As some of you know with the pools closed, I have been on a running journey lately. This week, my trusty app has me running 3, 2.5 milers. It may not seem like a lot, but for me, this is the most I’ve run in several years. My routine is Monday, Wednesday, Friday morning – I take about 30 min and complete the runs with a walking warm up and cool down. But if you happen to see me out running, you may see something missing – headphones.

It may seem odd to some, but as an exercise rule I generally don’t like to listen to music. It seems like an obvious choice to turn up the jams while I run, especially while I’m struggling through something I don’t particularly enjoy. What better way to distract and motivate me than with a catchy pop tune or a Jock Jams classic? It’s just not me. I’d rather be alone with my thoughts. While I was running on Monday, I thought about why. I see a lot of swimmers these days using bone conduction or waterproof headphones to jam while they swim, and I just don’t think it’s for me.

I think part of the therapy of swimming for me is to have that time to really explore what’s on my mind that day, and how I’m feeling overall. Sometimes, I go through lists of things I need to do in my head. Sometimes, I spend an entire set talking myself into not quitting that set. Sometimes, I craft the perfect argument in my head with someone or something that’s upset me. It’s time set aside for me to worry, stew, motivate or check in with myself.

I’ve read that one of the coping strategies for people with high levels of stress and anxiety is to set aside time each day to allow them time to worry. Pick 10 minutes, write everything down that is causing anxiety, and just worry about it to calm and prevent spontaneous, disruptive worry later. Get it out of the way. For me, swimming sometimes serves as this time – the time I get to be angry, the time I get to be right about something, the time I get to go through worrisome scenarios in my head, and problem solve.

Some people find this type of clarity during a run, or on a yoga mat, or writing, making artwork, music, knitting, etc. For me, I get to a certain point in the workout where my thoughts finally run quiet, and I’ve come to a certain equilibrium with my internal dialogue. All of the weight of the day has been thoughtfully considered, sorted, and accepted. I think it’s part of the reason I feel so good after a swim, because it wasn’t just a physical release of energy, it was a positive mental experience as well.

Interestingly enough, even though I don’t feel as good when I run, I caught myself going through those same mental exercises on Monday. As hard as a run or a swim gets, I never think – I really wish I had some music to jam to right now. I enjoy all the peace and noise of my thoughts.

Not all exercise is like this for me – put me on a machine like a treadmill or a stationary bike and I need entertainment. Our local gym (when it was open) has an option to sign into your own Netflix account and the few times I had to hit the cardio floor, NCIS & Friends reruns were the only thing getting me through that. But I think all the “natural” (?) forms of exercise as I’ll call it, without a machine or equipment where you are in a pool or open water, or out for a run or a bike, I just like to keep it personal, inside my own head. (Not to mention pretty much every pair of headphones I own fall out of my ears).

I’m missing those mental checkpoints right now in the pool (especially while sheltering in place), but I have to give props to the runs I’ve been complaining about – they’re serving a close second. Sometimes at the end of my swim, I take my cap off, hook my feet over the gutter, and just lay back and float so my ears are underwater. I just like to take in the pool for 30 seconds or so, like a way of saying thank you and appreciating the water around me. Now during my run cool downs, I’ve noticed that same peaceful “thank you” through neighborhood birds (thanks to my daughter’s recent backyard bird watching kick), been able to wave at neighbors I’ve never seen before (from a safe distance) and just generally appreciate the beauty of the outdoors.

So how do you exercise? Music? Podcast? TV in the background? Or just in silent reflection, taking stock of your thoughts and the world around you? However you find that quietness of your thoughts, I urge you to continue to build it into your day. Even if your favorite activity isn’t an option right now, there may be a close second you can turn to.

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