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Let Go of the Numbers and Just Run

Let Go of the Numbers and Just Run

Ani Freedman

There are a lot of numbers involved in running. Unfortunately, there are times when we put more value in those numbers than in ourselves. We can attach our self-worth and build an ego around paces and distances; we want to get faster and beat our times, or stack up medals and races we’ve finished, ultimately falling out of sync with our bodies and latching onto the numbers.

I’m extremely guilty of this. During a recent run, I said out loud to myself, “I need to detach my ego from my runs.” I’ve defined what my easy, every day run pace should be, and should my body need to move slower that day, I ignore what it tells me because I struggle to let go of the numbers on my watch. Regardless of poor sleep the night before, of the mental exhaustion that comes with graduate school, or of the pressure I feel from day-to-day stressors or family difficulties, I still tell myself I should be within a certain pace range. That leads to runs I don’t enjoy as much, to an even more tired body and mind, and to overworking myself when there’s no need to.

The reality is this: there is no such thing as running too slowly. In fact, slower runs lead to overall greater progress, allowing our bodies to use those slower runs to recover from strength training or faster workouts, to build endurance, and to expand our aerobic capacity to handle longer runs and conquer our goals. Perhaps you’ve heard of the famous 80/20 approach: run 80% of your weekly mileage easy, and 20% hard. Not only does this reduce your risk of overtraining injuries — something with which I was recently acquainted — but it simply makes running more fun.

That slower pace should be fully conversational. I remember the days of high school cross-country practice at Bethlehem, when I had no clue what my pace was, but I was having fun because my friends and I were using our long runs to catch up, laugh, listen to music and sing along through the trails of Five Rivers or Elm Avenue Park. There was no ego around pace, we were simply running for the joy of it.

When I push myself past that sensation of comfortable running, it redefines that run as something I’m trying to get through as fast as possible, rather than staying in the moment, enjoying fresh air, doing something I love. The running world is full of people who vary in pace and ability, but it does not make anyone any less committed, any less worthy of celebration, or any more valuable than anyone else. Just as millions of runners will vary in their speed, our own paces will vary day-to-day and decade-to-decade, as we follow our own running journey.

As much as running is an escape from reality at times, that does not mean reality can’t chase us down on our runs. And our body will let us know: stress, poor sleep, or mental health struggles will manifest in higher heart rates and higher efforts at paces we think should be easy — but the body doesn’t know pace. It knows effort. It knows when we are not giving it the rest and forgiveness it needs.

We see these numbers not only on our own watches, but on social media and Strava as other runners share their daily runs. It’s hard not to play the comparison game. Whether that’s comparing to friends, strangers, or elite professional runners, there’s a tendency to self-scrutinize because we think we should do what they do to run at those speeds, or that we aren’t “good enough” because we run slower, or get discouraged because we may never reach those paces.

And that is okay.

Recently, someone shared with me a video that explained how we wouldn’t expect a poodle to have the same needs or behaviors as a German shepherd. It makes so much sense, right? Our bodies and ages may look similar to someone we know who runs considerably faster than we do, but we are not the same. We each undertake different responsibilities and stressors, we come from different genetics, and we boast a wide spectrum of personalities and lived experiences. I would never say I’m superior or inferior to someone because of my height, because I was born this way and that is a simple fact — so why compare running paces to others, when there are infinite reasons we run at different paces than all of the other runners out there?

There will always be runners at our pace too, and they might look completely different than we’d expect. In my last 10K race, I was battling at the finish with a man over twice my age, and he dominated that final stretch. We commended each other at the finish line, and I was grateful he pushed me and made those last painful meters a little more fun.

Sometimes the downfall is comparing to us, though, which is where I struggle the most. I expect myself to hit a certain pace during every easy run. I think that because I hit X pace during a workout seven months ago, I should be able to replicate that or go even faster, since I have more miles under my belt. I should be fitter, faster, and more capable, right?

My answer to that: does it matter?

Shouldn’t what matters most is that we are healthy enough to run? I want to be able to run for as long as possible — so maybe beating my body up now isn’t the best way to go about that. Paces will change every day. Speed will come and go. Our bodies are meant to go through phases of intense performance and serious recovery. Our bodies are meant to live, not to adhere to numbers that have become arbitrarily intertwined with my identity or anyone else’s.

It wasn’t too long ago that people ran without watches or meticulously tracking their mileage. By letting go of those numbers, we are restoring our relationships with our bodies. Leaving those expectations behind means taking a deep breath, feeling the air on your face, and allowing your body to move as it was meant to, not as you are telling it to. That sounds freeing to me, just as running should be.

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