The United States of Running

The Surprising Mental Benefits of Running Without Your Wearable

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Photo: Getty Images/Flux Factory

Running has always been my refuge. When the grip of anxiety tightens around me, or stress gathers itself in my chest, I can count on a run to bring me back to myself. But what happens when running starts to make you feel stressed? If you’ve been feeling more frazzled after a run than usual, it might be time to reconsider the technology you take with you.

When my runs shifted from resilience-boosting to anxiety-inducing, it didn’t take long to realize that my time-tracker was to blame. Normally, I appreciate the encouraging voice that says when I’ve completed a mile. I also find pride in reviewing the path I’ve taken: the loops and lines of my route give me a sense of movement and progress I can translate into other aspects of life.

My experience with community-based fitness apps was different. The social element meant that I could see friends’ activity and they could see mine—a feature I hadn’t noticed until I started getting “kudos” for my runs on Strava. Such social features are widespread among leading fitness apps. For example, Runkeeper and Map My Run have an “explore” section—a newsfeed where runners can share progress, goals, and support with everyone who uses the app. These apps, along with Apple Activity and Nike Run Club, also invite users to join or create challenges.

At first, I thought real-time encouragement would help me get faster, run farther. I’d never been concerned about running fast or far before, but with insight into how quickly my friends were achieving their goals, I felt pressured to start. I feared I wasn’t improving on my past activity, nor keeping up with my friends. I became concerned about checking my phone mid-run to see how many miles I’d gone, how fast I was running, and how far I had left to pass milestones others had reached. I felt like I was setting my expectations beyond my limits, then punishing myself when I couldn’t reach them.

My thirty blissful minutes of mindfulness had been transformed into a competition I hadn’t even signed up for. That people could see how often I ran and how far I went threatened the meditative aspect of an activity I considered sacred.

One day, after a run that was much more self-punishment than self-care, I had a revelation: For some of us who run to relieve stress and anxiety, time-tracking apps aren’t totally necessary. The pressure of competition can override the many positive benefits of running, including its effect on anxiety.“When you run, production of these chemicals [like serotonin and dopamine] occur, thereby improving your mood and decreasing your anxiety,” explains Babita Spinelli, LP, psychotherapist and certified coach. “In addition, you are shifting your frustrations and anxious thoughts to being present in the moment.”

This boost in serotonin and dopamine is a fundamental marker for becoming more resilient. “When we run and experience runners high, we feel exhilarated, hopeful, happier,” Spinelli says. Running without a time tracker can help us reclaim personal agency. “Running is an independent sport. We are not dependent on others and this shapes an opportunity for personal control and decision-making,” Spinelli says. “We are choosing how much our bodies can cope with or push through. This manifests and elevates feelings of power, confidence, control, and motivation.”

Even if you’re not ready to give up your tracker, you can still change your relationship to it. Ask yourself: Are you using it for encouragement or punishment? When the line gets blurred, taking a break can help you refocus your energies on reaping the positive mental benefits of running, rather than reaching a certain goal. In other words: Don’t just run for time. Run for the way that it inevitably makes you feel, too.

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