Long runs are extended meditations by way of sensory immersion.
There are the physical sensations from your own body: the furious burn in your legs on big climbs. The gradual accumulation of sweat on your skin. The temperature of the air on your skin. Breath coming in ragged heaves.
Then there are the sensory experiences from the environment: the visual scene, ever-changing with movement through space and the conditions of the day. The smell of the forest. Birds singing, breeze rustling, or your own music playing. The taste of salty-sweet sports drink and carbohydrate bombs every 30 minutes or so.
I've sweat through my clothes. I've run as snowflakes landed and melted on my face. I've been soaked with rain. I've experienced all of those things in a single run.
The sensory smorgasbord isn't limited to the run itself; it continues the rest of the day. Contrast is a key component, where light to major discomfort is fully released in the post-adventure part of the day. Cold to warm. Hot to cool. Hungry to satiated. Focused to relaxed. Strenuous effort to recovery.
That means moments like taking your shoes off. On a cold day, the deep relief of blasting the heat the whole way home. On a hot day, drinking huge gulps of raspberry lemonade while sweat drips down your arms. Showering off the dirt and sweat. Clean, dry clothes. Climbing into the soft cocoon of bed or a couch for some decompression time. Eating enormous quantities of a deliciously prepared, sumptuously flavorful meal. (Exhaustion is the best seasoning.)
Long runs create a broader experience that extends before, during, and after the literal running part. There's a reason that weekly long runs are sometimes given ritualistic names like "church of the Sunday long run".
By nature, I'm a deeply head-oriented person. I get lost in my internal world easily. On good days, my imagination and musings are a rich playground to explore. On bad days, the swell of jumbled thoughts can grow and grow until they swallow me up like an ocean, leaving me disoriented and struggling to find which way is up.
One particular antidote is often prescribed to us in-our-head types: get back into your body. In the mental health field, the idea of feeling fully settled in and connected to one's physical body is referred to as embodiment or being embodied.
Some forms of practicing embodiment are breath work, meditation, yoga, or something of that nature. Those are certainly valuable tools, but for me, the brute force method of big days outdoors cranks up the intensity to something much more powerful. When you're sitting at home trying to meditate, it can feel difficult and awkward to get in touch with a more embodied version of yourself. In the wilderness, with enough time and patience, that feeling comes to me on its own, without conscious effort or force.
At first, I used to ignore or sometimes even resist the sensations that accompany the day-long experience of big training days. If I put too much pressure on myself to rush to the next thing or procrastinate on refueling, it would frequently blunt any lasting grounding effects of my day outside. Putting words to the notion that long runs are a form of sensory immersion not only contextualized and validated what I was feeling, but it served as an impetus to notice and lean into those sensations.
Training goals aside, the ritualistic practice of long runs is deeply grounding. It anchors the week with routine. It brings immersive and intensely satisfying sensory experiences. It makes us more embodied humans, more at home within ourselves.