Learning to listen (or why I don’t mind ‘failing’ a challenge)

I was on a training course recently where we did a couple of exercises to do with listening. You would think it would be easy but actually these exercises were a great reminder of how hard it can be to really listen. Someone is talking, you latch on to a particular comment or topic and your own brain starts whirring into action, pulling up your own memories or experiences to enable you to empathise or comment.

But it’s not just listening to others that is key. Listening to ourselves is also important. And, regretfully, often overlooked.

Some years ago, I decided to run a marathon. I gave myself plenty of time to train (I’m not a natural runner) and planned in longer and longer runs. It all seemed to be going fine. I was on course to run the distance well under my target time and although I sometimes found it hard to fit everything in, I thought I was physically doing well.

And then disaster. Six weeks before race day, I made the mistake of no longer listening to my body. I was working 6 days a week, often until 9 or 10pm. My eating habits were erratic at best and my sleep patterns were wildly disrupted. My auto-immune condition went into overdrive; I was under stress but failed to recognise it and my body started to suffer the consequences. I ran out of energy, picked up bugs and could barely run 3 miles, let alone 26. Yet, in spite of being physically and mentally exhausted, I pushed myself more and more. I finished the run but it took me an hour longer than it should have and, even worse, I had depleted my body so much it took months to get back to feeling normal.

More recently, a friend challenged me to do a 15 mile run with him. There were only 7 weeks until the race. A prolonged bout of emotional stress had left me fatigued and with little incentive or energy to exercise but I thought this might kickstart me so I agreed.

However, this time, I was determined to do it right. No more ignoring what my body was saying and no more pushing myself to ridiculous limits. I decided from the outset that attempting to run the entire way would be foolish and severely detrimental to my overall health so opted for a more realistic ‘run a bit, walk a bit’ option, with no targets on time or how far I would actually run, other than to complete the distance.

Race day duly arrived and nerves kicked in. I was anxious about completing the distance safely and how I would feel after but luckily for me, my friend was there to reassure me. And so I accepted that it really didn’t matter if I came last or if I ran slower than everyone else or if I walked a lot of the way or if I didn’t even complete the course. And with that acceptance came relief. I relaxed into the run having given myself the freedom not to set any targets other than one – listening to what my body was saying and only doing what I could do without damaging my health and well-being. Basically, I gave myself permission to ‘fail’ the challenge if the physical consequences of completing it outweighed the benefits.

So did I fail? In the end, I ran about two thirds of the way and walked the rest, so in theory you could say I ‘failed’ the challenge to run 15 miles. But I got up the next day feeling great – no aches or pains, no physical exhaustion, no need for a lengthy recovery. And in my book, I’m putting that one down as a win.


Posted in Well-being.