Why You Should Go On a Gratitude Run
No Turkey Trot this year? No problem. Do this solo Thanksgiving run and reflect a little instead.
The popularity of Turkey trots is huge. In 2016, about 961,882 people trotted in 726 races, according to Running USA. Which means all across the country, families, avid runners, and once-a-year runners gather together to cover a few miles before giving thanks, going back for seconds, or cozying up for a nap.
Of course, many turkey trots are canceled this year due to COVID-19, but just because you can't line up and run with a crowd of turkey-costumed runners doesn't mean you can go for a run on your own and lean into the true spirit of the holiday. (See: How to Navigate the Holidays During the Coronavirus)
This year, why not try something a little more meditative such as a gratitude run. Instead of embracing your typical reasons for running — getting stronger, faster, fitter; clearing your head; unleashing your competitive spirit — a gratitude run reminds you of everything for which you're grateful. It's also the quickest fix for a bad day — or year (hi, 2020). And there's no need to register or social distance: Just lace up as you would for any other run (this time sans headphones, tracker, or any other distraction) and think about all the things you're grateful for.
I stumbled across this idea a few years ago when I was in a really sour mood. I went for a run to clear my head, but instead, I found myself annoyed with pedestrians and red lights. Then I remembered a saying I'd once heard: "You can't be grateful and angry at the same time." So, I decided: "screw this, nothing else is working," and I started making a list.
With each foot strike, I reeled off my good fortune. I'm grateful for my grandparents. I'm grateful for scrambled eggs and sourdough toast. I'm grateful for people who smile warmly when you pass. I'm grateful for my sleepy, hardworking body. I'm grateful for Reese's Pieces.
To my surprise, the list grew and grew with each passing mile and all my negative feelings started to float away. And there's no hierarchy. You can be grateful for things both trivial and important. That's the trick. You're suddenly reminded of everything you have instead of everything you want.
Turns out, I was onto something: Expressing gratitude has tons of health benefits like helping you sleep better, lowering inflammation in your heart, and building more connected relationships. Doing it while running (thanks to the addition of all those lovely runner's high endorphins) only makes the experience feel that much more mentally refreshing.
"Gratitude runs are a great opportunity to get out of your normal environment, and work through anything which may be going on in your life at that time, from a different perspective," says Meghan Takacs, USATF run coach and certified personal trainer at Performix House New York City.
While, yes, a gratitude run can make you more thankful in general, it also has some other perks (including performance benefits!). Here are some other benefits of going on a gratitude run:
You can stop chasing PRs for a sec.
Gratitude runs aren't about speed. You're not rushing to the 400-meter mark or checking your Garmin. You're not cruising along at your marathon goal pace. You're thinking about friends you've known for decades or new acquaintances who have stumbled into your life, and how lucky you are to know them.
“I like to look at gratitude runs as 'moving meditation,'" says Takacs. "It's important to remember, especially for people who are just beginning, to not allow pace and mileage to be your central focus when it comes to running. Instead of focusing on, or stressing out about, speed and mileage, you use this time to move forward mentally and physically." (See also: Why I Love Running Without a Fitness Tracker or GPS Watch)
You'll build mental toughness.
"Being mindful when you run is the key to acquiring the most common trait amongst endurance runners: mental toughness," says Takacs — something we could all use right now. "The work ethic you have in your workouts is directly transferable to the work ethic you have in the rest of your life. That's what endurance running is all about. You can get just as much out of it mentally as you do physically, so long as you're learning that pushing your limits physically raises your mental baseline.”
You can learn to pace yourself.
"I always tell people to do 'pace-based' runs: Don't check your pace throughout the whole run, and keep your level of effort consistent by keeping your breathing pattern and heart rate consistent,” says Takacs. This will come in handy during running interval workouts, for example, where you need to find and set your own pace for speed and rest intervals.
You'll find new mantras that resonate.
Getting creative with your list can become a calmly repetitive mantra. You're not spiraling about the latest drama at the office or what you should have said when you found out Sharon from accounting stole your yogurt from the fridge. You're not thinking about that Tinder date who ghosted you. When a negative thought creeps in, bring your awareness back to where you are and what you're seeing in the moment: nice foliage! A beautiful pond! A friendly neighbor! Trust me, this approach comes in handy during the last few miles of a marathon. (Gratitude running is similar to mindful running, which can also help break down mental and physical roadblocks.)
You can work through problems or tough feelings.
“Gratitude runs are a great way to cope with depression or anxiety," says Takacs. "Endurance running is all about forward momentum: physical and mental. Running is one of the most easy, freeing, and effective ways to deal with stress and to reflect on problems and/or brainstorm.” (Continue working through things when you're done running by writing in one of these gratitude journals.)
You'll strengthen your bonds with those around you.
And they don't even need to be running with you! A runner friend told me she met a woman running the Boston Marathon who carried 26 cards with her, so she could think about someone important every single mile. Here she was, at the most competitive race in the world, and she chose to think about her tribe of people back home. You can do this during a gratitude run, too, and dedicate each mile to someone you love. Run with a friend if you want and share your list with each other.
Ultimately, think of a gratitude run as a special way to treat yourself. It's a wave of good feelings anytime you need a reminder of how great your life really is. (And if you love it, consider taking your gratitude practice outside running as well.) I can't think of a more appropriate way to kick off Thanksgiving than by giving thanks for everything you have, everyone you're with — and yes, everything you're about to eat — while appreciating your body for all the miles (both figurative and literal) it carries you through.