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Trail Tips

Just Say No to F.O.M.O.

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As I’m writing this, it’s a beautiful sunny day where I am sitting in Boulder, Colorado. It’s 76 degrees and runners are passing by on the trails out the front door. I hear birds chirping the same thing over and over, which I think roughly translates to: “Hey, you coward. Go outside. And do something. Epic.”

But it’s a Monday, which for me is a rest day. The rest day is the most important training day of the week, when I hopefully adapt to past training and rejuvenate for the week to come. I could definitely give into the chirping and go do a mountain adventure right now. However, giving into that impulse would be really risky, and it could undermine lots of future adventures. So, birds, with all due respect, shut your stupid beaks.

RELATED: It’s OK To Slow Down And Embrace Chill-Paced Adventure

That chirping in my brain is a low-level case of FOMO, or fear of missing out. A 2013 article in the journal Computers in Human Behavior defined FOMO as a “pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.” FOMO is usually characterized as a social-media problem, but research indicates that it’s more of a problem of human nature.

It’s similar to the famous study that hooked up a rat to a sensor that allowed it to push a button to administer itself a hit of dopamine. The rat proceeded to push the button at the exclusion of all else until it would have died. Our brains want the hit so badly that we’ll sometimes undertake self-destructive behaviors to get it.

FOMO can be a huge problem in running because every adventure is like pushing that dopamine-release button. We see all of these people on social media seemingly pushing that button all the time, seemingly happy, seemingly healthy. So we go up that mountain! We do that extra workout! We adventure our butts off and get a few amazing Instagram photos in the process! Pushing that button feels so good, whether you are on social media or not.

The problem is that our brains and bodies operate on different timelines. I have always thought that one thing that unites athletes is a short memory. How many times have you been struggling in a race, cursing the gods that brought you to that point, only to finish and be perusing the race calendar by that evening? The brain barely cares that the body is shelled. “Hey, legs!” the brain says. “See that button? LET’S PUSH IT AGAIN. Everyone else is!”

But the body needs more time. To the brain, a Saturday adventure might seem like ancient history by Monday morning, particularly with all the race results you read about in the meantime. To the body, delayed onset soreness might still be 24 hours from peaking, hormonal effects still lingering, glycogen not yet refilled. While the brain is fearful of missing out, the body is thinking, OH, GOD, PLEASE LET ME RELAX AND MISS OUT ON MORE TRAUMA. Sometimes, the brain can get to a button-pushing climax that means nothing short of epic event registers.

FOMO is something almost all of us feel, and it can motivate self-destructive behavior. At the same time, adventures are freaking awesome. So how can you navigate the murky waters, adventuring with both mental and physical health in mind?

The mountains will be there next week and next month. There are tons of adventures you can have. But you only get one body, and one shot to find out what it’s capable of.

The key is thinking about your long-term development and delving down into your motivations to make sure it’s not fear that’s motivating you. That fear might be of missing out on good things like fun, training or passion. But over time, as Anakin and [Game of Thrones character name deleted to avoid spoilers] could attest to, negative emotions like fear or anger only lead to the dark side.

For runners, that means injuries, stalled growth and burnout. There’s a reason that beautiful, stoke-filled places like Boulder are full of athletes that never develop to their full potential, or far worse, grow to resent the very thing they used to love.

Here are four guidelines to think about (in case you have a fear of missing out on listicles).

Injuries are related to acute and chronic stress

The body doesn’t know miles, it knows stress. Every run we do adds to the stress bucket, along with every early wake-up with a young child, every work presentation and every moment of screaming at the TV during Game of Thrones finale. FOMO rests on comparison to other people, but remember that those other people live different lives and have different stress tolerances. Trying to do the training or adventuring of people living different lives is a quick ticket to mental and physical breakdown.

Follow your heart and have fun, but your body doesn’t really care about how much stoke you have. Monitor how you feel and give your body time to recover from full-life stress.

Adaptation happens in periods of recovery

You aren’t a sled dog. It’s an unfortunate fact. As outlined in Scientific American in 2008, sled dogs adapt to major training stimuli in just 24 to 48 hours. So while the dogs show the same breakdown as human counterparts after exercise begins, within a few days, those effects reverse. The dogs can actually get stronger as an event progresses.

Meanwhile, humans break down. Imagine a hard mountain climb, repeated daily. The first hard day will be strong. The second and third might still be strong in a well-trained athlete that is conserving some energy. By the end of a week, most athletes will be a husk of a human, stumbling through severe fatigue, putting out little power on greater effort. Meanwhile, a sled dog training buddy will just be getting started.

Training works through stimuli-and-adaptation processes, repeated thousands of times. Without recovery, we all get weaker. Sometimes, that can be obvious examples like the daily mountain climb above. But it can also be less clear moments like stringing together too many races in a row, or feeling like you need another weekend to recover after every adventure-filled weekend. What I see all the time in FOMO-plagued athletes is that they think they are close to their potential, when in reality they never give their body the empty spaces to get in the vicinity of what they could do genetically.

Every good adventure involves some breakdown. Make sure there is enough time to build back up.

Long-term thinking can make future adventures stronger

This is the big one, and it’s the one that breaks my heart the most. I’ll tell an anonymous story to illustrate it. An athlete I coach recently shared a message from one of their friends. In essence, it boiled down to saying that their love of the mountains, trails and nature wasn’t pure. Pure, true love would mean adventuring at every opportunity, not doing lame workouts or rationing out weekly adventures. Essentially, the athlete was a goody-two-shoes sell-out.

Meanwhile, that athlete has one of the purest loves I know. They are adapting to training, thinking long term so that each adventure is full of purpose-driven flow. The adventures are faster, sure. But most importantly, they are more fulfilling and sustainable.

The mountains will be there next week and next month. There are tons of adventures you can have. But you only get one body, and one shot to find out what it’s capable of.

RELATED: The Flip Side of FOMO

Self acceptance probably isn’t found on a summit

If you’re reading this, you probably agree that running is pretty darn awesome. Just never lose sight of the fact that no run, no race, no outcome of any day will fundamentally change who you are or what you think of yourself. Self acceptance is an internal journey.

Those people posting Instagram photos of mountain summits? They might be deeply unhappy. The pro scaling the unscalable summit for the eighth time? Possibly full of self loathing. We can all know that intuitively, but still … it looks so fun. Gosh, won’t I feel better about myself, about existence itself, if I get out there again? If I don’t do that, who am I really? Definitely not a worthy adventurer, I’ll tell you that much.

Stop. Full stop. As tempting as that thought process is, mental health is almost never an external journey on the trails or summits or finish lines. All those things might contribute to the internal journey in a positive way, but they can rarely be the focus of the journey itself. If you struggle with existence sometimes (aka if you’re human), trail therapy is great, but therapy therapy is often better. Plus, embracing the process and all the mundane daily moments you repeat hundreds of times can make every day an adventure, even if it’s an adventure around the block.

So chase passion, love, joy, adventure and everything in between. Just don’t do it for fear of missing out on something that you’ll never really find on the trails.

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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