One Dirty Magazine

The Training Benefits of Crying

If you cry sometimes (or a lot of the time), you are not alone

David Roche February 15th, 2021

The Training Benefits of Crying

Running is scary. 

Tomorrow might be a memorable adventure! Or it might be a terrible injury. And if we had a Highlights-style spot-the-differences photo of the two options, the only noticeable change would be a single, little, camouflaged rock at mile 8. Our health is always hanging on by a thread whether we realize it or not. I am pretty sure that ankles and hips and bipedalism generally are evolutionary blunders.

You might feel great, ready to conquer the world! Or you might feel like radioactive sludge. Call it the chaotic whims of our sentient organic-matter containers. Our bodies are made of stardust from ancient supernovas, held together by a combination of universal magic and … I don’t know … day-old bubblegum? It can all seem so miraculous and so fragile at the same time.

But screw all that fatalistic realism, I might say in one of my shoot-your-shot articles. Believe! Believe in the face of uncertainty! The sky is the limit! “Well, then,” Existence responds, “You better call that last run ‘the sky,’ because without even knowing it, you just peaked.” This sport shows us our limits over and over again. Running, like medicine and taxidermy, can provide great insight into the rate of organic matter decay.

Tears of joy. Sad sobs. Bored to tears. Those are all sayings for a reason, and I think they are a part of many more running lives than is reflected in social-media posts or magazine articles. Not only is it OK to cry in and around runs, I think it might just be a sign that you’re paying attention.

So, yes, running has a tendency to turn anyone into a nihilist sometimes. The highest highs and the lowest lows are sharing a three-bedroom suite with the monotonous, in-your-own-head grind. Joy, sadness, boredom all shacked up together. Throw in some endorphin swings and hormonal shifts for good measure.

Tears of joy. Sad sobs. Bored to tears. Those are all sayings for a reason, and I think they are a part of many more running lives than is reflected in social-media posts or magazine articles. Not only is it OK to cry in and around runs, I think it might just be a sign that you’re paying attention.

 

Alright, let’s take a quick step back. 

Why is crying even worth an article? There’s no crying in baseball, but I promise you—there is in trail running. I just want you to know that if you find yourself crying in your life, it’s OK. You’re OK. You’re freaking awesome as you are, moving through the world with eyes and heart open to … whatever “this” is.

I see it in training logs all the time. Athletes cry a lot. Like, a lot a lot. And I think it’s because runners are subsets of humans, which as a species cries a lot. A 2014 study in the Frontiers of Psychology journal reviewed how human crying is a unique evolutionary development as the brain gained processing power. It is truly, deeply, evolutionarily human to cry. Running seems to put people more in touch with their humanity.

But even though crying is common, I often see some shame around it. I wrote this article due to one athlete comment, following an eight-mile run turned into a four-mile run/walk sobbing session. “What is wrong with me?”

If there was a crying punch card, my wife, Megan, would have earned a number of free cups of frozen yogurt. Many of the athletes we coach cry consistently, in running and in life. 

That type of response is normal I think. Running is vulnerable by definition, so add earth-quaking sobs, and it can feel as if a soul is being laid bare on the ground like the contents of an old suitcase. In the moment, I wished I could let that athlete know how normal that experience was. I have cried in runs. If there was a crying punch card, my wife, Megan, would have earned a number of free cups of frozen yogurt. Many of the athletes we coach cry consistently, in running and in life. 

 

On the super-zoomed-out scale, there’s all that big-picture uncertainty from the intro. 

The universe can feel cold and dark and uncertain, our bodies fail, that last season of Game of Thrones exists. Zoom in a bit more, and the neurobiology of crying makes running a possible trigger for everyone. A 2018 article in the Clinical Autonomic Research journal described how crying can be connected to changes in brain chemicals and hormones, both of which are affected by running. Add in the numerous physical sensations of running, some of which may cause tears for good reason (flying freely!) and others for bad reasons (chafing!). 

Mix all of that together in the brains of people that choose running to begin with. An individual sport, playing out between two ears rather than two sidelines, with plenty of chances for self-judgment. Yikes. All GPS watches should come with a voucher for therapy. As should birth certificates.

Crying is not just associated with random neuronal connections, but likely related to a biological need to feel and express emotions. A 2018 article in the Human Nature journal outlined two main evolutionary reasons for crying. First, it may positively influence the outlook on life of the person crying due to the role of emotional expression in brain chemistry and mood. Second, it may promote prosocial behavior in the person crying and those around them.

But what’s most significant I think is the second evolutionary reason: the promotion of prosocial behavior. In our tears, we are signaling to our fellow humans that we are human. And being human is hard, isn’t it? We’re each in the middle of one big being-human interval to failure, and that’s daunting as heck.

That’s incredibly cool. Even when alone on a trail, crying could have benefits. I’ll add a couple to that list. One, sobbing is wonderful core work. Each full-body upheaval engages the abs and obliques in a way that needs to be the next fitness infomercial craze. The Shake-Weight, but for emotions! Second, the hyperventilation sometimes associated with tears could reduce arterial oxygen levels, causing the production of erythropoietin, increasing red blood cells. Yes, crying is a performance enhancer. No one tell the pro cyclists or the peloton will look like act two in a Lifetime movie.

But what’s most significant I think is the second evolutionary reason: the promotion of prosocial behavior. In our tears, we are signaling to our fellow humans that we are human. And being human is hard, isn’t it? We’re each in the middle of one big being-human interval to failure, and that’s daunting as heck.

It’s daunting because the universe doesn’t give a crap. It’s daunting because running is fickle. It’s daunting because Tom Brady won another Super Bowl. Against that chaotic, entropy-driven force, we don’t have much to grab onto. But we do have one thing that can be our secret weapon: each other.

As NFL legend Charles Haley said in an article from The Athletic describing his mental-health journey, “You just have to open your mouth. Your friends might not be doctors, but they will listen. That’s what makes you feel great. You cry together. You laugh together.”

Open up to family and friends and acquaintances, and know that people care. Talk to therapists and psychiatrists and mental-health professionals, and know that mental health is health. You are enough just as you are, always.

 

And whatever you are feeling, you are not alone.

“We are all in this together” has been scrubbed of some meaning by all the multinational conglomerates that used it to sell widgets made by robots at the start of the pandemic. I love that phrase though. Mainly because of the ambiguity of “this.” 

“This” could be the current event that happened yesterday, the moment in time we are all sharing. But I like “this” to put on its heavy-duty trail shoes and do way more work. “This” means existence itself. The beautiful, scary infinity. 

So much (basically everything) is outside of our control. “This” is all temporary, at least for our individually-packaged organic-matter-containers. It’s enough to make anyone want to cry sometimes. We are in that together. Sadness, joy, boredom … it’s all there in an evolutionary way to be felt and to be shared. Crying is a sentience-coping-device that pushes back against the lonely uncertainty of “this.”

So let’s cry together, whether it’s in response to good things or scary things, transcendent runs or death itself. After all, there’s nothing better than a big group run, especially when we’re all heading to the same destination. 

 

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner

 

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