Want to Build Mental Strength? Move Your Body.

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Illustration: Moncho Massé

When I started running 14, my initial motivation was ego. After trying and failing to run with my dad, I wanted to get faster and keep up with him. I ran cross country in high school, and while I decently fast, I was a total headcase. During races, it took all the strength I had to stay in the game and not psych myself out when I felt pain or fell behind. As I got older, I learned to keep that mental piece in check, develop more toughness, and set reasonable yet ambitious personal goals. For a long time, running was a way I could sweat out my stress and push my physical limits.

But in the past year, I’ve felt a shift. This past week, I finished What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. The acclaimed author started running many decades ago as a way to maintain physical health and counteract hours of stationary time spent writing. Over time, however, his perspective and purpose for running changed. After a particularly arduous ultra marathon, Murakami’s enthusiasm for the sport waned. He continued to train, but the sense of joy and accomplishment he felt when racing diminished. It took several years for that feeling to return.

So many of Murakami’s insights mirror my own relationship with running. In the past year, I experienced a running burnout where I was no longer interested in racing or training. Several years of running marathons coupled with a hectic work schedule left me feeling exhausted and unfocused. And yet I realized that without that consistent physical practice, my mental toughness started to slip. I never fully burned off the day’s stress, so I internalized it. This stress took up so much space that I felt disconnected from my body. When I needed to make decisions, I couldn’t check in with my gut anymore. As it turns out, regular exercise builds as much physical as mental strength.
At the beginning of 2018, I wanted to mentally get back in the game. I started doing yoga every morning. After about a month, I introduced a bodyweight strength routine. And today, for the first time in several weeks, I went for a run. Not only have I noticed my body getting stronger, but I feel calmer, more focused, and able to redirect my attention when I get distracted. In the midst of all this change, I’ve had an easier time checking in with my body and getting in tune with my gut. I have a tendency to gut through things because I think they’ll make me stronger, but I’m learning that things don’t have to be so hard. Sometimes ease and letting go can free up space and reconnect you with that intuition.

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