Running: the addictive exercise
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Running: the addictive exercise

Self-help books may not tell you this, but running outdoors can be stress-relieving and very addictive. Running addicts describe the exercise as a 'zenned-out' feeling. Time you junk the gym and take to that neighbourhood park?

brunch Updated: Mar 22, 2014 19:21 IST
Parul Khanna
Parul Khanna
Hindustan Times

You must have spotted them, sprinting in parks, oblivious to the hustle and bustle around them, or navigating treacherous traffic on the road. Did you, too, struggle to comprehend why anyone would leave the comfort of their home and run for hours on end? Or, if weight loss was what they wanted, why they didn't just stick to the confines of a gym?

Is it because running is as addictive to a runner as opium is to a drug user? "When I run, I can totally zone out," says Airtel Half Marathon runner JK Rajan, who has a corporate job and loves pounding the pavement because of the meditative quality of the sport. "I start with 10,000 thoughts in my head and struggle with my stamina, but once I gain momentum, it's just me and the run. By the end of it, I've completely Zenned myself out," he says.

The 'Zenned-out' feeling is what is making outdoor running (conquering different terrain and weather) an increasingly popular activity across the world. More and more people are participating in marathons and maintaining running blogs. Some mainstream international newspapers have dedicated blogs to the tribe. Why are people so hooked to the sport?

Quite like meditation

Professional and amateur runners usually begin with wanting to lose weight, but keep at it when they see quick results and experience the mental health benefits, says Shiba Mehra, senior trainer at Reebok Running Squad. Another reason is the egalitarian nature of running. "Anybody can run," points out Arun Bhardwaj, India's first ultramarathon runner and an Adidas athlete. Running has been equated with meditation. "The brain and body become oxygenated. It's like opening a window in a stuffy room. This implies you will have more energy to approach life with a more positive perspective," adds Eoin Finn, an internationally renowned athlete and yogi. The distractions of all the busy thoughts are replaced by the simplicity of inhalation and exhalation, one foot in front of another, and there's a lot of peace and clarity that comes from that.

It's Addictive

Most people who discover the benefits of running (including the Zen zone) remain runners for life. They'll regale friends with stories of how, on an outstation trip, they squeezed in time and went for a run, even if it was 3pm, and how running shoes (bought after much deliberation) are their constant companions. "You never know when you can squeeze in time for a sprint, so I keep them in the car, always," says Radhika Shaj, 33, a software professional whose work requires her to travel overseas.

Finn says the sport's stress-relieving abilities are addictive. "We are overwhelmed by our massive 'to-do' lists. When we are running, the world becomes so simple, just one foot in front of the other. Running feels so good!" he says. "And then it's our natural human tendency to want more of what feels good." Celebrated author Haruki Murakami explained his relationship with running in an interview with a German magazine: "Everything I think while running is subordinate to the process. The thoughts that impose themselves on me while running are like light gusts of wind - they appear all of a sudden, disappear again and change nothing."

Trainers reiterate that nothing is easier than to visualise and work towards a distance run in a certain amount of time. It's motivating to the point of being addictive.

Set moderate goals if running is a new pursuit for you. After you've kept at it for a while, slowly increase either the time spent running and/or the intensity.

Running feels better when you aren't overweight as there's less stress on the joints.

Start with good footwear that supports your arches. Learn not to run flat-footed, use spring with every step. Do not land onto the outer or inner edge of your foot as this can lead to knee pain.

Learn how to use the transversus abdominis muscles and the diaphragm to create support in the lower back to minimise compression.

It is important to sometimes give in to the body's feedback, as in the case of sore joints. If your knees or back hurt, avoid taking a painkiller and pushing on as that will only aggravate matters. Until your joint pain disappears, just walk.

Seek advice from a kinesiologist (someone who studies human movement) or a running coach about ways to improve your running technique.

Don't run long distances if your body starts hurting. Running should make you feel good and be a sustainable pursuit.

Remember to stretch before and after running. Enjoy your breathing. Run for shorter distances at first. People with knee or back pain should avoid running.

Metaphor for life

"I took up running to be an inspiration for my kids, to show them that once you go all in, you can succeed at anything," says Bhardwaj.

Running is more about the mind than the body. Runners start equating it with life. They claim that the moment you have control over one, the other follows. Running experts say that training the body to follow the goals set by the mind (no matter how much the legs hurt or stamina runs out) has bigger benefits. Training both to work with the other gives important lessons about getting past challenges in life.

Finn further explains this connection: "You push yourself against your body. You learn to achieve goals. Running is a great way to increase mental drive. What we learn on the road or on the trail can be applied to life."

Rahul Singh, a journalist, says that like a supportive partner, running helped him through tough times. After losing a relative, he decided to run a half marathon, and found it a great outlet for his grief. Singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette has said that being a runner "has made being depressed impossible. If ever I'm going through something emotional and just go outside for a run, you can rest assured that I'll come back with clarity and empowerment."

Follow @ParulKhannaa on Twitter

From HT Brunch, March 23

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First Published: Mar 22, 2014 14:20 IST