“Play Is The Process. Fitness is the Product.” Embrace Play to Revolutionize Your Running, Then Your Life
The quote comes from my most quotable running advocate- George Sheehan. A recent article by my friend Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, director of the Natural Running Center, used this quote from Sheehan to make a simple point- we’re missing the element of “play” in modern running. I couldn’t agree more.
All too often, we focus exclusively on outcomes. We care about finishing a distance, doing so in a specific time, or placing in a certain position. If we DO focus on the process, we tend to obsess over pacing, heart rate, weekly mileage, or worrying about how our run will look when we post in on Facebook using Daily Mile.
We miss one basic idea that Sheehan obviously understood and Mark eloquently discussed in his article:
Running should be play.
The idea of play is simple- we engage in an activity for the intrinsic enjoyment of the activity. It seems like a great idea and it wouldn’t be difficult making a case to ‘play’ more often. Yet we don’t. Our society has an aversion to the idea of play. The definition probably sums up the reason for this:
Activity engaged in for enjoyment and recreation, especially by children.
Once we reach adulthood, we feel we need to be serious. We become masochists, but not the kind that have fun with it (i.e.- no whips). We have to toil away at tasks that are not enjoyable. We have to compartmentalize our recreation to discrete periods of time for a few hours on the weekend and two weeks per year. “Play” is relegated to the same schedule as the National Guard.
Maybe our problem is the association between children and play. As we age, we slowly and methodically kill the intrinsic joy we get from activities. Think about our school experience. Before we go to kindergarten, we spend pretty much all of our waking existence playing. When we enter elementary school, we have a few clearly defined ‘play’ periods throughout the day in the form of recess. By the time we enter middle school, our ‘play’ time is all but eliminated. Oh sure, we get a brief renaissance known as “freshman year of college”, but even that gives way to the seriousness of preparing for a career.
Back to running
I believe all the running we do should be of the ‘play’ variety. What exactly does this mean? I came across an excellent article in Psychology Today that gave five elements of ‘play':
- Play is self-chosen and self-directed;
- Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends;
- Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players;
- Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; and
- Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.
In Mark’s article, he talks about the original idea of a Fartlek run- there’s no predetermined pace or goal… you just run. Sometimes it’s fast, sometimes it’s slow. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard. Do what feels right at that very moment. Do what is fun.
A Life of Play
This idea transcends running. It can be applied to life in general. After reading the Psychology Today article, I realized something that has been difficult to verbalize: Shelly and I have formatted our lives around the idea of play. Once we abandoned the expectation that adults have to be serious, our enjoyment of life increased immensely. All it took has a simple reframing of perceptions and expectations.
Is this refocusing on the idea of play the key to happiness?
Our modern society is obsessed with all kinds of shortcuts to happiness. We buy houses, cars, and new clothes to gain social approval. We read self-help books. We take drugs, both legal and illegal. We attach ourselves to others so they can care for us. We change our appearance to appear more attractive. We join movements and religions to get a sense of belonging. We bury ourselves in our careers.
All of these ideas don’t really bring a sense of lasting happiness. They’re fleeting moments that dull the pain of our day-to-day existence. Their fleeting nature assures we’ll continually search for something new.
What is a lasting solution?
Embrace the idea of play as a foundation for everything you do.
I know, the practical, serious adult in you immediately starts formulating reasons why it’s not possible for grown adults to play all the time. That’s to be expected. We’re trained to see play as a childish activity. To overcome this hangup, I recommend trying it in small doses. Find some time during the day to play. When you do, note how it makes you feel during the activity. How about afterward? If the playing involved an outcome, did you perform better when playing than if you had focused on the outcome? I bet you did. At the very least, I bet the play period made you happy.
Making an association between play and happiness is the key to gaining the confidence to spreading the idea to all facets of your life. Once you make a few baby steps, you can’t resist doing it more. Trust me, it’s addictive.
On our travels, we’ve met a fair number of people that are at various stages of embracing this idea. The correlation is crystal clear: the more play people introduce into their lives, the happier they are. Clearly the idea of play can enhance your running. It also has the ability to transform your life. The happiest people are those that make ‘play’ a priority.
What are your thoughts? How can you introduce more play into your running and life in general?
Need more evidence that backs up my point? Check out this article from the Huffington Post.