Sunday afternoon found me not only doing my second run of the day, but also steadily ramping up the pace. By the time I reached the fourth mile, I had clearly made it a progression workout but hadn’t yet fully scratched the itch I was feeling. I decided to set a goal for my final mile that I knew would make me suffer a bit. Halfway through it, when my breathing got ragged and my legs started to balk, I considered backing off. But I didn’t; I needed this. At this moment in time, I needed to hurt.
Over the years, one of the best explanations I have found for the appeal of running hard—of pushing ourselves over the edge of discomfort—comes from Francis Fukayama’s book The End of History and the Last Man. Fukayama argues that despite living in a modern, cushy world with few hardships, there remains a side to us that needs difficulty, a side that “deliberately seeks out struggle and sacrifice, that tries to prove that the self is something better and higher than a fearful, needy, instinctual, physically determined animal.” For those who feel the pull of this desire, “…the pain will be the only way they have of proving definitively that they can think well of themselves, that they remain human beings.”
In a world with few threats, it makes sense that a race or a hard workout serves as a substitute for the battles of survival we’re wired to fight. When I choose to hurt, I get to prove that I don’t always take the path of least resistance, that my actions are more than instincts, that I can choose a goal and stick to it—even when it gets difficult or painful.
Today, in the midst of a global pandemic, it seems that we wouldn’t need that substitute. Aren’t there enough real threats and battles to fight? It can feel like running is frivolous, that we need to reserve that strength and effort so we can meet the enemy on the barricades and protect those we love. But there are no barricades to storm, and few fights for most of us to throw ourselves into. Instead, our bodies are stockpiling fight-or-flight hormones with nowhere to spend them as we feel increasingly impotent to act or control anything in our lives.
Hence, I found myself pushing into a bit of pain—not so much that it would exhaust me and reduce my immune system, but enough that it required a persistent choice to maintain the chosen path. Enough that when I finished, and hit the split on the final mile, I felt good about myself—more capable, more free, more fully human. And, more prepared for facing the current crisis whatever form that fight may take, having flexed my willpower muscles and found them strong and ready.
Besides affirming that my soul was intact, going hard also delivered emotional benefits. As I focused on going fast, the challenge filled my mental bandwidth enough that I was incapable of thinking of much else. For a few moments, what I needed to do became clear and simple: keep my legs turning over this fast for another five minutes. All the rest of the noise—along with its fear and anxiety—disappeared. And, as I focused my energy toward this clear task and found I had the mental and physical reserves to achieve it, the struggle turned to confidence.
What is more, that confidence remained throughout the day. In Running is My Therapy, author Scott Douglas describes how running reduces anxiety, not only when we’re active, but also as an ongoing state. In one study, Douglas reports, subjects who sat peacefully for 30 minutes and those who exercised for 30 minutes both experienced reduced anxiety, but, when shown disturbing photos afterwards, anxiety only remained low among those who exercised. “Having recently finished a workout appeared to give them a bulwark against emotional manipulation,” Douglas writes. I’ve described that post-worked calm as a feeling of being flushed clean, as if a firehose had sprayed out all the dust and cobwebs, leaving clarity and perspective. Any run has some effect, a hard one multiplies the magic for me.
Your situation and needs may be entirely different. Each of us reacts differently to different training stimulus, each of us has to deal with this novel crisis as best we can. For you, pushing into pain may add stress, not relieve it, and more stress—physical, mental, or emotional—is not what any of us needs now.
But if you’re feeling the need for speed, know you are not alone. In much of the country now, you can’t meet your training buddies for Tuesday night track, but stay-at-home orders generally specify that outdoor activity—with social distancing—is an approved essential.
So, our speed work must become solo and remote, which has its distinct rewards. Running hard away from the track frees you to focus on effort away from the stress of measurement. As Olympian and masters champion Colleen De Reuck told me when I was interviewing lifetime competitors for Run Strong, Stay Hungry, “I find a lot of pressure, if you’re going to do track work, and you’re doing half-mile repeats, and you’ve got to get them on the time—I’d rather just go 3 minutes on the trail or the bike paths and run on my efforts.”
Gary Allen, another lifelong runner, takes it one more step and removes the planned workout, instead running hard when he feels like going hard. Tying yourself to a schedule, he says, sometimes sets you up to fail. “If the schedule says 10 x 800 in under 2:30 and you don’t hit that, you’ve set up a failure point, you didn’t do well,” he said. “Whereas if I’m running on a Thursday and my legs are clicking, this feels effortless—and suddenly I do 10 x 800 in a run, it is like a gift, it is a success point.”
This no-pressure speed seems particularly appropriate in this time, when we’re not training “for” anything but life in this unexpected and uncertain off-season. It doesn’t mean we can’t do workouts—be they progression runs, fartleks, short hills, tempo runs, or intervals by time—but we can do them as we want, when our bodies tell us what they need and are ready to handle. As in all off-seasons, we need to keep either the intensity moderate or the volume low, so that we are maintaining and gradually building fitness—not pushing to, or over, a peak. This is particularly true during this pandemic off-season with the need to keep a reserve ready to fight disease.
Wherever you are sweating this week, even though you’re doing it by yourself, you are not alone. Across the world are others, like you, who are affirming that they are human, that they have the will to choose the difficult path and survive. And, when you finish and are panting in a happy glow of satisfaction, raise one hand and feel the high five from the community of runners alongside you in spirit.