9 Things I Learned At My First Running Retreat

by Erin Nemeth
A coastal running retreat with sea waves breaking on the rocks

I went to St. Lucia for five days in February. While I used five precious vacation days, I didn’t exactly put my feet up to kick back and relax for a much-deserved “break.” Instead, I opted for a running retreat getaway; and no, not because I wanted to punish myself. I registered because I wanted to. Yes, really.

Thanks to a short-lived romance with ClassPass, I discovered my favorite fitness studio, Mile High Run Club (MHRC), a boutique treadmill studio (think SoulCycle, but with treadmills) in New York City last fall. I’ve had a love-hate relationship with running for as long as I can remember, and MHRC’s classes and impressive roster of coaches revived my love for speedwork, and even treadmills. I had spent the year leading up to finding MHRC looking for ways to expand my fitness and running horizons, and fitness retreats (or fitcations, as some call them) seemed to be a viable solution. Unfortunately, my Google searches returned only yoga or meditation retreats. So you can imagine my excitement when, later that December, I found out that MHRC was hosting a running retreat in just a few months, over Valentine’s Day weekend — aptly named, “Love Yourself in St. Lucia.”

Within three days, I called in my deposit and filled out an Athlete Questionnaire, and two months later, I was flying to the Caribbean with 12 strangers to improve my strength and conditioning in the hot, humid heat of St. Lucia. As I soon learned, running retreats are about a lot more than just sweat and sunburns. Here’s what I discovered about myself as a runner, person, and workout partner in just five days:

1. It’s Important To Run My Own Race

Fun (and surprising!) fact: Not everyone on the retreat was a runner. Didn’t see that coming, did you? I’ll be honest, this was something I hadn’t even considered, and I was nervous about how my own running skills would measure up in the group once we arrived. I assumed that anyone willing to take a considerable amount of time and money to work out in an uncomfortably humid climate were all dedicated runners training for a big race on the horizon — and I was a little intimidated.

Instead, the retreat spanned a range of athleticism, from casual runners to non-runners, and race enthusiasts to the sole “I’m just here for vacation” outlier.

At the end of the day, we were all there to better ourselves, and it made for a fabulous judge-free zone. The one who could hold a plank for six minutes wasn’t the strongest runner, and the strongest runner had trouble pumping out more than five push-ups. It was a beautiful reminder to not be intimidated by other runners, and focus on what you’re capable of.

Image: Didier Perilleux/Peps Photography

2. I Learned My Limits… And How To Push Them

I was two months into marathon training at the time of the retreat, and thought I was in perfectly good shape. Well, humidity will check your humility. Not only does a high heat index make runs feel hotter, but it actually causes your core body temperature to spike and prevents your sweat from evaporating.

St. Lucia’s climate tested my tolerance for endurance and strength activities, which prompted an inevitable struggle between beating myself up for thinking I was out of shape, and acknowledging it was a learning experience. The good news? I pushed myself to continue through the heat, assessing myself along the way and coaching myself to calm down in order to help my body respond to heat more efficiently. It reminded me that running is mental, but that my body is more capable than I thought.

Image: Erin Nemeth/Instagram

3. Stepping Out Of My Comfort Zone Brought Big Rewards

The retreat’s “Love Yourself” theme meant I could partake in four happiness lectures that involved sitting in a circle, lighting candles, and sharing our thoughts and feelings. I’ll be honest — I wasn’t stoked about that.

And yet, I found myself observing, absorbing, and answering our coach’s questions, including, "What makes you happy?", "What doesn’t?", "Where do you want to be in life right now?", and, "Why aren’t you there?" As it turns out, there’s science behind how our brains tend to think (and misjudge) what will make us happy. So answering questions I hadn’t been willing to ask myself before, or had failed to take the time to consider, actually helped me explore what could make me happier in the future.

Image: Didier Perilleux/Peps Photography

4. Finding Balance Isn’t Easy, But It’s Very Necessary

Morning workouts were full of squats, sprints, push-ups, and planks; afternoon workouts found us running through the hills of Pigeon Island; and evening sessions were for serious stretching and yoga. After each session, I walked away feeling stronger, accomplished, and great about myself.

What helped keep me feeling positive was the fact that we indulged in delicious, healthy, and hearty meals after each workout. Rewarding myself with real food after hard workouts was a beautiful balance, and far from the horror stories I’ve heard of retreats that offer raw and vegan food only. I’m all about “clean energy,” but with three workouts a day, the satisfying taste of Cap Maison’s fresh fish and local ingredients (and yes, a Scottish egg if I felt like it) was a nice equilibrium of enjoyment and work across the board.

Image: Didier Perilleux/Peps Photography

5. I Really Should Be Stretching More

Emphasis on really. Regardless of what type of workouts you typically do, you should be stretching often. At a running retreat where you’re putting your body through morning and afternoon workouts, there’s a strong urge to crawl directly into bed post-shower and ignore the feeling of soreness sneaking into your muscles.

Our third daily session was dedicated to stretching for a reason, and showed us basic stretching exercises that you can easily do at home for maximum benefits. You probably know stretching helps prevent injuries, but if we’re getting technical, stretching increases blood flow to the muscles, fights soreness, and even reduces cholesterol.

Image: Didier Perilleux/Peps Photography

6. Pacing Is Easier With Partners

In the months leading up to St. Lucia, the majority of my runs had been alone. Between moving from Manhattan (to the boroughs) and longer work hours, I found myself having trouble keeping my miles evenly paced without my usual steady-striding friends.

On a running retreat, you’ll find a Goldilocks: someone who’s not too fast, not too slow, but just right. In this case, I was lucky enough to find two people who were as steady as they come — hills, heat, and all. Having someone to help pace me and push me through the hills of Pigeon Island made running more enjoyable (and efficient)!

Image: Didier Perilleux/Peps Photography

7. Making Friends As An Adult Isn’t As Scary As It Sounds

When I moved to New York City, it took me eight months until I finally found friends, mostly through a workout group called The Rise. In St. Lucia, I found myself making friends very quickly, and very easily. Despite drastically different backgrounds, we were happy to have common ground and form our friendships around that. Different people bring all kinds of experiences, backgrounds, and life advice to the table, and I’m happy to say I still see and hang out with the friends I met at the retreat.

Image: Didier Perilleux/Peps Photography

8. But… I Don't Have To Be Friends With Everyone

I expected to like and get along with everybody on the retreat, which happened for the most part. Just as some friendships form quickly, others fizzle. Instead of forcing the strain of a fake friendship though, I let it be. Remember, the retreat’s theme was “Love yourself,” not, “Love that person who doesn’t jive with your vibe.”

Image: Erin Nemeth/Instagram

9. Sometimes, It Takes A Challenge To Reignite Motivation

Five days of improving your mental and physical health is arguably more productive than five days of sheer relaxation. I am a huge believer in taking vacation, as there are numerous health benefits associated with it. While the productivity mindset is purely personal in this case, I found myself heading home equal parts relaxed, productive, and energized. I felt ready to return to reality and make moves with my running goals, career, and personal happiness.

If nothing else, a running retreat will give you serious perspective… and in my case, no regrets.

Image: Didier Perilleux/Peps Photography