I’m a big fan of team sports. You learn a lot about working with others, working for the benefit of a group instead of yourself, and even how to react in a constructive way when life deals you a bad hand (dumb ref…). I played soccer for a successful high school program, and I played club ultimate frisbee in college. Despite playing all these sports, I have always considered myself a runner at heart. When I started training for a marathon in high school, people were shocked and amazed. A lot of times the fact that I enjoy running baffles people, let alone wanting to run for three or four hours! I had a friend who was a swimmer, and one day she told me that she had to swim 200 laps at practice that morning. I asked her, “What did you think about the entire time?” She gave me a familiar response: she could not tell me what she had been thinking. That is when I began to realize, many people’s feelings about their own endurance sports are similar to my own feelings about running.
This is the obvious reason most people talk about. Picking up an endurance sport will help you lose and/or manage your weight, strengthen your lungs and heart, and reduce your chances of getting things like heart disease. In order to make sure you stay healthy when you pick up your endurance sport, do a little bit of research on how to keep a balanced diet. It is going to be important that you understand what you need to eat, and why you need to eat it. I believe a lot of people try to pick up something like running, but don’t adjust their diet for their new lifestyle and quickly run out of energy and motivation. There a few things worse than “bonking,” so be sure you are getting the right nutrition to fuel your body through the test of endurance.
If you have bad knees and you’re worried about the strain of running, look into swimming, cycling, crew, or any other activity which requires sustained exercise that doesn’t cause so much impact on your skeletal system. Here’s one of the things I have always found really awesome about an endurance sport: it is easy to see and measure progress. If you are just starting out, you will see a noticeable difference in your ability to engage in the endurance task within a few weeks. Breathing will be easier, your will feel less tired over the same distance, and one day you will just feel like going farther! You will have the ability endure. There is something beautiful and empowering in that fact.
Physiologically, endurance sports are about getting your body to a place where it can sustain activity for a long time. It is not about strength, speed, or size. Endurance activities are about Heart, literal and metaphorical. When we talk about the metaphorical Heart, what we’re really talking about is…
There are two different mental things I want to talk about: Mental Toughness and Mental Benefits. Since we were just talking about metaphorical Heart, let’s start with Toughness: physical ability is nothing without the grit to continue. At the end of the day endurance is about the choice to go on. Outward Bound runs different programs for people who are struggling with their lives, whether they are “at-risk” teens, kids who have lost a parent, or veterans struggling to re-enter civilian life. The idea is to take struggling individuals into the wilderness and challenge them. Participants are forced to endure because on the other side of the expedition lies the same life you have always had. Once you know you can endure in a world where there is nothing except the next meal and the miles you have to travel, everything else is doable. A mind which is willing to go on is far more powerful than a body which is capable of going on.
Mental Benefits: Those who do not engage in an endurance sport have no idea what they are missing. One of the things that make an activity an endurance activity is the repetition of the same movement ad infinitum. After your body has gotten used to repeated motion, and your body has built up some physical endurance, there is no reason to direct your attention to your actions. When you get to this point, your mind is given the chance to wander. When I told people I was training for a marathon, inevitably I got asked, “What do you think about while you’re running?” The truth? I couldn’t tell you. My mind goes where it needs to go, and it is a wonderful thing. I find endurance sports to be active meditation. A certain amount of focus is needed to stay in tune with your body, but other than that, your mind is free to take on whatever thoughts, ideas, or emotions are bouncing around inside of you. Personally, I find watching the scenery go by far more enjoyable and meditative than following a black line on the bottom a swimming pool. The important thing is you find your peace during your repetitions, whether they are strides, strokes, pedals, or pulls
I want to offer one caveat to the advice and thoughts I have put forth: I find the time disconnected and alone therapeutic and beneficial. I also enjoy going on runs with people I care about and having good conversations. I hardly ever run or bike with an iPod, but that is a personal preference. I know a lot of people who enjoy their time alone with their iPod to listen to music or audiobooks. I think they are a great way to help you through some of the growing pains of an endurance sport, but I highly encourage you to disconnect for a while and see where your mind takes you…you might even find you enjoy the solitude.