Running is widely hailed among runners as the cure-all for any and all problems. Running helps to clear the mind, provide perspective, and instill a renewed sense of confidence to go out and conquer whatever challenges the day may bring. What happens, though, when running no longer solves all of life’s problems, and instead seems be the root of the problem?
Outside of my running identity, I am a social worker at the local rape crisis center. I regularly work with survivors of sexual assault and rape as they navigate personal healing, tumultuous relationships, bureaucratic response systems, and social norms that allocate blame and judgement where they don’t belong. I love what I do, but sometimes this work can be hard. Based on what I know of trauma and what I know of marathon training, it seems reasonable to me that the physical trauma of training for and running a marathon can sometimes be more difficult when sitting with the emotional response to a traumatic experience.
I came to this understanding while training (a term I use rather loosely) for the 2016 Boston Marathon. I felt burned out on running, but I noticed that the symptoms of burnout look quite similar to the symptoms of PTSD and vicarious trauma. My motivation to train was non-existent (loss of interest in regular activities). My stamina and endurance took a serious hit, which was attributed to anemia without an identifiable cause (physical impact of emotional drain, also seen in my persistent aches and injuries). This could also have been complicated by insomnia, which hindered muscle recovery and regeneration (and also contributed to general tiredness and lethargy). I often had an elevated resting heart rate (anxiety and heightened fear response), and found myself coming up with any excuse to skip runs, even when I had plans to run with friends (social withdrawal). My longest training run came in at 11 miles, and my plans for a PR (thriving) shifted to making it across the finish line in one piece (survival).
The lack of running causes similar difficulties (irritability, paralyzing guilt, erratic behavior), making it hard to distinguish the difference among burnout, trauma response, and extenuating circumstances.
One of the service models we emphasize at my office is trauma-informed care, a perspective that takes into consideration the impact of trauma and the myriad trauma responses when providing services. We have been pleased to see increasing attention to providing trauma-informed care in medical and mental health professions, but trauma tends to impact multiple areas of functioning. Dental check-ups, massage therapy, and even marathon training could all benefit from greater attention to the impact of trauma.
So what helps? Well, that depends. Based on what I know of trauma, I recommend identifying your limits and respecting them. Take it easy, be gentle, and have compassion with yourself. Based on what I know of running, this is practically impossible, especially when training for a marathon. Scaling back race goals helps, but it might be better to defer the race altogether. I know, I know, dropping out of a race is blasphemy and feels like the end of the world. That’s the runner talking. Give more airtime and headspace to the part of you that hurts.
Accountability may help, but I’m not referring to being held accountable for every single early morning run on the training schedule. Running buddies can also be a system for ensuring you take rest days and respect your physical limits. More importantly, though, they can be a listening ear for venting pent-up emotions, which doesn’t always have to happen during a run.
Finding alternate ways to maintain sanity while also maintaining fitness is hugely beneficial. I loved my regular yoga routine when training for Boston, though this didn’t do much to help with aerobic conditioning. Spin class (my personal favorite) and other forms of cross-training can help maintain aerobic fitness, to some degree. There is no substitute for long, slow distance, but when the LSD is not an option, something else has to fill the space.
I’m also a big fan of self-education. Search the internet until you find something that rings true for you. Ask local service providers for recommendations on books, documentaries, and other educational materials. Professional help is also an option. Therapy, medication, and alternative treatments (acupuncture, massage, etc.) may do the trick where other strategies don’t.
In short, there is no single solution or magic cure-all. Trauma is complicated, and the intersection of physical taxation and emotional exhaustion impacts everyone differently. Find what works for you, based on your own truth and your own experience.