I spent years hating running, until I changed my routine — here’s how I learned to love it

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  • Learning to love running is an arduous, but not impossible, task.
  • Here, author Sarah Wells details how ditching the treadmill led her to “become someone I never thought I’d be: a happy runner.”

The internet has a million-and-one recommendations for how to exercise, and many of those rely on one key element: cardio. Namely, running. For much of my life the very concept of running filled me with dread, until I found a way to make it empowering instead.

A big part of my running anxiety came from the way it was introduced to me in middle and high school through the infamous mile-run test in gym class. While I had always been actively involved in sports, I was never a particularly fast runner and these tests made that abundantly clear.

In case you’re unfamiliar, here’s how the test works: after learning the alleged correlations between mile times and health standards (e.g. to be considered healthy, a student would have to achieve a certain benchmark depending on their age and sex), an entire middle school gym class would traipse out to the school’s track and start to jog. While not meant to be a competition, it went without saying that students who finished last had “failed.”

This competitive relationship with running didn’t stop after the tests did, and as a college student I struggled with constructing my own exercise regimen without the sports I’d grown up with. As a freshman I was intimidated by the gym’s powerful weight lifters and the graceful runners galloping on treadmills like gazelles. Choosing the lesser of two evils, I chose to start with the treadmills.

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The treadmill, a hamster wheel

I adjusted the incline, slowly increased the speed from a walk to a jog and contemplated whether I would wipe out badly enough to need the emergency “STOP” cord attached to my t-shirt.

Within minutes, the treadmill began to feel like a hamster wheel and, having raised the speed optimistically too high, I was out of breath and already discouraged before I’d crested the one-mile mark.

As I slowed to a walk, I remember looking around at other machines and trying to sneak a glance at their speeds. My heart sank as I saw them still running with ease at speeds far higher than mine.

As semesters and years progressed, I did become faster and my endurance improved, but I could never shake the feeling of not achieving quite enough. Not only that, but the boredom that came with my hamster wheel had also continued to eat away at me.

In my opinion, a major flaw with the very concept of treadmills is that any movement you make is essentially an illusion. As opposed to the changing landscape you see when running on a track or even up-and-down a soccer field, there are few distractions on a treadmill aside from watching your mileage increase.

I tried listening to music, but eventually found even my workout playlists repetitive. I tried watching TV on my phone or tablet, or listening to podcasts, but both would inevitably run out of episodes before I ran out of gym days.

I even tried to read and highlight articles for class – which only resulted in neon-yellow slashes through many of my paragraphs.

As undergrad ended and I scrambled to find a constructive way to put my degree to use, I also found my gym routine thrown into chaos again. Starting to work more hours and living further from the gym made my treadmill habit more difficult to sustain, in addition to the fact that I’d never really enjoyed it.

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The beauty of running outdoors

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In a fit of inspiration (and stress) one day after work, I found myself lacing up my running shoes and heading out the door in search of a nearby park.

Feeling the sun beating down on my shoulders and the wind in my face as a I propelled myself forward with each step, I felt a sense of exhilaration that running on a treadmill had never brought me. Unlike the gym, I had no way to keep track of my pace and no runners to compare myself against.

As I reached the park – my halfway point before returning home – I felt a stitch start to form in my side and the familiar sense of disappointment in my abilities creep back in. But before giving in to the feeling, I made my way to the apex of one of the park’s bridges and looked out over the small pond it spanned. The view alone stopped my thoughts in their tracks.

It still took a while for the lesson from that run to sink in, but I came to realize that running at my own pace – and even stopping! – has no impact on whether I have a successful run.

Instead, I use different metrics: How did it feel to see the world whiz by? How beautiful was the light today?

Stepping away from expectations I’d placed on myself, and by taking in the outdoors, I’ve become someone I never thought I’d be: a happy runner.