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7 Rewarding (Expat) Life Lessons I Learned from Running

Not rocket science and not brilliant breakthroughs but I’ve been running for a few years now and recently realized there are 7 life lessons I’ve learned through running that are especially pertinent to leading a balanced, happy (expat) life.   

To back up my thoughts, I polled the Wild Women on the Wall. Their wisdom and learning is included, below.

I found that Confucius, the Chinese Philosopher, seems to agree with some of these sentiments, too so have shared relevant quotes by this eminent thinker. Although by all counts he didn’t learn his lessons while running…

If you want to run, you’ve gotta run. But other forms of exercise certainly support running: strength training helps with hills, yoga gives flexibility & focus on the trail, swimming mixes up your cardio, etc.

In life this means you can usually apply something you learned from one experience to another situation. Even if you think you’ve NEVER done something before there are often nuggets you can use if you think about it. 

The same applies when trying to relate to your children’s experiences. You may not have grown up abroad but maybe you changed schools and remember how difficult it was to make friends. Or perhaps you joined a club that already had established members and routines and you struggled to fit in. This can start to give you an insight into what they may be experiencing.

Practicing balance in Cambodia (too hot to run)

It takes time to go the distance (patience is a virtue)

Noone wakes up one morning and runs an ultra marathon without training for it (unless they’ve been training for something else and can apply that training, see above ;-). The point is we all have to train & practise to get results, to make things easier. This takes time and only works if we don’t overdo it. I see progress in my running not from one week to the next but instead by looking at my statistics over time.

And in (expat) life? For example, when we arrive in a new place we may need a navigation system or a map to find our way around without getting hopelessly lost. Some day you realize you haven’t been using your GPS for a while anymore. Turn by turn you’ve learned your way around over time. 

I believe slow and steady wins the race – everyone else gets exhausted or injured or really, really lost. Be patient with yourself.

It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.
Chinese Philisopher

Preparation & planning are foundations - but flexibility & adaptability make it fun

When I set out to run I usually have a route in mind. This takes some of the mental load off and allows my brain to relax. But sometimes I come upon obstacles or – and this is the fun part – a path that is usually hidden from sight is intriguingly revealed. Then, given the time and my energy levels, I detour. I change my route and see where I end up. 

When I don’t plan well I find myself in the forest or at a turn, unsure where I want to go, how long it will take or how to get home (like during this run). Then I spend time consulting my map and figuring out where I should go from here without going too far and running out of steam (to return on time, as promised to the kids). I don’t enjoy this.

In life I plan and prepare where and what I can. Being flexible about changing plans is not my strength but I am working on that. Often the unplanned detours hold the best adventures – but I’ll make sure we’ve got extra water & snacks just in case.

Expat life, mom life, entrepreneur life, hiking, biking, exploring – this lesson applies to all of them. Plan ahead but be ready to explore and adapt to discover the magic off the beaten trail. In the end it always comes back to balance.

Knowing your why helps with focus and motivation

If I run just to get from A to B I might as well bike or drive. Either would be faster and less strenuous. Obviously that’s not why I run.

I run to get stronger, to see how far I can go, to clear my mind, to train for events I want to participate in, to be part of something, and to have time to myself. I run because I can do it anywhere, any time, with very little equipment. I can’t get all of this from any other sport. This is why I run.

Knowing why you do something helps motivate you to do it. To stay focussed even when it gets hard. But also to change what you’re doing when you don’t have a “why” you can really get behind. You might be an accompanying partner to your expat spouse but you have your own “why” for going abroad. I encourage you to name it and remind yourself of it when the going gets tough. I can help with this if you like.

Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.
Chinese Philisopher

Everything is easier with support

Moving together as a family

While no one can hit the trail for me it makes a huge difference knowing that there are people that have my back, that care, that are curious and support me. Running with someone can be great – I sometimes run with family members – but having the support of a group of peers is really wonderful. 

In 2019 I ran with Wild Women on the Wall on the Great Wall of China (read about it here and here). Three years on I’m still connected with this group of powerful women. We cheer each other on, share wins and fears, challenge each other and run together whenever two Wild Women cross paths anywhere in the world.

The message here is simple: find your tribe. They are out there. If you can’t find them, build your own. Life is easier, better, and more fun together. For starters join this Facebook group of global women or search for a local group where you are.

Here are some of the lessons the Wild Women have to share:

Rest pays off

If you look at any sports training plan, it will always include rest days. Circumstances recently forced me to rest longer than I wanted. When I did get back on the road I felt stronger and ran faster than I had before. 

We also need recovery time. Time for treatment of sport wear & tear / injuries or specific care to help our body restore itself. Physical therapy, stretching, massages, and other routines that might be uncomfortable or feel tedious but contribute to overall, long-term health.

We need rest and we need recovery in sport and life and they aren’t the same. For a more detailed discussion on this listen to this podcast by Sundae Schneider-Bean. 

Living an international life can be exhausting, especially in the first few months. Get rest (there are different types, be sure you get them all) but if you don’t feel refreshed, focus on recovery to really recharge. If none of this is working, please consult a medical professional. Hormones, diet, etc can have a direct impact on how we feel. A consultation on your physical and mental health can hopefully help you find the source of your weariness.

Forest bathing - another form of rest

Sometimes a rest becomes much longer than intended but Confucius has something to say about that, too. So if things don’t go the way you expect or hope, when you’re ready, start again.

Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.
Chinese Philisopher

Success comes in many forms

Success in running doesn’t have to mean getting faster, beating some random time per km. Success can be defined as just getting outside and moving for a bit, as how long you can run consistently, how far you can get before needing a break and improving on that, or how quickly you recover after a run – to name just a few possibilities. 

The same applies to (expat) life. Each of us can and should define success our own way. For me one day success meant driving across Beijing, finding parking and returning home without a scratch or wrong turn. Another day it meant just getting all the kids out the door and ordering pizza for dinner (in itself a win in a foreign language!). 

How we define success changes as we mature and learn. Allowing for this change in definition is a sign of growth and recognition of change and values.

Please don’t let someone else’s definition of success define yours – that includes a younger “you”. Do recognize and celebrate when you are successful – according to your definition.

Which brings me to the final Confucius quote. A less well-known but very pertinent one:

They must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom.
Chinese Philisopher

I'm here to help & support you

If you would like help with any of these steps or to develop your own learning, please contact me using this form or via anna @ for a conversation about mentoring or coaching. I offer individual and group support online and in-person, sitting down or while we walk & talk. 

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