I’d like a show of hands: who, out there, does NOT do triathlons (or marathons, or ultras, or endurance whatever) as a way of getting some really good, pretty cheap therapy?
I’ll be the first to admit that triathlon is my therapist.
“Therapy”—loosely defined as a practice that brings about physical, spiritual, emotional, and/or mental wellbeing—is sometimes considered taboo, but this bias is diminishing as our culture starts to recognize that by virtue of being alive, we are all in need of some sort of therapy. During high school, I probably needed therapy. During my first romantic relationship, I probably could have used some therapy. Heck, medical school should have COME with therapy attached. But thankfully, through most of the trials and tribulations of life that ordinarily would have called for some sort of traditional, structured therapy, I’ve had my bike, my running shoes, and enough motivation to get my butt out the door.
I’m about to make a huge generalization here and, fully aware, welcome comments and criticism—but I’m going to go ahead and say that triathletes and endurance runners engage in, and consistently return to, such “punishing” (at least by the outsider’s eye) sports because they serve us in ways that are therapeutic.
Have you ever met someone who does Crossfit because it’s psychologically and emotionally therapeutic? I’m sure these people exist, but I have met far more Crossfitters who are interested in a six-pack (sorry to pick on you all, but I had to pick on someone!). On the contrary, have you met many triathletes who train in pursuit of a six-pack? Again, they’re out there—but most of us who are seasoned in the sport know that endurance athletics are certainly not the most efficient way to get shredded—at least for most of us. No, we endurance athletes return time and time again to the toils of our sport because it is cleansing and calming not only to our bodies, but to our minds and spirits as well.
Exercise can turn a bad day around completely. This understanding is shared by everyone from recreational exercisers to more serious athletes. String together enough bad-days-turned-around, and you’ve turned a bad life around completely.
The thing about endurance sport is this: there’s something about that repetitive motion, that feeling of covering large amounts of ground, and that ability to let the mind wander just enough to invade some of the farthest reaches of our minds and hearts—this is what makes endurance sport therapeutic in a unique way. A long run can either be met with an icy and distracting focus, or a passivity that lends itself to observation and confrontation of our mind’s inner workings. Training for endurance involves spending a considerable amount of time training not only the body, but the mind: to be patient, to be persistent, to be disciplined and responsible, to be forgiving.
Perhaps one of the greatest therapeutic gifts endurance sport has to offer is the elation of crossing a finish line. This tangible experience, which is often met with a flood of endorphins and utterly delirious fatigue, is a concrete proclamation of our minds’ and bodies’ incredible potential. It is rare to meet such a definitive and celebratory benchmark in ordinary, day-to-day existence. The happiest moments of my life occurred when I crossed the finish line of my first marathons, or finally arrived on the west coast after riding across America. The profound impact of these feelings–ones of pure, uninhibited ecstasy and disbelief–have fueled a much higher level of self-esteem, belief in my untapped potential, and tendency to really push the envelope. I’m not sure traditional psychotherapy of any kind would have gotten me to quite the same place.
So here’s to endurance: to enduring, and coming out better as a result.