What running has taught me about ups and downs

A trail leading through a broken stone wall.

I don’t know about you, but I have a real challenge navigating life’s ups and downs. I am pretty good at enjoying the uptime. I consistently produce work that I am proud of and am proud of how I show up as a Dad and Husband most of the time. But I also make plenty of mistakes, and seem to be equally good at getting into a depressive funk as a result of those mistakes.

I’ve been searching for a way to reduce and eliminate my tendency to be so “up and down”, and I haven’t felt like I’ve been making much progress, but maybe I’ve been thinking about it all wrong.

Instead of trying to eliminate the tendency, perhaps I need to embrace it like I do my hobby of running (especially running in the rain). Perhaps, by treating my mistakes and the emotions that follow as part of the exercise, rather than something that shouldn’t be happening, I can actually learn something from them.

Maybe I can even find some joy in those funks.

“In the long run, painful losses may prove much more valuable than wins—those who are armed with a healthy attitude and are able to draw wisdom from every experience, “good” or “bad,” are the ones who make it down the road. They are also the ones who are happier along the way.” (Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning)

I can feel it when it’s happening. I just took out some frustration on my wife by making a snippy remark, made a judgment error at work because I was moving too fast, or I saw someone do something that I had thought of doing but now have missed the opportunity.

The feelings of self-loathing come hard-and-fast.

I can almost hear myself thinking, “Here we go, off to ride the rollercoaster again.” That’s what it often feels like, that I’m on a ride, and there isn’t much I can do.

I’m not talking about really serious things (discrimination/hate, threats to family, loss of job, etc) but the more mundane stresses of modern work and life that are often blown out-of-proportion in terms of importance but have a huge impact on daily happiness.

In short, I have a hard time coping with mistakes, both real and imagined, and I beat myself up over them often enough that it has certainly impacted areas of my work and personal life.

One of my favorite weapons to beat myself with is the following thought process:

  1. Arrgh, I’m in a bad mood and am beating myself up. I’ve been here before and said I wouldn’t come back.
  2. Yes, you’ve been here before and you still come back eh? How old are you?
  3. Not only that, but you always read books and articles by all these brilliant self-improvement gods and talented luminaries who have GIVEN YOU THE MAP to follow and you are still so shit at this? Wow.

Yeah, I’m pretty annoying to myself sometimes.

Here’s the thing that I think I have realized, though: being in this negative self-loathing cycle is going to happen, no matter what. It certainly isn’t going to help to add more negativity by thinking I should never be in this place as a well-adjusted adult.

Just like with running, I have to accept the pain that comes with the process as part of the exercise. It’s not “why am I feeling this way”, it’s “I should be feeling this way.”

The idea for this originally came from some writing by Ray Dalio where he describes how he’s learned to re-frame the experience of making mistakes from a painful one to a joyful one in the context of running:

“Just as long-distance runners push through pain to experience the pleasure of “runner’s high,” I have largely gotten past the pain of my mistake making and instead enjoy the pleasure that comes with learning from it. I believe that with practice you can change your habits and experience the same “mistake learner’s high.”” (Ray Dalio, Principles)

When you are a runner, it’s considered a badge of honor to say “I’m sore” after a hard run. It’s totally expected that you would be “taking things slow” due to an injury. It’s admirable to be “working on increasing your distance”.

The beauty of running is that the highs and lows can be celebrated almost equally. And, as Ray points out, why can’t the same be true for how you feel about yourself and the mistakes you make?

To use another sports analogy from Bill Bradley:

“Basketball discipline carries over into your life,” continuing, “You’ve got to face that you’re going to lose. Losses are part of every season, and part of life. The question is, can you adjust? It is important that you don’t get caught up in your own little defeats.” (John McPhee, What Makes a Truly Great Basketball Player?)

Losses are part of life. Instead of thinking that I have to learn how to maximize the ups and eliminate the downs, I can enjoy and be proud of them both.

Instead of running from our emotions or being swept away by their initial gusts, we should learn to sit with them, become at peace with their unique flavors, and ultimately discover deep pools of inspiration. I have found that this is a natural process. (Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning)

I have read variations on this concept of needing to be ok with the good and the bad in countless books and articles but running really allowed me to feel what it means in practice.

3 responses

  1. So what you’re saying is: the funk is going to happen, but don’t add your negativity of the funk, to the funk? I have realised that sometimes that ‘life’ overloads me and I will get the occasional day where I become dull and slow and clumsy and can’t really process anything. Took me a while to notice this about myself and then longer to be okay with it. That’s just a part of me. Let the funk just be a part of you. Explore it sometimes, but I don’t think it can be pushed away.

    1. Yeah it’s taken me a long time to realise this as well and I’m still trying to find ways to be okay about it. To that end, running is helping on multiple levels.

      Thanks for sharing. Here’s to embracing the funk!

  2. Very interesting thoughts Nick. I do not enjoy running, but I do enjoy walking, and taking a walk (especially in the woods) has been a really great coping technique for me lately, particularly at times during the pandemic, when we were feeling so cooped up in our apartment, and my kids were fighting about who knows what. Sometimes I feel a little bit bad about leaving fighting kids to figure things out for themselves (or for my wife to deal with it), but there were times where I knew if I stayed in the situation, I would just make it worse, by saying or doing something I would regret later.

    I also think that you are on to something about sports in general – I think that one of the reasons that sports (and also other games) are important, especially for children, is to learn how to lose. It is a very difficult thing to learn, but it is really important to learn in order to be a successful human being, by just about any way that you choose to measure success.

Comments welcome!

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