Running & Boredom & Not Being Bored
[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me how or when or why I run so much, I’d be filthy rich. Rolling in gold bars rich. Buying a yacht just to throw parties I don’t attend, serve food I’d never eat, on a sea I’ve never heard of, rich. It’s a funny thing to ask someone, since my running-so-much never usually involves anyone else. Running can be aggressively solitary, so it's odd that anyone would care how I spend my own free time. I could easily retort, “I don’t know how you sit so much.” but that would be a bit bitchy, and I try to avoid bitchiness where it is not warranted.
A common follow-up question to the I-don’t-know-how-you-run-so-much bit is, “Don’t you ever get bored?” which seems equally asinine. If all I were hoping to achieve in life were the avoidance of boredom, I would likely be a very boring, vapid, insular human. Being bored is a choice, I think, but what the fuck do I know?
Running is equal parts extreme elation, mental test, physical pain, and boredom. There, I said it, and I’ll say it again. About 25% of the time, running is dreadfully boring. The same loop. The same surroundings. The same left foot-right foot-left foot sequence. The same thoughts, the same rhythmic breathing. But running has taught me to embrace moments of disquietude, to tap into my own thoughts and sit with them if they’re uncomfortable, to embrace them if they are painful, to celebrate them if they are joyful. It’s a moving mediation, and I’m not saying that to be cute, I’m saying that because it’s true. If being bored is a decision, not being bored is an equally easy decision. If perspective matters, and I’m inclined to believe it does, then changing one’s mindset about running can transform the boredom into something quite special.
I’m far from the first person to liken running to meditation (Runners World argues you can and should meditate while running). Meditation is good for your body and brain: it's calming, it reduced stress, it can ease depression/anxiety, and even helps us cope with physical pain. Sometimes, an easy run at a consistent and comfortable pace can be what some like to call a "moving meditation," for a few reasons: your body isn't overly taxed, so your brain isn't focused on the physical exertion piece. If you allow your mind to wander, you often solve problems or escape negative thoughts. And finally, the simplicity of running, alongside the physicality of movement, lends itself nicely to mindlessness.
Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of the mediation app Headspace, said "Mindful running is the ability to run with a clear intention, fully connected in body and mind, free from distraction, and with an equal balance of focus and relaxation."
A study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise indicates that as little as 30 minutes of time on a treadmill can instantly lift someone's mood. Running is only boring if and when we focus too much on actually doing it, and by focusing too much on the run, we cloud our mental judgement, giving our mental power over to our bodies, our surroundings, the temperature, or any variety of factors that might be distracting us. One reason I often run without headphones is to make myself overcome the initial wall of boredom that often presents itself early on. If and when I get over that boredom, I'm able to enter the flow state that so many meditators can't shut up about. I let my mind wander. Sometimes this results in me laughing out loud, sometimes I cry, and sometimes I just blithely smile. At any rate, running always reduces my stress, improves my mood, and generally makes me a happier person.
Those new to running might encounter the wall of boredom and be kind of turned off by it. In the hopes that new runners become old runners and we collectively lower our resting heart rates, here are some tips to assuage boredom during a run and enter that illusive "flow state:"
1. Listen to music, podcasts, or books on tape.
I love moving my body and learning something new at the same time. Music is good for workouts and/or tuning out, if you must.
2. Try a new route.
If you normally run on the streets near your home, try a new trail or even just a different part of town. Running somewhere new will make a pretty routine run more interesting and fun.
3. Focus on your breathing and form.
If all else fails, turn all your attention to your breath. Giovanni Papini, a dead Italian journalist and philosopher said, "Breathing is the greatest pleasure in life." He wouldn't know (anymore), but he was incredibly right. Focusing on your breath will likely slow it down and you'll probably feel more relaxed.
Running is simultaneously complex and ridiculously simple. Complex, in that many factors can derail a good run (weather, blisters, dehydration, nutrition, location). Simple, in that it's painfully straightforward. One foot in front of another, and so on and so forth until forever. Being bored, though, is a convenient justification to avoid difficult things (like running or meditation or work or life) . Perhaps it is the simplicity of running that enables it to diffuse stress, that links running to meditation, and that lends itself nicely to boredom, if you let it.