Let’s face it, it’s been a rough year. With the sudden passing of iconic artists like David Bowie and Prince as well as a heated presidential election, it might not be so difficult to say goodbye to 2016. The human spirit can spiral downward quickly, and it’s up to us to use the tools we have – like running – to bring it back up. While stepping onto the trail might help boost our mood, it doesn’t always help us reboot after a major blow. As we head into the holiday season there are some other ways to offset anxiety, and keep our feet and hearts a little lighter on the trails.
The mental stress of training for ultramarathons can be tough. Getting specific workouts in each week can wreak havoc on a runner trying to balance family, work and life. Fortunately, recent studies on the practice of meditation have shown that implementing mindfulness for less than an hour each day changes the brain by thickening the regions responsible for memory, emotional regulation, empathy and compassion. The part of the brain responsible for anxiety and stress actually shrunk during the study. Neuroscientist Sara Lazar said, “Mindfulness is just like exercise. It’s a form of mental exercise, really. And just as exercise increases health, helps us handle stress better and promotes longevity, meditation purports to confer some of those same benefits.”
Quieting the mind means turning off distractions. Social media has become a place for athletes like ultrarunners to encourage one another, helping to form a tightly-bound community on and off the trails. But there are times when taking a break from social media, running apps and even GPS devices can reset a mind in desperate need of space. Getting caught up in our widely connected world can push us into overdrive in a very short period of time. Apps like Strava keep runners connected but competitive without stepping a foot onto the starting line, which doesn’t leave much down time. Mentioned on Singletracks.com (about Strava), “The social network is built around the idea of tracking your fitness progress and challenging friends (and even strangers), which makes the whole thing pretty addictive for a lot of (runners).” Putting yourself on a technology “elimination diet” can help reveal which technology magnet might be causing the most interruption.
Speaking of diet, do you remember what you ate today? Or how many cups of coffee you consumed with that blueberry muffin? Stressful times can cause us to slide down a slippery slope when it comes to food consumption. As ultrarunners, the likelihood is that most of us are consuming a lot of calories throughout the day. Adding in extra fruits and vegetables can keep our mood (and gut) regulated so that sudden spikes of adrenaline caused by anxious situations don’t overwhelm the central nervous system. Consistency is the key to keeping our bodies fueled, which means eating regular, healthy meals, and watching our caffeine and alcohol intake.
As we wind down from an emotional year, take extra care of yourself and pay attention to your needs as an ultrarunner. If you prefer to “run out” your stress on the trails, try to implement a few minutes of mindful meditation for additional clarity. Giving yourself a week or two off of social media might enlighten you to start playing the guitar in the corner collecting dust. In a world so full of conversation and constant chatter, sometimes it helps to step into the quiet for a bit and listen.