“Some old-fashioned things like fresh air and sunshine are hard to beat.” — Laura Ingalls Wilder
Prior to 2020, social distancing might have brought to mind the idea of living off the grid or reclusively avoiding others. Now, we are struggling to adhere to an entirely new grid. And this global pandemic cares little about our preferences or how well we are coping physically, mentally or emotionally.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Many of us are facing challenges that can be stressful, overwhelming, and cause strong emotions in adults and children. Public health actions, such as social distancing, are necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but they can make us feel isolated and lonely and can increase stress and anxiety.”
That doesn’t mean we can’t exercise—literally—our inherent freedom. I’m talking here about the fresh-air freedom that can be found by getting outdoors and stretching your legs to the best of your ability.
I’m grateful to run regularly in beautiful Vancouver Island, Canada, with its mountains, old-growth forests and coastal views of the Pacific. But no matter where you live, there is powerful evidence that getting outdoors for movement and nature therapy helps us move through uncertainty, anxiety, fear and despair. According to renowned academic and environmentalist David Suzuki, regular stints out in nature are “an essential component of health and psychological resilience. Nature helps us withstand and recover from life’s challenges.”
There is something about fresh air and movement that has helped me manage, with a little more acceptance and grace, the stressors brought on by the pandemic.
These are 5 powerful ways outdoor running can comfort and strengthen your spirits. May they entice you to claim some fresh air and freedom within your own nature grid. Because who knows — you may come out the other side feeling stronger and more resilient than ever.
Reason #1: It Lets You Breathe Easy
The pandemic has brought forth unimaginable levels of stress. When we are stressed, we tend to hold our breath, adding to our tension. But deep breathing “sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax,” according to Michigan Medicine. “Those things that happen when you are stressed, such as increased heart rate, fast breathing, and high blood pressure, all decrease as you breathe deeply to relax.”
Getting outdoors to run or move is the perfect opportunity to practice breath work. Plus, being in nature’s landscape is the perfect escape from being confined and stuck at home. In fact, the easiest way to move through the physical discomfort of running is to set a relaxed pace and focus on deep, intentional breathing. The first thing I do when I’m running up steep terrain is concentrate on my breath and form, using a technique like “belly breathing,” recommended by the American Lung Association.
This simple series of inhaling through the nose and exhaling long slow breaths from the mouth is a good example of how mindful breathing can clear the cobwebs brought on by this pandemic marathon. Anytime you feel like giving up, tune into your breathing to quiet the stories running through your mind.
Reason #2: It Improves Physical — and Emotional — Resilience
This pandemic storm has impacted humanity in a big way. Yet, over the past year, we have seen countless examples of human resilience and courage in the face of huge hurdles.
Running fosters resilience by prompting us to tackle big challenges piece by piece. It is so much more than exercise — it’s an opportunity to physically and mentally prove to yourself how amazing the human spirit is. Running outside in nature is a wonderful reminder that while it might not always feel easy, we can manage challenges with a one-step-at-a-time approach.
These days, I lace up my shoes as a coping mechanism: the chance to escape the noise and news of another day riddled with all things COVID-19 is my primary motivation to get outside and move.
Reason #3: It Reminds Us Everything’s Temporary
The discomforts of pandemic fatigue are all too real. It feels like this strange way of life will never end.
And yet, inevitably, it will. Things likely won’t return to the way they were, but that’s not the nature of life in the best of times.
Sometimes when I’m out running, the discomforts are all too real. Whether it’s extreme weather, challenging terrain, or just an off day, some runs are plain hard. But when these difficult runs come to an end — and they always do — relief seems to erase the discomfort. Before I know it, I’m lacing up my shoes to get outside for another run.
Life is like that too. It’s not always smooth sailing. This has been a particularly bumpy year for everyone on a human journey. The ritual of running reminds us that everything in life is temporary. It helps us release our grip on the story that this chapter in our lives will never end. All things, good and not so good, come to an end — that’s part of the adventure.
Reason #4: It Teaches Presence
One of the main reasons I love running outside is because it makes me feel truly alive. Our natural surroundings are unchanged by the pandemic. It’s easier to press pause and feel like everything is going to be okay when we allow ourselves a moment to take it all in.
With my focus primarily on breath and form, my mind becomes still and I’m able to breathe in my surroundings. I often get some of my most creative ideas when I’m running because I’m open and not worrying about anything else.
And sometimes, a reminder of what feels good is the prompt we need to start eliminating the unnecessary stressors in our lives.
Nature is an incredible source of inspiration when we pay attention. Each moment we are in is our opportunity for living.
Reason #5: It Fosters Gratitude
Whether it’s my best run or my worst, I always pause and give thanks for my health and ability to put one foot in front of the other — particularly these days, when safeguarding health is top of mind. Both running and this global pandemic have taught me to embrace life and not take my health for granted.
No matter what is going on around us, there are always reasons to feel a deep sense of gratitude. Gratitude is a powerful stress releaser. It has a way of helping us put the big, messy picture of life in perspective.
Whether you get outside to run, walk or sit in the extraordinary beauty of your natural surroundings, give yourself the gift of regularly connecting with nature. Remind yourself often that every day is a gift and an opportunity to love the life you’re in.