Running with Self-Acceptance and Discomfort

I ran my first mile this week, without stopping to rest. I did it in around 9.5 minutes. I know, one mile may not seem like much, but I have had a huge internal block around running for many years, and 2017, I decided, was the year to figure out what this obstacle was about. The self-defeating loop in my mind went something like this:

“You should be a fit enough person to go running, but you aren’t. Your cardio-vascular system is weak, so don’t try running because you will fail immediately and everyone will know that you’re out of shape.”

Once I had articulated all of this (and more) in my journal, I saw that I had a shame pattern around being “out of shape,” with my standard being, basically, a trained athlete. So if I couldn’t run like a trained athlete, I was a failure. Where did this standard come from? I don’t know. Blame the media. The idea of running also brought up unexpected self-consciousness around my body image. As a life-long dancer, I have worked through many insecurities over the years, gradually accepting and embracing what my body can and cannot do, how it looks and doesn’t look, what kinds of clothes and costumes I feel strong and free wearing. But running tripped me up. I felt unattractive and overweight, even though I normally feel confident in my body.

Naming this shame pattern on paper was emotionally uncomfortable. It felt terrible to have those feelings in me and to know that I had held onto them for so long. The closer I got to the idea of running, the stronger the feelings of shame. But because I work as a life coach now, I couldn't ignore this – I knew that these feelings were not going anywhere until I moved them through my body, until I literally ran them out of my system. Conveniently, there was an old pair of Nike’s in the back of the closet. I still needed help though, to get out the door wearing them.

My partner, Isaac, is not only unafraid of running but in fact does it on a regular basis. He is also very encouraging, but what I needed him to do in this case was not so much encourage me, but silently run next to me. He agreed to be my accountability buddy and running partner twice a week. (Free coach tip: If you are finding it difficult to get yourself to do something, no matter what it is, I highly recommend this simple and elegant strategy).

I also turned to the internet and learned the very specific difference between aerobic exercise (running) and anaerobic exercise (dancing). I have danced my entire life, which means my body is trained for short sustained bursts of intense effort. I’m actually quite good at sprinting, which, like dance, is anaerobic. My muscles are fairly strong. But an aerobic activity like distance running requires elevated levels of oxygen, and my body is not trained for that. When I run, my lungs give out long before my legs.

So like most things, I needed to accept these facts about myself rather than judge them in order to overcome this hurdle. Understanding technically where I was helped, and Isaac’s presence on those first few runs reminded me that I was accepted by him, weak lungs and all, and that made it easier for me to practice self-acceptance as we ran for 2 minutes, walked for 1 minute, ran for 3 minutes, walked for 2 minutes, along the beach path. (Tip for athletic partners of reluctant runners: wear a 20 lb weight vest to keep things interesting).

So, in the beginning, it was really, really awful. I had trouble breathing the entire time, I felt vaguely nauseous, and my diaphragm hurt. I was sweaty, and I dislike being sweaty (a lot). What I realized pretty quickly was that this was that, like sitting meditation, I needed a focal point. My mind was having an argument with itself in fast-forward: “What are you doing? Stop running. No, we said we were going to do this. Are you crazy? We can’t breathe! But we’re on the beach and it’s beautiful. Stop this madness now! I’m doing this so we can be healthy. You suck at this. Find something else to be healthy. No, we’re doing this. I hate this. I know.”

No doubt all runners have experienced similar internal shouting matches. My strategy, borrowed from meditation, was to stare at a distant object like a sign or a palm tree and repeat a two-syllable mantra in my mind, something like “in, out” that I could link to my labored breathing. Soon, I realized that rather than tolerating the emotional discomfort of shame around running, I had shifted to tolerating the the physical discomfort of running itself.

As we gradually increased the intervals (run 5 minutes, rest 2 minutes, run 7 minutes, rest 3 minutes), I began to wonder about parallels between emotional and physical discomfort.  For example, both running on a track and running my own business require stamina, taking breaks, pushing myself, and most of all being ok with feeling uncomfortable.

I have acquired a few small bits of technique in my stride, and can now run an entire mile, rest for several minutes, then run another mile. It still doesn’t feel good, but I struggle less to breathe and recover more quickly. And most importantly, I don’t feel the shame around running anymore. I no longer think that I’ve failed before I’ve even started because I’m not already good at something I’ve never done before. My body trusts my mind more now, and the inner dialogue has shifted from panic to patience. I have experienced the joyful surprise of achieving something I believed impossible. 

What I am becoming curious about, now that I have made running part of my routine, is how a practice of tolerating physical discomfort (for me, running) might translate back into more mental/emotional challenges of being self-employed and keeping space in my life for artwork. Here are three classic coaching strategies that have really crystallized for me through my running practice:

1. Don’t Think, Just Do. There is no greater way to experience this, for me, than running. When I’m sitting in meditation, there is no dramatic consequence if my mind wanders. I just let the thought go and return to focus on my breath. But on the track, if I start over-analyzing how I feel, or considering whether this was a good idea in the first place, my whole body struggles. Keeping focused on the palm tree is the way to instantly find some degree of ease in what I am doing. Since the body and the mind are one, I believe that this must also be true when I’m not running. Don’t question too much who will read the article or whether this is the best use of your time. Just write the article.

2. Avoid Distraction. Similarly, If I look left or right when I’m running, I struggle. If I change my posture at all, or watch people shaking their towels out on the beach, running gets harder. When I’m sitting at my desk, the distractions come in the form of social media, email, and text. These things not only slow down my work just like changes in posture slow down my running, but they also make me a less effective writer, worker, teacher, and CEO of “Sharna Fabiano Inc.” (not a real company). The quality and quantity of my work suffers. I need to be disciplined about screening out distractions. If I can run a mile, I can turn off the wifi.

3. Stay With It. In only 30 days, I went from running 2 minutes to running 10 minutes. I did not enjoy the process, and truthfully, I do not enjoy it now either. But I enjoy the fact that I have accomplished this goal, that on some level, I do feel that have gained some amount of cardio-vascular strength and will gain more over time. Oddly, my body has even begun to crave running. Right now, I am also at the beginning of several new projects in my professional and artistic life. They all feel wobbly and I am frequently tempted to give up on them. But I won’t, and running has given me a clear and concrete reminder that when you stick with things, they do indeed, inevitably, grow stronger.

Runners out there, what has your running taught you? Leave your stories in the comments!