Courtesy Andrew Maguire (for Merrell)
I can’t believe I did that.
The words flashed through my head over and over like a GIF as I walked alongside thousands of exhausted runners to exit Central Park. I’d just crossed the finish line of the TCS New York City Marathon—my first 26.2—and my cheeks, wrinkled up to my eyes, ached almost as much as my legs. When a photographer snapped a picture, I broke out in happy tears until a weird but powerful calm came over me. I can’t. Believe. I did that.
It’s a sentiment I’d chased several times over the past year, the first on a rock-climbing trip in Joshua Tree National Park, then during an intensive hike up two “14ers” (mountain slang for Colorado’s multiple peaks exceeding 14,000 feet). I’d spent months training for each of the three events, dedicating weekdays and Saturdays to workouts and Sundays to recovery—or self-care, as we call it: I foam-rolled, pretzeled my limbs in candlelit yoga, read novels in bed, splurged on $11 smoothies, slathered my skin and hair in masks…you know, the works. Yet even on my most Zen days, nothing came close to the perfect peace I felt after pushing my body to a point it had never been.
At first, the fitness editor in me chalked up the bliss to endorphins. But as I melted into the massage table at Connecticut’s serene Mayflower Inn & Spa one day post-marathon, oh-so-sore but—for the first time since the Colorado hike six weeks prior—completely stress-free, I suspected there was a much deeper force at play.
I was right. “Self-care isn’t just about treating yourself—it’s about improving yourself, which is what truly makes us feel good about who we are,” says mind-body expert Joseph Cardillo, author of Body Intelligence. “Tackling a serious physical challenge, especially one that involves consistent training, is one of the best steps you can take to increase your pride.” (P.S. “Serious” doesn’t have to mean mountains and marathons; it might be a 10-K or a yogi headstand.)
Why the big impact? Partly because you can literally see yourself improve. I remember the euphoric satisfaction I felt when I finally hit 18 miles, my “scary mileage” (much like a “scary age”), then surpassed it three times during my marathon training. But it’s also because the greater the challenge, the greater the reward. Trekking the first 14er was incredible—a cardio feat I wasn’t sure my sea level–accustomed body could manage. But summiting the second one left me feeling unstoppable, capable of anything.
“When you tolerate a situation that scares you, and do so long enough that you’re able to change the self-doubting, self-judging, ‘who do I think I am?’ script we all know too well, that’s self-care at its finest,” says Elvira G. Aletta, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Buffalo, New York. “You develop a profound type of trust, the kind that comes from overcoming fear, listening to your body, and becoming your own cheerleader. And it compounds with each mini event leading up to the main one.” It’s an expanding cycle of growth: Trust builds confidence, confidence builds self-worth, self-worth builds self-love, and self-love builds, well, a stronger, more compassionate, better you.
Psst…There’s catharsis in movement, Cardillo says, but your challenge doesn’t have to be physical. Anything beneficial that improves you—going back to school, conquering a fear of heights—counts as meaningful self-care.
Plus, if you’re working through an emotionally taxing life experience—in my case, a bad breakup—the pursuit and achievement of sweaty, dirty, happy goals can be especially nurturing. “The mind-body connection is a two-way street,” Cardillo says—as in, just as your head can dictate your athletic limits, seeing how far you can physically go will help you realize your incredible inner strength. He’s spot-on about the parallel. No amount of essential oils helped me get over my ex, but as I pushed myself forward with each step, I couldn’t help but feel as if I were leaving him and our toxic past behind. If that’s not self-care, I don’t know what is.
While I’m not sure what my next proverbial finish line will be, I am certain of this: I will believe I did that. Because I’ve finally learned what it means to not just care for myself, but to care about myself. And there’s no room for “can’t” in that picture.