For most of my life I’ve hated running. Memories of the dreaded school cross-country run have always haunted me, and after leaving school I steadfastly avoided running at all costs. The only time I’d do it was if I was late for something – racing along in my coat, gasping for breath, my face turning puce. Not something I’d choose to do.
But over the last few months something miraculous has happened: I’ve actually started to like running. I suffer from chronic back pain, and I’d been in the exercise doldrums since having a particularly bad episode last year. Previously I’d been doing a lot of high intensity exercise routines (from the comfort of my own living room, guided by the wonderful Davina). These left me feeling fit and toned, but were not very kind to my back.
After months without doing anything more strenuous than walking, I felt unfit, and unmotivated. My husband runs a lot and he is currently training and fundraising for the London Marathon. If someone else loves something, inevitably it begins to rub off on you too. I began to wonder if I too should have a go.
Where should you start? You can spend ages agonising over the best way to do something, but usually the best thing to do it is to just get out and do it. And one morning over the Christmas holidays I decided to do just that. I haven’t once regretted it, and here’s what I’ve learnt so far.
Start slowly and build up gradually. My early attempts at running were a bit abortive. I’d feel embarrassed and a bit furtive and would try to run home as fast as I possibly could. I’d go far too fast, and be gasping for breath almost immediately – everything screaming with exertion. I’ve since learned to slow down.
Listen to something interesting. The single thing that really helped me slow down was stopping listening to music. I’d always choose pretty high tempo things, and was clearly trying to match my pace to the music. It just didn’t work for me. I now listen to podcasts instead. Listening to a spoken voice not only slows me down it also (usually) distracts me from my tiredness. I download free podcasts from Radio 4 onto my iPhone and have a few stored up at a time. I particularly like Desert Island Discs. There are hundreds on there, and (at about 35 minutes) they’re a great length. Some of them make me laugh out loud, others are just plain interesting. This may sound unbearably boring, but it really is worth a try. If you hate the idea of Radio 4, then there’s plenty more out there.
Dress appropriately. I love clothes but I’ve always resented spending money on exercise clothes and trainers. But it’s hard to feel motivated when you’re wearing horrible old hand-me-down trainers and embarrassing tracksuit bottoms. The hardest bit about going for a run is actually making it out of the door. If you feel embarrassed and self-conscious, there’s a good chance you’ll never do it. Invest in a few key items of clothing: for me this is a stretchy sports bra, some black running leggings, a soft t-shirt, a running jacket for cold weather and a decent pair of trainers. The clothes don’t have to cost the earth – places like New Look and Primark are now doing really great exercise clothes. It is worth investing in a good pair of trainers though. I felt a bit overwhelmed by choice, so went to John Lewis where they only stock a small selection. Wear things that are comfortable and make you feel good. I like a bit of pink, but mainly wear black as I prefer to not stand out too much.
Fit your running in around your day. I am definitely a morning runner and I like to do it straight after I’ve dropped the boys off at school. Yes, you have to be seen in the playground in your running gear and yes, during Winter it’s pretty chilly without a proper coat. But it’s totally worth it when you can be this time efficient. I like to wear a hat and gloves which I can take off later, and have a little bum bag with my keys and phone in.
Use a running app. This has helped me a great deal. I use a free app called Runkeeper, which allows you to track your progress and show you how far you’ve gone, and how quickly. When I first started, I didn’t use one and I had no idea how far I was going. Using an app gives you a real sense of pride and you can track your progression. One thing that has struck me about running is how quickly I’ve noticed an improvement in my stamina. I started off running about half a mile, then gradually increased it daily. Each time it genuinely felt a little easier and I’ve now built myself up to running two miles each time. Ideally you want to stop your run while you’re still enjoying it – when you feel good, and want to go back for more another day.
I like to run three times a week. This feels about right. I’m still pretty active with school runs and after-school clubs, and find that if I’ve run too much I get really tired by the end of the day. Three runs a week feels like an achievable number and they can be spread though the week. I do mine on alternate days as it’s always nice to know you’ve got a day off.
It’s getting easier, but it’s still a challenge. Although my fitness is improving, it’s still really hard and there are lots of mornings when I’d rather not go. The first mile is definitely the hardest. Some days I feel exhausted after just running half a mile. But I find that once I break though a mile it feels a little easier. Maybe it’s psychological, or perhaps it’s your body finding its stride. Whatever, it definitely feels easier once that first mile is under my belt.
It’s one of the best natural mood-enhancers out there. Getting out the door is always worth it because no one ever regrets going for a run, do they? I find it energising and inspiring. With every step, sluggish, gloomy feelings fade away. Afterwards I feel happier, and my brain is clearer. Running is basically a form of mindfulness. You’re experiencing everything in the present: the exertion, the rain on your face or the sun on your back. There’s no room for niggling worries. Just being outdoors is so uplifting – whatever the weather. I used to hide in my living room to exercise with the curtains closed, so this is a real revelation to me.
It makes you eat more. Or perhaps this is just me? For me, exercise is always inevitably bound up with a desire to be slimmer as well as fitter. However, my current runs don’t actually burn that many calories (usually just under 200 kcal). And, yet, the more I run, the more I want to eat and the less self-control I have. I think if I wanted to run to lose weight I’d have to run a lot further before it had an impact. As it is, I feel fitter but haven’t noticed any noticeable changes in weight or appearance – except that my legs feel a bit firmer!
What are your experiences of running? I’d still a real novice so I’d love to hear your thoughts…