I started running, out of desperation. I suffered from an array of chronic health issues including migraines, and I was tired of being powerless. I read a bunch of books and they told me that exercise of a certain intensity unleashes a ton of positive health cascading effects including reducing inflammation and growing our brains.
I read those books a few years ago. It took those years for them to sink in, and for me to begrudgingly admit that I could do no worse than to try it out. I’ve also tried almost everything else, because I hated running. I used to be that kid who would cheat during the mandatory 2.4km fitness test.
But I became really tired of managing my migraines in increments. I wanted to try something that would make a radical leap. I wanted to know what it feels like to be physically fit — not the I am barely alive enough to sit around and get things done fit, but a zombie can chase me for more than a kilometre and I wouldn’t feel like dying fit.
Two months ago, if a zombie chased me I would die within a matter of seconds because I could barely run 50m without feeling like my heart was going to explode and I was going to collapse. My apple watch showed my heart rate going above 200bpm even though what I was doing could barely be labelled ‘running’. It was more like awkward moving of limbs.
Here’s what I learned after 60 days of consecutive running:
Discipline is overrated
It wasn’t discipline or brute force that got me out of the door. It was pure desperation. Years of being unwell and barely functional. Three days of being incapacitated every month. There needs to be a strong incentive to build a difficult habit. Like having a purposeful life can make people endure hard times, a difficult habit needs to have a purpose that is powerful enough to transcend primal human desires.
Each time I thought of sleeping in or being immobile on my couch, I thought about my migraines. It was the memories of my pain that propelled me through the door. That was how I begun.
The brain is stupid and smart at the same time so use it to our own advantage
Our brains are very efficient. It learns on auto-pilot even if we consciously don’t want it to. That is why we develop chronic anxiety and stress-related issues, because it is simply trying to protect us from danger by infusing us with adrenaline with the slightest trigger. Even if that trigger is simply your boss shouting at you. Your life is not in actual life-threatening danger, but your brain cannot tell the difference. Every time we experience the feeling of danger our brain registers it, and with time it tries to prepare us to flee for our lives by triggering the flight or fright response. It gets more and more efficient, so perhaps initially it took your boss physically slamming the table to induce the stress response, but over time it takes just your boss slightly raising their voice.
The good news is, we can train it the opposite way. We can deliberately put our bodies in relaxing environments or experiences for it to associate them with relaxing responses. I have consciously made my brain notice the feel-good effects after a run, so now I don’t even need to use the memory of my pain to get myself out of the door. My brain craves running now, so it is actually more difficult for me to convince myself not to run.
On a meta level, I think reading those books that extol the virtues of running was also a subliminal way of conditioning my brain to see it positively.
Running has dramatically reduced my anxiety
I used to wake up everyday feeling like the world is going to end and something terrible is going to happen to me. These days, I actually feel calm. When I do get anxious, it seems to not spiral into crippling paralysis.
This is now my biggest motivator though it wasn’t the primary motivation when I first started. My sense of aliveness is inversely proportional to the depth of anxiety I feel. I feel like I am actually experiencing life as it is now, whereas prior to running I felt like traps are waiting for me everywhere and there was a pervasive, crippling sense of dread and deadening.
Running has taught me equanimity
Running can be mostly uncomfortable. It is straining on the body and requires continuous effort. To learn how to go the distance, I learned to not place negatively-associated labels on my running experience. I learned to just put my foot one over the other while running over hills, when previously I would feel tired just looking at an oncoming hill. Discomfort is simply discomfort, it doesn’t have to be felt as a negative experience but a neutral one. I learned to focus on the present and not to have any narrative intertwined with my running. I started to appreciate the sensation of my feet meeting the ground, the knowing that my body has weight but it can now be carried across distances.
It is amazing how adaptable is the body
I went from not being able to run 50m to being able to run 5000m, in less than a month. I was very skeptical because my body has consistently failed me (on hindsight, due to my own fault). But now, I feel like running has singlehandedly changed the dynamics of the relationship between my body and me. I feel grateful for its capacity for change, and for once in my life, I feel supported, not encumbered by it.
Being able to impact our physiology consciously is tremendously empowering
It is not just absolute distances, but going from feeling like I am constantly out of breath to being able to breathe regularly and slowly while I am running is mind-blowing. It didn’t take much: simply consistency and dedication. It wasn’t like I had to learn some complicated skills. All I did was move my legs despite how uncomfortable it felt.
Previously I felt like a victim of genetic lottery, like I was born with a bad constitution. So it is tremendously empowering to know that even if I was born with a bad constitution, I could still consciously change it if I wanted to, and have the change reflected in actual data.
Being physically strong has a positive impact in other areas of life
I wish I could describe it adequately in words. Running makes me feel like the core of my body is strong, it is a visceral feeling for me. It makes my body feel alive. I feel emotionally and mentally stronger because of this sense of physical strength, as if I have grown my capacity to withstand more stress (neuroscience and psychology can back this up — tldr; hormones affect every single inch of our body and mind).
It changes the narrative of my self
I have always seen myself as physically weak. I got fatigued really easily. But now the entire story has changed. I am able to run this distance every. single. morning. I ran through my PMS, my cramps, my migraines.
I possess this will to change myself, my way of life. It seemed so unimaginable, so difficult, so impossible.
But I did it. So what else can I do?
Slow and steady wins the race
A lot of difficulty in my life results from my inability to pace myself. I tend to be fast and furious in most things I do, so I also burn out the quickest. I learned gradually that the pace I run at was not sustainable and if lasting the distance was my goal, then I had to learn how to run slowly.
I also started out just by running 2km, with at least half of it walked. I am certain that if I had set out to run further I would have failed miserably. It would have been too much stress for my untrained body. I have heard several accounts of people with their knees giving way. I didn’t even bother to try pushing myself too hard, I simply walked whenever I felt tired.
I feel like all the work I have done for myself has paid off. Do I call it self-compassion? It is the capacity to recognise my limits. To know I no longer need to measure up to some invisible yardstick. Nobody is measuring me, so who cares of I walked most of the way, as long as I fulfilled my commitment to myself to complete the set distance?
This is not the first time I have tried running in the last decade. I had always failed, because I would feel so shitty after a run that I just didn’t want to repeat the experience.
I think I am very lucky, because I moved to live opposite a park. There was an additional incentive to run, because I would be rewarded with these views:
When running got difficult I distracted myself with the views. I reminded myself to be grateful for the trees. I am painfully aware that Singapore is a very small urban city so these views are not to be taken for granted, even if most parts of it are over-manicured. But manicured nature is better than none.
The track is also nicely paved so it is a very comfortable jog. There is a lot to see even if I run the same route every morning. Which brings me to my next point…
Running at a park has made me more open-hearted
Every morning I run the same route. There are some regulars like me, but there’s always this interesting variety of sights. Like today:
Maybe for some people they cannot see what I see in these captured moments. But they consistently make me tear up and appreciate humanity. People are doing their own thing, living their lives in the way they know how. I thought I would only see certain types doing their morning exercise — mostly young yuppie fitness buffs — but everyday I see something different. Some people would smile and/or greet. Some would be playing strange music while they run. I see fit elderly on their sport bikes. People of different ethnicities doing taichi together. A woman accompanying her male partner to take pictures with his camera on a tripod around the park everyday. An elderly woman riding a bicycle in her night gown. People marvelling together at water hens. For a short period I was meditating with a stranger in a public pavilion. We would have made a strange sight, the two of us, because we couldn’t have looked more different.
Who would wake up at 7am to go to the park? It turns out: a lot of people, in their spectacular diversity.
I consider myself a misanthrope, but I realised it is very hard to remain as one running in the park everyday, simply bearing witness to humanity. It is easier to stay at home reading all these terrible stories and imagining all the stereotypes and caricatures without being around people.
It is not about measurement but to witness our own progress. I bought a chest strap and and an optical arm heart-rate monitor. Most days I run with the arm monitor but once in a while I use the chest strap for accuracy. Running with a heart-rate monitor ensures that we don’t over-exert ourselves. There is an optimal range, so I try to keep my heart rate according to that range, unless I am intentionally doing intense intervals. The heart gets stronger with exercise as well, so it is also meaningful to note that it is capable of beating slower with the same pace over time.
I also like to track my recovery rate and also my heart rate post-exercise when I meditate right after. I have also gotten a blood glucose monitor to see if running will improve my insulin response in the long-term.
I started running to become healthier, so the metrics help to make sure it is just not my pure imagination and allows me to adjust accordingly.
I hope to share longer-term trends and learnings, I’ll probably do another post at the 90-day milestone.
It did not cure my migraines, for now
I tend to have migraines post-menstruation and I did have an attack after my last cycle, which was a little more than 30 days into running. It did seem less painful than usual. I continued running, which would relieve my pain for a an hour or two during and after my run.
But if stress has made me chronically inflammed and hormonally imbalanced for many years and those are the main factors for my migraines, how long would it take to reverse them? What would it take, and would it ever?
(That’s partially why I am monitoring my blood glucose now, high blood sugar damages our blood vessels slowly and cause inflammation. Recent research shows it takes just above 85mg/dl for our fasting blood glucose to cause damage and yet medically the doctors will start treatment for diabetes at 125mg/dl or 100mg/dl for prediabetes, which means a lot of damage could be done before we receive any warning signs.)
I am not sure how long the streak would last, and I am curious about the longer-term impact of my running. I feel contented to run no more than 5km for now. I run to keep my sanity, not to compete with myself. But who knows?