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The 4-word trauma recovery strategy I learned from long-distance trail running

Updated: Apr 8, 2023

photo credit- Nic Stover Photography

I did a lot of long-distance trail running earlier in my life. And I learned quite quickly that going out too fast, too hard or being ‘pulled’ by others who were ahead of me on a course…ultimately could lead to a DNF (did not finish).

So I had to learn how to pay attention to my body, as well as read and respond to the changing terrain. Staying on course with recovery isn’t much different.

Running on trail is far different than running on road. Trail running covers a mix of terrain and often has an undulating landscape. Sometimes the trail is smooth, sometimes it’s rocky. You may find yourself flying effortlessly over a long, smooth, pine-needled path…followed immediately by a steep, thigh-crushing, rock-laden hill. And if the trail is new to you, you won’t know exactly what’s coming next or when. So, there’s not a lot of planning you can do in advance. That is… except to have a strategy for getting through the terrain you'll encounter. A strategy that keeps you on the course for the duration and avoids you getting that dreaded…DNF.

The same strategy I used to run long-distances has helped me with my recovery work or personal growth when times were hard . And it prevented me from “bonking”...(running out of energy to the point where you completely stop moving, or stop doing the work) …before I got to the state and experience I was working towards.

In other words, the same strategy that helped me complete a 100k trail running course, is the same one I used in my personal growth and recovery.... as I worked towards the life and relationships I really wanted.

But before I share it, let me take a moment to describe a few more terms for any non-runners who are reading this.

Some trail running vocabulary

STRIDE LENGTH – this is the amount of terrain your legs cover in a single step.

TURNOVER RATE – how quickly each foot hits the terrain, moves you over it and then hits the next section of terrain. It describes the speed of a cycle of consumption.

PACE – the average overall time it takes to cover a certain a distance. It describes your average speed, and is often measured in smaller units like over a mile or over a kilometer

On flat, predictable terrain, advanced level athletes can train their bodies to mix LONG STRIDE LENGTHs with HIGH TURNOVER to create a really fast average PACE (like a 5 minute mile!). But on an unpaved, single-track, rolling trail…it’s a different story.

Trail running terrain varies so much that if those same road-running athletes tried to consistently maintain a 5-minute mile over a long-distance course, they’d either fall apart (“bonk"), leave the course or get injured. And if you’re a novice to trail running and not paying attention, Mother Nature will teach you a hard lesson very quickly which….could turn you off from the sport entirely, before you even got to see its benefits.

The strategy

So here’s the recipe for how I learned to run ‘long’ while still enjoying it. And I’ve used this same strategy with my personal growth and recovery work for the last seven years.

By using this one strategy in two different contexts, I went from being able to only run10 minutes before stopping, to being able to complete a 100k trail and….

I was able to recover my mental health and marriage from the brink of of their own ‘DNF’.

The strategy is pretty simple to memorize: ADJUST, but DON'T STOP.

That’s it.

It’s that simple. And it’s that effective.

Let’s run some examples.

On trail

When the running-trail was smooth and flat, I would run a moderate pace, with medium strides and a turnover rate that didn’t exhaust me. I could run like this for a long time if the terrain never changed.

When I hit a hill, I shortened my stride, and decreased my turnover (shorter steps), thus decreasing my pace…. but while still moving forward.

When I got to the end of a hard hill, I didn’t immediately surge to ‘make up lost time’. Instead, I gave myself a few ‘easy miles’ to breathe, do an ‘active recovery’….maybe walking a bit but again…..still moving forward. Then I’d pick up that moderate pace and stride again, as I could.

If I hit an easier downhill stretch – woohoo! I opened it up with longer strides and a faster turnover, gleefully gobbling up distance. But if the joyful downhill terrain was a bit ‘tricky’, I’d still have to pay attention and adjust by mixing in a faster turnover with a shorter stride while still enjoying the relief. That way I didn’t set myself back by tripping and falling because I wasn't being mindful along the way.,

In daily life

By now, if you've been part of the Human Infusion Project community for a while, you've learned that lasting, sustainable change requires more than twice a month therapy visits. You've got to do daily, consistent work to make those new neural pathways stick. Skip a day? You run the risk of old habits (pathways) creeping back in, especially in the first year of recovery. So this strategy helps you keep up that daily work. Here's how to use it.

On easier days

When you're graced with some ‘easier’ days, where no major unpredictable event happens that challenges you or throws you off-guard….keep doing your daily growth or recovery work in a steady, moderate way. Don’t try to ‘take in’ too much, just because you're feeling good.

An overload of information won’t register because your brain can’t consolidate and organize what you’re taking in, if the quantity is too high or too fast. This is like your ‘stride length’ being too long when you run. It can eventually exhaust you even if the terrain isn't that tough.

On challenging days

When challenging days do come up, adjust…but don’t stop or skip your daily work.

Maybe you need to shorten your mediation that day. Maybe you need to take a break from that intensive class you’re taking and read a chapter from an easier recovery book instead. Maybe because you’re short on time in the morning, you need to listen to a podcast on the drive home instead.

Temporarily changing either the intensity , the duration or the manner of doing your daily recovery work, will keep you doing it more consistently. Even if on some days, it feels like a fraction of the work or effort you typically put in....just do something. You brain is still getting a workout by getting through the challenge of the stressful day without relapsing into old behaviors. You’ve just switched from ‘book work’ to live 'life-lab practice’.

And remember, you don’t need to get it perfectly ‘right’ to make a difference. Just keep it up. Consistency and quality is far more important than perfection.

Think of modifying the intensity and amount of your personal work while still doing it… like shortening your running stride and decreasing your pace when you hit a steep hill. You've adjusted. But you’re still moving forward.

Active recovery - it really is a 'thing'.

So once you get a break from those challenging days (the “hill” days) don’t just zoom ahead to try and catch up in your recovery or growth. Breathe. Let yourself have a few more days of shortened, less intense work while….still doing some work.

This is called ACTIVE RECOVERY. It’s slower and restorative… but still keeps you moving forward.

Most people have never heard of the phrase ‘Active Recovery’. Many people believe they only have two options: to be ACTIVE or be RECOVERing from being active and now doing nothing. But in reality, you can actually do BOTH, at the same time….. if you operate at a slower pace while doing it. Active recovery. It's a real thing.

When those easier days return

And finally, when you hit those wonderful ‘downhills’ in life….. like vacations, days where things are really going your way and you can see how your effort is changing your life and relationships…. enjoy them! Turn it up! Gobble up that goodness when you have it.

Yet remember to be mindful within your exuberance. So you don’t misstep on ‘tricky terrain’ (like our other people’s different experience, their sensitivities and a harder day they may be having)… and have an avoidable setback. You can do both - enjoy your life while being mindful of the lives around you.

The outcome of practice

Over time, your ability to read and sense the upcoming terrain of your life will improve. Like learning to read a topography map that shows all the hills and valleys, with practice you’ll be able to sense and see signs of potential life stressors in advance…. and plan accordingly as needed

Summing it up

ADJUST YOUR ‘STRIDE’ as needed. How much work you do, or how long you do it.

ADJUST YOUR ‘TURNOVER’ as needed. How quickly you process your current recovery work before moving onto new subjects and….

INCLUDE ‘ACTIVE RECOVERY’ instead of just completely skipping days after a tough stretch. This is a form of self-care.

Said differently, pay attention to your body, adjust as needed but without stopping completely, and then pick up the pace after you’ve graced yourself with some active recovery after a hard stretch.

By using this Adjust-but-Don’t-Stop strategy you’ll cover a lot of ground in your personal work without exhaustion, your overall pace will be more consistent and you far less likely to ‘bonk’ or quit.

Please do everything you can to stay in recovery and heal from your past.

We need you, with everything you’re learning… out there in the world.

So try out this strategy and see if it helps you go 'long' and avoid your own DNF.

You can do it.

I’m pulling for you.


The Human Infusion Project is a philanthropic, personal development platform that draws from the combined fields of modern brain science, applied psychology and spiritual philosophy. Our mission aims to augment and supplement the work of professional practitioners in simplified, practical and affordable ways. 100% of all online class proceeds funds the Wellness Assistance Grant.

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