I dreamed about running last night. I had just recovered from my surgery but was already trying to join a new track group. I was trying to park as close as possible so as not to tax my capacity to run by walking too far to get there. Then I discovered I had forgotten my shoes and the track was made of concrete. I was trying to talk myself out of running barefoot but just didn’t want to leave without running a lap. It’s probably not hard to figure out what subconscious thoughts were driving that dream.
Today I did an actual would-have-counted-before-surgery workout. Five fast rounds of push ups, flutter kicks, seated overhead presses, resistance band rows, and Russian twists. I got my heart rate up and slightly sweaty. It was amazing. It’s been a week since my last proper workout the evening before surgery: 3000 yards in the pool in the perfect zone of working hard but still just able hitting the interval.
I’ve read a lot about why it feels so good to push ourselves physically. There are sound physiological explanations for the workout buzz and post workout high. From an evolutionary perspective, it also seems pretty obvious how it evolved, i.e. those who actually enjoyed running after woolly mammoths became better at it and were more likely to survive and pass their genes on.
There’s more to it than the physiological response though. Hard, heart pounding exercise makes us feel autonomous and powerful. I imagine that effect holds particularly true when people don’t — or feel they don’t — have autonomy or power in the rest of their lives. I know some of the feeling is likely just due to increased testosterone but subconscious feelings about autonomy certainly play a role. One of few things I have not yet managed to do on my own is get up and down the house steps. Every time we go out, Husband has to help me. There is literally no one else in the world I would want to carry me down the steps but I still feel diminished every time. This morning I finished the workout I planned feeling strong and awesome, and then did extra push ups just because I could. I then felt the need to text Husband about it, as if I somehow needed to prove to him (myself) that I’m not diminished.
There’s another phenomenon at play for me too. In his excellent book on stress, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky talks about the concept of hierarchies. Basically, most mammals, including humans, exist in social hierarchies, i.e. work, family, etc.. It’s more stressful being lower down the hierarchy (especially if you are a baboon apparently) but when people occupy different levels in more than one hierarchy, the stress effect is lessened. You might be the lowliest employee in your large office but the cantor in your church choir which makes being bossed around at work more bearable. It’s certainly a strong argument for having hobbies and one of the reasons I always encourage law students and new lawyers to make a concerted effort to develop lives outside of work.
Anyway, I’ve realized that over the years, without really meaning to, I developed other hierarchies through my running and fitness worlds. It’s not that winning your age group in your local 10K suddenly erases every work criticism that ever came your way but it does help you have a richer self image wherein the criticisms and failures from the other hierarchy don’t wield as much power. In my professional life I’ve always struggled — at times mightily — with self doubt and the feeling that I’m not as smart and certainly not as confident or tough as my colleagues. In my running world though, I’m the one with the strong mental game who can outrun more talented friends because I can hurt more and longer than they can.
The sudden transition to the (temporarily) couch bound life has been jarring to say the least. Before last Wednesday, the last day I had not done a workout or some form of intentional exercise was June 2, 2017, a day in the midst of a particular grueling 48 hours in a trial. Before that day, I had probably been on a streak of many, many months if not years. Working out has been as much a part of my day as eating or sleeping. Yet somehow I’ve survived almost a week without doing that (technically there were push ups and some other stuff twice last week but it wasn’t enough to make me feel anything). It actually hasn’t been as hard as I expected (post anesthesia haze helped), but I’ll be very, very happy when I can get back to some daily heart pounding stuff.