How one athlete is changing the conversation around mental health.
I always wanted to be a runner. More specifically, I wanted to be fast. I never was. The only time in my life I broke seven minutes, I was 17 years old, and I think I quit track out of exhaustion almost immediately after. That was also the last and only time I had someone coaching me. Since then, nearly all attempts at “getting into running” have failed less than a mile from my house. Every time I felt the siren call of the track, trail, or pavement, I would fly out of the proverbial gates, leaving the house with the intention of knocking five miles out, only to limp back after maybe one, wondering how a fit person could cramp up so completely in ten minutes. It was clear after years of this run-cramp-give-up, I just didn’t have the discipline to become a runner.
A few years back, I picked up a different kind of training: meditation. I downloaded Headspace and was introduced via headphones to Andy Puddicombe, former monk, co-founder of the app, and essentially my (and about 24 million others’) new mindfulness coach. Meditation was not always easy, but Andy was a good coach. He explained concepts I found challenging, helped me understand and harness my anxiety, and I went from a person who was trying meditation to a full-on meditator. (So much so in fact that after five months of using the app, I started a job at Headspace.)
So when I heard Andy was recording a few guided runs with Nike Running’s Global Head Coach, Chris Bennett, I was curious. Andy had guided me through my early days of meditation, serving as my own personal worry and anxiety coach… could he be the secret sauce that made running stick?
Unless you’re an elite athlete, it’s pretty unlikely you have a coach. At best, some of us hire physical trainers (usually around January to… the end of January, oops), and we get a few tips that help us look 15% less lethargic. Trainers help impart knowledge, but a coach is meant to help you understand that knowledge, to make it part of you, to help you see the broader picture. It’s a big job, and one (if movies are any indication) that is personal and intense. But does a coach need to be present to have an impact? Does it even need to be just your coach?
Like any learning, it’s how the information is conveyed that can make or break how well we absorb it. After reading about how to get into running, I knew I was supposed to pace myself, incorporate intervals, practice recovery runs, but did I do those things? No. Reading was clearly not teaching me how to run. If I was going to be a runner, I needed someone to do more than just tell me how — so I downloaded all three of the Nike and Headspace Audio-Guided Runs.
I started with the 30-minute Run with Headspace recovery run, led by Andy and Coach Bennett. I wasn’t recovering from anything in particular, but it seemed like a safe place to start. Each of the runs kicks off with Bennett commending you for even planning to run. Then he and Andy, on this run, take turns explaining what should be happening with your body and with your mind. My tendency to, well, run immediately was tempered by their persistent requests for me to approach this run as a 3 or 4 out of my personal 10 effort. Having a coach tell me to slow down was the first time I felt like I was able to do so without being a failure to myself. As Coach Bennett said in this run, “it may take a few minutes until you feel good, it may even take a few minutes until you feel anything but sluggish and tired. Be patient … just relax and remember that you started. Hard part done.”
The beauty of these runs is the emphasis on running your pace. It’s never about running a 9-minute mile pace or an 8-minute mile pace, it’s always about running at your 3 out of 10 or your 6 out of 10. And that freedom allowed me to actually walk some of the time. And that was OK! Andy and Coach Bennett were focused on pushing you, but allowing you to choose what they pushed you to.
What stood out about each run was how warm and kind it was. On the 50-minute Mindful Miles Recovery Run with Bennett, Andy, and US Olympian Colleen Quigley, she even talks about how some days, it’s hard for her to get out of bed and lace up. And it’s her job! The constant reassurance that sometimes running is hard welcomes you, and as soon as you feel yourself succumbing to it being too hard, Bennett and Andy remind you that it’s also meant to be fun. These runs harken back to the days of playing tag. Be loose, and have fun. And I actually did.
After surprising myself by not only finishing but enjoying both recovery runs, I was willing to try the Slow Down 2 Speed Up Audio-Guided Run. On this run, Bennett and Andy guided you through intervals. I was nervous. I was comfortable running at a 5 out of my 10, but an 8? Or a 9? How was I supposed to keep running at all after essentially sprinting? But true to form, as soon as I started negotiating with myself when I could stop early, over the headphones came the truth I needed: “You know you are going to see this workout through to the end. So be confident. And be ready to run through that fatigue, that beautiful fatigue that you earn with every new stride. You want that fatigue. Running through it is how you get better.”
And I kept going.
When I interviewed Coach Bennett for Headspace’s podcast (subscribe to Radio Headspace where you get your podcasts), he proposed a question: how long do you have to run for it to count as going for a run? Is it 30 minutes? Is it a few miles? Or could just running around your block count? What about five minutes? What about just a quick jog down the drive and back?
If you ask Andy and Bennett, it all counts. If you lace up and jog or run for any amount of time, you went for a run. This seemingly innocuous qualifier changed everything for me. I hadn’t failed miserably after barely running a mile; instead, I ran almost an entire mile. I was able to see that as a beginning rather than a dead end. My thinking and my perspective (and my doubt) all changed. And now, when I get ready for sleep, I put my run clothes next to the bed. I know I’m putting my headphones in when I wake up. My coaches are waiting for me, and I’m ready.
To try the Headspace and Nike Audio-Guided Runs, download the Nike+ Run Club app here.