Finding Escapism through Exercise by Susan Sutherland

Definition – the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.

In our modern day and age it is difficult to fully understand and find ‘Escapism’. With all our gadgets and ways of staying connected and to keep safe (for example my watch even keeps me updated with texts when I am running or cycling) means it is hard to part from the live feeds and updates from friends. Another reason, it can be difficult is when you have a million things to do on a day to day basis, you simply don’t have the time to free yourself up to find the time for yourself to read a book or take a bath let alone exercise.

Personally I feel like there needs to be more time made for exercise, in order to find balance and to ensure we find that escapism we desperately need, because too often we cannot see the wood for the trees. During this time I put aside for myself to exercise I generally like to disconnect my phone from my watch, and put my phone on vibrate so I am not contactable for that length of time…. However if this is a long training session, I do have a look at my phone from time to time just in case here has been an emergency – which arguably means I am not fully disconnecting! I used to put my phone on aeroplane mode, but with distances getting longer on the bike (+5hrs), my dad decided he needed to be able to follow me on maps to ensure if I had a problem he could find me, which I understood.

It is refreshing to have your own thoughts without the common options of thinking – ‘I could google that’ or ‘I need to tell this person something’ or ‘I really need to do this, I should just sort it now’ or the most common ‘I wonder if they have responded, I’ll just check if they have been online and read my last message’. That time to let these worries and thoughts go to one side of a general to do list is truly beneficial to me and my wellbeing, as you can consider the bigger picture, or focus on certain aspects and its then that you start to escape.

What does this mean to you with regards to Exercise?

With different levels of fitness, this can mean different things to different people. Where you find your zone of ‘distraction’ and positivity is down to your own personal preference. It’s finding that, which is key.

Some struggle to find this depending on fitness level or exposure to different activities, and the personal mental mind game of ‘can I do this?’ is definitely an area of struggle I found in order to take up certain sports. I took until I was 26 before I considered triathlon let alone took part in one and the training surrounding it, and that was due to purely wanting to finish an Ironman… nothing to do with the interest of the three disciplines! Some may perceive this to be young, but in the grand scheme for me its quite late on in my development in fitness as I had been interested in it for a long time, but the learning curve took a huge swing as soon as I started running.

I started running 3-4years previously, and quickly got from my first 10km race to marathon in that space as this was my escapism as I processed a lot of information from my work through my running. Every pounding of the pavement gave me more satisfaction and the less need for crossing roads and having a distraction, the better as I could filter through issues of the day. Things that had happened to me, things I had potentially addressed in the wrong way. Things I still needed to learn and improve on, by having races as targets to achieve this gave me the excuse to have to go run and make deliberate time for it.

Generally this is a safe zone I have been known to find solutions for things going on in my life. Where the source for this is for you could be anywhere, yoga, running, weight lifting, fencing etc. I think it is important to find this area where you can mentally process your thoughts without any pressure from other people or time limits, if your mind is concentrating on what you need to do next – your mind wont get lost in what you are doing.

Escaping current problems to find happiness?

To me this means something different, not so much escaping my problems but more to process and take time to consider opportunities which could create happiness. Embracing a different part of life and getting to the point where things no longer seems to be an issue. For example if you are going to go on a long journey and you don’t enjoy travel, this can be a time to visualise and process the potential things which could need problem solved and what actions you can take to resolve them. When my husband and I went on our honeymoon to Bali, I couldn’t wait to be there because of how beautiful it is but the travel and having to jump on 2 long haul flights frightened me. I took time to visualise, and think about what options I could have to resolve my fears when I was running, and this really helped as I was over prepared and the time actually went quite quickly. By visualising meant that when the reality happened, it gave me space to think – this is completely different! As my benchmark was my imagination, and reality was… reality.

A lot of the time when I am pushing hard in interval training, I focus on the target (this is a mental thing I use a lot for swimming at the moment) – why am I doing this and what is it for, because without that the effort level simply reduces because fundamentally…. What is the point? My target and focus generally is how good am I going to be coming over the finish line in Ironman. Am I going to look strong or like a broken woman who could have worked a little harder in her training?! Understanding the benefits of every training session is key, because if you aren’t able to escape and be in the moment – your effort is reduced and your output has depreciated meaning your time isn’t as effective. One happy place and ‘engagement with fantasy’ that I like to focus on is my family and friends reactions of supporting me during a race. This tends to be something that motivates me, in my last Ironman event I was really struggling in the run because of hip issues and my focus for the second half of the run was how happy I will be when I get a hug from my husband when I get over the finish line. The thought got me emotionally engaged, and pushed me to get out of a difficult head space during the race. Unfortunately in reality I didn’t get the hug because I smelled disgusting and had a lot of dried sweat salt stuck to me, but the fantasy and happy place for me truly play a part in ensuring I pushed and got over the finish line! This is truly a motivational focus for me, it may not be for everyone but having that satisfaction of knowing people are cheering you on – they have travelled to watch you take part in an event and they are proud of me regardless of finishing time, is something that definitely motivates me.

Finding your escapism – Trial and error

When I originally got interested in health and fitness I was a teen, who went to the gym because that’s what the cool kids did! I first was obsessed with cardio, and then moved on to weights but this was never a huge interest for me, as it was more a sociable place and it was about who you saw and what you knew. I tended to stay attached to my phone as well during this time, so it was also a time I would sit and creep on social media in between sets – so being easily distracted from my workout rather than focusing on what I was doing and living in the moment so at the time I didn’t really think about escapism but I decided I needed to find another way to exercise.

As I have mentioned running became my focus as I got to the end of university, and to be honest this was by accident and was definitely not my escapism to begin with! One of my first runs that I ever completed I had to lie down on a bench half way through because I was hungover and I was really struggling. A woman even came to ask me if I was ok and needed any assistance! Fast forward 6years and I wont even stop and sit down during an Ironman Marathon, so the growth and mental strength has changed drastically! But the point is it was an activity that made me feel good, I didn’t need to show off to anyone or be sociable. Running became time I spent on myself, without the need to feel pressure from the way I looked or the way I dressed or the way I moved. The only pressure I really feel from this is now due to my desire to race and improve on times I have PB’d previously, but that is internal pressure that comes from within and not from society or others.

This development into being motivated to train for races became a big thing for me, and so the time spent hitting the pavement had so many different levels of importance to me. The race and being able to achieve distances was something that would give me more confidence, but I had purpose to be running. So the days when I didn’t want to be out running, are normally the days I need it the most and so by having goals and set agendas meant that I would force myself to take the gap of escapism, think of the positive and disconnect from the digital world around me. Doing this also helped my confidence as I wouldn’t want to go outside and be seen exercising in the past – I was scared of what people would think of me. Fast forward to now being a cyclist, and wearing helmets because I am terrified of what could happen if I don’t shows huge growth for me as I no longer care what I might look like to others. So finding escapism has branched into so many different areas for me, that originated in simply wanting to be fit and…. Look after myself.

One thing I would say is that many do struggle to find their escapism through exercise, don’t worry. It’s a process, and I know that not everyone loves running. That is a fact, that non-runners think runners don’t know! But there are alternatives, my husband uses walking hills as his and so is not something that he can do often but is something he finds important. He will do general fitness on a day to day basis but that acts as maintenance so that he can walk up hills whenever he can. For mental health and having time looking after yourself is invaluable, we only get one shot at this life and so I am of the impression that finding that ‘me’ time is so important to ensure we live long and healthy lives.