Without a doubt, I made one of the best decisions of my life when I was 16 and decided to take up running. I was looking for a way to get in better shape following a particularly sedentary academic year my sophomore year of high school, so over the summer I began running and completed my first 5k race that July. In the fall, I worked up the nerve to join the cross country team. Even though I was the slowest girl on the team and often came in last or nearly last in meets, it was a great experience. I loved the camaraderie of being part of a team and supporting my teammates, and the practices and races kept me accountable to exercise and continue becoming a better runner.
Now, eight years after I first began running, I can’t imagine life without it. Running is my lifeblood. Not only is it my favorite form of exercise, but it also connects me with others and is a key part of my identity. Many of the things I love about it are the same things that get other runners out on the road day after day, logging miles and competing in races. People run for many different reasons, but there are some benefits that are shared by all runners. Though it was difficult to narrow down the numerous perks of being a runner, here are 10 of my favorites that keep me running...
1. Bragging Rights
Whether it’s an early wake-up time or running in weather extremes, runners have plenty of opportunities to gain bragging rights. As hard as it may be to get out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to get in a six-miler before work, it can be fun to tease friends when they complain about waking up “early,” which usually translates to any time before seven on a weekday morning. And even for runners who prefer to avoid early mornings, they can still earn bragging rights by not letting inclement weather stop them from running outside. Runners in the upper Midwest can score some serious bragging rights even among other runners just by having enough grit to run eight miles in wind chills of negative 20 degrees. Others will think you’re crazy, and they may give you funny looks, but that’s half the fun.
2. Stress Management
Exercise is a proven stress reliever, and running is no exception. It boosts endorphins, contributing to a more positive outlook and attitude, and it’s a great way to unwind after a stressful day. Running is an opportunity to step away from stressors and instead focus solely on body movement and breathing. Even after the run is over, the resulting rejuvenation and positive feelings can help runners return to the challenges of daily life with a calmer, clearer perspective.
3. Navigational Skills
For my first two years of college, I didn’t have a car on campus. I would occasionally get around town with my friends who had cars, but the way I actually learned street names and developed a sense of direction prior to having a car was from running. It’s a lot easier to look at street signs when you’re running by them at six or seven miles an hour rather than driving by at 30 mph. And when running around a city, it’s important to be aware of all the different street names and where they intersect so you can find your way back to your starting point. All of this makes it easier to know where to go when you’re behind the wheel and don’t want to incur the wrath of other drivers by not knowing where to turn. Thus, running is a great way to learn how to get around a new area, and it can be really fun to explore new routes as you expand your territory.
4. The Camaraderie
Unlike team sports, running can be done completely on one’s own. But to do so is to miss out on the fun that comes from connecting with other runners. When you’re out of school and no longer able to be part of a team, finding a local running club is a great way to meet other runners and have companionship as you run. Many running stores host weekly runs so that runners can connect with each other and hear about local races, training groups, and other running events. I got connected with just such a group through a local running store about six months ago, and it rejuvenated my running life. It renewed my love of running, got me back into the racing scene, and gave me some new friends to run and race with. Having a running buddy comes with benefits that go beyond just friendship—they can be great accountability partners, and running with another person can better both runners as they push one another to run faster or farther or both. Running partners also have the unique advantage of understanding the joys and struggles of being a runner, so they can be a listening ear for venting or have helpful advice for dealing with various running problems.
Some people may think that races are worth doing only if you have a shot at winning. But in truth, races are a fun way for runners to challenge themselves to set a goal (whether to finish under a certain race time or to complete a certain distance) and be motivated to get in the training necessary to achieve it. There’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing a race and knowing you did the best job you could. Competing with yourself is what matters. I have never placed in any of the many races I’ve run, but that doesn’t detract from the fun of it all. Races are a big part of the running culture, so if runners join a running group, doing races can be helpful for fitting in and getting to know other runners better. Some races have a fundraising component as well, so not only can runners have the fun of a road race, but they can also help others by raising money for a good cause. Plus, many races give out free participation items that are included in the registration fee, such as tee shirts or high-quality running socks. Though racers are indirectly paying for the items with their entry fee, it’s fun to collect racing shirts and wear them during workouts.
6. Life Lessons
As many runners will attest, running is more than just a form of exercise—it’s a way of life. And part of the reason that running carries over into everyday life is that it develops transferrable skills and teaches lessons about tackling life’s problems. Preparing for races gives runners practice in setting and achieving goals. And whether preparing for a race or just sticking with a weekly running schedule, runners exercise more than just their bodies; they put into practice discipline, determination, and perseverance in the face of odds, such as adverse weather, difficult terrain, fatigue, or injuries. When you get used to staring down obstacles and not letting them set you back, you’re more likely to bring that work ethic to other challenges in life.
7. Having a Go-To Hobby
Part of the fun of running is having a relatively inexpensive hobby you can get into. The main expense is investing in a pair of quality running shoes, which can range from around $100 to $150. Of course, it has the potential to get more expensive the more you get into gear, especially if you run in challenging conditions (like those –20˚ temps mentioned earlier!) that require some technical gear. But for mild weather or indoor running, all you need to get started is a pair of running shoes and some comfy clothes. And that makes running a lot less expensive than sports that require a lot of equipment. If you choose to participate in races, there will be the cost of registration fees. However, local 5k races can be pretty inexpensive, maybe equaling a movie ticket and snacks but yielding the greater rewards of fitness, confidence, and a sense of accomplishment. Running also provides a source of free entertainment when traveling on business trips or vacations. As long as the area is safe and runners are confident in their ability to navigate, running outside in new locales is a lot of fun and provides an excellent opportunity to experience the city in a unique way. Running in a new environment not only has the added interest of new scenery, but it lets you blend in with the locals and feel less like a tourist and more like you belong there. Some of my most memorable runs have come while vacationing, and they didn’t cost me anything but the time and energy it took to head out the door.
The tee shirts and other memorabilia are out there: “I run to eat!” For many runners, the food benefits rank high on their list of reasons to keep running. It’s important that runners avoid the danger of overcompensating for calories burned while running so as to not lose the rewards of their hard work. But in general, runners tend to be mindful of the importance of nutrition and runner-friendly foods while at the same time having some elbow room to treat themselves to some of their favorite foods because they’ve earned them.
Since running is a popular form of exercise, fitness is an obvious motivating factor for many runners. Running ranks among the most efficient calorie-burning exercises available. The number of calories burned depends on the runner’s weight and pace, but on average, many people burn about 100 calories or more per mile. Calorie-burning power aside, running has both cardiovascular and strength benefits and is also a good way to maintain a healthy body weight or lose extra pounds. I like to cross train by pairing my running with other activities such as biking, swimming, Pilates, or yoga, but as the mainstay of someone’s exercise routine, running is bursting with health and fitness benefits.
10. The Runner’s High
Perhaps one of the most noteworthy experiences associated with running is the famed “runner’s high.” Though mystifying to non-runners, this needs no explanation among runners. For me—and for most runners—this endorphin boost is the best part of running and keeps me coming back for more. After pushing myself with a long run or a faster-paced short run, I’m energized despite my physical exhaustion. The euphoria that washes over me makes me feel invincible, minimizing challenges I may be facing in other areas of my life. Confidence courses through my veins even as my heartbeat returns to a normal rate, and I feel certain that I have what it takes to leap any hurdle. And even more important, my self-esteem is elevated. I feel proud of myself for conquering the battles of motivation, fatigue, weather, and terrain. I know that I’ve invested in both my present and long-term health, and I’ve had fun along the way.
When I look back on my pre-running days, I’m amazed at how far I’ve come. As far back as early elementary school, I dreaded the mile run fitness test we did twice a year in gym class. Even up through eighth grade (the last year I had gym classes that included the mile run), I would lose sleep at night because I couldn’t stop worrying about the mile and the agony of four laps around the middle school track. Today, going for a three-mile run seems all too brief. I now have numerous 5k and 10k races under my belt, and I just ran my first half-marathon in May.
As I was training for the half and the long runs moved into territory beyond the distances I used to term “long runs,” I found that I thrive on nine- and 10-mile runs. I used to swear that I could never see myself running a marathon. Energy aside, wouldn’t running 26.2 miles get boring fast? Now I’m not so sure. With all these reasons to run, the half-marathon training just served to make me hungry for more; I may have to set my sights on running a full marathon next.
How about you? If you're not a runner (yet), did any of these incentives make you consider trying it out? Or for all my fellow runners out there, are any of these in your personal "top 10"? I'd love to hear your comments!