Why Women Should Run (and why they need to have more fun doing it)
This is my response to the article “Why Women Should Not Run“.
To spare you the tedium, I’ll summarize his main point: Running is stressful. Stress contributes to weight gain. Therefore women should not run. Running will only make them fat.
Ok, I’m not going to argue that point, but I will argue with the title of the article “Why Women Should Not Run”, which very effectively got my attention and that of about 60,000 other readers.
I am a runner. I love to run. I run 35-65 miles a week depending on my mood and whether it sounds like fun or not. I am also a recovering exercise-bulimic. Which is not as odd or rare as you might think. In fact, the women in the article above are all apparently overeating and then compulsively trying to run the calories off – which is the definition of exercise bulimia. In fact, most of the long distance runners I know admit to using running as a way of managing their weight and the effects of overeating (or drinking). Exercise is considered a socially acceptable way to burn off excess calories, after all, how can doing something as wholesome and noble as sweating to work off a meal be problematic? But the truth is (as revealed by this article) sweating off your lunch is just as stressful as puking it back up.
The stress caused by exercise-bulimia is the actual problem with running, not running itself
I can attest to the fact that over-running to over-eat is a very stressful. Not only is chronically overeating emotionally and physically stressful, but over exercising with a punitive, calorie-burning attitude is a double whammy that can indeed result in a hypothyroid, depression and yes even weight gain. In college I was one of those women that went to the gym late at night (after getting up before sunrise for ski practice, studying all day, and then working minimum wage for several hours). I would pound away on the ergometer or stairmaster ticking calories off while I watched the endless barrage of CNN newsflashes overhead. Talk about stress! And just as this article points out, I never lost a pound. In all the thousands of miles that I have rowed, hiked, swum, run, skied and skated, I weigh the same today that I did when I was 18. That’s a whole lot of calorie burning, for a whole lot of nothing. . . .
I would (almost) do it all over again
My greatest wish is not that I didn’t work out so much when I was younger, but that I didn’t stress out about it so much. Because the truth is, I gained a tremendous amount of self-esteem and personal power from being fit enough to hike, run, ski and bike as far as I wanted to. Throughout my 20’s I confidently strode miles, days, weeks, even months off the beaten path. As a young woman I loved moving solo through the wilderness relying entirely on my own cultivated strengths and skills to hike 40 miles a day through canyons, rivers and glaciers. I hiked and ran myself to the ends of the earth and came face to face with myself, utterly capable and wildly self-reliant. Despite the pain and injuries I caused along the way, I wouldn’t trade-in those years for anything.
But then I was forced to
As wonderful and romantic as it all sounds, about ten years into this crazy-making calorie-burning gerbil-wheel routine I stopped. I was forced to stop. My body was in too much pain to keep going – broken, torn and tired, I was forced into a life-saving period of senescence. It totally sucked. I sought out all kinds of healing gurus, from yoga teachers to chiropractors, past-life mediums to physical therapists – anyone that could get me back on the gerbil-wheel.
Ten years passed, I lost some weight, I gained some weight, I ran a little, I yogaed a lot, I lost some weight, I gained it back, I lost it, I birthed two babies, I nursed them, carried them, lost sleep over them, gained and lost more weight, and miraculously, life went on without me having any idea how many calories I was eating or burning and miraculously, ending up at the exact same weight where I started. Hmmmm. Maybe there was an easier way.
Movement is freedom
Then my babies became girls. And I missed the feeling of freedom, the feeling of complete trust in my body and that it could take me anywhere. The feeling that I could propel myself through a 1,000 miles of wilderness, up a big wall, or over an entire continent. I missed my own independence and wildness.
So I started running again. Barefoot of course. Through the woods, over mountains, on beaches, and along the sides of gorgeous, fir-lined narrow frost-heaved Maine roads. But I made a deal with myself. I’d only run for fun. No calorie counting, no rationalized food-binges, no added stress. I had to continue eating a good, nutrient dense diet and if running impinged on my ability to dance, sing or paint, or made me grumpy at night with the girls, or kept me from having fun in any other way, I’d have to cut back. (Or take to Dance Walking through Blue Hill.)
Just because running is a perilous game doesn’t mean we need to play it safe
So how’s my experiment going? At the moment I am giving myself a C with a call to improve starting immediately. I missed out on dancing with my girl friends last night because the top of my foot hurt too much, and last weekend I ran 34 miles and couldn’t sleep Sunday night. That’s a bad sign. Too much adrenaline and cortisol in my system and I was left run down and unenthusiastic for the rest of the week. The reason for this overdoing is that I temporarily left behind my intuitive, responsive self in favor of ticking off the miles in preparation for the Pineland 50k next month. (Something my wild animal friends would never do.) Like so many women before me, I let the fear of being under-prepared keep me from being present in the moment. This lack of presence, of striving to complete a goal at all costs, causes the very same stress as calorie-counting and midnight gym sweating.
But I’m not giving up. I didn’t quit yoga when learning dropbacks hurt my back. I didn’t quit drawing when I wanted to cry over the gray lump that was supposed to be a kitten. I didn’t quit dancing when I flunked out of ballet in 3rd grade. We women are smart, evolutionary creatures. I learned to drop back gracefully and painlessly, and I can learn to run again too. Not for the sake of running, but for the sake of evolution. The question is not “am I strong enough” but rather “am I sensitive and responsive enough.” It’s a game totally worth playing, and worth getting better at.
So here’s to running happy. To feeling the sun on my face, the wind in my hair and the earth beneath my feet. To hearing the raven’s quoark, the peeper’s peep, and deep woosh of great blue heron and goshawk wings taking flight. And here’s to women being sensitive enough to play by their own rules.
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I started running 35 years ago… I wasn’t an athletic person, more bookish and I smoked! But a friend of mine got me to go with her and the first day, I ran a mile. It seemed a miracle to me! It was the old slow but steady philosophy back then. Perfectly suited to me, a tortoise. That day I was addicted to the feeling of being in my body, of empowerment, of being alive and the sound of my feet, my breathing, my heartbeat. Being outside every day, the birds, the trees, everything. I’ve continued all these years, everywhere I’ve been; the South Pacific, European and American cities, visiting friends..it’s the best way to see an area… but lookout for dogs! All these years later, I’m really slow but still steady and every day I give thanks that I can do this thing that connects me to myself and to my world. I hope you will continue to help women (and men) find their center in the body and the universe through the honest and inspiring way that you teach and live your life. Thank you!
This is a beautiful hymn to learning how to be in our bodies. It is the only one we get, and it lasts a lifetime! Working on how to live well in it, cherish it and experience the joys it brings us. Thank you Charlotte for an eloquent testimony.
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Great post! Although I never struggled with self-imposed pressure to simply “burn calories,” I can relate to what you wrote about craving that absolute freedom of movement, as well as the downsides when we do reach that tipping point. Still, it’s fun to test the potential of movement, even risking the tipping point.
LOVE this last sentence:
And here’s to women being sensitive enough to play by their own rules.
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