wear & tear" of unhealthy relationships, jobs, etc. Our bodies do need to move - but not always in the same ways, with the same motions every single day. Our bodies - & brains - respond best to change. So, unless there are certain limitations...IT IS OK TO CHANGE THINGS UP A BIT. We don't have to be slaves to the gym, or to a certain number of miles per week or even what a fitness coach or personal trainer says. Activating different muscle groups, using different parts of our bodies and our brains, challenging ourselves in unique ways can make such a big difference, not only in our physical health, but also our mental health and overall wellbeing. It can also be a key step in preventing burnout for athletes at every level. So, if you are able to, consider being creative and changing up old patterns and habits. Think about what you truly enjoy...which may not necessarily be completing a certain number of reps at the gym, but instead maybe working outside in your garden. Bring things back to the basics, by thinking about what you used to love to do, without a second thought, every day as a kid...back when things like running, climbing, biking were all second nature. And this can certainly be extended to other areas of our lives as well - work, daily routines, even relationships. When we’re feeling stagnant, burnt out, irritable or even depressed a little change can do a lot of good."
Heal Your Relationship With Exercise
"Running—and all sports for that matter—should be thought of as a medicine for your mind and body, not a punishment."
BY PAVLÍNA ČERNÁ PUBLISHED: MAR 21, 2023
There’s this gym I often run by that almost always has an eye-catching sign up front. During the bleak fall days, right before Thanksgiving, the cheerful advertisement was inviting people to come exercise so they could feast without guilt later. Right now, the bright-colored sign is trying to lure people in with a promise to help them get “beach bodies.” The first time around, I just rolled my eyes: Shaming people for eating is wrong, and so is creating this negative association with exercise. But the current sign made me straight-out furious. Not only is every body a beach body, but the gym is sending out a message that exercise is a tool for manipulating our body shapes, and worse, that exercise is a punishment for enjoying food. “It gives the message that you’re not good enough the way you are and that in order to be lovable, or acceptable, you need to have this perfect beach body,” says Nancy Clark M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., a sports nutritionist and author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, based in Newton, Massachusetts. This is just one of the reasons exercise feels like a chore to some people and an activity associated with negative feelings for others. So let's talk about how to break away from that mindset and make exercise a positive experience.
Get Rid of Negative Associations From Childhood
I remember in elementary school gym classes, running was used as a punishment for chatting with classmates or goofing around. We were made to run around the gym until heavy breathing took over the talking, the last one to finish often being further punished by having to put away whatever equipment we were using. Later in high school, we had to comply with a table of standardized times for various distances our teacher had in order to get a good grade. No wonder I used to hate running!
“Punishment often leads to the opposite effect, which is lack of enjoyment,” says Holly Serrao, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist based in Clifton Park, New York, who specializes in sports psychology. “We learn to see exercise and diet as short-term fixes that we can’t wait to get over with and be done with, rather than lifelong habits. In essence, what this does is set up some very unhealthy and negative lifelong associations.” Enjoying exercise means different things to different people. It’s not a one-size-fits-all; instead, it depends on personalities, backgrounds, abilities, interests, and lifestyles, Serrao says.
So don’t compare yourself to others; do what you enjoy doing. Don’t be afraid to go smaller, slower, or lighter than you think you should, and be kind to yourself in the process. Being kind includes verbal affirmations.
“The words we use affect how we think, the thoughts we think then affect how we feel, and the feelings we have affect how we behave,” Serrao says. “So it’s really important to keep that in mind when thinking about the messages we send—even at a young age—about exercise and diet, because they impact our emotional health and long-term behaviors, too.”
What you want to do, Serrao suggests, is:
Find ways to enjoy healthy habits and ways to make them realistic enough to incorporate into your everyday life.
Using words like “have to” or “should” when it comes to exercise makes it feel like an obligation or punishment right off the bat. Switch to phrases like “it would be nice to” or “I’m lucky I get to” instead.
Don’t Use Exercise to Punish Yourself for Eating
Speaking of our diets, negative childhood associations in need of fixing don’t include only exercise, but also food. Adults often use food as a reward or a punishment with kids.
“If you do something well—even as a toddler learning to potty train—you get a ‘treat.’ If you do something wrong, ‘no dessert tonight,’” Serrao says. “This often, sadly, carries over into the athletic world where we’re measured and weighed and told to cut back on certain foods or cut calories in order to ‘perform better’ or to be looked at as a ‘real athlete’ with more respect.”
Despite what the fitness industry pushes onto us, exercise may not equate to losing body fat. “Creating an energy deficit is how you lose fat, and exercise can contribute to that discipline,” Clark says. A study published last year agreed that exercise—especially on its own—is not the best way to change body composition. But a food deficit can work against you as well. “If you’re more than 300 calories in deficit during the majority of your day, your metabolic rate slows down, and that’s really counterproductive if weight loss is your goal,” Clark adds. “You want to fuel by day and then eat a little bit less at dinnertime and while snacking in the evening. Then you can lose weight when you’re sleeping. The goal is to wake up ready for breakfast.” Think of food as a source of energy. At the same time, though, consider foods that bring you enjoyment and don’t cut them out. “There’s no good food or bad food—an apple is good food, but a diet of only apples is a very bad diet,” Clark says. “Similarly, there’s no junk food, but there’s a junk diet. So we’re looking at balance, we’re looking at moderation.”
Here’s what Clark recommends to create healthier eating habits:
Work with a registered dietitian who’ll help you come up with a food plan you’re willing to follow longterm. You should never start a diet you don’t want to maintain for the rest of your life; otherwise you’re in food “jail.”
Be intuitive and honor hunger signals. Hunger is a simple request for fuel. The overall goal is to be at peace with food, and at peace with your body.
Beware of Unhealthy Exercise Obsession
We talked a lot about exercise being seen in the unfavorable light, but on the opposite side of the spectrum is exercising obsessively, to the point where you push through pain and stop listening to your body’s needs. That’s where exercise addiction starts.
“Exercise addiction is a means of escape behaviors behind which one can hide without social prejudice, in contrast to alcohol and drugs,” says Attila Szabó, Ph.D., an exercise addiction researcher. “While this form of self-induced pain relief or escape is masochistic because it requires time and exhaustive physical energy, this investment and the delayed reward, instead of instant gratification by certain substances, is a mental reassurance for maintaining the social image.” Because exercise addiction is subjective, it’s difficult to diagnose. The line is where the exercise controls the individual rather than vice-versa, Szabó says. And the loss of control can lead, among other things, to injuries.
To find positive associations with exercise. Szabó shared these tips with me:
Recognize the point where exercise is no longer pleasurable and be disciplined to say to yourself “I love my body” or “I respect my body” and stop at that point—that’s a winning stage in fighting or preventing exercise addiction.
Exercise is a good thing that makes you feel good about yourself and in social settings, makes you feel good with others, so look for the joy of exercising and plant in your mind that despite the “no pain, no gain” principle for some, there is a limit where the pain hurts your body more than your mind, and instead of helping you it will handicap you sooner or later.
Think of Movement as a Reward
Having a positive attitude about exercise is key. Running can help you live longer, reduce stress and make you happier, and that’s not even listing all the benefits. Running—and all sports for that matter—should be thought of as a medicine for your mind and body, not a punishment. Celebrate your body for what it can do for you. Enjoy all the movement and enjoy all the food— and let go of any shame, thoughts of punishment, and negative associations. You’re perfect the way you are.
PAV L Í N A Č E R N Á As newsletters editor, Pavlína Černá is the person behind all membership emails sent on behalf of Runner's World, Bicycling, and Popular Mechanics. When she doesn't edit, she writes; when she doesn't write, she reads or translates. In whatever time she has left, you can find her outside running, roller-skating, or riding to the beat of one of the many audiobooks on her TBL list.
[Courtney Dauwalter's]strategy includes a flexible training plan that allows for rest days, spontaneous runs, and a mindset that focuses on the joy of the movement...By embracing the childlike joy of running and simplifying our approach to training, we may find that the movement becomes more meaningful and enjoyable...Focusing on her breathing or looking at the trail where she’s headed can bring peace in trying moments...It really can be just you out in nature with the sound of your breathing and footsteps, rolling with the terrain at whatever pace feels good that day"
“So, I play the numbers game to find a way to say my life has just begun."
“...Don't stop this train, Don't for a minute change the place you're in, and don't think I couldn't ever understand, I tried my hand"- John Mayer
The holiday season is usually filled with so much counting - days till Christmas, hours until the ball drops, numbers on the scale we are told to lose after the New Year. In our family, it’s also the time of year when both of my children (and myself and husband and now our dog) were born, so it can feel like, for 2 months straight, we are inundated with numbers and dates and counting.
But if I really think about it, the fixation with numbers & counting has been there for me since childhood, far outside of the holiday season. I remember as a kid, feeling if I tapped my foot three times on one side, I’d need to tap the same on other side - because that surely meant good things would happen and bad things wouldn't. I’d count down the number of days until an important event and then, during that event, the number of days (or hours) until it was over. I used to obsessively think about “how many more years until” when it came to certain events in my life that were important - or scary - to me... how many more years until my sister graduated high school and moved away; how many more days until summer vacation, graduation, 21st birthday; how many more days until the big test/race/etc. And as an adult, I find myself playing this “numbers game” when it comes to age…how many years could I expect to have left with my grandparents, and then my own parents, and my pets? This type of counting really threw me for a loop when our children were born premature. Both of our kids now had an assortment of different ages...gestational ages, adjusted ages, “actual” ages; we were bombarded with a whole host of new forms of measurement & statistics...milliliters of milk drunk, exact weight right after these milliliters of milk had been drunk, oxygen levels, breathing rate, temperature; and given pretty strict instructions to KEEP ON COUNTING. Until …at one very specific (and in my opinion arbitrary) point in time …when we were told in no uncertain terms to simply STOP COUNTING (because age 2 is apparently the “magic number” when your child is no longer allowed to be considered “premature”). Congratulations, based on just one number, your child is now "Normal." And if you can’t or find it hard to adjust to this…. well then clearly there must be something wrong with YOU…let’s just call it postpartum or anxiety shall we?
But how can we be expected to simply stop, and let go, when most of us have been trained and programmed for so long (not only through the experience of prematurity) but as students, athletes, employees - to navigate our lives around such numbers? For so many of us, certain numbers and measurements have formed the backdrop of how we are taught to live our lives and even measure our self-worth. Grades, scores, times, heights, weights, "normal curves" are all what we are taught to use to determine if we are “acceptable,” capable of “fitting in" and hence, functioning well in the world around us. Humans are a social species, we want to fit in, and if it means crunching the numbers to do it, then you better believe we will. So, these numbers were not only forced upon my own family from the moment our babies entered the world early (and told that basically our children's lives, and hence our own lives, depended on them); they have been reinforced for ALL of us since the moments we were all born. By the time we are adults, the neural grooves have already been worn down pretty well, and the pathways programmed and familiar.
Recently, I have found myself wondering more and more about not only WHY this is the case, but also IF I even want it to be the case anymore in my life. True, in one sense, numbers provide very useful standards of measurement – a way of making sense of and organizing such a complex world and varied mix of people within it. And in another sense, from a scientific standpoint, these numbers and measurements allow us to conduct the research and form the theories that quite literally save lives. But beyond that, and even within that, must we always hold onto them so rigidly? For myself, I've realized I hang on to some of these numbers and attachment to counting and measuring to provide a sense of comfort, and even false sense of control, in a world in which I realize we sometimes have very little. Take our dog, for example; we were never given his definite age when he was adopted– the foster said one thing, the vet said another, and we had our own opinions. So, I found myself constantly recounting and renegotiating the numbers until a found a suitable age range that we could expect him to live until. The truth was, I was just so scared to lose him and hanging onto any (false) sense of control that might make me feel better. And I think this is, in a sense, what numbers have done and have represented to me (and maybe to all of us) at times – a false sense of comfort and control in a world in which we might have very little. But despite perhaps the immediate or short-term sense of comfort these numbers provided me, left in its wake have also been a whole host of other side effects that were not helpful for me in other ways - anxiety, rigidity, detachment, competitiveness.
So, I have made the decision to take a step back from it all. And I’ve noticed that this decision has instead brought a myriad of health benefits for me - both mentally and physically. Greater feelings of freedom, acceptance of and allowance to be more myself…and allowance for my children (and dogs!) to do the same. Greater appreciation for the things that aren’t measurable or even tangible – quite literally “stopping to smell the roses,” and greater acceptance of the things/changes/aspects of life that are not within my control – one of those being death. Being officially “released” from the world of academia, competitive sports, and even prematurity has made it somewhat easier. But it’s still hard. For example, when I recently attempted to re-enter the world of competitive racing, I quickly found myself being tempted to dive right back in again. And when I noticed the unnecessary stress, and strain, and comparison and rigidity this brought back, I had to make a pretty conscious effort to pull back again.
So, perhaps we can all take a look at our lives, see how deeply these number grooves have been worn into our brains, and decide whether it could be helpful to let some grass grow in over them and start forging some new paths instead...or even start traveling where there is no path at all. I have noticed in my own life, that there needs to be more of a balance between the counting and calculating….and the “just being.” I do best when I learn to “zoom out” and take a look at the areas where I do find myself gripping too hard, attaching too tightly, or basing a disproportionate amount of my self-worth on certain (often arbitrary) standards. Things like taking up a regular meditation practice; incorporating mindfulness into our regular everyday activities; noticing those tempting, habitual, numbers-driven thoughts and gently steering away from them & replacing them with other thoughts or phrases or focuses; treating ourselves and others with compassion, as fellow human beings and counterparts on this journey, rather than “just numbers;” and allowing ourselves to lean in and become vulnerable when all those thoughts of uncertainty and unpredictability arise, can all prove helpful. Or, in a more practical sense – run without a watch on, celebrate milestones that have nothing to do with numbers (grades, scores, even dates), and step off the scale.
My grandmother used to have a magnet on her refrigerator that said “...count your life by smiles, not tears; count your life by friendships, not years.” Lately, I've been thinking about that little magnet and seeing it less as a little cliché saying that a grandmother has on a fridge, and really as more profound words to live by. It's not the numbers on a scale, dates on the calendar, dollars in the bank account that matter most – it’s the relationships in our lives, both with ourselves and others – that truly give life meaning. And this isn’t just my opinion, science has actually used numbers to prove this! And maybe we can even go one step further, by not even “measuring our lives” or “counting our friendships” at all, but instead focusing on the quality of those friendships (and other things in our lives), rather than the quantity, and putting more practice into the feelings rather than the counting, and the cherishing rather than the measuring. Because, in the end (whatever the age, date, or time that comes) will we really be thinking or want to be thinking, “Wow I can’t believe she managed to weigh X lbs. up until the very end. " Or, “82 ½…. she would have been so much more worthwhile if she had made it to 83?” Or “Gosh, we would have loved him/her so much more if only she/he could have kept running those times from college or finished that one race in just a minute faster or made just a few thousand dollars more each year." Can any of us not laugh (or maybe even cry just a little) imagining this?
And besides, what do we have to lose? If I'm being really honest with myself, no amount of counting, estimating or predicting in the world has ever really cushioned the blow of losing someone I love. But neither could it also have shown me or allowed me to predict some truly amazing things that have happened in life as well - seeing the healthy and wonderful unique human beings my children have turned into (not matter what their age - adjusted or "actual"), or experiencing how it feels to be running, watch-free, down a path in the redwood forests. It can be humbling (and a bit scary) to realize we have so little control – and that numbers on a scale, scores on a test, time at the finish line really mean so little in the grand scheme of things and to so much else on this planet. But it can also be freeing and liberating to let go - or to at least practice trying to - even if it’s just for a moment at a time, to breathe in the fresh air, feel the fall sun on our faces, listen to our children’s laughter or feel the warmth and closeness of those we love around us - without once looking at the clock.
I’ve had people give (usually unsolicited) advice to take time “off” form exercising while on vacation. But exercise doesn’t have to feel like a chore…something you need to take time “off” from in order to enjoy yourself on vacation. It actually usually adds to my enjoyment of a trip - gives me some time to myself (when I might be with family non-stop), helps relieve stress (yes, even vacations have some) & allows to me explore & experience the places we visit in a whole different way - sometimes even seeing sites I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Exercising while traveling doesn’t have to be rigid - it doesn’t have to mean sticking to the exact workout plan you do at home, running the exact amount of mileage you’re “supposed to,” sticking to a strict diet plan - if we did it that way maybe it would feel like a chore & be stressful (& stress out those around us!) Exercise can be fun & functional - These past 10 days in Italy I walked miles around new cities, hiked at a National park, ran among the Apennine mts, stumbled upon a random weight lifting station by the Adriatic Sea and brought my bands & did some modified workouts (compliments of @bwellandfitwithanna). If we allow ourselves to be flexible & adaptive, exercising can actually add to an experience rather than take away from it - & maybe that’s a good lesson to have for most things in life
A Parent’s Guide to a Successful Holiday Run Streak
How do you keep logging the miles during the #RWRunStreak when the light is fading, the responsibilities piling high with parenthood, and your time slipping away?
BY JENNIFER ACKERPUBLISHED: NOV 16, 2022
Some say it’s the most wonderful time of the year—glowing lights, comfort food, and getting together with family and friends. And if you have children, you can probably count on adding more to your calendar—from concerts and baking cookies, to class parties and festivities around town. There’s often little time left for things like, ahem, running. In a recent Runner’s World survey taken on social media, 90% of respondents surveyed said that, as parents, they have challenges fitting in a run, and 71% of respondents said that, over the holidays, they find managing a consistent running routine to be challenging.
Whether you’re raising toddlers or teens, let’s be honest, while this time of year is filled with lots of fun, more often than not, it isn’t filled with a lot of downtime, aka time to run. So, how do you manage to keep logging the miles during the Holiday Run Streak when the light is fading, the responsibilities piling high with parenthood, and your time slipping away?
“I think as parents, some of the regular pressures we already face—to do it all and to do it all perfectly--can become exacerbated over the holidays—the need to get everything done, get it done on time, and have it all ‘Instagram worthy,’” says psychologist Dr. Holly Serrao, Ph.D. mother of two boys, and lifelong runner who works with athletes in her practice. Add to that maintaining your personal goals, like a consistent running routine, and you may be left feeling depleted before you’ve even started.
During the holidays, Serrao says feeling stressed is common because many parents are faced with increased demands—along with still maintaining all of their regular responsibilities, and oftentimes not having an increase in resources. “We need to do our best to maintain or increase our resources with manageable, reasonable acts of self-care such as running and other forms of exercise,” she says.
And she also points out that the holidays occur during a time of year of increased sickness, waning light, and more social demands, all of which can also play into individual stress levels and overall mood.
Serrao suggests asking yourself these three questions to help manage your stress and have control of your time over the holidays.
Keep in mind that it also might be important to adjust your expectations during this time of year. “If running five miles a day every day between Thanksgiving and New Year’s does not seem realistic and adds to your stress or ‘should’ statements, it can be ok to dial it back and adjust a bit,” Serrao says.
Showing up for your kids and extended familyProfessional runner Sara Hall and mother of four adopted Ethiopian sisters, ages 12, 15, 17, and 22, says, “The way I can be the best mom to my kids is if I’m [feeling] happy and fulfilled myself. That will make me a better parent for the rest of the day. If I have things that make me come alive, and I can model to them what it looks like to do something you really love.”
Hall admits this time of year can bring its own challenges though, “on top of showing up well for my kids, I’m also trying to spend quality time with other family members. At times family members have not been supportive of me taking time to train during the holidays. But I think we can all use a break from being together all day, 24/7. I see my time running during the holidays to get a breather from the nonstop family time and sometimes process family dynamics that are playing out.”
Husband Ryan Hall says the holidays can be more challenging to squeeze in a workout but has found a way around that, “The kids are out of school and usually we are with extended family and I want to be present for all the holiday activities. I almost always train early in the morning over the holidays. I enjoy the day more if I have already gotten in my workout.”
Shortening your workouts for consistencyHall says having a home gym, prioritizing sleep, and utilizing small increments of time are important to successful training. “Early training is key but that requires going to bed early as well, otherwise you are going to fry yourself. Also, I think people under-value little hits of training in just 20-minute blocks. Getting in a 20-minute run or lift versus taking the day off makes a huge difference. To be consistent you have to make it really easy to be consistent.”
Which is why he’s a fan of the 20-minute workout. Last year Hall trained for a challenge that involved running to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, with two empty seven-gallon water jugs, and then filling them up with water and farmer carrying them (weighing roughly 140 pounds total) up the canyon for 10 kilometers and over 5,000 feet of elevation. “The only specific training I did for this challenge was doing 20-minute farmer carries every other day. But I was consistent… because I could never come up with an excuse for why I couldn’t fit in 20 minutes of training.”
Share your goals with your kidsSara Vaughn, professional runner and mother of four children ages 16,12, seven, and three says, “it feels like a selfish endeavor sometimes to train for a marathon or whatever the goal may be, and how I’ve dealt with that is I’ve just literally brought my family into it.”
Vaughn says sharing her goals with her kids and what she’s working toward, brings them on board, “and actually they encourage me; they’re more forgiving and understanding. And I just tend to get more done when I loop them in on what we’re working towards and make it like a common goal for us.”
Vaughn’s children support her by decorating her water bottles and have helped her get her running gear ready the night before. “If I even say out loud at dinner like after this I have to go get my second run done. I’m four miles short on the week, and I kinda don’t feel like it. My kids will go get my shoes, put them by the door, go get my watch, give me a water bottle and be like ‘come on Mom, get it done,’ so they become little cheerleaders too. And your accountability factor is awesome when you share your goals.” And Vaughn’s 12-year-old now rides an E-bike so enjoys logging a few miles alongside Mom.
Sneak away when you canDuring the holidays Vaughn says she takes advantage of having a houseful of family. “We’ve got a big family and we have a big extended family too. So for me, I’ve always tried to take advantage of that—if we have grandparents visiting or even aunts and uncles... it’s like free built-in babysitting whether they were planning on it or not. And I know that sneaking out for 30 minutes and letting them spend some time with the kids is better for everybody. I can come back refreshed and ready to tackle the turkey or whatever I have going on.”
Slow down and practice mindfulnessSerrao encourages runners to take the time to stop and take everything in, rather than rushing through the season at a frantic pace. And says to remind yourself to just be in the moment. So, next time you’re out for a run working to maintain your streak, take it all in and remember why you’re doing it in the first place.
It’s a hectic time of year, but it can also be special if you slow down to notice. “While you are out for a run, feel the cold air on your face, the blood pumping through your body, and smell the fireplaces from your neighbor’s houses as you pass by rather than just rushing. Mindfulness allows us to stop, increase our resources, decrease our demands—even just for a moment and contributes to so many aspects of our health and wellbeing,” she says. And when the run is over, don’t forget to take that mindfulness back home with you.