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Trauma-Informed Running

Trauma-informed care is a perspective that takes into consideration the impact of trauma and the myriad trauma responses when providing services. We have seen increasing attention to providing trauma-informed care in the fields of medical and mental health services, but we have also received requests for trauma-informed dental check-ups, moving companies, and many other services. That makes sense because trauma impacts all areas of life. I recently discovered that this also applies to marathon training.

I am a runner. My running journey began almost 10 years ago when the rape crisis center at which I volunteered held an annual 5k fundraiser race. 5ks led to 10ks, which led to half marathons, and eventually marathons. My dream was to one day make it to the Boston Marathon, and through dedication and hard work, I got there. I ran the 2016 Boston Marathon, using the race as a way to turn my passion into a fundraiser in support of OCRCC, again uniting my interest in running and interest in working to end sexual violence.

I am also a social worker. In my role at the Center, I regularly work with clients who have experienced sexual violence. I bear witness to stories of personal healing, tumultuous relationships, bureaucratic response systems, and social norms that allocate blame and judgment where they don’t belong. I love what I do, but sometimes this work can be hard.

Although I had run marathons before, and although I was beyond ecstatic about running the Boston Marathon, I found it nearly impossible to train for the race. Based on what I know of marathon training and what I know of trauma, it seems to me that the physical demand of training was more difficult because of the emotional toll of my work.

The physical impact of emotional trauma is not a new concept, but this past training season made it profoundly real for me. I felt burned out on running, but I noticed that the symptoms of burnout look quite similar to the symptoms of PTSD and vicarious trauma. My motivation to train was non-existent (loss of interest in regular activities). My stamina and endurance took a serious hit, which was attributed to anemia without an identifiable cause (physical impact of emotional drain, also seen in my persistent aches and injuries). This could also have been complicated by insomnia, which hindered muscle recovery and regeneration (and also contributed to general tiredness and lethargy). I often had an elevated resting heart rate (anxiety and heightened fear response), and found myself coming up with any excuse to skip runs, even when I had plans to run with friends (social withdrawal). My plans for a personal record at Boston (thriving) shifted to making it across the finish line in one piece (survival).

As a result of all those overlapping factors, I hardly ran, which complicated the situation even further. The lack of running causes similar difficulties (irritability, paralyzing guilt, erratic behavior), which made it hard to distinguish the difference among burnout, trauma response, and extenuating circumstances.

So what helps? Well, that depends. Based on what I know of trauma, I recommend identifying your limits and respecting them. Take it easy, be gentle, and have compassion for yourself. Based on what I know of running, this is practically impossible, especially when training for a marathon. In fact, a quick Google search about running burnout reveals an abundance of articles on how to overcome, push through, or otherwise conquer these blocks. But combining the trauma-informed perspective with marathon training means recognizing and honoring your limits.

One way to do this may be scaling back your race goals, but it might be better to defer the race altogether. I know, I know… dropping out of a race is blasphemy and feels like the end of the world. That’s the runner talking. Give more airtime and headspace to the part of you that hurts. Besides, the purpose of training is to have a great race, and if training feels miserable, then the race probably will too.

Accountability may help, but I’m not referring to being held accountable for every single early morning run on the training schedule. Running buddies can also be a system for ensuring you take rest days and respect your physical limits. More importantly, though, they can be a listening ear for venting pent-up emotions, which doesn’t always have to happen during a run.

Finding alternate ways to maintain sanity while also maintaining fitness is hugely beneficial. I loved my regular yoga routine when training for Boston, though this didn’t do much to help with aerobic conditioning. Spin class (my personal favorite) and other forms of cross-training can help maintain aerobic fitness, to some degree. There is no substitute for long, slow distance, but when running is not an option, something else has to fill the space.

I’m also a big fan of self-education. Search the internet until you find something that rings true for you. Ask local service providers for recommendations on books, documentaries, and other educational materials. Professional help is also an option. Therapy, medication, and alternative treatments (acupuncture, massage, etc.) may do the trick where other strategies don’t.

In short, there is no single solution or magic cure-all. Trauma is complicated, and the intersection of physical taxation and emotional exhaustion impacts everyone differently. Find what works for you, based on your own truth and your own experience.

Natalie Ziemba is a Boston Marathon finisher and our Crisis Response Coordinator. She manages the Center’s 24-Hour Help Line, oversees our volunteer Companions, coordinates the Orange County SART, bakes delicious cookies, and more.

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