Running and Therapy As Forms of Play

I discovered running in 2012.  In 2015, I ran my first marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.  I am no longer running long distances but I do still run and participate in shorter races and therefore reap the physical and psychological benefits of this activity.

One psychological benefit of running is the elusive and mysterious runner’s high, which I define as the state of elation, freedom, and spirituality that can occur while running.  I am not aware of an agreed-upon definition of this state but all runners will know what I am talking about.  I have experienced this phenomenon on both casual runs and during races.  (Hint:  You don’t have to be a fast runner to experience this.) 

In my favorite book about running, “The Courage To Start,” John Bingham writes:

“In the end, it is this state of being both inside and outside of oneself that best describes a runner’s high.  It is that delicious moment when you realize that, on the one hand, you know yourself better than you ever have, and on the other hand, you don’t know yourself at all.”

The above passage about the runner’s high is reminiscent of Donald Winnicott’s transitional space.  The famous child analyst discussed psychotherapy as a form of play.  He refers to the playground (therapy) as the “transitional space,” or the “potential space,” an intermediate area between psychic reality and external reality.  The runner’s high as I have experienced it does seem to involve a collapse of the boundary between my internal experience and what is going on around me. 

I have also experienced something akin to the runner’s high in the therapy room with clients.  In therapy, these moments are rare and precious and can rarely be captured with words.  They feel like moments of deep connection and understanding.  They can feel like electricity, or a new energy that has entered the consulting room.  Sometimes they happen concurrently with achieving a new insight, either about a client or about myself.   In these moments, I feel very focused, yet relaxed.  It’s similar to a state of “flow.”  It’s a euphoria that feels very similar to a runner’s high.   Like Bingham describes, it is being both “inside and outside of oneself.” 

So is running then also a type of transitional space?  In considering my experience with running and therapy (on both sides of the couch), I have concluded that running is a type of transitional space.  (I realize that this phenomenon may not be unique to running but might extend to other types of physical activities.) 

Bolstering my idea about running as a transitional space, George Sheehan, in Running and Being, writes about running as play and specifically about timelessness in running:

My fight is not with age. Running has won that battle for me. Running is my fountain of youth, my elixir of life. It will keep me young forever. When I run, I know there is no need to grow old. I know that my running, my play, will conquer time.

This concept of play recurs throughout Sheehan’s book.  The concept of timelessness is certainly an aspect of play in therapy as I have experienced it.  Sometimes, when these moments are occurring between me and my client, the time seems to fly by.  Before we both know it, the hour has come to an end and neither was aware of the passage of time because we were so deeply engaged in the “play” of therapy, which in this setting, is the exchange of words, thoughts, feelings, and ideas. 

While running and therapy appear to have much in common as far as the concept of the transitional space goes, they are also different, each with unique elements.  Popular coffee mug slogans might tell you that running is the only therapy you need.  While this might be true for some, for others there really is no substitute for good psychotherapy when in need of emotional support or concrete help with difficult life events. 

And if running isn’t your thing, there are many other ways to play as an adult.  Riding a bicycle, board games, playing an instrument, crafting, or even just getting together with friends can constitute adult forms of play. 

If you are a runner and a therapist, I’d love to hear from you on whether you think running (or the runner’s high) might qualify as a type of transitional space. 

Rachel Freedman