So, you’re considering going for a run in the New Year, but you can’t help thinking it’s going to be horrible. I’m here to tell you it’s going to be better than you think.
It’s true that there can be a strange disconnect between the way a keen runner talks about the activity – the near-religious fervour, stories recounted with joy that don’t sound any fun at all – and your experiences of running; they make it sound as gratifying as a big kiss or a bar of chocolate, when you know running makes you – almost instantly – feel hot and bothered, wheezy and wobbly.
I get it. I avoided running, and all other strenuous exercise, for the first three-and-a-half decades of my life. But then I found it – or it found me – and now I see this from both sides. So here are a few ways running might be slightly less painful than you’d imagined, both emotionally and physically.
It’s nice to be outside
My first experience of running – since P.E. lessons at school at least – was at the gym, on a treadmill. It was a thumping, sweaty, relentless experience that felt like it would never end – and I was only on there for five minutes. Running doesn’t have to be like that. When you run outside, ‘in nature’ as they say, two important things happen; you set your own pace, and you get distracted.
Setting your own pace doesn’t mean you won’t feel physically taxed – you’ll still warm up your body and start breathing harder – but in your own time, which feels far less panicky. Meanwhile there’s stuff out there to look at; you don’t have to be running through Narnia to see nice, interesting things out and about. Avoid big roads so you don’t have to worry about traffic and pollution, and if you’re going to go round and round, do it somewhere good – better to go once round the pond in the park down the road once than ten times up and down the street where you live.
It’s a chance to entertain your brain
What I’m saying is – you’re not a hamster in a wheel. Choose a route that distracts you from the business of running, and take your headphones and a good podcast or playlist to listen to – feed your brain. I’ve found so much new music – and rediscovered things I’d forgotten – since I’ve been running*. Your lungs and legs can do the exercise while you get some You Time. The first time you forget you’re running might only be for a minute, but you’ll be amazed, and those minutes will soon start to add up.
If you’re more of a podcast listener than a music head, then you’ll find getting in on that conversation will really make the miles – or meters – fly by. And if you can run with a friend, even better – just don’t have ANY guilt about speed, because that would defeat the object**. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you set your own pace. If your friend is uncomfortable running as slow as you, run with a different friend. You should be able to chat as you go; this means running slow, without worrying about it – it’s what your body wants to do, it’s good for you; you’re training your body for stamina, and to treat running as a natural state. So forget catching up, and have a good catch-up, if you see what I mean.
A parkrun is a beautiful, inclusive thing
Is there a parkrun near you? Perhaps you’ve seen this brightly coloured Saturday morning congregation and wondered what was going down. Parkruns are free, weekly, timed 5k runs every Saturday at 9am – 9.30 in Scotland – and there are over a thousand different events in the UK… so there probably IS one near you. You register online, get a barcode, take it down to the event, and they’ll measure and log your achievement for you. They’re hugely democratic and diverse; you’ll find people old and young, running, walking, going round with dogs, or kids in pushchairs; everybody is represented. That means, of course, that there are keen, super-speedy runners there too, Chariots-of-Fire-ing it into the finish funnel. Don’t be threatened by that; it’s not like going to an athletics meet, because – what are you going to do? – you’re going to SET YOUR OWN PACE. It’s a really nice, pressure-free way to give a bit of structure your running and assess your progress. Plus it’s sociable when you’re there and once you’re done you get to feel pleased with yourself for the rest of the day.
Running gets easier
That feeling when you start running and within a minute or two you feel hot, stressed, breathless and so on? Everybody gets that; it’s completely natural; stay calm and run on. Your body thinks you’re sprinting away from danger; you need to remind it that it also has a ‘cruise’ setting. When you’re starting out, this is a real leap of faith, but I promise you it’s true. If you can run through that ‘I’ve got to stop’ feeling, it will soon pass, you’ll still be running, and now you’re into the good stuff. Each individual run gets easier after the first few minutes – and if you can get out for a run, say, three times a week, the whole overarching experience gets easier too.
The thing is, the joy of running is a subtle, elusive thing – it can be very powerful, but it’s rarely immediate. Distract yourself from the difficulty of it, make the experience as attractive as possible, and trust your own body; in a matter of a week or two you’ll see and feel a difference in yourself. And if you keep on running, pretty soon you might wonder how you ever did without it.
* For more on running outside listening to great music, get my book Running Tracks – the playlist
and places that made me a runner from Unbound, and listen to Rob Deering’s Running Tracks
Radio Hour on Spotify.
** The podcast that comes closest to running with friends would have to be Running Commentary
with Paul Tonkinson and, er, me.