Back Outside for a Run and Getting Out of Your (Thermal and Mental) Comfort Zone

Since the weather on Tuesday seemed about right for an outdoor run, I decided to forego the treadmill and head out for a jog. I was feeling a bit apprehensive, probably because I hadn’t done a longer run outdoors in 2018. I figured that some of this apprehension related to the comfort and safety–does that sound weird?–I tend to feel when plodding along on a treadmill. In addition to a controlled, cool climate, running inside gives me easy access to water, a bathroom, and, if I’m ever feeling especially miserable, relatively easy access to someplace where I can stretch out and recover. This shouldn’t be a big deal, I thought, since I had enjoyed getting outside and getting going in the not-so-distant past. So, what was the hold up?

I started to realize that I was anxious not because of the daunting task of running a handful of miles but because of the uncertainty of wondering what I would do if I was “stranded” (this is definitely too strong a word, but my anxious brain didn’t think so at the time) far from my apartment. “Come on, self,” I said, “are you REALLY going to be THAT far away and in need of something?” (I’m no tortoise, but I’m definitely not a horse or a gazelle or a deer, so it was unlikely I was going to burst out of my apartment, sprinting with blind fury until, finally coming to my senses, I would see that I had ended up dozens of miles from home base). I came to see that my apprehension was rooted in different sorts of worries. Would I overheat, run out of water, need more energy gels? What if it was simply too hard now that I had become “domesticated” by the synthetic environment of jogging on a treadmill. These concerns swirled through my head as I pondered what to do. As I came to this realization, I also thought that by simply folding like a cheap card table when this type of anxiety popped up, I was effectively “boxing myself in.” In my anxiety’s effort to keep me in whatever comfort zone it had managed to come up with, my worrying was, in a larger sense, restricting me from fully experiencing the world. I’m not saying that I willingly seek out danger when my instincts tell me not to. I’m only saying that going for a run in Pittsburgh in sunny, low-80s weather is not exactly BASE jumping or climbing Everest without supplemental oxygen.

No, I wasn’t going to let my anxiety win on this average Tuesday in mid-May. I decided to get my running gear together, plugged in with the audio version of Nike-founder Phil Knight’s memoir, filled up my water bottles, grabbed my energy gels (and a Jolly Rancher, of course!), and slathered on the sunscreen (this is a no-brainer, but please remember to do this. This applies even to those who, unlike me, don’t get burned at the beach even when lounging UNDER a beach umbrella). I headed out and got to work.

The run was certainly challenging, and I definitely complained in silence about the hills, the heat, and the uneven pavement. It was interesting to note that the challenges that I faced while running on the treadmill weren’t necessarily the challenges that I faced when jogging outside. This may be obvious, but certain difficulties stood out as unexpected. For example, as they sometimes do when I’m on the treadmill, my hamstrings and stomach weren’t bothering me. Conversely, my feet were more inflamed after my outside run than they typically are when I’m inside. On a more positive note, I remembered how much I love certain things about running outside. Smiling when you see people walking their dogs, smelling the delicious scents wafting from a bakery, glancing in a storefront, noticing a backyard garden or a house’s colorful stained glass, or, more simply, feeling the breeze and seeing the trees and the parks. You just can’t replicate this type of experience inside (though being able to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis in True Lies is, in my view, a perk of being on the treadmill).

Though moving quite a bit slower than my treadmill pace, I got through it. I didn’t love–or even like–parts of it, but I enjoyed doing it. More so than that, I enjoyed being able to put my irrational concerns aside and just give this thing a shot. If it was miserable, if I called it early and headed in, or if I didn’t go very far, it didn’t matter. What mattered at that moment was at least trying, breaking out of that box that my anxiety was seeking to build around me. Though nothing major, this run can serve as a reminder that when anxiety starts doing what it does best, you are capable of doing something—the size of what you do really doesn’t matter—to counteract it. It may just a small step (in this specific case, I guess my gesture was actually many small steps), but it’s important to make that first step.

This leads me to my last point: exercise can be a way not only of getting healthier but also of gaining self-confidence. I would even say that physical activity helps you grow as a person because you will inevitably have to push yourself and overcome a mental barrier (or several mental barriers or the same mental barriers over and over). Being able to do get over these hurdles shows you that you can be strong, that you have agency, that you can take on and push through challenges. Though running outside on a normal Tuesday in mid-May seems like an insignificant accomplishment in the grand scheme of things, little achievements and minor successes like these do add up and do help you become more confident. A Men’s Health article sums things up nicely: “self-acceptance and self-confidence look really damn good.” Indeed they do, and they look “really damn good” on me, on you, on everyone.

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