I never played sports in school, and I was never one for exercise as a child and pre-teen. However, now that I look back on all that running has taught me, I understand the benefits of sports. They’re not just about being active and getting outside — they’re about the lessons you learn along the way.
Running has made me a stronger person and taught me more about who I truly am. It’s the same for countless other athletes, whatever their sports may be.
I believe running teaches you different lessons than other sports, though. For many adults, running is a solo sport. Even if they run with clubs, groups or friends, they ultimately rely on themselves to get out of their doors and cross finish lines. While team sports have the ability to teach many life lessons as well, running has its own unique set. Here are my top five:
1. How to work toward a goal
There’s no quick-fix if you want to run a race: you have to train for it. And training takes months and months, especially if you have little to no experience running.
When you start training for a race, it can seem like there’s no end in sight. It’s hard to find the stamina to wake up before dawn on weekends in order to complete long runs, and it’s sad having to say no to plans with friends the nights before those runs. It’s difficult to maintain strength training and mobility routines on days when you’re tired and just want to veg out on the couch. It’s mentally exhausting to run multiple days a week in all types of weather and moods.
However, it’s this harrowing journey leading up to a race that teaches you about grit, determination and perseverance. Suddenly, taking the GRE and applying to graduate school doesn’t seem quite as daunting. Neither does working toward a higher position, bonus or raise at work. Getting pregnant and starting a family? No sweat. Buying and renovating a fixer-upper home? Easy peasy. You were able to run a marathon, so nothing else can be that formidable.
2. How to find confidence
Many runners sign up for races thinking they’ll never be able to run more than a few miles in a row, but somehow they do. They never think they’ll cross the finish line at a half-marathon, find the stamina to run in the 90 percent humidity or even learn how to eat food while running, but they do.
They learn to trust that anything — running or life related — is possible as long as they put their minds and all of their effort into it. They learn to be confident in themselves and their abilities.
So often, running is more mentally than physically challenging, so when you have the confidence to overcome the mental roadblocks running can put in your path, the physical aspects of the sport become only minor roadblocks. That’s when it gets even better: once immense life roadblocks become only trivial matters.
3. How to fail
This is a lesson running has taught me too many times in the past year. I trained for a marathon, got injured and never made it the start line. Then I rehabbed, trained for a half-marathon, got injured again and didn’t make it to the start line. Through these injuries, I’ve learned that I can fail miserably or I can fail with grace. The former is a terrible experience. It involves tears, negative thoughts, feelings of depression and the desire to quit running forever. The latter has made me a smarter, stronger runner because it taught me to listen to my body, tailor my training plans to my needs, and not let my Type-A personality and anxiety take over to where running becomes the sole center of my life.
Now when I mess up at work, botch a meal or damage a costly possession, it doesn’t matter as much as it used to because I know how to fail with grace. I know how to learn from a negative experience and move on, without beating myself up.
4. How to succeed
This is definitely more enjoyable than learning how to fail, but it still requires the same humility that failing gracefully requires. That’s because success isn’t always repeatable, and if we put too much stock in our successes, nothing else will ever compare. Maybe you scored a personal best on a race but can’t achieve anywhere near it for your following races. That doesn’t make the following races a waste of your time. Maybe you qualified for the Boston Marathon but still aren’t chosen because you only barely qualified. That doesn’t make the skills you acquired and the times you were able to achieve any less beneficial. Maybe you ran a marathon but had to miss your next race due to an injury. That doesn’t make the process that led up to that injury any less important of a journey for you as an athlete.
Success, and reaching our goals, fills us with feelings of joy and elation. However, it’s important to remember that those feelings fade fast. We have to learn how to conjure them back up during times of failure to truly make them worthwhile, and we have to learn that success won’t always happen. It’s wonderful when it does, but we can’t expect it every time.
5. How to rely on yourself
Besides my dogs jumping up on the bed when my alarm rings, no one forces me out of bed on Saturday mornings to complete my long runs. Likewise, no one makes me change into running clothes and hit the pavement or trails after work. There’s no one calling me if I don’t show up to CrossFit to complete my weekly strength training. My foam roller doesn’t roll itself under my body without me there to guide it along. I would never successfully train for and run races if it weren’t for me.
While getting married young has given me a husband to shoulder adult responsibilities with, there’s no one to share in the responsibilities of training for a race. My loved ones will always be there to support me, but they’re not going to get me to the start line of a race. I alone am solely in charge of ensuring I’m prepared.
What has running taught you? Have you learned anything new from the sport recently?