5 reasons why trail running can make you happier

It’s the beginning of a new year. People are discussing their resolutions and goals and hoping to keep them past Feb 1. While I’m not a huge fan of resolution making, I do like the fundamental reason why we do this. Essentially, we are all looking at our life and wondering what change can we make that will make us happier.

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With this collective desire to make positive change in mind, I thought you might like to hear how one addition to my life, trail running, has made me happier, and might do the same for you.

1. The act of being in nature scientifically makes you happier

 “Science is proving what we've always known intuitively: nature does good things to the human brain—it makes us healthier, happier, and smarter”– Natural Geographic

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/01/call-to-wild/

The obvious part here is that when trail running, you are in nature. The part that is harder to explain, is that trail running forces you to connect with your surroundings in a deeper way. Racing through the forest is overwhelming and all encompassing. Your stress dissipates, your mind feels free, and your body seems to work better. You’re not just standing or observing, you’re learning and growing, you’re experiencing the terrain. Each step takes focus and care. It’s a straight line to mindfulness. You leave the forest feeling euphoric.

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2. The community

Trail running is a beautiful thing, but without question it’s also a physical and mental battle.

During the race you become a tribe with your fellow racers. I’ve met some of the most amazing people on the trails. I’ve listened to their stories and told them mine. Cold, wet, exhausted, or drained, runners will still hang around the finish line to rehash the route and marvel in what they have just finished. Trail racing is guaranteed to introduce you to a new world of like-minded people.

3. The places it takes you

Race directors hand pick trails that are some of the most gorgeous places you will ever see. If you want to truly see what your province, state, or country has to offer, go sign up for a trail race. Right now.

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4. The overall health & fitness benefits

Signing up for a race gives you an immediate sense of outer accountability.  It will keep you on track and get you out the door when you need a little push.

One of the best parts of preparing for the trails is that you train like a complete athlete. Even a short race will have you climbing hills, descending steep sections, rocky sections, or leaping over logs. You’ll have flat sections for speed and tricky sections for balance. You’ll need both an aerobic and anaerobic base. Here are a few keys things you get to work on when you train for the trails:

Balance

Agility

Speed

Strength

Focus

Quickness

Pacing

Cardio

Endurance

Mental Toughness

5. The sense of adventure and accomplishment.

This one is hard to explain. It must be experienced. There is a sense of mystique taking off into the trails. It’s about the awe and wonder about starting in to a beautiful unknown territory

There are moments during almost every race where you suddenly realize you haven’t seen a little ribbon marker for a while. That you’ve probably gone the wrong way and have to find your way back to the route. You might find you are running alone, have no idea where you are and seem to wish you had more food or water. That’s as raw as it gets for some of us these days. It’s just you, out there in the most beautiful places, trying to go as fast as you can. It’s a real adventure and will leave you glowing.

 

Sounds interesting?

Step One:

Choose your race. You don’t need to make any commitments today. Start with researching races around you. Trails come in all shapes and sizes. 5km to 100km and beyond, flat or mountains, just start daydreaming. See what catches your attention.

And always remember, any distance is doable if you decide you want to do it.

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Define Your Why: My Story

I remember the first time I signed up for a race that scared me to the core. I was sitting on a ferry with a knot in my stomach that had been there since the day I left my fiancé, just two months before our wedding.

On this day I had an overwhelming feeling that I needed a challenge. I needed something to work towards and focus on.

I needed to feel like I was strong, and that I could get through anything I put my mind to. 
I opened my computer to get some work done and randomly saw an ad for an Ironman triathlon. I signed up on the spot. I didn’t know what the distances were, how triathlon worked, or if I could still swim. I was immediately excited. Then I thought I’d throw up.

This would mark the beginning of an 8 month journey that would forever change my perspective on fitness, mindset, and accomplishment. 

Calling off my wedding was the single hardest thing I had done to date. There is the obvious heart break that goes along with the break up, but it’s amplified by the loss of what could have been. Deciding to forgo your big day in hopes of finding something better is both sad and scary. What if this is the person I am supposed to marry and I just have cold feet? I was so sure at one point, am I wrong again?

I had hoped that once I made the decision things would start to get easier. Ultimatley I decided that when I got married it would be with someone I had no doubts with. I made the choice, I called it off, but the pain didn’t stop as abruptly as I’d hoped.

The problem with having planned a wedding is you can’t just forget about the person. You have to spend time explaining the change to your guests. You have to call the caterers, the DJ, the venue. Worst of all, you have to try and get some money back for your cancelled honeymoon. As much as you want to just move on, logistically you can’t start the process yet.

I knew I needed something else to focus my energy on. The allure of the Ironman was a perfect.

The first thing I did was get a coach. I knew I was in over my head and needed guidance. He set me up with a plan and I began my journey to become an Ironman. 

Each day I had a workout to focus on. In the evenings I spent time researching outfits, race strategies, bike gear, running gear, swim technique, the list goes on.

Having a race that was so daunting rejuvenated me. Each day I was able to prove to myself that I had courage, strength, and the ability to do whatever I put my mind to. It was a constant reminder that life has unlimited gifts to offer. 

After 8 months of training I was ready for the race. My goal was 13 hours, and I crossed the finish line in 12 hours and 59 minutes. It was absolutely one of the most magical, tough, and life changing days of my life. 

Nearly four years later I’m still reaping the benefits. I no longer live in fear of change or unworthiness. I feel ready for whatever the world might throw in my direction. I know I’m strong, and I’ll never forget that because I proved it to myself.

Motivation Continued

Training, specifically the occasional really tough session, strengthens your mindset in a way that transfers to your entire life. In those difficult physical moments you can train your brain to react with a certain mental toughness that can not only get you through races, competitions, and training, but also through work, relationships and any curve ball life throws at you. You can train your brain and create better habits. 

What is mental toughness?  Let’s break it down. 

Quitting in the middle of a work out or eating foods we know make us sick are not physical limitations, they are situations in which we listened to the little voice in our head that said:
"I can’t”
“I'm not good enough”
"I'm tired"
Mental Toughness is having the ability to work through these moments and push your limitations instead of listening to this voice. It's the ability to stay motivated to make healthy choices day to day. It  means having positivity and not giving up when something goes wrong. 

How do we change it?
It’s pretty simple actually, we just teach that little voice to be on our side. 

Step One: Bringing awareness to your everyday self talk

Ever hear yourself saying things like "I'll just eat the cookie, I already blew it anyways! God, I look awful in this shirt". Would you ever talk to your best friend like that? I hope not! So why do we think it's okay  to speak ourselves that way? Start by noticing your inner voice when it tries to bring you down. Simply acknowledge the feeling and keep going. You don’t have to act on any of those thoughts, or believe them for that matter. Instead of immediately reaching for the chips, think, "interesting, my brain wants me to eat those chips, but in reality I want to feel good, so I don't them". You'll be surprised at how calling out your cravings and thoughts actually starts to change  your mindset. Every time you stop and don't act on the thought, you are breaking that habit and rewiring your brain to make better decisions. 

Step Two: The 3rd Person

3rd person self talk is a tool for in the heat of the moment when you start to struggle. 

For many years I thought my self talk meant I was crazy. Since I can remember I’ve referred to myself as ‘Hil’ any time I was doing any difficult like sprinting up a trail, “common Hil, you can do this”  or “just get through the next 30 seconds, you can do anything for 30 seconds”.
 
The main thing I noticed is I am 100% more positive when I’m thinking like this.
As it turns out, according to Psychology Today the top performers in business and athletics all consistently refer to themselves in the 3rd person. The science behind it? “Essentially, we think referring to yourself in the third person leads people to think about themselves more similar to how they think about others, and you can see evidence for this in the brain. That helps people gain a tiny bit of psychological distance from their experiences, which can often be useful for regulating emotions.” -  Jason Moser, http://msutoday.msu.edu

Next time you feel like quitting, give it a try! Maybe even practice it when you're face to face with those chips. Nobody will hear you so why not right? 

With these two tools you can train your brain to be a positive influence, break through your limits, and stay motivated

Quick Tip - Walking!

"Canadian study found that women who walked briskly for about an hour a day decreased their belly fat by 20% after just fourteen weeks without- listen to this, this is the most important part, without changing their diet habits", Shawn Stevenson from the Model Health Show. 

The key - timing!

Instead of walking 60 minutes straight, try and split it up. Quick work outs throughout the day will keep your metabolism and energy boosted for the duration. 

George Washington University professor, Dr. Loretta DiPietro, found that walking for just 15 minutes after you eat a meal helps reduce your blood sugar response, which is a key to weight loss.

My advice? Check out this podcast at http://theshawnstevensonmodel.com/benefits-of-walking/ and get walking after every meal, for just 15 minutes!

Motivation

The #1 question I get asked is how I stay motivated. There's no denying that I got lucky with intrinsic motivation for working out, but there's way more to health & fitness than just that. There are many aspects of living a healthy lifestyle which I find difficult. These are the tricks and tips I use to overcome them and stay focused.

In my experience there are 3 levels of motivation:

1.  The overall reason you want to be healthy
2.  How to stay motivated to work to that goal daily
3.  How to stay motivated in the moment when the going gets tough

1. Your Reason.
Figure out WHY you want to make a change and write it down.
 

  • I want to feel good
  • I want to be able to play with my kids
  • I want to be able to do things when I'm 60 (my parents are older than 60 and always valued exercise. Guess what, they get to ride bikes across countries in Europe and eat ice cream without worry)
  • I want to be a better soccer player 

Get specific and personalize it to you. My why is simple:

I want to know what I'm capable of. I want to live with no regrets and know I experienced everything I possibly could have. 

2. How to stay motivated to put in the work every day.  

Motivation is essentially accountability. I’m no more motivated than the average person, I’ve just figured out how to hold myself accountable.

Left to my own devices I will let myself down when it comes to too many glasses of wine or neglecting proper rest. These are just as essential to health & fitness as the exercise itself.   

Strategy - Find outer accountability.   

I find some sort of outside accountability that means A LOT to me.
I use races because they work perfectly for my personality. I love to win, I hate knowing I could have done better, and I will do everything in my power to be the fittest possible on that day. I want to experience that race the best way possible (see how it ties into my why) so when I'm faced with a choice to eat a cookie or go to bed, I'll just go to bed.  

Hate the idea of a race? What about money. During off season I have a deal with my fiancé that every time I have more than 2 drinks I pay a charity $100, and HE has to pay a charity $50 because he was probably there and didn’t say sh*t when I poured my 3rd glass.  

I also have a coach. When I need to cut weight for an event, I know exactly what to do, BUT when I’m faced with the choice of having a latte instead of black coffee I can really easily think “well it’s just one”, and those choices add up. When I have to send my coach photos, measurements, and a food log every week, black coffee is a no brainer. 
 
Action Step: Find out what will hold you accountable.  

Gretchen Reuben’s The 4 Tendencies is a great resource. These 4 tendencies explain how you generally react to expectation, and from that you learn what naturally holds you accountable. Check out the link below this article to take the quiz for some personal insight.

Strategy - Self Talk & Imagery.

Sounds complicated but it's not. Whenever I'm faced with a choice (hit snooze or go to the gym) I say to myself, "choose the thing you want to become a habit". 

I imagine my future self. I can literally be standing on the edge of a board trying to will myself into a back flip and think it's too hard. Then I think about myself an hour later, how happy I'll be if I jump, and how disappointed I'll be if I wimp out. It works, just try it. 

3. How to stay motivated DURING a workout when you just want to stop.. I'm going to save this for the next edition. Mostly because this is already a novel.

Running 160KMS - 22.5 hours

Let me back up a second and explain this run. It was NOT a race, it was an event I put together for a charity called Kidsport. I had wanted to give back to the athletic community for years but I couldn't quite give the financial support I wanted to. One day I realized I should be thinking what I DO have to give instead. My answer was endurance and mental toughness, so maybe I could use that to inspire other people to donate. I chose a major local highway (theSea to Sky), and said I would run 160kms from Vancouver to Pemberton if I could raise Kidsport $10 000. Usually these runs are done in the trails so the fact this was on pavement left easier footwork, but a lot more strain on the joints. It was an amazing experience, and something I'll never do on the road again! 

Here is my story:

Why 160kms ? "If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, you must go beyond them." - Bruce Lee . My 1st goal was to find a way to give back and I'm so pumped to have raised over $11 200 for Kidsport. Next was to learn something. I couldn’t remember the last time I tested mental toughness past a new boundary. This did that.

There was never a moment when I doubted finishing, but the control over my thoughts started to weaken. At 65, 70km my brain started leaking, "ha!!! not even half way!" I had to take control, to pull the thoughts back in, 5km at a time. "We will get you 80km and then you're on the back end. The long term goal is just the first 100km”. Then a few kms would go by, "you did 100km, let’s get to Whistler, then home stretch to Pemberton”.

It got dark, my skin started to tear. I found a good rhythm for a bit until I felt the skin break and could feel the blood from under my toenails. At 121kms, Andy taped up my feet and then next goal was just get up Whistler.

One step at a time we made it up and over the mountain. Now my back was in spasm and pulling my rib out and my left ankle blew up. My brain would laugh, "just over 24kms to go! that’s 2 hours on a good day so who the F&$@!! knows how long this will be!" Pull it back in, just 1km at a time now. "Tomorrow will come, so will Monday. This day will end. One inch at a time, you're going to make it"

The crew was fading too. It was well past 2am.

We inched along until Andy saw the end. I thought the pain was over but didn't realize the adrenaline had numbed me. An hour later it started to fade. My feet, my knees, my hips, my back all throbbing. I broke in that moment "you didn't really do this Hil, you walked a lot, it doesn't count".

Today I know that's not true. That distance requires walking portions, but maybe it’s that thought that makes me better. I could have run more. We can always get better. We can always get faster, stronger, and tougher. That's the thought that keeps me learning, so I'll keep it.