How to do the mental health workout right
There have been multiple times in my life when I needed a run or a climb not because my training plan said so but because my spirit demanded it. Most recently I spent the holidays in the noisy west side at a house with which I was unfamiliar caring for my father who was headed for hospice care - and neither Rumi nor I were sleeping well. A few mornings that week I woke, after six or so hours of fitful sleep, and knew I needed to contact the muddy, fern-populated forest in order to cope. It was on those runs that this post milled itself.
Oftentimes when a client on my roster violates her training plan it is because she had a hard day at work, a fight with her spouse, or some other stressful situation that caused her to run farther, climb harder, or generally practice poor self-care in motion. Since we all experience critical life stressors and since most endurance athletes use their practice in order to cope, I devised this quick how-to guide.
Next time you saddle up for a run, climb, or ski with a heavy heart, I hope you find these tips useful.
How much did you sleep? If you slept seven or more hours consecutively, you’re good to go for a workout. If you slept less than seven but more than five, you’ll need to curtail the duration and intensity of your workout even more than I suggest below. If your total sleep hours were less than five consecutively or added up to less than eight in chunks of fewer than four hours each, your best bet is to skip your workout entirely and opt for a walk and a meditation instead.
Mindset: Enter your mental health training session with a mindset of curiosity and self-compassion. Over-processing events as you move will only auger in negative or obsessive mental habits leading to anxiety or depression that will persist long after the stressor ceases. During the session, be sure to cultivate an associative relationship with sensation: pain, discomfort, heaviness, or ease. Welcome Mara to tea.
Intensity and duration: In order to soothe rather than activate your already-stressed ANS, avoid Zones 3 and higher during a mental health workout. Also since the body doesn’t replenish glycogen stores well when it is under stress or has not slept well, be sure to feed yourself high-carb snacks during your workout and keep the total duration under ninety minutes.
Objective hazard: In stark contrast to my post on going solo, the bedraggled, confused, depressed, or flustered athlete has no business engaging in any sort of risky activity. Despite the obvious distraction personal upheaval poses, the nervous system of a person functioning on little sleep and under stress is not the person who makes sound decisions in the alpine. Until the life stressor subsides, settle for workouts in places you know well that are well outside of harm’s way.
Recovery: Perhaps the most important part of the mental health workout is the mindset you continue after the session concludes. Practice good self-care by having fresh cotton clothes and a recovery snack available immediately after you cease motion. As soon as you’re alone, either sit in meditation (you could use the Headspace app or a simple timer on your phone) or queue up one of these effective somatic meditations. The goal of the mental health workout is not to self-flagellate as that will only make whatever problem you’re experiencing worse; the aim is to gain perspective and maintain presence.