Sunshine And Bunny Rabbits: Why Trails Are Therapy Until They’re Not

The tongue-in-cheek bumper stickers and t-shirts are clear: running and hiking are a direct substitute for therapy.

Is this true? I’d say . . . sort of. Maybe. Rarely. Here’s why: if I were to categorize running as therapy, it is akin to psychoanalysis. Wait, what? Hear me out.

In traditional psychoanalysis, much like running, you must do it repeatedly—even several times a week—for a long time, possibly for years, but you will certainly gain from the amount of repetition. In both, you’ll learn about yourself, you’ll be able to introspect and let your mind wander, and you’ll develop a kind of understanding with your therapist (or your body). But you will never graduate from therapy. It becomes your outlet, your tool for decompression, your safety valve. In psychoanalysis this comes at a cost, depending on factors such as insurance, choice of therapist, and more. It could cost you as much as a few hundred dollars a week. For life.

i don't need therapy just hiking
I don’t need therapy just hiking

When compared to that, running or hiking on trails sure seems like a bargain. Running can be inexpensive relative to other sports due to the minimal gear requirement. All you need is shoes, and maybe some shorts and socks that won’t be irritating when sweaty for hours at a time. But if you run regularly, it can be a lot of shoes. At more than 2000 annual miles, I might wear out 5-8 pairs of shoes in a year. Paying full retail that could mean almost $1000 per year, or a few hundred a year if you hound sales and thrift stores as I do.

Psychoanalysis (also called talk therapy), like running, does not require a huge investment to start but has costs that never end until the therapy ends. You might ask: is talk therapy effective? Depends on your long-term goals. Perhaps you want that reliable and neutral third party asking you the introspective questions. Perhaps you want a decompression time to vent or cry or let your thoughts wander. In those cases, talk therapy might be for you.

Running is My Therapy sticker from Trail GangstAZ
(Trail GangstAZ)

In that same way, running might be for you if you want to have some time to think, some time outdoors, some time alone, some time to work up a sweat and get that pleasure from discomfort. Or to connect with a group of like-minded folks. If all or any of those things are up your alley, running is a totally good option.

Running To Shut The Valve

And yet, there’s a rub. I spent nearly 25 years as a runner using running as a TOOL to drown out my emotions. To stop them before they even started up. To beat them down with a club of neurotransmitters designed to get me addicted to exhaustion. If my emotional sea was a faucet, running was the valve I used to tighten down any leaks.

I had to change my running from one tool to another, and it took time. No longer does it beat down the feels. Now, it helps them surface. Running is STILL the valve on the faucet of emotions. But now I’ve figured out how to turn it the other way to open the flow. This started to really manifest on my Colorado Trail thru-hike in 2017. Further deep diving and being coached last fall has put all the pieces together in a way I’ve been waiting for for literally 30 years.

Next?

There’s a much larger story here. Long enough for a bunch of posts, or a book, or something. Stay tuned. Get this same benefit for yourself and your running through my coaching. Because having a coach is so much more than a spreadsheet of mileages. It’s a whole-human enterprise.

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