Sunday, 19 July 2015

Confessions of a reluctant runner:

Now here's a blog post I never, ever, EVER thought I would be writing...

I have a confession to make, and it's something I've been keeping secret for the last three months. I've started running. For fun.

If you know me personally you'd be forgiven for letting out a little (or maybe even big) snort of laughter after reading that last sentence. I haven't been posting Instagram photos of my trainers or tweeting about my progress. I haven't even told my parents yet (don't be offended, guys). It might sound silly, but I've kept it so quiet because with my track record I knew nobody would believe I could keep it up. I needed to prove to myself that I could start running and stick to it before I could prove it to anyone else.

I hate exercise, and I always have. I'm usually a complainer and a quitter when it comes to anything physically demanding. I've joined a gym twice in my life and can count on two hands the number of times I actually went and did a meaningful workout.

Around the end of last year I tried to go swimming at my local pool because it's an 'easy' form of exercise. I endured ten minutes of flailing around in the water before I realised I had forgotten everything I learned in Standard Grade PE, sheepishly retreated into the changing room and never went back.

It's horrible to realise that you're completely unfit in your mid-twenties. Not significantly overweight, but 'skinny fat' as they call it. I didn't want to lose weight, I just wanted to feel less self-conscious about my flabby tummy, where all the sugary treats I can't resist instantly go after I eat them. I wanted to stop being out of breath walking up the stairs at work I used to jog up without a second thought. I wanted to be less tired all the time.

But I hate the gym. It's not for me, and I know that now. Being stuck in a sweaty box staring longingly out of the window while trying not to fall off an exercise machine-cum-medieval torture device is not my jam. By the time I had packed up my gym bag and made the half hour trip to the gym I was so unmotivated to exercise that (full disclosure, guys) on more than one occasion I just turned round and went straight home again.

So back in April I decided that I wanted to give running a try. Not running on a  treadmill. Not running with a friend or a personal trainer. Just me, pounding the pavement in search of that euphoric mental state that many far superior runners call 'The Zone'. But I had never run before, aside from sports day. I was undoubtedly the most unfit I'd ever been in my life and there was no way I could just lace up my trainers and nip out for a half hour jog. I knew I had to start from rock bottom and - oh, boy - was it rock bottom.

My secret weapon:

Source: here

My most sensible decision was downloading the NHS Couch to 5k running app on my phone, which is free and - although not the most flawless piece of software - really worked for me. The aim of the game is to run three times a week for 9 weeks with this app, building up your fitness through interval training until finally you'll be running for 30 minutes non-stop, covering at least 5k. As well as charting your progress, the app has a built in podcast recorded by 'Laura', who times your runs and shares words of wisdom and encouragement to motivate you while you sweat your bum off. Sounds kind of lame? Yes. Totally works? Also yes.


Source: here

The first couple of weeks were the hardest, when running for 60 or 90 second spurts was unbearably difficult and doing so eight or so times in one session was nearly enough to kill me. At first I was running in a pair of cheap, old trainers I'd bought when I joined my uni gym back in Dundee, and they absolutely killed my feet and ankles. Once I had kept up with my training for three or four consistent weeks, I decided it was time to upgrade.

As a lot of people will tell you, decent and supportive shoes are the most important things you can buy as a runner. Since I was running on the hard pavement most of the time, and could already feel I needed extra support in my arches and ankles, I chose the Nike Air Zoom Structure 18.

The shoes weren't cheap, but since I bought the rest of my running gear cheaply at H&M (or already owned it) I figured I could justify the splurge. Running is bad for your knees, back, feet and everything else - I know that - but spending a little more money on your trainers gives you a better chance of avoiding longterm ill effects. Even if this pair only last me a year before they become worn out, I will definitely have got my money's worth by running a few times each week.

It wasn't all smooth sailing with the Nikes though, and at first I thought I'd made a bad decision when they took a few weeks to properly break in. I had crippling ankle pain, which I self-diagnosed via Google as tendonitis. But - and maybe this was stupid - I really didn't want to stop. I was making progress. I had managed to run for 8 minutes without stopping. Um, what? Is this Alex Watson or Paula Radcliffe you're talking to?

And suddenly, just as I was thinking that I'd need to go back to the footwear drawing board, my Nikes stopped punishing me. It's like I had earned their trust, and now they were going to be my loyal friends for life. They were the best and most comfortable purchase I'd ever made. Running in them still feels like running on a cloud, and I haven't had any ankle pain whatsoever since.

And it was lucky that the pain stopped, because then shiz got real. After a few 10 minute runs with a little rest inbetween, suddenly Laura wanted me to run for 25 minutes without stopping. Was she insane? Yes. Did I hate her? Yes. Did I manage it? Absolutely, yes.

Physical health:

Source: here

The thing is that - as the app keeps telling you over and over - once you've got your base fitness back up, your ability to run long distances is purely a mental issue. I'm a quitter, but I'm also stubborn as hell and I wanted to complete this running challenge properly. 

If I ever had to stop running during a longer stint (which happened a couple of times early on) I treated that run as a practice and did the full run again later that week. I ain't no cheater. It was my brain telling me to stop, not my body, and I knew that because after a few weeks of running - provided I stretched once I got home - my muscles weren't even sore the next day. My body was fit again, but my brain was holding it back.

I learned what worked for me. I can't run easily in the morning. I'm much more likely to complete a run if I go in the evening. I get very warm while running and definitely don't need to be wearing anymore than a vest top when it's more than 12 degrees outside. Music drowns out my hideous breathing and motivates me to keep going, and - although the volume jumps around quite a lot - you can play music on your phone, even through Spotify, while the Couch to 5k app is still running in the background.

I don't care what anyone thinks when they see me out running like I thought I might, because I'm too focussed on not dying and just getting home again. Plus, if I see someone out running I always applaud them internally for getting out there and working hard.

Mental health:

Source: here

I don't think I've ever really reached The Zone while running yet and maybe I never will, but it's definitely been good for my mental state. I'm a classic over-thinker, always making to do lists so that I don't forget anything, and then worrying that I've forgotten something anyway. Even if I've had the busiest day and my brain is bursting with worries, I can't stress out when I'm running. 

After a while all I'm thinking about is breathing in and out and how I'm going to keep going for the next 20 minutes when I'm already sweating. My body started to tone up after a few weeks as a result of the running and I started to look a bit better and feel better about myself. Plus there are the endorphins which I had been missing out on for a long time by not doing any exercise. In general I'd say that (contrary to popular belief) running will make you happier.

And finally...

I hope this post hasn't come across as preachy because I'm nowhere near an expert. I only just completed the 9 week programme today after stops and starts for holidays and illness. I still love (and eat a lot of) cake. I still want to die halfway through my runs. But my main message here is that total cliché which - in my case - is absolutely true. If I can do it, anybody can do it.

Believe it or not, it's easier to run non-stop for 30 minutes than it is to stop and start like you do in your early interval training. And what a sense of achievement! If my PE teachers could see me now...

So try it. The Couch to 5k app really worked for me, but there are plenty of others out there. Next I'm planning to try the 'Zombies, Run' podcast, which turns your run into a creepy-fun zombie escape game.

Are you a runner, or thinking about becoming one?